What does God put first, our behaviour or relationship?

Unique to Christianity is the belief that humans can have an affectionate relationship with God. God is “Abba, Father” in Galatians 4:6, which is like calling God ‘Papa’, or ‘Pops.’

Calling God Papa, however, would be close to blasphemous for some people because God, to them, is not like a Dad who enjoys his kids. God expects his children to behave. Proper respect and submission, they say, are what God requires if one hopes to gain his favour.

I used to think that too, so it was surprising to read in Romans 5:8 that God loved us “while we were yet sinners.” So it isn’t behaviour that comes first in God’s dealings with us, it’s relationship.

With that in mind I wondered what would happen if I put relationship first in dealing with my own children. It would mean loving them no matter how they behaved, or how badly they messed up. But what if they caught on that they’re loved – even at their worst – and they exploited it to slack off, or as the Bible says, they turned “grace into license?”

Well, yes, that’s the risk I’d have to take, but isn’t that the risk God took with me? He loved me while I was yet a sinner, when my behaviour was at its worst.

Which faced me with the question, “What do I really want from my children?” Is it their best behaviour I’m after, or a relationship? Is it children I can feel proud of, or children who call me ‘Dad’ with affection?

If it’s an affectionate relationship I’m after, then I know how God won my affection. He did it by loving me to death for nothing more than being me. It was strange getting used to a God like that, because religion had taught me that God only loves and favours those who behave. But if love worked on me, why not on my children?

So I made it obvious to my children that they don’t have to live up to my expectations to be loved. There is no need for them to impress me, no demands they must fulfill to win my favour, no hoping for 100% on a report card to make me “really” happy with them, no pressure to make me feel proud of them, and no condemnation when they messed up. I wanted them to feel free to strike out on life knowing they were loved no matter what.

And twenty years later, sitting on our front deck with all my children and their extras around me having a great time together, I thank our Abba Father for teaching me it’s relationship that comes first, not behaviour.

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Why no peace yet, and no end to evil?

So how come pain, suffering and evil still exist when Christ in his death “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3), and in his resurrected state he’s now at God’s “right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion…not only in the present age but also in the age to come“ (Ephesians 1:20-21)?

Anyone suffering surely has the right to ask that question, that if Jesus really is fully in charge of what happens on this planet right now, then why isn’t he putting a stop to terrorism, serial killers, corruption in high places, and all the other awful things happening to people? And if it’s true in Colossians 1:20 that he’s “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross,” then why aren’t we seeing peace spreading throughout the Earth as well?

Paul answers both questions in verses 21-23, that Jesus IS creating peace and he is putting a stop to the awful things happening to us – by getting at WHY we have so much pain, suffering and evil still, and why we don’t have peace. And the simple reason why is because “You were God’s enemies. You hated him, and you were separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions” (21).

The reason we don’t have peace and why pain, suffering and evil continue, is because our minds have been so twisted against God that we can’t stop the evil thoughts and actions that wreck our relationship with him, and with each other.

But that’s why Jesus died. He died, as Paul phrases it, to “reconcile” us to God (verse 22). Jesus’ dealt a death blow to our hatred for God, so that the process of healing our twisted up minds could begin. And the process begins with the dawning in our minds that we are all now “holy in God’s sight, without blemish and free from accusation” because of Jesus’ death (22).

That’s “the hope held out in the gospel” (23), that in Jesus’ death we have a fresh start. None of our past evil thoughts and actions are held against us. We all stand in God’s presence with a completely clean slate. But that’s just the beginning, because the hope that’s ALSO held out in the gospel is that “if we continue in our faith, established and firm” (23) God will complete what he started.

We now enter a lifetime of healing, where the evil thoughts and actions that are the cause of all our pain, suffering and lack of peace are brought to the surface and dealt with. And there we have God’s solution, which is happening right now in the minds of those who believe it and trust him.

Why does God let us suffer so?

Genesis chapter 3 provides an enlightening glimpse as to why a loving God allows suffering, because it looks like God meant Adam and Eve to suffer. First he creates a tree, the fruit of which when eaten would expose Adam and Eve to evil, and then God lets a serpent loose on them to tempt them into eating it.

Result? Adam and Eve suffer. And every human has suffered since too, “For God has bound ALL men over to disobedience.” God lets evil have its way with all of us – for a reason, though – “so that he may have mercy on them all,” Romans 11:32.

It’s a hard concept to grasp, a loving God allowing us to suffer so we understand his mercy, but God longs for a relationship with us that will last happily for eternity, and here we see how he does it. He does it in two ways – through suffering and mercy.

