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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What would I love my children to know?

I would love my children to know what love is, what it feels like, what it looks like in the face of someone who loves them, what it does in a marriage, what it does in a community, and what it does to their own relationships with people in how they view other people and how they treat them, and the love and honour they receive in return. I would love them to experience how love frees them from self-condemnation, frees them from not feeling valued, frees them from the fear of feeling inferior, frees them of comparing themselves to others, and frees them from being affected by the lies and accusations made against them.

I’d like them to know that love really does conquer all as we go through life together with all its mess ups and mistakes. I’d love them to see there is nothing in this world that can stop the flow of love. Love can survive even the most heart-rending stupidity and turn it round, and make a hurt relationship closer. They can see it in such practical situations too. They see that love doesn’t disappear when they produce a poor report card, or break a favourite pot. Yes, love is saddened, love can be disappointed, and love can often be expressed as anger and frustration too, where for a while it seems like love has been beaten, but love has a way of bouncing back to full power again, enabling people to forgive, put the past behind them, and erase the hurt from memory.

Imagine growing up in a home where you’re loved no matter what, where love is not determined by behaviour, or by a child fulfilling his parent’s expectations and dreams of perfection. Imagine not having to be the best in school, the hero in sports, the teacher’s favourite, the highest achiever, the life of the party, the big personality, the beauty queen, or the smartest brain. Imagine being able to go through life happy at being average and not having the biggest house, the best furniture, the latest fashions, a bloated bank account, or headhunters wining and dining you to win you over, or needing millions of friends stroking your ego to make you feel valued.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to simply be content? Well, that’s what I’d love for my children, that they are content for the moment wherever they are and in whatever they are doing, even if there is no great reward, appreciation or promotion. They are content because they know they are loved, and if not loved perfectly by me, then loved by their heavenly Father who does love to perfection.