Love of neighbor has a more compelling motive than we might imagine.
“Finally, cults represent the unpaid bills of the church”, said my college professor. She was finishing up her overview of Christian cultism. It was an unsettling thought. We, the Church, owed something to groups that break with orthodoxy to form contra orthodox beliefs and practices. Something we owe but have not paid. What did we owe?
That lecture was presented over 40 years ago and sadly I’ve forgotten all of it but that statement, especially that uncomfortable phrase, “unpaid bills of the church”.
Most good, honest people try hard to pay their bills. An unpaid bill is an indictment of their character (and bad for their credit rating). During my 33 years as an itinerant minister, I never saw a bill to the church that went unpaid. Christians try to be debt free.
Financially, that’s good. But we also like being free in other ways. Deep in the American spirit is a distaste for being, to use an archaic term, “beholdin’” to someone. An increasingly offensive word in our culture is the word “charity”. Some non-profit organizations are trying to distance themselves from that description. And no person likes being called a “charity case”; someone dependent on another’s generosity.
But the scriptures reveal that in relation to God, we are all “charity cases”. We owe God. Believers understand this. We owe God simply because he is God. And we owe him not only for who God is but because of what God has done and will do. We owe God everything.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “What are (God’s people) without God? Whatever you are, you have nothing to make you proud… The more you have the more you are in debt to God.”
But not only are we always in our Makers debt. We also owe others. Paul writes; “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another… The commandments…are summed up in this one command; ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor…” Romans 13:8-10a
So, we are to live debt free lives, except for a life-long debt of love to our neighbor. And we are to pay this debt continually. For me, that’s quite daunting.
I can humbly confess my eternal debt to God. I owe him my all because all I have is from God. Also, God is not like me. He is Creator. I am his creation. My debt to God is quite obvious to me.
But it’s hard to accept that I owe my neighbor. Neighbors are complicated. Some I like. Others not so much. Some are warm and fuzzy. Others are cranky porcupines. Like me, they are complex co-creations. So, instead of owing them love, I’d rather believe I am “free” to love them. I give help, lend a hand and offer good neighborliness. I will happily answer the door ready to hand over the proverbial cup of sugar.
All they have to do is ask. Or, if I perceive a need, I will help even if they don’t ask. Either way it feels good because I am free to do so.
But the notion of owing love to a neighbor doesn’t feel so good. It smacks of being responsible, being “beholdin’ ” to them. It puts the relationship on a different footing. I can’t just wait for my door bell to ring. I have to go and ring theirs. I must seek their well-being. My will must be directed toward my neighbors good; the warm fuzzy ones and the cranky porcupines. After all, I owe them.
It’s a very important distinction. Because if I say, “I’m free to love but have no obligation to love”; or if I say “I’m free to love good neighbors and avoid the bad ones”, then sooner or later the unpaid bills will come.
And they will keep coming. They will be marked “Second Notice” and “Final Notice”. And if we still refuse, they will come in ways we cannot ignore. And we will pay.
We will pay in pain. We will pay in misunderstandings and ignorance. We’ll pay in the currency of isolation and suspicion. We’ll pay in self-righteousness and callousness. We’ll pay in strife and divisions.
Show me a church where these plagues are prevalent and I will show you a church with a pile of unpaid bills.
The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write, “I am a debtor to both Jews and Greeks…” Those two people groups describe virtually Paul’s entire world. What did he owe? He owed them the good news of Christ. He owed them the love of God revealed in Jesus.
He had found full freedom in Christ but not freedom from this debt of love. Instead he exclaimed, “Woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel!”.
Isn’t it true that this attitude of “woe” can be glaringly absent in the church? What a difference it would make if we declared, “Woe to us if we don’t serve! Woe to us if we’re not generous! Woe to us if we are not seeking others, showing them love, and sharing our experience of God’s grace!” But too often we believe we’re free from the debt of love.
In Christ, we are truly set free. But the Spirit warns us about misspent freedom. Paul writes, “For you have been called to freedom… But do not use your freedom… to gratify your sinful nature, but use it to serve one another in love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word; “Love your neighbor as yourself”. But if you (use your freedom) to bite and devour one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15)
No one of good character who incurs a financial bill believes they are free to pay or not pay. If you are a follower of Jesus, let’s pay our bills. Not just the ones payable with money, but the ones payable with God’s love. Let’s not leave what God says we owe, unpaid.
Grace and Peace