How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the best Dr. Seuss movie ever. In the 2000 version with Jim Carey, the Grinch lives in exile and on a snow-covered mountain. Every day he wallows in his hatred for the people of Whoville. How did this situation arise? Rejection.
The Grinch was different from the other kids so they were cruel to him. He packed his bags and went into exile. The story is about how a little girl named Cindy Lou softened his heart with love and brought him back to Whoville.
Love boils down to something very simple: acceptance. Love is acceptance. It feels wonderful to be accepted. Hate is rejection. It is the deepest pain we can feel.
Looking back, I see that most of my life has been spent in search of acceptance. It’s why it was so important to be good at basketball. The day the coach benched me wasn’t just the end of my basketball career. It was my expulsion from Whoville. I turned to music and found acceptance as a french horn player instead. If that hadn’t worked I would have tried something else. I might have wound up behind the school with the stoners. One way or another, I had to find acceptance.
Acceptance is why falling in love is so intoxicating. We are loved by an angel! Falling into the arms of God couldn’t be better. It’s also why breaking up is so devastating. Our language reveals our pain. We got “dumped.” We feel like garbage.
We’ll do anything to be accepted. It’s why Facebook “likes” mean so much to us. It’s why public speaking is one our greatest fears. If you stand up in front of a crowd and say the wrong thing, they might reject you. The thought of all that rejection is more terrifying than falling off a cliff.
Religious communities, which are always talking about love, can be the worst. When you get rejected by a religious community you aren’t just cut off from human relationships. You are expelled from the love of God too.
If you feel like a reject, it might encourage you to know that you are in good company. Jesus was “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3). God has a special place in his heart for rejects. The problem is that most of us do not feel we have a place in God’s heart. We think we have to earn God’s acceptance just everyone else’s.
Rejected People Reject People
When we are rejected we reject back. It’s as natural as swatting a mosquito. Our world is filled with rejection. God can break the cycles of rejection but only if we believe in a God of acceptance. Sadly, this is not the God most of us have been told about. The story goes something like this:
God created a perfect world in which we were accepted and loved. We got things off track by rejecting God. God’s reaction was to strike back by cursing us and casting us into hell. The good news is that there is a way to be accepted again. We can transfer God’s rejection from ourselves to Jesus. This isn’t much of a story. Its God isn’t very loving, even by human standards.
I have three kids. Let’s say they each do something awful. I love them but I am a stickler for justice. I resolve my internal conflict by locking child #1 and child #2 in a torture chamber. This satisfies my need for justice. I express my love for child #3 by torturing and killing my wife, venting my wrath on her. When my anger has run its course, I am cooled down enough to love my remaining child.
This is not glorious. This is horrific. It gets even worse. Imagine that I defended myself by pointing out that as their father I have the right to do whatever I please with my kids. Then, when you protested, I justified myself by saying you just don’t understand. My ways are higher than yours.
This is the story that sent me on a quest for a new religion. I eventually wound up back at the feet of Jesus, but with a very different understanding of God. Before we go there, let’s think through how we will treat other people if we believe in the rejecting God I just described.
- Since God is a raging lunatic, I must figure out what it means to “accept Jesus” to avoid his wrath. The answer is buried in the Bible. I must study my Bible as if my life depends on it, because it does.
- Once I am convinced I have the formula for pacifying this angry god, I must warn others about him and share the formula. This is called evangelism, spreading the good news that there is a way to escape an angry God.
- Those who have different formulas are dangerous. They must be opposed.
- People who have not received Jesus are rejected by God. They are not brothers and sisters. The best I can do for them is to get them to receive Jesus. If they do, I can accept them. If they don’t, I can’t. They are rejected by God. Who am I to accept them?
Thankfully, this is not how most churches behave. They do not live by their creeds. Their hearts tell them a truer story. They behave as if God loves everyone. They treat people with kindness. The angry god is swept under the rug. But he leaves a lump.
When you start with a God who divides people into two piles, it’s hard not to wind up following suit. This God is not the God of the Bible. The Bible tells a much better story.
Loved People Love People
There is no denying that something has gone wrong with our world. We have made a spectacular mess of things. This grieves God and makes God angry but it does not cause him to reject us.
