I was a latchkey kid from kindergarten to middle school. Being a social animal, I liked having a full house, so I would wait all day long for the Cleveland RTA bus to bring my mom back home between 5:30 and 6 p.m. And all day long I would think about all the things I would show her and tell her when she got home. She was always tired and usually hungry and often a little stressed, but I had persuaded myself that one of those days I would wow her with a life-altering revelation, and she would be so impressed that I would win her undying devotion.
So I did strange things, things like carrying home full-size Monets or Degas on loan from the school library to hang up on our living room wall before she got home. But my mother had little appreciation for art, though I suspect all the drivers along my 1 1/2-mile walk to and from school appreciated my efforts. Sometimes I would recite speeches I had memorized, sometimes I would dance about the living room to show my mother what I had learned in theater school, and sometimes I would recite a litany of jokes I had memorized from a library book. Sometimes I would perform a self-taught song on my keyboard.
But usually my attempts were more cerebral – trying to keep in line with my mother’s high intellectual expectations – and I would simply memorize dictionary or encyclopedia entries and then spend the whole evening endlessly spewing my newfound knowledge.
“Mother, when I say that I like it when you brush my hair roughly, I am being facetious,” I would say with proper emphasis, lest she miss the big word and fail to be impressed.
“Mother,” I would spout, “I’m endeavoring to contrive a plan for my science project, which will focus on the varied responses of males and females to stress-inducing variables.” I would study her unflinching face.
People are like that. We always are trying to win over, to impress. Why? Because we feel as if we need to earn – or strengthen or just retain – someone’s love. (Okay, I’ll concede that other people may have more conventional approaches than my childhood efforts, but give me credit for my creativity.)
Pets are like that too. My dog will bring me his favorite toy while beating himself in the eyes with his bottlebrush tail. He’ll wait outside the bathroom door and then greet me as if he hadn’t seen me in days or even weeks. He continually woos me with his boundless affection so that my love for him has no opportunity to grow cold.
Unfortunately, that’s how a lot of us approach our relationship with God. We’re certain that we must work to win His affection, and that by obtaining His affection, we can ensure our foothold in heaven.
But human relationships – or dog relationships, for that matter – give us a skewed view of God’s love. God’s love is unearned and unconditional. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever should believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The world, as we all know too well, is an ugly, messed-up place full of ugly, messed-up people – people God loves and people for whom Jesus gave His life.
“But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” Romans 5:8 echoes in affirmation. “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ when we were dead in our transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved,” Ephesians 2:4 reiterates, just in case we missed it the first few times.
It’s that grace that is so unbelievable, so rare in our everyday experiences. Our striving brings gains in our bonds with one another, and our failures bring loss – of friendship, closeness and even love.
God grace spares us all that human melodrama. That’s because it’s not based upon who we are or what we do but is based instead upon God’s very nature. God is good, and God is love. The Bible is His love story for us.
In the same way that we can’t earn or lose God’s love, we can’t earn or lose His salvation. In John 10:29, Jesus said of His followers, “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” If you love Him and you entrust your life to Him, it’s a done deal. Stop your striving. From the cross, He Himself said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
My mother has been gone now for nearly 25 years, and I don’t recall ever having heard her say that she loved me despite all my efforts. But Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. And that’s good enough for me.