Every year at this time I find myself quoting Clement Moore’s description of the “jolly old elf whose belly shook like jelly.” There is something wonderful about the thought of a benevolent grandfather figure who slips down chimneys and deposits gifts for “good little girls and boys.”
But, as I reflect on my childhood, I realize that I was duped by well-intentioned parents into thinking that this benevolent grandfather was watching me all the time to see if I was bad or good. So I tried to be “good for goodness sake.” I found myself performing for a treat, much like an animal conditioned to “beg” for a bone. And, if I hadn’t been all that good, I resigned myself to my fate, realizing that I could most likely expect a lump of coal or a bundle of switches, because that was what my misbehavior merited.
This kind of thinking spilled over into my life of faith as well. I fell prey to the unbiblical notion that I must be good for God’s sake. After all, God is more ubiquitous than Santa, and much more powerful. If Santa can see me when I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake, how much more does God know about me? “You’d better watch out,” I thought to myself.
Then I learned about grace, and came to understand that God didn’t come to earth as a baby because I’d been a good little boy and deserved his love. He came into my world because he knew me in the ugliness of my sin, and loved me and accepted me in spite of all that.
Religious people have a hard time accepting this unconditional love that is totally undeserved. They want to do something to earn it. They pride themselves on how well they keep the rules of their faith, thinking that God is pleased with their efforts. Jesus said that they have their reward. Their reward is in being good, and in trying to “outgood” one another. They pride themselves on how much better able they are than others to please God with their religious behavior. This gives new meaning to the term “comparative religion.” We compare ourselves to each other instead of comparing ourselves to God’s perfect law, which declares that there is none righteous – not one. It must break God’s heart to see the ways we strive to please him and earn his favor, when what he wants is simply faith. He wants us to simply respond to his love through faith in Christ, his only Son.
Brennan Manning illustrates this love in a wonderful story.
In 1980, the day before Christmas, Richard Ballenger’s mother in Anderson, South Carolina, was busy wrapping packages and asked her young son to shine her shoes. Soon, with the proud smile that only a seven-year-old can muster, he presented the shoes for inspection. His mother was so pleased, she gave him a quarter.
On Christmas morning as she put on the shoes to go to church, she noticed a lump in one shoe. She took it off and found a quarter wrapped in paper. Written on the paper in a child’s scrawl were the words, “I done it for love.” (citation: Brennan Manning, Shipwrecked at the Stable, in Watch for the Light, Plough Publishing House, 2001)
The shepherds gathered around a feed trough in a smelly barn must have wondered why God would choose to take on flesh, especially in such lowly environs. What was the good news of great joy that was announced by the angels? Simply this: God sent his Son as a sacrifice for the sins of all mankind – and he “done it for love.”