For most of my Christian life, I would have told you, just as I told God, that I had no other gods before him and that Christ’s work on the cross completely saved me. It has been both painful and freeing as God showed me a life strategy I was actually living, revealing that, underneath it all, I doubted his goodness and doubted I was truly worthy of his love. In it all, though, God is showing me the depths of his grace, rewriting how I see people, situations, and myself.
Several years ago I experienced a deeply disappointing and confusing situation that shook my life in profound ways and resulted in a career change. I won’t go into details, but I felt not only misunderstood, but also abandoned and devalued. I suspected my motives were being questioned behind my back. Former coworkers pulled away, leading me to suspect my reputation was being defamed by rumors. It hurt deeply. A door was closed and I was on the outside. It was confusing and exceedingly painful—especially because I thought I was acting honorably and in the best interests of the organization in which I served.
I entered into an extended time of personal evaluation and reflection to try to wrap my mind around what happened. The whole thing felt like a train wreck, and I felt pushed off the track. Part of me just wanted to feel better. But part of me wanted to understand how this happened; I had observed similar situations unfold for others in different organizations. It was such a confusing jumble.
In short, I found I needed to sort out four important points:
- Forgiveness—I need to recognize that something wrong actually happened. I did experience an injustice. What happened wasn’t right. There was wrong in the actions of some as well as the inactions of others. It is correct to clearly recognize an injustice as a precursor to forgiving others and letting go of my own inner demand to see them “pay”. I needed to entrust them, as well as myself and my career, to God.
- Compassion—Without diminishing the wrong suffered, I need to acknowledge there was brokenness operating in all parties, including me. This hurtful event was not just about this one situation; it was a product of years of painful experiences and misunderstandings unrelated to me. The event wasn’t as personal as it felt. I don’t know all the struggles that were being experienced by the other parties, but I’m sure they were more significant than I considered. When seen with a clearer perspective, I’m sure all parties would regret some of their actions/inactions. Without excusing the injustice, I need to see the other parties with a measure of compassion and patience. If I was in their place, I may have acted the same way they did.
- Learning—There were several things I need to learn. I recognize that I contributed to the entire situation in multiple ways—over multiple years. In the midst of it, I was blind to how my actions and words made it difficult for others to express opposing perspectives. I allowed misunderstandings to persist. This train wreck, combined with the reflective experience God brought, became a “second master’s degree” in lessons learned to make me a better leader and a better person. While it was painful, ultimately I thank God for the learning opportunity, even while I sincerely hope never to repeat it.
- Locating My Identity—Even after working intently on forgiveness, compassion, and learning, there was more: I was left with a confusing and painful remnant. The train wreck left me feeling thwarted or blocked. This part of the knot was much more difficult to untangle. This “remnant” kept inflaming the injustice in my mind and made it necessary for me to re-forgive over and over again. I felt as if I was walking in deep mud and it was impossible to gain solid footing again. I’m discovering some uncomfortable things:
A significant part of why it hurt so much to go through that experience is that I had too much riding on my service in that ministry context. I was building a significant portion of my self (my self-righteousness) on my performance and on what others thought of me. It was a “functional idol” in my life—and I was attempting to use it to fill a heart-need that only God could fill: telling me who I am and what I am worth.
As I have discovered this subtle idolatry in my life (shrewdly interwoven into my efforts to excel in Christian service as a mission leader), I have unmasked a doubt of God’s goodness dwelling deep in my heart. Effectively, I had built a life strategy that depended on my good efforts and others’ positive responses to feel good about myself. Wrapped into that was a prideful assumption that I could impress God, and more subtly that I somehow needed to impress him in order to experience his embrace.
My heart breaks in repentance as I recognize what, in reality, I have been believing: that the Gospel is not enough, so I had to make up the difference with my own “good Christian service” and exemplary performance. How something as horrid as thinking that the Gospel was not enough could drive something that looked so good is sobering, but it is the truth. My repentance is deep and ongoing as I continue to unearth deeper roots of this anti-grace belief in my heart.
In the midst of the repentance, I’m discovering genuine rest. Jesus has completed the ultimate work! I’m enjoying knowing God and being known by God. It’s refreshing. He is easy to be with. He enjoys being with me. I can tell he is smiling (the way I smile when I think of my grandchildren). And, I can fully engage in work and service because it is no longer about securing my reputation; it’s just about being who God made me to be and living out of a heart that is grateful for grace!
My soul is messy and crowded with things that have no business in here. Man, there is a lot of dross; you know, that stuff we long for God to burn up in us so we can be pure and holy and useful (Proverbs 25:4). It feels heavy and I feel sluggish. I want that junk out and I want it out now.
Actually, it feels more like, “I want them out,” like there’s a bunch of hooligans running amok in my soul. They grab fistfuls of cookies without asking, sneak peaks at things not meant for their eyes, yell foul and unkind words, knock over furniture, scratch and tear up the woodwork, and upset and upend the quiet, good me I long to be. I am trying to boss them around, tell them we know how to behave, they know better, my soul knows better.
I am full of broken instincts and behaviors, failed best efforts and renewed resolutions. They are all ill-behaved children who refuse to listen to parents and reason.
I am hoarse from yelling, “Out, wearying worries and useless tail-chasing! Out, old, worn thinking ruts and circular thought patterns! And I’ve got a stick I’ll use on ya if you come back this way!” Maybe if I just threaten the broken, failed parts of my soul and thoughts and choices a little more, get really good and fed-up and determined, it will finally work.
Maybe I will finally not be so broken.