Suffering plays its part in showing us what destroys our relationship with God: It’s the overwhelming power of evil. That’s what destroyed Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. But the only way any of us wake up to evil being real and lethal is experiencing it, and the suffering it creates. It’s heartbreaking having to watch young people come to that realization, but God went through that heartbreak with his beloved Israel too, because the school of hard knocks is the only way we humans realize we’re no match for evil on our own strength.

But having experienced the heartache and broken relationships caused by evil, and we’re ready at last to admit how easily evil overwhelms us, God is ready and waiting with mercy, just as loving parents are ready and waiting to hug a foolish child.

So it’s after we’ve learnt what destroys our relationship with God that God then teaches us what restores our relationship with him. It’s his mercy. God welcomes us with open arms when we seek his forgiveness and help. You’d think he’d want nothing to do with us after what we’ve done, but he longs for relationship with us, just as parents long for relationship with their foolish, rebellious children.

And that’s the message God would love people to hear, that he “was reconciling the (whole) world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them,” 2 Corinthians 5:19. God holds none of our stupidity or weakness against us. And there is joy in heaven when a hurting, wounded child of God comes to that staggering realization and believes it, because it’s the understanding of God’s amazing mercy that helps us realize at last how much he loves us.

“I can do all things.” Oh, really?

Children are being taught that they can do whatever they put their minds to, in school, children’s books, and in endlessly nauseating Disney movies. And bookstores are full of self-help books by patronizing gurus telling us, “I did it; so can you.”

It was a relief for me some time back, then, to discover that I can’t do whatever I put my mind to, because God made us humans subject to futility and frustration (Romans 8:20), so that even at our best we amount to nothing more than broken pots (2 Corinthians 4:7).

And the reason God did this to us was to get us to include him in our lives. Why? Because we’ve proved beyond doubt in our human history that we cannot live the life he designed for us on our own. So he continues to let us suffer from war, disease, famine, pollution and a host of other unsolvable problems, to convince us we cannot do whatever we put our minds to. And children soon discover that all their great plans and dreams aren’t guaranteed to always work either, because their resolve weakens under pressure, accidents happen, or people conspire against them – including their own parents.

But once we’ve accepted that we’re limited and life isn’t fair, what do we do then? Well, it’s lift the lid on our broken pot, pop our heads out, and ask God to help us, which he promises to do, and in so many ways that eventually we can say as Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

But Paul didn’t come to that understanding easily. For much of his life he’d depended on the power of his own mind and will, just like children are being taught to do today. But to his horror he also experienced his mind and will conspiring against him to make him do the very opposite of what he wanted to do. It was hugely frustrating. But in his frustration he cried out to God for help and made the most amazing discovery, that to make things happen “the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us,” 2 Corinthians 4:7.

In other words, it’s a totally false idea that we humans can do whatever we put our minds to, because it’s only GOD who can do that. Only he can do whatever he puts his mind to. But God’s quite willing to share the power of his mind with us, and that’s what a child needs to hear, that yes he can do whatever he puts his mind to, so long as he’s trusting in the power of God’s mind to help him, not just his own.

How can I trust a weird God?

To many people God is repulsive, because what kind of God kills every firstborn child in Egypt, commands the slaughter of every woman and child in Jericho, and drowns Pharaoh and his army just to prove how powerful he is?

In Pharaoh’s case, however, God fires right back with a question of his own. “Since when,” he asks in Romans 9, “did clay argue with the potter as to what it’s used for? Exquisite vase or humble flowerpot, I have the right to make you into whatever I want. If I designed you to display my anger or my goodness, what’s that to you?”

But what kind of answer is that? I’m just a nobody, am I, without rights or say in what happens to me?

“But you were already a nobody without rights or say,” God replies, same chapter (paraphrased), “because admit it, you were coasting through life totally absorbed in your own petty projects, all of which amounted to a big fat zero and a six foot hole in the ground. Fortunately for you, I’ve always had better things in mind for my beloved humans.”

Well, that’s nice, but how can I convince people God has our best interests in mind when story after story in the Bible makes God seem monstrous and uncaring? It’s like trying to convince your teenage daughter you have her best interests in mind when telling her to be home by 10:00 pm, and she snarls like a cornered cat and stomps off to text her friends about the rejects she has for parents.

But some teenagers don’t do that, do they? They trust their parents even when their parents seem impossibly old-fashioned. Why? Because they accept their parents know more about life than they do – just as billions of galaxies humming away quite nicely above our heads prove God knows a whole lot more about life than we do. And some people, like Abraham, could see that. So, when told by God to kill his son, Abraham didn’t argue or accuse God of being out of his mind; he simply trusted him.

