Well, we are still in the process of battling perhaps the worst flu either of us has ever had to deal with. Our cars haven’t left the garage for ten consecutive days and aren’t likely to in the near future. I’m writing today, not so much because I feel energetic or creative but because I’m bored. Oh, and because I’m still hung up on Christmas.

This Christmas – be honest – did you give every gift out of a joyful desire to express your appreciation or affection for the other person? Could you afford the gifts you gave away? Did you give out of obligation or expectation? And was every person who gave you a gift really happy to? Could they afford it? Of course it’s complicated and perhaps impossible to truly measure.

However, the exact point of Christmas is that God graciously gave us the precious and beautiful gift of his Son as a physical confirmation of love and grace. The gift of Jesus was without strings and that is where we get confused.

You see, God’s gift of love (demonstrated in Jesus) is given to us so generously and freely that He doesn’t ask anything from us in return. Let me say that again: God’s gift of love is unconditional, pure, and doesn’t require anything back from us.

Of course that is contrary to every natural and experiential instinct we have that all things are measured: prices need to be negotiated, debts and favours must be repaid. Do this because it’s expected; do that because it’s owed.

Christian belief is singular and radical because of the concept of a generous and loving God. That love is attractive but shortly after we see God. human logic gets in the way and gives us a list of things that God ‘expects’ us to do in appreciation. It seems to make sense that we have to do something more, humanly speaking – but it’s dangerous.

It’s as if God is a big, cosmic Santa Claus. Be careful, Santa sees everything you do. Be sure you’re nice because he has a naughty list and if you’re on it you won’t get things. He can be persuaded to give you what you want if you just ask him nicely or sing songs about him. His loyal elves are always busy doing his work. Don’t forget to donate some milk and cookies because Santa needs it to keep going.

We’re consumers, capitalists, humans who have subdued and domesticated Jesus just like we have domesticated Christmas. We don’t give it much thought because it feels so normal but the problem is that when we practice reward-system religion, it is opposite to the Good News of Jesus. We fully expect God to think ‘logically’ about payback but the Good News is that logic doesn’t apply to God’s thinking.

That’s not to say that all Christian practices are bad, of course. Actually many of the things we do are based in tradition and wisdom that has proven itself for centuries to be beneficial and healing. However every thing we do needs to be first rooted in the unconditional love and nurture of God. If you are asked to believe something that binds you or causes you discomfort or doesn’t fit with God’s immense love, then re-think.

Relationship with God shouldn’t be sterile and legalistic any more than a marriage should be sterile and legalistic but it’s probably why we have many sterile and legalistic Christians.

Here’s my point: what should our response be to the pure love of the God who made us and reaches out to us? Answer: simply love Him in return, reach back to Him, get to know Him.

Contrary to what most believe, Christian repentance is not a legal transaction of repaying debt or avoiding punishment – those  are linear and self-serving ideas. True repentance is a natural response to immaculate love and grace; it’s seeing that my ways are dangerous and unsatisfying and that His ways are best.

You can’t be in a healthy place with God if you feel you owe Him empty words or blind obedience. We learn to love Him as we begin to understand how He loves us. In this scenario we learn, and think, and feel, and question, and experience our way into a relationship where we begin to care about what God cares about and love the things He loves. As we continue to seek who God is, the whole idea of payback or rule-following becomes unnatural and offensive.

See what I mean? Christianity can be bad if it teaches guilt or debt-based living just like Christmas can be bad if it teaches guilt or debt-based giving. But Christianity is expansive and freeing when we simply ‘… love Him because he first loved us’ as John wrote. Or to put it another way, How else can we possibly respond to so much love except to love back?

My prayer for you is that you would walk confidently into 2019 secure in the knowledge you are infinitely loved by God and that you would reach back to Him, not in a legal transaction, but in a loving, healthy relationship.

‘This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him.’       – Saint Paul, from Romans 8:15-17 (MSG)

‘I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.’       – Saint Paul again, from Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)