Being Worthy of God's Love
How Swinging the Pendulum from "You Are NOT Worthy" to "You ARE Worthy" Still Misses the Point
Everyone Gets the Same
Jesus once told a parable about an owner of a vineyard who hired some folks early in the morning to work his field, offering them a full days wages for their time. As the day wore on the vintner went out at different times and procured more laborers to join the workforce.
You can imagine as the various workers showed up, upon hearing what the first laborers were getting paid, they did the hourly math and figured out what they could expect (which clearly would be less pay because less hours worked).
For the final push of the day the landowner snagged a few more stragglers just as the sun was setting. When at last the workday ended everyone lined up to get paid and the owner gave his manager explicit instructions on paying the laborers.
“Start with the ones we hired last, and let’s give them a full day’s wages, mmkay?”
Woah, what? The manager had to be confused. A full day’s wages for just an hour worked? And did that mean that that was now the going rate, and so workers who were there for longer would receive double, triple, or even quadruple the amount?
No, the boss said, everyone gets the same.
When Jesus Got Sad
As you might expect, this infuriated the workers who’d been there all day, as it pushed up against every sense they had about fairness and equality. They started grumbling against the landowner, furious that they toiled all day in the hot sun but received the same pay as those who had only just arrived.
Jesus ended his story by saying that the landowner walked over to the group of complainers and said, “Hey Pal, what’s the problem here. I asked you this morning if you wanted to work, I offered you a day’s wages, you said yes, and I’ve honored our arrangement. Now you’re gonna come back and gripe at me? I don’t think so. Take your money and your ungrateful attitude and get out of here. Don’t resent me because I’m feeling generous today and want to give away a day’s wage to everyone. It’s my money. Now scram!”
Jesus told this little feel-good story as an illustration of what life is like in what he called the Kingdom of God (or, we might say, how life can be experienced when we are locked in to the full flow of God’s love and presence... when the heart and the will and the dream of God is made manifest on earth as it is in heaven). But why? Why did Jesus tell this story, and what might he have been trying to say about the Kingdom?
Just before Jesus told the parable of the Equal Wage Workers he had a very fascinating back-and-forth with a wealthy man, a conversation which left Jesus sad. The wealthy man had done many, many things right in his life, but still something was missing and so he came to Jesus to find out what he must do taste the life he dreamed of. Jesus intuited that it was this man’s deep attachment to his great wealth that held him back, and so he invited the man to sell it all.
If he could but detach himself from his possessions then he would find the liberation (aka, the salvation) he sought.
But the man couldn’t do it. Or at least, when we meet in him this Gospel account he wasn’t able to... yet. I’m all for growth mindset. Who knows, maybe the man years later remembered his convo with Jesus and finally confronted his shadow and his attachment to his wealth?
But alas, in that moment the man walked away, unable to hear Jesus’ words and wisdom.
As the man exits and returns to his life wholly unchanged, Jesus—whom I suspect was deeply sorrowful at seeing just how attached us humans can get to our stuff—turned and said to his disciples, “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enjoy God’s kingdom.”
If He’s Not Worthy, Then Who Is?
We read these words from Jesus today and it’s like, “okay, cool, so I guess it’s really unlikely that rich people will experience the Kingdom of God, whatevs,” and we sorta move on. Even, perhaps, on some level it makes sense to us, because here in the West we are in a heightened state of awareness around just how detrimental extreme wealth can be to the state of our souls.
But for Jesus’ close friends, these words were shocking.
In their worldview, you see, there was the belief that if you were wealthy it was precisely because you were blessed by God. For the average first century Jew, to see this wealthy man walk by would’ve elicited such thoughts as, “Now there walks a righteous man!”
Yet here’s Jesus saying, “Nah, it’s more likely that you’ll shove a 1,000 pound hump-backed mammal through a tiny hole than it is for a rich person like that to experience the fulness of God.”
Once you understand that his statement would’ve shocked the disciples, you can then see why they responded as they did. “Who then can be liberated? Who can be saved?”
Translation: if that guy isn’t deserving, if he’s not good enough, then who the heck is!?
It would be like a model agency interviewing Tyra Banks and saying, “meh, next!”
Or, a recording artist asking Jay-Z to lay down some tracks for him, and upon hearing it saying, “meh, next!”
Or a publishing house receiving a manuscript about a wizard boy who survived the killing of his parents by an evil sorcerer, with nothing but a lightning scar above his eye to show for it, and replying back, “meh, next!” (okay that last one actually happened... 12 times!).
That’s the dynamic here when Jesus expresses sorrow that this man-of-many-means will be unable to enjoy the full presence of God (while still attached to all his material possessions).
To which the disciples rationally respond, “If you’re saying he’s not worthy, then what hope do the rest of us have?”
Who said anything about being worthy?
Let me tell you a story about “being worthy…”
(And that’s when Jesus tells the above mentioned parable, where things like “worthiness” and “deserving” become irrelevant).
