The Law of Love: The Will of the Father
By consenting to His will with joy and doing it with gladness I have His love in my heart, because my will is now the same as His love and I am on the way to becoming what He is, Who is Love.
- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven
The natural outcome of an earnest legalism is a constant fretting over God's will. Because conforming to God's will must be the only way to please God (and, therefore, the only way to escape God's wrath), it is the life's work of a legalist to determine God's will and, by some means, gain the power to follow it.
The wisdom in the analogy of God as our parent comes to our aid here. Doubtless most Christians transpose their understanding of pleasing their parents onto their belief about pleasing God. Many of us have fraught experiences in this regard. Childhood is the most formative period of relationship with one's parents, and modern childhood is not often an environment suited to subtlety. As children we may come to believe that if we go to bed on time, don't curse, get good grades, and say "thank you," we will earn the blessing of our parents (or, for those unfortunate to suffer in colder relationships, at least avoid their wrath). I don't think it's unfair to say that legalists have almost perfectly translated this experience to their relationships to God.
Yet God is, in this lense, a frustrating parent; not always telling us exactly what to do, and often revealing contradictory or burdensome demands. We may take this in stride, especially if our parents fit the same pattern.
As someone blessed with a healthy relationship to my parents, I'd say it's worth a return to, and deepening of, our understanding of what it means to please one's parents. By doing so we may more correctly understand the metaphor of God as Father. I have never strayed far from my hometown and have worshipped in the same congregation as my parents since birth. This continuity of relationship has allowed me to look back and see how my own understanding of that relationship has evolved out of shallow obedience to a deeper, trusting love.
If you had asked me how I should earn the love of my parents when I was a child, I would probably rightly have told you that I was loved by my parents unconditionally. But deep inside, I would sometimes question that belief, especially with all the pressures of growing up. It was something my parents assured me of, but I didn't quite grasp. So it is with many Christians.
If you asked me how I should earn the love of my parents today, I could easily laugh off the question. I have already had it since birth and I cannot lose it, even if I wanted to. So it is with God.
If you had asked me how I should please my parents when I was a child, I would probably have told you that I needed to do what they wanted and expected me to do--without being asked. So it is with many Christians.
If you asked me how I should please my parents today, I would not tell you that I do it by making my bed, eating vegetables, or even by practicing in an honest profession. These are all things my parents explicitly urged me toward, but I know it's not these works as such which actually please them. In fact, I don't make my bed most of the time, but this doesn't introduce any anxiety into our relationship. The admonition to make my bed had a deeper meaning: to instill responsibility and appreciate order. The insistence on the words "please" and "thank you" guided me to practice respect and gratitude to others. But most of all (and encompassing these things), my parents are pleased with me because I endeavor to love genuinely, regardless of whatever else I employ myself towards. So it is with God.
Perhaps dysfunctional and arrested parental relationships have played a part in our rigid understanding of God and love itself. I wonder how many of my generation and older have a constant and intimate relationship with their parents. I don't have a broad enough context on the subject to make a claim about this.
The case I do hope to support, here and in future elaboration, is this: if we truly believe that conforming to God's will is how we will please God, then we must reach maturity in our understanding of God's will to recognize that God's will is simply to love.
The mature understanding of God's will is not found in a thorough enumeration of every command in Scripture, or even a unified logical moral framework extending out of those rules. This is like an adult child attempting to understand how to please his parents by racking his memories for all of their commands which he must follow. When he was six, they told him not to touch the stove; when he was sixteen, they asked him to prepare dinner. This exercise in contradiction is only bound to produce anxiety, repression, or despair. Coincidentally, these are all characteristics a healthy parent hopes her child will be spared from.
If we do what is loving, we are doing God's will. I don't make this claim on my own authority. I believe that is what Christ actually teaches, and I will be unpacking that in a future post.
Before closing, though, I want to ground this statement in my previous entry. If God's fundamental nature is love, why do we believe that God's will is expressed in accidentals like laws? Can a dynamic, living spirit like love be accurately translated into rules? I can claim that God's will is love in part because it is the natural and elegant conclusion which follows the understanding of God's nature. Love is not an unfocused approximation of the hard truth of the Law. The Law is a rigid approximation of the boundless truth of Love. Is this not exactly what the New Testament is saying?
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’”
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second.
When we understand that the will of God is love, we can more clearly understand Christ's ministry, and how it "sets aside" all that came before.
Or did we come to believe that God saw it fit in the perfect Law to encode a regulation for mixing types of cloth, but left topics like abortion up to the inference of the reader? Even by the legalist's own values, the raw commands of Scripture seem wanting. I don't see a clear alternative; we must either admit that we are understanding God's will incorrectly, or else admit that our Bible is a frustratingly inadequate guide to it. Since I still regard Scripture very highly, I side with the first option.