Now, preaching is an inexact science given that I never know if what someone hears is what I meant to say and I always dread speaking incorrectly. (In other words, because human beings are involved in both sides of the process.) In this particular case, I was not trying to say "you're not good enough," but I think this person was correct in that I didn't make that point as well as I could have.
I had been trying to say that God helps us grow to be more loving and compassionate than we would be on our own. This is the core of a lot of Christian theology, but after listening to the critique of my words, I couldn't help but think that it's a difficult line to walk. God does love us even when we screw up, but I also believe that God calls for us to grow and "improve." Where is the line between being loved as we are and being challenged to become more?
One of the things I love about theology (especially Lutheran theology) is the concept of paradox, that two seemingly contradictory statements can both be true. (It's partly where the title of my blog comes from.) This particular paradox was obvious even to the early church leaders. In Romans 5, Paul writes that God moved first: "While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly... While we were sinners, Christ died for us... While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son." But at the same time, Paul writes in the next chapter that God's gift doesn't let us rest where we are: "How can we who died to sin go on living in it? [We] walk in newness of life."
My go-to line to describe this paradox is, "God loves us enough to meet us where we are, but God loves us too much to let us stay there." Which sounds good on paper, but isn't easy to live out. How do we both accept that we are worthy of being loved while also feeling motivated to change?
As I'm writing, it occurs to me that Lutheran thinking would say that being loved is the motivation to change, that knowing I'm valuable to someone automatically causes me to respond by reciprocating love. It would say it has to be this way because fear and guilt (which are typical "motivators" -- just look at political commercials) are the opposite of trusting love, which is the heart of the relationship God offers us. In other words, only love can drive me to deeper love.
And on my best days, love does drive me to grow, but I'll admit that some days, the love I need is the kind that grabs me by the lapels and slaps my face to wake me up. And sometimes it is guilt and fear that motivates me to seek love in the first place.
Perhaps faith is a constant search for the balance between these seeming opposites. Perhaps all of this is just to say that love and faith are themselves paradoxes, kind of like the statement: "Every time I find an answer about God, it just leads to more questions."
“And love is wild for reasons, and hope, though short in sight, might be the only thing that wakes you by surprise.” -Jars of Clay, "Surprise"