So why don’t we all simply trust him?

Because the lesson from the very beginning of our history is that we’d rather trust in ourselves and in gods of our own making – which is tragic because look at the mess we’re still in as humans. We desperately need God’s help, but we can’t bring ourselves to trust him. Fortunately, God took care of that for us in Jesus, who did trust God and now promises to give us his trust, so when God at times seems weird to us we can trust him too.

The real source of “spirituality”

A lot of people nowadays are dumping religion for “spirituality,” believing you don’t have to be religious to be spiritual. A Dad, for instance, can be so deeply moved by his newborn baby it becomes a “spiritual” experience for him. Music, too, creates emotions so intense that even atheists say they’ve been “moved spiritually.” And all kinds of non-religious people claim they’re having spiritual experiences through meditation or by tuning into the Earth’s vibrations.

Religious folk say it’s all a false spirituality, however, because in their opinion if you’re not doing the proper religious stuff in a proper religious place with a proper religious chap in charge, you’re no more spiritual than a horse. On the other hand, non-religious folk reply, all that religious stuff hasn’t exactly made religious people very spiritual either, has it?

They have a point; religious people are some of the most bloodthirsty maniacs on the planet, and many are elitist, condemning, self-righteous prats. Religion, therefore, doesn’t automatically make you spiritual; it can actually make you extremely unpleasant.

So what does make a person spiritual? Or, if one is seeking a truly spiritual experience, what defines it as spiritual? I ask because intense and extraordinary experiences can be created without a spirit source. Mind-altering drugs, for example, can create visions and out-of-body sensations as real as any claimed by mystics or religious folk.

The Bible, however, talks of a Spirit source that includes a clearly defined list of what spirituality really is (in Galatians 5:22) – and it doesn’t involve anything religious. There’s no religious ritual one has to perform, no temple one has to attend, or religion one has to join.

Anybody can receive what the Holy Spirit provides for nothing more than simply recognizing this is what Jesus died on the cross for, to make such a Spirit available to us. And what that Spirit does for us also happens to be exactly what we need on this planet. It provides us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And that’s the kind of spirituality I’d dearly love to have, rather than all that fluffy nonsense about getting in touch with the Earth goddess, or tapping into the divine within, because I notice I haven’t got much divine within me when someone cuts me off in traffic, and the Earth goddess isn’t exactly doing much to change people either, is she?

I need help from a source beyond myself that’s real, powerful and instant. It’s good to know, then, that when “the Spirit is the source of our life,” verse 25, the down-to-earth, practical help that I and the planet so desperately need is ready and available.

“Is that really God’s voice I’m hearing?”

To many people Mother Teresa was the ultimate saint, sacrificing her life to caring for the poor, and smiling serenely through it all.

But all was not well behind that smile of hers.

The problem was this: she hears what she believes is Christ’s voice on a train in 1946 telling her to “Come be my light” by serving the poor in the slums of Calcutta, but after she gets there and starts working Jesus disappears. She doesn’t feel the love and personal contact she felt from him before. Seven years later she writes a letter about the terrible darkness within her “as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started the work.”

So all that time the world was knocking at her door, thinking she was wonder woman in intimate touch with God and feeling his presence everywhere, she was feeling abandoned by God. Her prayers were empty and she even admitted that saving souls held no attraction for her.

To an atheist this is further proof of how religion twists people into mental knots. But, Christians argue, “It was God’s voice she heard.” So they, just like her, work themselves to the bone doing what they believe God called them to do. But after years of slogging away God seems miles away and life has become a loathsome ritual. But they carry on anyway, just like Mother Teresa, smiling in public as if everything is wonderful, while pouring out their pain in private journals and letters.

There’s something sadly wrong about a religion like that, because it sets people up for discouragement and disillusionment when, after working one’s tail off for God, life is dark and empty. It happened to Mother Teresa.

It didn’t happen to the apostle Paul, however, and he experienced pressures as great as any Mother Teresa ever faced, but God never disappeared on him or left him in terrible darkness.

Christ met his every need and frustration with all the help necessary to see him through (2 Corinthians 4:8-10 and 12:9-10). Sadly, that wasn’t what Mother Teresa experienced. One has to wonder, then, if it really was Christ’s voice she heard on that train, especially when Christ explicitly said he’d never abandon us (John 14:21) – a very different story to that told by Mother Teresa in her letters.

But she did at least write about her pain, and that, hopefully, will free other people up to talk about the pain religion has created in their lives too. And to those who’ve been doing their all for God but God seems so distant, perhaps they too might ask, “Is that really God’s voice I’m hearing?”