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“Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Love Him For What You Can Get Out of Him” (and Other Pious-Sounding Non-Starters)

Monday is my Sabbath and one of the things I usually do at some point in the day is walk the dog and listen to a sermon on my iPod. I listen to sermons from friends of mine at other churches or more “famous” preachers whose sermons are available via podcast. I look forward to these walks and these sermons. It’s nice to listen instead of speak, and I almost invariably come back from my walks having received something good for the day and the week ahead.

Today, however, I came back from my walk in a somewhat frustrated frame of mind. I had been listening to a Palm Sunday sermon on Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as king as recorded in Luke 19:28-44. There’s a lot of interesting symbolism and political intrigue going on in this passage, and plenty of entry points for a very challenging and stimulating sermon.

But what the speaker chose to focus on, instead, was about how the point of the passage—the point of Jesus’ highly ironic and subversive entrance into Jerusalem—was to teach us not to “put Jesus in a box.” We were urged to set aside our preconceptions of Jesus in order to realize that what he really wants is a relationship with us. Most importantly, we were told, we need to realize that “Jesus doesn’t want us to love him for what we can get out of him.” No, what Jesus wants, apparently, is for us to simply love him for his own sake.

Leaving aside the issue of what, if anything, statements like these have to do with the text in Luke, I think it is worth asking, in general, if this really what Jesus wants. Does Jesus really want or expect us to love him purely for who he is with no interest whatsoever in what he can do for us? Is this desirable? Is it even possible? What would loving Jesus with no concern for ourselves even look like? My sense is that phrases like the ones I heard on my walk today belong to a stock category of pious-sounding platitudes that some Christians think they ought to affirm but which, upon closer scrutiny, are impossible to fulfill.

Every single Christian on the planet makes the decision to follow Jesus for some reason, after all. Perhaps we are drawn to his ethical teachings. Perhaps our souls are flooded with joy and illumination as the result of a mystical encounter. Perhaps we experience forgiveness and a release from the bondage of guilt and shame. Perhaps we are shattered and broken at the discovery that Jesus would die in our place. Perhaps we are overwhelmed by the joy and fullness that comes from a life spent in love of God and others. Perhaps we are knocked off our feet by grace. Perhaps we are trying to please our parents.

Whatever our reasons, the point is that in each and every case we are “getting something” out of Jesus. Forgiveness, meaning, enlightenment, direction, judgment, release, justification, peace, hope… it matters not. It’s still something. Even if “all” we want is a “relationship” with Jesus, relationships still give us things. I don’t love my wife or children with no interest in what I am getting out of the arrangement. Among other things, I am a more fulfilled and complete person because of these relationships—a rather big “something,” if ever there was one. If this is true of human relationships, how much more is it the case when it comes to our relationship with God?

In John 6:60-68, the disciples are scratching their heads after a particularly vexing session of teaching from Jesus. Many other onlookers have had enough, and have walked away. They’ve had enough of this Jesus and his maddening, confusing words. Jesus looks at the twelve disciples and says, in a sense, “And you? Are you going to take off too?” Peter, as usual, is the first pupil to raise his hand, and his response has resounded down through the ages: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter was casting his lot with Jesus for many reasons—including what he could “get out of him.” Eternal life is a pretty big something to get out of any deal, after all.

We must not attempt to be more pious than Scripture. We human beings are needy and poor in countless ways. There is no sense in sanctimoniously attempting to subtract ourselves from the equation of faith, pretending we don’t want or need things from Jesus—things like wisdom, forgiveness, salvation, life. These are deep existential needs that reach down to the very core of who we are and what we hope for as human beings. And we can secure none of these things for ourselves.

We need these things. We want these things. And Jesus offers them.

Holy Week is a time of stark realities—pain, betrayal, naked self-interest, confusion, wrenching anguish, relief, crushed and resurrected hope, and deep joy. It is a time where a wide and wildly divergent variety of desires, needs, and expectations orbiting around Jesus of Nazareth collide with and are reoriented by the purposes of God. Perhaps this is as good a time of year to be blunt about our need and our desire as any. As Christians we are committed, after all, to the conviction that the world got and continues to “get something” from God as a result of the events we honour over the next six days.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    In a way, this is the subject of the Book of Job. Did Job love God for what Job got from God, or did Job just plain love God? Satan, of course, said it was the former, and God took the bet. Job never cursed God with his lips, the narrator says, even after he was afflicted. That may imply he cursed God in his heart, especially read in the context of a narrative in which Job worried that his children cursed God in their hearts, and in the context in which Job himself cursed the day he was born.

    Consistent with what you have written here, one might ask rhetorically, who can be more pious than Job?

    My own take is that God wanted to just be loved by Israel, and Job.

    It is not easy to separate these loves. It is a fine thing to feel just plain love, and very fine indeed to be loved in that unconditional way by God.

