In his book, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, Francis Chan famously asked, “Are we in love with God or just His stuff?” In a society that glorifies the prosperity gospel through shows like this one, it’s probably a fair question to ask.
But it also isn’t a new question that’s relevant to our culture only. About 1500 years ago, another Christian leader, Caesarius, Bishop of Arles, asked the same thing of his congregants. In its volume on the gospel of Mark, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture quotes him as preaching the following:
While there is much in the world to love, it is best loved in relation to the One who made it. The world is beautiful, but much fairer is the One who fashioned it. The world is glorious, but more delightful is the One by whom the world was established. Therefore, let us labor as much as we can, beloved, that love of the world as such may not overwhelm us, and that we may not love the creature more than the creator. God has given us earthly possessions in order that we may love him with our whole heart and soul. But sometimes we provoke God’s displeasure against us when we love his gifts more than God himself. (Oden and Hall 2005, 115)
He then goes on to draw a more personal illustration:
The same thing happens in human relationships. Suppose someone gives a special gift to his protégé. But the protégé then begins to despise the giver, and loves the gift more than the one who gave. Suppose he comes to think of the giver no longer as friend but enemy. Just so it is with our relationship with God. We love more those who love us for ourselves rather than our gifts. So God is known to love those who love him more than the earthly gifts he gives. (Oden and Hall 2005, 115)
With Christmas just a few weeks away, it should not be difficult to imagine ourselves in a similar situation. I’m the father of a 4-year-old. I want my son to see his parents as gift-givers–not so he grows up being spoiled, but so that he understands that gifts are an outpouring of our love for him. But I would be hurt if he cared only about the gifts and not about our love–if he rejected a relationship with my wife and me, yet still expected gifts from us with an ungrateful heart. Put yourself in the position of a parent, spouse, or best friend whose loved one valued your gifts more than your relationship. That’s about as close as we’ll come to understanding what we do to God when we love his stuff more than him.
Because it comes in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Advent season can be a time of reflection, thanksgiving, and “paying it forward.” Yet our focus can just as easily be turned toward money, possessions, and toys (just look the stores on Black Friday and Christmas Eve!). May we intentionally focus on the people rather than the presents this holiday season, never losing sight of the greatest Gift of all and the reason we celebrate Christmas to begin with. Then, with pure hearts and focused minds, we may echo the words of Paul in proclaiming: “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15)
Chan, Francis. 2008. Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.
Oden, Thomas C. and Christopher A. Hall. 2005. Mark. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.