“You have to earn it,” a gentle, elderly man told my husband and me as we drove through the streets of a crowded city. His eyes were smiling even as he told stories obviously weighing on his heart, as if the opportunity to speak his mistakes aloud to a young couple made looking back somehow worth the ache of remembering. In broken English he told of his days after the war; how, filled with questions, he turned to things now regrettable, deeply hurting people he loved with his rebellion. My heart leapt as he seemed to get to the part that ordained his smiling eyes. “I was running from everything, even myself. But God was chasing me,” he said, sounding yet in awe at the thought of it. “There are two roads in life,” he then explained quickly, as if he felt he was about to lose our attention, not knowing whether we would want to hear it or not. “One way moves toward God, the other away from God. I realized that I wanted to go God’s way, towards heaven, towards Christ,” he said, pointing upwards. “But you have to earn it.”
The hope that seemed to grab hold of me as he spoke, as we were beautifully evangelized in a foreign city by our taxi driver, was abruptly stifled. As he told his story I wanted to shout, “God chased me too!” I wanted to tell him that I was so humbled by his unapologetic faith and his resolve to share it. Such were the things I wanted to say when the chance to speak was mine. But at these words I wanted to cry: You have to earn it. The ride ended. We shook hands, exchanged blessings. And he was gone before I could swallow the lump in my throat.
How can you earn God’s love?
In that unexpected moment in transit, the love of God seemed so vast, so wonderfully intrusive. My heart stirred within me as Christ connected three strangers together, two of us far from home. The world seemed gigantic, and yet three were joined together by a name that will outlive us all, and Christ was there among us, three of his own. I think this is why, to my deep regret, I remained speechless in the wake of such a statement: The idea of earning this love seemed more impossible than usual.
Yet, what if he merely spoke aloud words many of us know not to utter, though we still try to earn God’s favor, God’s forgiveness, God’s love and attention anyway? How often I have to take captive the thoughts that I am struggling to stay in God’s good graces, mentally visualizing gold stars by my name, as if God were a father on the brink of abandoning me lest one more sticker be lost to bad behavior. Though I know better, do I always know differently? “You have to earn it” is a tune not always far from my repertoire. Yet when struggling to earn our way into God’s presence—whether we are admitting it aloud or not—it is usually not the case that we have overestimated our ability to earn. Perhaps it is that we are grossly underestimating the love we are longing to keep.
So wrote one who walked with God’s begotten: “For God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Modern hymnist Stuart Townend reminds us of this great mystery often memorized, but less easily known.
How deep the Father’s love for us.
How vast beyond all measure,
That he should give His only Son,
To make a wretch His treasure.
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer.
But this I know with all my heart:
His wounds have paid my ransom.
We cannot earn our way into the presence of God. “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord'” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31). The debt, which was ours, has been paid. You can neither earn Christ’s heart nor his reward. You are asked only to receive him.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.