Concerning Sheep, Goats, and the Unconditional Love of God

Who says sheep and goats can't get along?

Who says sheep and goats can’t get along?

I received this email today. Thought it might be worth exploring here on the blog.

Hi Carl.

Just listened to your two interviews and was blessed … You said in your interview that you didn’t like the, what I would call, the “us and them” attitude in evangelical circles like “I’m saved and you’re not.” And though I agree that we should not look down on others and be proud for we can’t claim any credit for being a follower of Christ, yet does not the Bible make a distinction between the “sheep and goats”? Also what about John 3:16  where it says that those who believe shall not perish? And John says a lot about the need to believe. And what about 1 John somewhere in chapter 3 where we are commanded to believe and love.

It looks like I’m trying to KO you with a barrage of Bible verses as if I’m such an expert. I’m not, not even close. The purpose of my letter is a sincere attempt to find what God is saying in the scriptures. Maybe I’m missing something. Could you please help me? Evangelicals, when in a debate about who is saved and who is not will often quote the verse John 14:6 (I think) which in part says “no one comes to the Father but through Me”. Could you give your perspective on that verse?

Like I said I’m not trying to debate you and prove you wrong. I value your opinions very much and thank you so much for your blogs.

If you ever come to Perth, Australia please let me know.

I’ll start with the easy part. I’d love to come to Perth sometime, and actually have begun conversation with a party about possibly coming to Australia in 2015. So we shall see.

Now, on to the heart of your letter. I can’t recall exactly what it was I said in the interview (forgive my feeble memory), but I do have concerns when Christians become too fixated on any kind of us vs. them way of thinking. Incidentally I see this in so many ways: Catholic versus Protestant, liberal versus conservative, contemplative versus non-contemplative, charismatic versus non-charismatic, emergent versus traditionalist, and on and on. And, of course, more relevant to the questions you’re asking: saved versus not-saved, Christian versus non-Christian, believer versus unbeliever.

All of these divisions drive me straight back to Matthew 7:1-2, where Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” What I hear him saying is that, when we relate to the world with judgment, we end up experiencing judgment — if from no one else other than ourselves. To have a judgmental view of things seems to throw us back into the realm of thinking we have to somehow prove ourselves worthy of God’s grace. It reduces spirituality to a system of reward and punishment. God rewards us if we’re good, and punishes us if we’re not. Of course, what’s maddening about this is that different Christians have different theories about what constitutes behavior worthy of salvation:

  • Some say it’s being obedient to church teaching and reception of the sacraments;
  • Some say it’s having faith;
  • Some say it’s making a decision for Christ, accepting him as our Lord and savior;
  • Some say it’s totally predestined, but our behavior will reveal which side of God’s double predestination we fall on;
  • And I’m sure there are others that I’m leaving out (for those who are keeping score, the above represent traditionalist Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and Calvinist theologies, respectively).

So who’s right? Who’s wrong? What if by chance or circumstance I’m a member of the wrong church, and do the wrong things in order to be saved? Am I just out of luck? Is God really that capricious?

And don’t all four of these theologies have this in common: that they put more emphasis on what I do than on what God does? What kind of theology is that, which pays more attention to human behavior than Divine acts?

You’ve thrown a number of proof-texts at me, and certainly they add up to suggest that God really is in the business of sorting us into sheep and goats. But again, what about Matthew 7:1-2? What about Colossians 1:20, which says that through Jesus Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” ALL things — not just believers, or the sheep, or the born again — are reconciled to God through Christ, and this pleases God! Or Romans 11:32, which notes that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” In other words, we are all disobedient — even the sheep and the saved! But God is merciful to all. Not just some, not just the “elect,” but all. Or I Corinthians 15:22: “As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” There’s that word all again. Meanwhile, Luke 6:35 notes that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

My point in quoting these verses is simply to show the limitations of proof-texting. I think it’s human nature to build a theological position out of whichever texts we find most appealing (or consistent with our existing world-view) and we conveniently ignore all the texts that challenge our perspective. This is how you can have both Catholics and Protestants appealing to Scripture to support their own respective theologies, as different as they are.

I’m very much like Julian of Norwich in how I approach this whole question of the four last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell). Julian said that she trusted the teaching of the church, and since the church taught a cosmology that included hell, she accepted it. But in her visions, she bluntly asked Christ how all things could be well, if not everyone is saved. His response: basically that this is a profound mystery, but that “all shall be well.” Which of course, has become the most quoted line in Julian’s book. So I have no interest in arguing against church teaching about heaven and hell, I don’t consider myself a universalist — for the simple reason that if we have no say in what our relationship with God looks like, then we are not free. And love, it seems to me, requires freedom. And yet, if we do have the freedom to say no to God’s love, doesn’t that suggest both heaven and hell are real?

