Love is not a transaction

January 13th, 2020

If you’re trying to please God, I really wish you would stop. That’s not what real love looks like; it’s just people-pleasing on a cosmic scale. And people-pleasing misconstrues love as a transaction.

People-pleasers are some of the nicest, most helpful people you’ll ever meet. They never say no, largely because they’re afraid of disappointing you. Like all of us, they need to be loved. Somewhere along the line, they came to equate love with other people’s approval. And they’ve learned that they have to earn that approval.

Risking your disapproval by drawing a boundary for themselves is very difficult for people-pleasers. That’s because they are driven by fear of rejection. So, they’ll help you even if it sucks the life right out of them.

Let’s get this straight: Love is not a transaction. It’s always a gift. When we treat love like a transaction, we damage ourselves and we damage the very people we say that we love.

Psychologists tell us that people-pleasures tend to neglect their own needs, get taken advantage of, and are especially susceptible to stress and depression. Moreover, their relationships with others suffer. Their mounting resentments can express themselves in passive-aggressive behaviors, and they struggle to like the very people whose needs they are scurrying to meet.

God wants more for us than an unfulfilled existence and distorted relationships. And yet many Christians get precisely that because they are stuck on the idea that we have to please God.

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They’re convinced that God accepts us only when we profess the right theology or adhere to some version of the moral law. In other words, we earn God’s love by pleasing God. The corollary is that we risk losing God’s love by displeasing him.

The story of Jesus’ baptism makes several points that, together, offer an antidote to this transactional distortion of love.

For starters, John baptizes Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, John seems a bit confused and embarrassed by this. John tells Jesus, “Shouldn’t you be baptizing me?” But Jesus insists. That’s because he wants us to see that you can’t baptize yourself.

You can’t baptize yourself because baptism is God’s own declaration that she loves you. You are the beloved. That’s different from saying that you love yourself. Being the beloved means that someone else is all in with you, no matter what.

Even when I say along with Brene Brown that I am enough, it’s not the same thing as knowing in my bones that I’m never alone, that I’m understood, and that I’ll never be abandoned.

Finally, in Matthew’s telling, we hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) Initially you may think that the voice’s declaration about being “well pleased” undermines everything I’ve just said. “See,” you might think, “God does want us to please her.”

Well, try this translation on for size. “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I delight.” God’s delight is not a response to Jesus’ achievements. God loves Jesus simply because he is. There is no other like him, because God made him. For the sheer delight of it. God made Jesus to love him.

And God made each of us to love us. To delight in us. There is no other like us.

At your sacramental baptism you may not have heard a voice say, “This is my Child, the Beloved, in whom I delight.” But hearing that voice—in one way or another—is our truest baptism, a moment in our spiritual walk in which we truly come into our own.

It’s the moment that we realize who we are and why we are here: We are God’s beloved. And because we are the Beloved, God’s love can overflow to nurture and heal this fragile, beautiful, aching world.

God is already delighted with you. Stop trying to please God. And once you do, you may find that you can love yourself and love your neighbor in the way that Jesus taught us to do.

Love is not a Transaction originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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