God Doesn’t Need Your Good Works

But your neighbor does

Jonas Ellison
Nov 23, 2019 · 5 min read

In the line of theology that I’m a student of, there’s this concept of vertical and horizontal ‘planes’ of relationship…

The horizontal plane is the plane that you and I‌ live, breathe, work, and play on.

The vertical plane is the one between us and the divine.

Both planes intersect in a cruciform shape and are one. However, establishing the distinction between the relationship of the vertical plane with that of the divine plane is very helpful (and liberating) as I hope to point out.

On the horizontal plane, we need each other. We’re inherently needy and dependent beings. All of us. We need things to stay alive and we need each other to provide those things for us. We also need each other to not kill each other or harm each other out of violence or ill will.

Not only do we need things from others to stay alive, but we’re also emotionally needy as well. We need others to validate the various shifting identities we inhabit throughout life. As children, we need adults to mirror love back to us. We need others to confirm our biases. We need others to treat us as we think we deserve to be treated.

On the horizontal plane, living in right human relationship is a lot of work. I’m glad my neighbors don’t try to hurt/kill me or my family. I’m happy that my neighbors invite us over for warm meals on cold winter nights. I’m elated that my neighbors lend a hand when I’m in need.

Christ calls us to serve each other on this horizontal plane.

On the vertical plane, there’s absolutely nothing we can or can’t do to please God more (or less); at least, that’s what’s written in the gospel of Christ. This God knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us more than we could ever be comfortable allowing ourselves to be loved.

God’s love is a love — not of our own — that we can only trust-fall back into. And when we do, it’s absolutely freeing. Our worth (the thing we think we need in order to be loved), when it comes from self, is always insufficient. But this love that comes from God is solid. The only thing is, we (unfortunately) have to reach the limits of our self-love in order to accept it (if we’re so fortunate).

Here’s how Paul tied the vertical and horizontal together…

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!
Galatians 5:13

So, those are the two dynamics… Vertically, we are forever loved and redeemed in the eyes of god UNCONDITIONALLY. As Paul writes, we are called to freedom. But in the eyes of our neighbor, we have to roll up our sleeves and help (and even that isn’t enough most of the time).

Here’s where things get twisted if we don’t make this distinction between the two planes…

When we don’t realize the difference between relationship on the vertical plane and on the horizontal plane, we often create God in our own image.

When all we know is the horizontal plane, we place God there too. God becomes just as judgmental, needy, petty, and conditional as we are.

If we pull God into the horizontal world, we think we have to do all of these things and live resolute moral and spiritual lives in order to up our position in the divine order. This is what religious piety (the thing Jesus held in question) is about and it’s what Luther means by ‘works’. It feels so productive — kind of like the feeling we get after helping our friend move into her new apartment. Yeah, I’m a good friend.

The problem here is, it’s all about me. The virtue rests on my human shoulders. And so, what will I do? I’ll always try to one-up everyone else to prove my worth. I’ll scapegoat and crucify those who I believe aren’t holding up their own — who aren’t as religiously or morally mighty as I am (exactly what happened to Jesus). God accepts only perfection, so I have to hide my imperfections in order to show that I’m right and they’re wrong.

This gets (and has gotten) ugly. But I bring good news! Here’s where making this distinction keeps everything in divine order…

When I know that, in the vertical realm, I’m eternally loved by God, I find it far less daunting and heavy to help my neighbor. When I know that my worth is already established with God, I’m going to put far less existential pressure on myself and my fellow humans.

One would think that this would make us lazy. But it actually works the opposite way. Humans don’t work well under obligation. Our hearts harden when we feel forced to do things. Sure, we might grunt through it. But grunting through it has adverse long-term effects.

And so, just as Luther said, our neighbors need our good works (I know I sure do), but God doesn’t. I don’t know about you, but hearing this takes so much existential weight off of my incapably human shoulders. When I walk around with this vertical lightness and warmth, I can labor for my neighbor with a smile and an open heart (or not) and know that I’m loved.

But there’s something interesting about this vertical love. I find that, if I’m truly feeling it, I find it really hard to just sit around and wallow in inactivity. My heart beats with a more vibrant cadence and the urge to get up and create, serve, love, and play becomes liberating. And also, when I do need to rest, I can do so knowing that that vertical love hasn’t dwindled one bit. I can care for myself without guilt. I’m much more receptive to my own personal (horizontal) needs as well as the movement of the Holy Spirit (vertical).

May this cruciform-shaped (vertical + horizontal planes) way of relating to the world serve you well and bring rest to your weary soul as it has mine.

Grace & Godspeed,
Jonas

Table Talk

Ramblings on life, faith, work, and creativity from a…

Jonas Ellison

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Writer. Midlife seminarian. Bread-breaker-in-training. Werewolf Hunter. He/him. Blogs daily at http://jonasellison.substack.com

Table Talk

Ramblings on life, faith, work, and creativity from a midlife seminarian.

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