Like a loving parent, God’s heart is to redeem his children. Redeeming love is the theme of our world. What is wrong must be made made right. Sins must be forgiven. The sick must be healed. Enemies must be reconciled. The dead must be raised.
At the center of redemption stands a mystery. Not only are we made in God’s image. God is made in ours. God is not just the author of our story. He is in it. He didn’t just make the path of redemption. He walked it before us.
Jesus is the love of God incarnate. The cross is not an angry God striking back. It is a loving God joining us in our misery, taking our crap, and leading us home. This is what love does. It lays down its life for the redemption of others.
It is because God loves us that he hates our sin so deeply. God is not internally divided. The Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:16). The Bible never says that God is wrath. The hard words, dark chapters, and stinging judgments in the Bible are not exceptions to God’s love. They are expressions of it. Like any good parent, God allows pain to teach its lessons and bring his children home.
In the midst of our stories, we have many questions. Why did God make this groaning world in the first place? How do our lives fit in the grand design? What is God doing? Does he even loves us? We get angry. We curse God. But even in our darkest moments, we feel the pull of redemption.
In the end, things won’t just go back to the way they were. They will be better. The prodigal won’t just know the love of a father for the worthy son. He will know the love of a father for an unworthy son. He will know redeeming love.
When you start with a God of redemption, it changes how you see other people. Loved people love people.
- You will regard all people as family. Since God doesn’t sort people into “accepted” and “rejected,” piles, you won’t either. Like God, you will see only one category of people: loved. Life finds us at various places in our journeys. Some are closer to home and some are farther away. But all God’s children are in the same story, drawn by the love of the same Father. We can’t write anyone off. We can only observe that some people are far from home.
- You will forgive. If God permanently rejects some of his children, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t do the same. It’s also hard not to wonder if we will be one of the rejected ones. But if God forgives everyone we don’t have to worry that we may not be one of the lucky ones. When we see that God’s love and forgiveness spreads to all creation we can’t help but extend the same love and forgiveness. In this way, Cindy Lou saved the Grinch. In this way God will save the world.
- You will be redemptive. When you see your life as a story of redemption you will begin to see redeeming love at work in everyone. You will feel a kinship and be eager to encourage others on their journeys. You’ll want to say to everyone, “Let’s go home!”
- You will be compassionate. As a sheep that has gone astray, you will have compassion for other wanderers. As one who struggles you will understand those who struggle. As one who suffers you will be there for those who suffer.
- You will be tough. Real love is not wimpy. It won’t settle for a half-baked version of another person. It won’t overlook sickness in a relationship. If someone is far from the Father, love won’t pencil a smiley face on them and call it good. Real love is tough as nails.
The normal way to deal with difficult people is to either brush over their sins or avoid them completely. There are false gods to justify either approach. One false god makes light of sin and looks down at everyone with a dreamy smile. The other false god banishes his enemies to hell. The God of Jacob does neither. He will neither make light of sin, nor walk away from the sinner. He will wrestle with us until we are transformed. This is what love does.
Never surrender to hate. Hate is the coward’s way out. People may exclude you from their lives but you must not exclude them from yours. Conflict is just a chapter in the story, never the end. The whole world must be reconciled, not only to God but to one another. You can’t imagine a heavenly scene in which people’s faces beam with love to God and scowls at each another. God must make peace, not only with his creatures but amongst them. If you close your heart to this you close your heart to God.
One more warning about “tough love”: Be careful that it isn’t just an excuse for being judgmental. Jesus’ warnings about taking the log out of our own eye come into play here (Matthew 7:1-5). Your energy should be directed where it is most needed and will do the most good: your own soul. If in some way you can help another person, do so humbly, remembering that you are imperfect.
A Life of Love
When it comes to love, most of us have a welfare mentality. We accept the structures we fall into: our jobs, our families, neighborhoods, our churches. We go about our business and wait for love to be dished out to us. When this doesn’t happen, we complain. The people are work are stupid. Our family is toxic. Our neighbors never come out of their houses. Our church isn’t friendly. We sit at home, feeling disconnected, rejected.