    April 2, 2012
    • Yes, the book of Job occurred to me as I was writing this… I wonder—does even Job’s refusal to curse God depend upon the assumption that doing so would lead to a negative consequence? In other words, in refusing to curse God, was Job seeking to “get something” from God (i.e., vindication)? There are certainly passages that suggest this is the case…

      I think that God may simply want to be loved by Israel, Job, and us, but I don’t think we, as limited human beings, are capable of loving God with no interest in our own benefit. I think this is built into the nature and structure of the relationship. The ontological gap between God and humanity is too wide. We can provide God with nothing he needs; he, presumably, is the source of our deepest need. I don’t think this is something to be lamented, necessarily, but I think we ought to at least be honest about it.

      April 3, 2012
    • Ken #

      Interesting observation about Job. I think you right.

      And your second paragraph too. Thinking within the theological bounds of what you have written, and of Job, I certainly agree.

      On the other hand, it seems that thinking of the universe as the body of Christ as Chardin did, which is indirectly a way of thinking of God as immanent in the universe and in us, leads to another conclusion – that we can or do provide something that God needs. It seems, within those theological bounds, that we depend on each other, that we can harm or help each other, even by our affections. And I think Job can be read that way too.

      April 3, 2012
      • I’ve not read much Chardin, so I can’t say much about his view… From a biblical perspective, the church, not the universe, is the body of Christ. But I think that there are certainly parts of Scripture that seem to indicate that human beings do provide something that God at least wants, if not needs.

        April 4, 2012
    • Ken #

      I think the universe is the church, or the kingdom of God, from a Chardin perspective.

      I don’t think the early Christians ever imagined the church was the universe. In addition, they never imagined that this universe, or heavens and earth, is the kingdom of God. They did imagine that Jesus would return nearly 2000 years ago, and it did not happen, and they wrote the books that became the New Testament according to what they believed.

      Chardin’s perspective is undoubtedly not be the biblical perspective of which you are thinking. It is certainly not the perspective of early Christians.

      My own perspective goes farther away from traditional perspectives than did Chardin. And yet, it is not cut off from the words of the Bible. Such are the ways of liberal theologies.

      April 4, 2012
  2. I had a discussion last night with some folks contrasting Gen. 2 and 3. The unity between God and humans in Gen. 2 seems to describe this situation where love simply “is” (although still rooted in something God has done – creation). Contrast this with the fear and shame of the post-fruit God-human relationship of Gen. 3 and we can’t help but want – in fact need – something from God. To be full image bearers united with God (Gen. 2) we need to overcome the absence of unity – the Gen. 3 reality. Jesus’ witness on Palm Sunday and Good Friday reveals how subversive and costly fulfillment of this need is. Resurrection Sunday speaks to the beauty of new life united once again with God. If it weren’t for this work of redemption and reconciliation, we wouldn’t be capable of loving God – “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

    April 3, 2012
    • I hadn’t thought of this in terms of contrasting Gen. 2 and 3, but I think you’ve highlighted an important point here. However one conceives of “the Fall,” it seems undeniable that a common human experience is of being “alienated from our origins” (to quote Bonhoeffer). For Christians, of course, sin causes a rupture. And one of the results of this is, as you say, that in our fallen condition we can’t help but relate to God in terms of our need and desire to get back to that original unity.

      I will be thinking of this on Easter Sunday this week… I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of the resurrection in these terms before—an overcoming of the absence of unity. Thanks, Dave.

      April 3, 2012
      • The hard part with talking about the “gospel’s benefits” (as Scot McKnight discusses in a recent post) is the tendency to solely individualize the Christian message. The relational aspect of the resurrection, I think, helps prevent this tendency as it presumes a return of relationship (and likewise obligation), not just a impersonal cosmic stamp of approval that guarantees entry into heaven (as the benefits of Easter are too often communicated).

        McKnight’s post is here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/04/02/the-gospel-of-acceptance/

        April 3, 2012
      • I see McKnight’s point, but I’m not sure that Christology and soteriology can be pulled apart like that. The story of Jesus as the completion of Israel’s story is always interpreted through the lens of, “and this is what that means for me.” I’m not convinced that we have the capacity to conceptualize or live into the gospel without some idea of what this means for us—both in terms of benefits and obligations. As you say in your previous comment, this is the reality, post-Genesis 3.

        April 3, 2012
      • Yes, there are times McKnight overstates his case against those who only talk about soteriology. The problem is when “this is what it means for me” turns into “this is what I think it should mean for me.” The post-Genesis 3 reality means we require a solution – a benefit. But then that same reality causes us to misinterpret that benefit (Jesus and salvation) in selfish or narrow terms (sigh…).

        April 3, 2012
      • Yes, our understanding of the “benefits” is always bound up with our flawed and selfish desires and conceptions of what the “benefits” ought to be… I suppose this is as true for Christology as it is for soteriology—no matter what we’re attempting to understand, we can’t escape ourselves and how we factor into the equation.

        (sigh…)

        April 4, 2012
  3. I hear this regularly and I couldn’t agree more! God knows our frailty. He knows we are not capable of loving him unselfishly. I will never stop being needy before God. It will always be a lopsided relationship. Why is this truth so hard for people to accept? Why should I feel bad about my need for him and what he so graciously provides? I choose gratitude rather than guilt! Thanks for this!

    June 1, 2017

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