If They Love You, Lord, Why Don’t They Show It?
Confessions of a Puzzled Pastor
Ultimately the issue all preachers must confront is what they believe to be the relationship between people’s conduct and God’s acceptance. Are we holy for God’s acceptance, or are we holy because of God’s acceptance? I did not understand the importance of that question until after several years of pastoring. Despite my good intentions, an honest assessment of my congregation revealed many who seemed far from the Lord. Their spiritual emptiness was all the more discouraging because the church was almost two centuries old. Many of the families had attended for generations. Some knew their Bibles far better than I knew mine and after being in church so long almost everyone knew well how Christians should act. Most conscientiously observed a community code of conduct–they were faithful to their spouses, did not rob banks, drink to excess, or swear in polite company. Outward Christian conduct ruled.
Attitudes, however, were not so exemplary. I could not understand how people who were so knowledgeable about God could be so bitter, so guilt-ridden, so often depressed, so cold to each other, and so intolerant of the faults of newer Christians. Their words and external behaviors professed loyalty to Christ, but love, joy, peace, patience, and long-suffering were in scant supply. I used to get so angry at those people for their lack of heart response to the Word they said they loved. Then, I began to realize that the problem was not so much them as it was me, and others like me.
I was using guilt and fear to motivate people to obey God. What I had to confess, however, was that though my messages often secured changed behavior my ministry seemed to produce little spiritual maturity. For instance, I addressed couples whose marriages were coming apart because they were not honoring the Word of God in their relationships with each other. I told them that if they changed their behaviors, God would bless them, but that as long as they continued in their disobedience they could not expect his love. I saw changed behavior, but few signs of real spiritual growth. Instead, a year or two later these same people were locked into depression, were pursuing other addictive behaviors, or had grown spiritually disinterested.
Finally the Lord opened my eyes to my error. I was telling people that the way to get rid of their guilt before God and to assure his blessing was by behaving differently. But, what did this imply? If people expect behavior change to rid them of their guilt, who are they trusting to take their guilt away? Themselves!
I was forcing people to question, “What action of mine will make me right with God?” No wonder their faith did not mature. Their faith was in what they could do to fix their own situations with God. I was encouraging people to look to themselves rather than to the cross as the place for erasing guilt and finding God’s favor. Without my conscious intent–and contrary to theology in my head–I was driving the wedge of human works between my hearers and God. The people who listened to me, though they may have changed some aspect of their lives to get my approval and secure God’s affection, were actually farther away from understanding God than when I had begun to minister to them.
Works righteousness had jumped into my preaching without my even knowing it. I was implying (if not directly stating) that we become acceptable to God by being good enough. No wonder the people were so hard and bitter and cold. I was teaching them that if they just offered God more filthy rags, he would favor them more, or smile more, or love them more.
What a cruel God I painted for them. What a merciful God I had denied them by teaching them that God’s love was dependent on their goodness. I was the one who made them intolerant of less mature believers. Because they listened to me, they gauged their holiness by their works, and then what better way was there to confirm their own righteousness than by finding greater faults in others? The people in my church had bad attitudes and had lost interest in matters of faith, and I was as culpable as they.