My life as a pastor was people-centered but the institution I served drew lines between them. We saw ourselves as insiders and the rest of the world as outsiders. I soon found that when we draw lines between “them” and “us,” we also draw lines between “us” and “us.”
Over the 20 years I served my church every person who started with me eventually left, hurt over the way some line was drawn. These were good people. Were it not for the lines I have no doubt that we would still be friends. I came to hate lines. But the were an essential part of religion.
That’s why I decided to trade in my life of religion for a life of love. This was disruptive. My friends worried about me and tried to get me back into the fold, along with the saved people. They warned others not to follow my lead. I had wandered into no-man’s land. By refusing to label myself an insider, I became an outsider.
I take comfort in the fact that Jesus had a similar experience. What got him in trouble was not shutting people out but letting them in. He treated everyone as an equal: tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, demon-possessed, Samaritans, religious leaders, women… He didn’t care. He loved everyone. This offended the line-drawers of his day, the religious leaders.
Nearly 100% of Jesus’ harsh words are aimed at line-drawers. Excluders exclude themselves. It’s not that God shuts the door on them. They shut the door on God. Everyone is invited to the party but those who refuse to attend because they are offended by the guest list will have to wait outside with the elder brother while the prodigals gather around the table.
It was similar with the Apostle Paul. What nearly got him killed on several occasions was not excluding people but letting them in. He had the nerve to suggest that Gentiles could eat at the same table with Jews. There were those who could not imagine a God with such bad taste. What kind of a God would indiscriminately invite uncircumcised Gentiles to a party?
My daily challenge is that I am no longer surrounded by the institutions that once prescribed and scheduled my relationships. I am off the welfare roles. I have no alternative but to stand on my own two feet. I have to learn how to be a friend, how to love my family, how to develop community, what it means to be part of Christ’s body, all without a script.
This is so important that it will be the topic of the summer season of Curb Your Dogma. But here are four teasers to whet your appetite.
1. Church is not ecclesia. The word “church” is a terrible translation of the Greek word ecclesia (ἐκκλησία). Ecclesia just means “gathering.” “Church” is a human institution that developed over centuries, picking up debris like a snowball rolling down a mountain. When we translate ecclesia with the word “church” we dump 20 centuries of baggage onto the poor little word and misunderstand what the Bible means by ecclesia.
2. Koinonia creates ecclesia. Koinōnia (κοινωνία) is a wonderful word, usually translated “fellowship.” The root of the word is koinos (κοινός) which means “common.” Koinōnia is the bond we share because of what we have in common. We are drawn to those who share our interests: fly fishing, golf, politics, knitting, RVing.
The koinōnia shared by every human being is the love of God. Whatever other interests you may have, you have a story of redemption. This creates common ground between you and every other person. It even creates koinōnia between you and nature since the entire cosmos is being redeemed. We find ourselves in the same story. When we come together to celebrate this, we find ourselves in ecclesia.
3. The ideal church size? Two. Maybe three. Jesus said “where two or three are gathered, I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). I once read this as a minimum number for a church. I now regard it as a maximum. When two people get together, they can go deep. This is even possible with three. But once there are four, you start electing leaders and forming committees. When ecclesia is structured it turns into religion and people start drawing lines.
4. Love starts with you. When we begin with a God who accepts some and rejects others, we can’t help but feel insecure. We lean on other people for comfort. We feel most secure in a big group. But other people can’t help. We must sink our own roots into God. Friendship is not two boards leaning on each other. It’s two trees planted by the water. We must know the love of God before we can share it with each other.
I realize that these teasers cry for explanation. Stay tuned!
When We Love Everyone, We Experience God
The love of God is like electricity in a light bulb. Love comes from outside, from God. When it pours through us we come to life. When we love others we experience God.
No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (1 John 4:12)
As much as we might like to limit love to a select group of insiders, it won’t work. If we cut off love to anyone we cut off love to ourselves. The current does not flow and we don’t come to life.
It all comes back to the simplicity of the great commandments: Love God and love one another. When we do this, the cycle of rejection ends. God love pours through us. The world is redeemed.