“What can I give back to the LORD for all the good things he has done for me? I’ll lift up the cup of salvation. I’ll call on the LORD’s name. I’ll keep the promises I made to the LORD in the presence of all God’s people.” — Psalm 116:12-14, CEB
I know, I know. Cute freakin’ dog, right? For the life of me, I cannot remember his name, mostly because he had about twenty when I met him. I was on my first international mission trip with the church I was a member of at the time. We were in Costa Rica working on an orphanage, and this adorable little guy quickly became my shadow. Although I was instructed by trip leaders not to pet him for fear of disease or getting bitten, I opted to follow the lead of the local workers and love on… let’s call him “Jake,” because a Spanish name from this thoroughly white American would be wrong.
Now, Jake followed me around, brought me various items he felt I needed, and always (ALWAYS) stayed close during lunch, knowing he could expect to be paid in lunch meat. Midweek, though, I was asked by the workers and those running the orphanage not to feed Jake anymore, due to some fear of creating dependency.
I was worried that my failure to feed this wandering canine would result in me losing my workweek buddy, being an introverted animal lover who couldn’t care less if a human doesn’t like me. However, he still continued to shadow me for the remainder of the trip, no charge! He was still bringing me items, leaning on me as I took water breaks, and flat-out snuggling me at lunch, although I wasn’t really giving him what I’m sure he was hoping for, and here is where the lesson can be found.
We often go on and on about the kindness and unconditional love of dogs, unless you’re one who doesn’t like dogs (close button is in the upper right corner). For all our praise of these qualities, however, humans are hands down the absolute worst at imitating them. Look at our Scripture for today (Psalm 116), a selection of which is at the start of this post.
What do we find in verse 1? I submit that it is the best description of human affection I have found in the Bible to date. “I love the LORD because he hears my requests for mercy.” We often “love” based on what we are given, and I know you know that is true. Unlike Jake, who continued to love on me despite my failure to give him what he probably really wanted, our expressions of love that we very well may feel often depend on whether or not we are seeing what we want to see in others.
Look back at the Scripture that opened this post. The psalmist declares that they will keep the promises they made because God has done good things for them. Well, what if some bad stuff goes down? Are you just done? “Forget those promises, if God didn’t deliver, why should I?” I have thought this way before, and I’m sure you have as well. God can handle and work with this, but what about the people who depend on us for love? What about the times you and I learned the hard way that human “love” is often determined by performance? It hurt, didn’t it?
I have had many instances in my life when expressed love was given in return for particular achievements. Otherwise, I just had to trust that this love was there. I have also been the one to withhold grace until I felt it was merited, which, of course, made it something other than grace (“free, unmerited love or favor”). We live in a world that operates based on this model, and while it is technically fair, it also isn’t.
Not a single person in this world always lives the way they should, and this is especially true in relationships, whether friendly, romantic, or familial. In these places, we don’t always get to see the best in people, but they also don’t always see our best either. So, while we feel it may be fair to operate via a justice based model of love, we are probably better off doing something else.
“Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.” — Luke 6:31, CEB
Oh, yes, we are back in Sunday School (Never been? Here is your glimpse into that world!). While this teaching has probably been beaten to death as the fundamental way in which we are to relate to others, to actually consider taking it seriously in life’s most painful moments takes it to a whole other level.
Meeting a perfect stranger, someone in need, a friend asking for help, these are all easy enough, right?
How about when your spouse cheats? What about when your role model messes up? What about when someone you hold close to your heart betrays that in any way? Now, we are getting to the heart of the matter. It is not enough to keep our promises and do our best for others when we get what we want. If our lives and this world are to improve in any way, people have to start actually holding themselves to a constant standard of love that is independent of the actions of others.
What if we are the cheater, the screw up, the betrayer? This is when it gets interesting. Just as we need to put a stop to that behavior in order to live out the “Golden Rule” above, we also need to treat ourselves with that level of grace. Guilt can be useful in helping us stop certain behaviors, but if we just stop at feeling guilty, resentful, and regretful, we aren’t really solving the problem, and we further diminish the image of God that rests on all of us, regardless of what we have done with it.
We must extend the grace that we would desire to ourselves and others whether or not we/they deserve it, as this is what makes it grace and this is what can ultimately transform our lives and this world into more sacred and blessed experiences. If you have been hurt, it happens. It just happens. People fail and they should have to make up for it, but the situation still calls for a gracious approach. If you are the one who has caused the problem(s), it happens. You will have to do the work to repair your relationships, but it can be done.
Regardless of where we are at on this spectrum, we should all take a moment to remember that grace is something the world desperately needs more of. If we get too jaded, cynical, or accepting regarding the wrongs in life, nothing will ever get any better. This doesn’t mean we get all “sunny side up” and ignore the pain in life, but it does mean that we put things in perspective and do our best with what we are in control of. Today, as you go about your doings, resolve to be more gracious and loving in the ways God is revealing to you. Maybe it is admitting you were wrong. Maybe it is accepting an apology and moving forward. Maybe it is meeting resistance with kindness. Maybe it is forgiving yourself and starting on the long road of rehabilitation. Only you know, but rest assured that you are not alone, that the love of God in Christ is with you wherever you go.