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Gospels

John 21:17

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."

September 7, 2013

God is not your boss

Recently I was blessed to read Becoming God’s Beloved in the Company of Friends by Mary Margaret Pazdan, a Dominican sister of the Roman Catholic church. This slim book (125 pages) focuses on the spirituality of the gospel of John—specifically the relationships among the members of the Trinity, and how they invite us into their life of mutual respect, honor, trust and love. Don’t be fooled by its brevity. If you read and ponder the contents as intended, completing each of the exercises, you’ll discover a highly profitable journey.

I suspect each person gleans something unique from discovering and then considering the interior relationship of the Trinity as John describes it, and how we then fit into this relationship. In my case, halfway through the book I realized something startling about how I had been perceiving my relationship with God. I didn’t think of my relationship to God as being “beloved” in a mutually loving, trusting, respectful and intimate family. Instead, I thought of God as being my boss.

All the loving, trusting, respect stuff was what I owed God. Yes, God “loved me unconditionally,” I knew. But what I picked up in the churches I attended was that this love manifested itself mostly in God not consigning me to hell, which is what I deserved because of my sin. God was begrudgingly doing me a favor because of Jesus’ work on the cross. Because I accepted Christ’s sacrifice, God was obliged to unconditionally give me a pass. And because of this transaction, I felt my new status was one of employee, someone who worked on his behalf out of gratitude, hoping to be successful in ministry and please him, rather than fail and disappoint him. If I wasn’t a productive employee he would still love me unconditionally, because he had to, but my failures would also amount to letting him down. And that was something I didn’t want to do.

I’m past 50 now, and my service for God has not turned out to be very successful. Instead, I’ve spent most of my life serving in churches that spiraled into dysfunction. Pastor problems. Staff problems. Parishioner problems. Each one a failure, even if the reasons were unique. I even helped to shut down two of these churches. Every time I was a party to church failure, I felt I was being an increasing disappointment to my boss. What kind of employee was I? I couldn’t deliver for him, not even once.

As a result, even though I continued to serve in ministry, I became more and more depressed about it. No matter how hard I tried, I could not produce a winner for God.

I’m not sure I ever put the pieces together about how I saw my relationship with God before I read Becoming God’s Beloved. All I know is I got about halfway through the book, working through all the exercises that show the interior life of the Trinity and how Father, Son and Holy Spirit invite us to enter into their relationship of honor, trust respect and love, when it hit me.

God is not my boss.

I don’t work for God as an employee. I am in a relationship with the triune God. A loving, respecting, trusting and honoring relationship. When I minister to others in God’s name, it is as part of this relationship. God is with me in the many failures and the few small victories. He is experiencing them with me. He is sad when I am, rejoices when I do, disappointed and sorrowful when I am. He is not standing outside of my experiences, judging me. He is in my experiences, strengthening, guiding and comforting me.

Earthly bosses can be capricious and distracted, sometimes giving an impossible workload as they try to do more with less. Human bosses have expectations and quotas. The price of not delivering is usually pretty high.

When I lived as though I was God’s employee and not his beloved, I confess, my experience with my human bosses colored how I felt God perceived me. Now that I’ve shed that bad personal theology, it’s going to take some time and effort to start thinking of God as truly loving me, walking with me in ministry experiences rather than monitoring me from a distance with a clipboard and a look of disappointment on his face.

If you could do with a similar breath of fresh air, I encourage you to read the gospel of John with an eye to the way the relationship of the members of the Trinity is described throughout the book. Take note of how the Father, Son and Spirit interact with each other, and then in the Farewell Discourse (John 13–17) take careful note of how Jesus draws his followers into this relationship of love, trust, honor and respect. What a life-giving change of perspective.

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I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

—John 14:20