So I am clear that I am not a universalist, and I am also clear that I believe salvation has nothing to do with earning God’s love (whether through being born again, or living a good life, or believing the right things or whatever). I also believe that, taken as a whole, the message of the Bible is a message of mercy rather than judgment, of love more than wrath, of healing and wholeness rather than damnation and perdition. I also see this in the writings of the mystics, again taken as a whole. Obviously, the mystics are like scripture: you can find many passages in the great mystical texts that will practically singe your neck-hairs with all their talk of wrath and damnation. But thankfully, that is not the final word, or the whole word.

Back to whatever it was that I said in the interview. I think Christians need to be careful to obey Matthew 7:1-2. Which means that I believe part of the job description of being a Christian is to love my neighbors and not judge them. Does that mean I have no standards? Of course not. But moral and ethical standards are invitations to respond to the love of God with dignity, respect, and compassion — which means that when people fail to behave with love, dignity and compassion, our response ought to be one of grief and pity rather than rage and wrath. It all starts with love, and it all goes back to love. And therefore my job is to love everybody — no matter what they believe, how sinfully they might act, or how alien their values might be to my own. In fact, if I am serious about following Christ, then it is my job to seek to love precisely those whom I find it the most difficult to love.

Here’s an interesting quote from one of the truly great mystics, St. Isaac the Syrian, who said “It would be improper…to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool…but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties.” (Ascetical Homily 28) Here’s my rather un-sophisticated way of interpreting this idea: when we die, we are all immersed in the unconditional, lavish love of God. We all have a choice: to accept it or reject it. But God loves us unconditionally either way, and our acceptance of such love is in no way based on merit. The love is freely given, unconditional. To those who turn toward it, who accept it, Divine Love is transfiguring light. But those who reject it, who turn away, experience it as scourging fire.

So I think Christians who get fixated on who’s saved and who’s not saved have really missed the point. The point is simply to accept God’s unconditional love, and then pass it on — unconditionally — to everyone, whether they deserve it or not. And of course, we are all sinners, we make mistakes, we fail to love as we are loved. But we can always repent and try, try again. Because the love given to us is unconditional. Our calling is simply to accept it, pass it on as best we can, and when we fall down, to (by the grace of that Love) get back up, and carry on.

You asked about my understanding of John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” I think this is an invitation more than a threat. Jesus is one with God (John 10:30) and God is love (I John 4:16). So read it this way: Love is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Divine except through love.” If we get hung up on “but what about all the non-Christians?” we’ve missed the point of the verse. The Gospel of John is a fairly advanced manual of mystical theology that was originally written for those who already believe. We have taken this verse out of that context and used it as a weapon against non-believers for too long. We need to stop doing that. How should Christians relate to non-Christians, non-believers, “goats”? Our job as Christians is to love like God loves (unconditionally) and not to judge. Our marching orders, once again, are in the Sermon on the Mount. Incidentally, where Jesus says (also in the Sermon on the Mount) to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), read it in context: he is instructing us to love perfectly (unconditionally), just like God who sends the sun and the rain to both the sheep and the goats.

Now, since my blog is devoted to mysticism and contemplation, let me finish by saying that I think contemplative spirituality is the spirituality that places unconditional love higher than any kind of reward/punishment understanding of the Gospel. That’s not to say that contemplation equals universalism, for the reasons I’ve already stated. It’s simply a question of emphasis. It’s hard to love someone unconditionally when we’re busy haranguing them to change and be more like us. So the contemplative perspective is to simply love everyone as best we can, and trust that the Holy Spirit will help all of us (including ourselves) to change in the ways we need changing. We all need conversion, we all need repentance. But isn’t it easier to grow in grace when we’re surrounded by love? This is why I think our job is really to love each other, as best we can. That creates the best possible environment for the Holy Spirit’s work which is the call to repentance and conversion.

So love, as best you can. And always remember how deeply and lavishly we are loved by God. No matter what.

Disclosure: if you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.

 

 

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  • Brianne Willard

    This is a great perspective on the Sheeps and Goats debate. I will forward it to those I am in friendly argument with. You explain it so clearly.


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