The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
July 21, 2013
God is not my boss
For a long time I thought of God primarily as my boss. Which in retrospect was not one of my more helpful personal paradigms. You see, I have not had a particularly successful or glorious career in serving Christ.
Growing up, my home church was decimated by a succession of dysfunctional appointed clergy sent to it over the decades. As an adult leader in the church I went through a particularly nasty church split, a failed church plant, and most recently the struggles and ultimate death of a church in its teens. Along the way, I got a seminary degree and learned a lot of theology (both the academic and popular kind) from a variety of perspectives.
I have a healthy respect for God the Father as my suzerain, which is a good word to look up, and for Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I also believe and know that I am a sinner for whom Jesus, in his great love, sacrificed his life, and that this is what makes it possible for me to be reconciled with God and be assured of eternal life with him. I belong to him.
Sometime, though, very early in my lifelong journey with God, something about my perspective of my relationship with him took root and has become the source of a great problem. That is, one of the ways I saw God was as my boss. He had saved me, I wanted to walk with him, I sensed his call, and I wanted to work for him, bearing fruit that would last. And as the decades went by, and the work I did for my boss never seemed to bear fruit, but only situation after situation of discord, broken relationships, and malfunctioning churches, subconsciously two things happened to me.
First, I began to believe I was a bad, unproductive employee—that the things that happened, if not my fault, were mine to make right. And that my inability to fix them meant I didn’t have enough faith, or didn’t pray enough, or wasn’t self-emptying enough, maybe not smart enough, not getting the right people together, not saying the right things to them, not trying hard enough, not consulting with the right people. It’s a pretty endless list.
I developed a feeling deep down that Things Falling Apart were my fault. (It doesn’t help that when Things Are Falling Apart there are plenty of church people who are happy to help you feel this way.) I was unable to right the ships I was on. I was not pleasing my boss, not getting the job done, not bringing people together, not reconciling folks to each other, not growing the Kingdom. My performance review was not going to be good. I was an unhappy and discouraged employee who could not make things happen.
More: how could it be that if I was doing my best to be faithful and serve well, positive things were not resulting? You can bounce back from a few church problems, but when the pattern becomes the pattern of your life, and you don’t see any end in sight, it gets harder and harder over the years to put your calling back on and rejoin the game. The unconditional love was never in doubt. I knew that because of Christ, God loved me. But as his child, I wanted to please him, and work for his kingdom and have him be proud of me. I just began to believe I didn’t have anything to show for it in the end—and that I was a great disappointment to him.
Second, I began to believe my boss had it in for me. Why did he keep sending me on these unproductive assignments? If he sent me on another one now, was there any reason to hope this one would turn out differently, that it would be productive, that good things would come of it and I would see the Kingdom advance? Or was it going to be more of the same, more heartbreak, more people getting hurt instead of healed? I realized I had gotten to a place where I was afraid to hope that my boss would have something good for me in his service. Not afraid to hope in him for the long haul, for the afterlife, and for the consummation of all things. That always remained intact. Just afraid to hope that in this life I would bear fruit in my calling within the church.
Recently I have come to see that this way of thinking about my relationship with God—boss and employee—has not been helpful for me. Indeed, the longer I walk with the Lord, the more I realize the common paradigm in much of American Christianity, especially its evangelical wing, has not been useful for me. That is where the focus is constantly on our sinfulness and unworthiness and Christ’s death on the cross, and how that’s the only thing standing between us and an angry God the Father, and that we should always be thinking of these things, and that how we bring others to Christ, is by emphasizing these things to them.
That's been harmful. But don't get me wrong—I think the component is useful and necessary, and that people have to understand who they are and who God is and what Jesus did for us, and then accept that and repent. But I also know that if I continue to dwell there, and always think of my standing with God from the pre-salvation perspective, I wrongly miss out on the reality of what I have post-salvation, in my restored relationship with him. That relationship is not one of boss and employee.
I have recently been blessed to work through the Gospel of John using exercises suggested by the book Becoming God's Beloved in the Company of Friends, by Mary Pazdan. This slim book is quite deceiving in its depth. Pazdan asks us to first focus on the relationship between Jesus and the Father in John’s gospel, then read the Farewell Discourse chapters (13–17) where Jesus explains how those who believe in him are grafted into this same relationship.
I suspect completing the exercises will yield different insights for different people. For me, focusing first on the relationship of the Trinity, and then their desire for us humans to share that relationship and join them in their mission, helped to scrape away the false image I had of my employment relationship with God.
I have been grafted into the loving relationship of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I am part of this relationship; nothing can sever me from it, and—this is the important part for me—we are all in this together. God is not giving me impossible assignments, sitting back in a plush chair in his heavenly penthouse office, watching me fail them and then marking “does not meet expectations” on his performance review.
God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and I are together working on the same assignments, together bringing God’s perspective to the world, together watching some people accept and some people reject it, together working in the imperfect church, and together suffering and sorrowing over sin, dysfunction and the fallen world. Together we offer, and together we grieve over the mixed results.
This is exactly what Jesus experienced in his time on Earth. He was perfectly tuned in to his Father and faithful—and he did not achieve 100-percent results with people in his ministry. Yet, He completed exactly what the Father intended for him. The Father did not expect total success among humans who had free will. He did not deduct points from Jesus for not being more persuasive. He was pleased that Jesus finished the task he had for him.
And so it is with me and with all who serve God. Ours is not to produce results, even though we look enviously at those few who have been granted what we would consider success here on Earth. It’s just to, as a member of the family, fulfill the role that we have been given by our Father. And to trust that however things turn out in our ministry, God is not acting like our boss. He has not given us a quota, nor is he judging us on our success. He is in that ministry with us, experiencing its joys, sorrows and outcomes.
If you as a Christian leader struggle with your image of God, how he perceives you, what he wants you to be doing and where you stand with him, you could do a lot worse than to read John’s gospel from the perspective of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Trinity’s relationship with us. I pray that it will do you good and give you rest and peace, as it has done with me.
— John 15:15