I had an enlightening discussion with a friend last week. She is of a different faith, or at least a strongly different version of my faith, and we were discussing our respective beliefs. Hers is a works-based rewards system; while she says that "faith in the gospel" is one keystone, she affirms that her religion teaches that what happens after death is based almost entirely on our earthly behavior. In her world, irrespective of one's faith, if one's actions have been "bad" during life, the afterlife will be, at least for a while, undesirable.
She then asked me what happens in my belief system if a Christian acts badly. My answer was that God still loves us, that we are still His irrespective of our actions, and that Heaven awaits us. I explained that just as her children will always be her children no matter what they do - they may move out, be kicked out, deny their birth, or be disowned by their parents, but they will still be the biological offspring of her and her husband - so too are Christians the children of God who will live forever with God. To be sure, we should "act right" and "do good" and behave and serve and live in much the same way her church teaches her to live, but our motivation to do so is not in order to earn anything but rather becaues we are changed people who are obedient and who want to live up to the standards set for us by God. When we fail to do so - and we all fail - God still loves us, accepts us, and indeed welcomes us.
I talked to her about conversion, a concept foreign to her. I told her that we believe our actions change once we enter into relationship with God because we are changed, that we transform into new creatures. I had clearly confounded her at this point. The idea of the old becoming new, of our literally changing as we are "converted" into a child of God was foreign to her. That we behave differently than we did before not out of fear but rather out of love was met with silence. The thought that God's love for us is not altered by our many mistakes and intentional failings stopped her short.
She paused, and then she said, "Well, your God is a lot more benevolent than mine."
That got me thinking. How often we take the most basics for granted. I have written before about our tendency to overlook the love of God. It is one of the first things we learn in Sunday School, probably right after we learn that God created the world. 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. Yet until we meet someone who does not understand God the same way, we can (and often do) fail to treasure this most basic characteristic of the Father.
God's love does not mean that God does not hate sin, that God likes it when we misbehave, or that we have a license to do as we please (despite my friend's comment that if she believed as I do, she would act quite differently in this life than she does - I think (hope) that she was speaking tongue-in-cheek). God's love does not lessen our obligation to obey or to look out for other people. Those Christians who live indiscriminantly because their "fire insurance is paid up" are missing both the point of following Christ and the present realities of abundant life.
But the fact remains that God loves us so much that He accepts and welcomes us in spite of ourselves. He offers an irrevocable gift. We enter into a relationship that means, in the language of the verse most of us memorized before any other, that we "will not perish."
How benevolent is your God?