We’re Not Worthy. We’re Not Worthy.
In addition to being a dated reference (Wayne’s World? Anyone?), the sentiment, “we’re not worthy” succinctly conveys what many Christians believe about the state of humanity.
We are, they would say:
fallen from a place of perfection, and
currently residing in a default state of total depravity. Consequently, this sinful state of ours then renders us,
unworthy of God’s perfect love.
This central tenet of much of Christianity has wrought havoc on humanity for centuries. We have taken a very real situation--which is: yes, all humans possess what Francis Spufford calls the H.P.T.F.T.U, or, Human Propensity to F*ck Things Up--religions like Christianity have taken this reality and extrapolated it out to the Nth degree to say that you and I and everyone who’s ever lived is utterly and totally depraved, fallen, nothing but sinners deserving of judgment and eternal separation from God.
As I’ve talked about elsewhere, this story sucks. It’s obviously untrue, but also, it sucks. Like, it’s a really bad story with really bad consequences.
As a result, over the past several years I have resorted to swinging the pendulum hard the other way and, insisted that, “no, friends, you are worthy of God’s love!”
Which is a heck of lot nicer, that’s for sure. And, on its face, is a better alternative.
But I’ve found myself as of late struggling to know how to finish the thought: “You are worthy of God’s love... because... um... uh…”
Sometimes I say things like, “Because you have breath in your lungs!” Or, “Because you’re a human being made in God’s image!”
Again, nice sounding... but ultimately, I dunno, unsatisfying.
Plus, if I’m being honest, even when I’ve tried applying this to my own life, (“Colby, you ARE worthy of God’s love!”), I still find myself trying to justify said love. Trying to prove my worthiness.
In other words, just thinking that I am worthy hasn’t really helped me all that much.
But I haven’t known what to do about this conundrum. I haven’t known how to move away from the (wrong, bad, and toxic) story of “you are NOT worthy,” without winding up with a different (albeit better) story that, on some level, still doesn’t really make sense either... that we are, just, “worthy.”
Then I came across this from Thomas Merton in “New Seeds of Contemplation.”
Worthiness Loses Its Significance
“In the true Christian vision of God’s love, the idea of worthiness loses its significance. Revelation of the mercy of God makes the whole problem of worthiness something almost laughable.
Since no one could ever, by themselves, be strictly worthy to be loved with such a love, the discovery that worthiness is of no special consequence is a true liberation of the spirit…
When we are delivered by the mercy of God the question (of worthiness) no longer has meaning.”
Friends, that’s it. That’s the solution.
The problem was, I was still playing the Worthy Game.
But when it comes to God, and to Love, and to us being loved by God…
worthiness has nothing to do with it!
The kingdom of God is not about worth. It is not about earning your way in or proving that you belong. It’s about grace. It’s about the free-flowing unending reality of Love that just “is,” irrespective of our efforts to deserve it or resist it or ignore it.
The answer to the problematic belief that “you are not worthy” is not, as I’ve believed, to shout even louder, “yes you ARE worthy!” Rather, I think the answer is to disagree with the question altogether.
Worthiness has nothing to do with it.
The first shall be last, the last shall be first… in other words, we’re all arriving at the same time, because none of us are more or less worthy than another. That isn’t even the point.
Parents, who among you considers your child and says, “they are not worthy of my love.” No one, of course. And yet, neither do we really think in terms of, “they are worthy of my love,” or, “they deserve my love.” We don’t really think about worthiness at all, we just… love our child. Regardless of anything resembling worth.
Believe You Are Beloved
And so I’m now beginning to settle in to this third iteration of How to Relate to the Love of God.
My first 30 years I spent believing I wasn’t worthy of God’s love. I was nothing but a miserable sinner.
The past 8 years I’ve overcorrected and tried to live in to this idea that I am worthy of God’s love.
And now? For my next season? I’m going to try and settle in to this idea that I’m just loved by God because God loves me. Irrespective of my worth.
The disciples had a hard time understanding this sort of grace, so I’m in good company. Love like this is, as Jesus said, “impossible for humans.” We are constantly assessing ours and others worth.
We are, like the laborers in the vineyard, perpetually working within the bookkeeping business, determining who deserves what and when.
God is like, “y’all, what’s the deal... I love you. All of you. The fact that you over here worked all day, and you over here just started, doesn’t factor in to the equation. That’s not how my grace or mercy or love works.”
One more time from Merton,
“The root of Christian love is the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God. The faith that one is loved by God although unworthy—or, rather, irrespective of one’s worth!”
My prayer for myself—and for you!—is that we would slowly but surely begin to believe that we are beloved by God.
Lord I believe, but help my unbelief.
Let’s Talk About It
Join me today (Wed Feb 24th) at 2pm PST to talk about this whole idea of “being worthy of God’s love.”