Part of me so wishes it worked like that. I get bossy and take control, and even pray some more and ask God some more, and hope something goes “BAM!”: I am the repaired, good Christian I long to be.
Interestingly, God seems in no hurry to turn things upside down and shake out the garbage all at once. Even if I get fed up with it all at once.
Instead I get practice sessions at being a new creation in Christ. And while I am confident that, in terms of salvation and being seated in the heavenlies, the whole “new creation” thing happened instantly, I believe that in terms of refining me in the flesh in which I still walk, it certainly did not. It appears I have the opportunity in that sense to be a new creation every day.
Make that every hour.
Okay, every minute.
Maybe even every 3.8 seconds.
And it’s not the “Practice Makes Perfect!” kind of practice I know so well, either. It’s not the ruler-on-knuckles piano practice, the shoot-hoops-till-fingertips-are-bloody basketball practice, the play-till-you-can’t-stand-or-see-straight football practice, the write-this-word-1000-times-till-your-fingers-cramp spelling practice. The goal is not perfection the way I have always thought of it, no errors ever, no fumbles, no fouls. Never a missed note, nary a turnover.
It’s the practice of believing and and walking with my Good Dad, the Holy God who says, “I am pouring out grace and opportunities and grace-laden opportunities for you, my daughter, to both see who I am and be like I am. No matter how your last effort turned out, and no matter how this effort turns out, I love you. It’s unshakable. I am shaping you. And I am unshakable. I’ve got this, and I am your practice. Walk intimately with me in delighted, active trust and love, and I will burn up the dross, sometimes quickly but often slowly and in a way that reveals more of you and more of me. I will do it as you practice receiving and living in my love and grace that have the only real power to bring change, that you may see more of me in every interaction, every moment, both in you and out of you, toward you and toward others. I am your never-exhausted, never-weary, alive-in-the-Holy-Spirit-in-you, practice of love.”
So, what’s my prayer now, if I drop the stick I’ve been shaking and swinging at myself, and let my Loving Father be my practice?
Now I pray for the grace and courage to show up. Show up, and practice bravely believing all God has done, is doing, and will do. Practicing taking off my armor and opening my soul to its depths to hear, know, and feel all he says, all he is, and that his grace and love bring real change, lasting change. My coach is never tired, never exasperated. His inexhaustible love that desires and welcomes me right where I am even as he works in me is my first practice stop. The basics, the piano scales, free throws, and line sprints of my soul, so to speak.
Honestly, I have never been good at practicing anything, really. Flute, volleyball, softball, algebra equations. I want instant results now and I don’t like “failing”; even my friends have noted, I just don’t play games and sports I can’t win. I want guaranteed success and I want it immediately.
But I am starting to get the picture that for my soul, practice isn’t my performance; it’s remembering who my coach is.
In 3.8 second intervals. Over and over and over and over again.
I came across a great blog by Paul David Tripp recently that provides great insight into our spiritual condition. As we embrace these lessons, we grow closer to the giver of life. I love to be reminded how God’s economy is different from this world’s economy. Enjoy!
Do you know anyone who is blind? I’ve acquired some life-changing information about spiritual blindness from people who can’t see the physical things I see everyday.
1. Seeing With Two Pairs of Eyes
First, I’ve learned that the eyes of my heart are far more important than the eyes of my body. I could be physically blind yet have very accurate spiritual vision, and conversely, I could have 20/20 eyesight while I’m blind to my own sin and the glorious things of God.
Bring your secrets, bring your scars
Bring your glory, all you are
Bring your daylight, bring your dark
Share your silence
And unpack your heart
~ Phillip Phillips
I’m not sure if this song was written about a guy wanting a gal to feel safe and unpack her heart with him, but that’s not how it landed on me.
To me, this song is a wonderful picture of God’s invitation to us. I don’t need to get myself cleaned up and presentable—if I did, what would be “clean enough”? He wants me just as I am.
He is big enough, gracious enough and loving enough to handle ALL of me. He is not only able to handle my crazy mixed-up heart, but that is his deepest desire! Even my very best friends are unable to offer this and truly deliver the goods.
He is on my side, he longs for me to shed my shadow and rise. He promises to shine his light into my darkness. My deepest regrets are safe with him. He wants all of me. He wants my shame and my madness to tame. He sees true treasure hidden behind the walls that I have constructed.
If anyone knows the real me, it would be him. He’s not bored, disgusted, or irritated by the real me. He desperately wants me to unpack my heart with him and experience his unconditional love and acceptance.
If you want to enjoy an experience of God loving you, listen to this song and feel his heart toward you; hear his glorious invitation to you to unpack your heart.
It’s outrageous to think we could actually put the God of the universe in our debt, but at times I have pursued exactly that without even realizing it. At times I have thought that if I performed well and did what he wanted, somehow, he would “bless” me. Which is code for: give me what I want (the selfish desires of my heart). I came across a blog post from Tullian who also wrote some insightful thoughts on this subject. I hope it’s as freeing to you as it is to me to consider that we are totally and forever in his debt. Enjoy.
The Liberating Impossibility Of Repayment
On an episode of the second season of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon (Jim Parsons) discovers that Penny (Kaley Cuoco) has gotten him a Christmas present. Angered, he reminds Penny that the “foundation of gift giving is reciprocity,” […]
A few years ago I had a colleague who introduced me to the writings of David Roper. David’s list of accomplishments is long and his reputation excellent. He is also a very generous man, and gave permission to the education ministry I served with at the time to use his materials in our discipleship courses. The colleague, who was (and is) a dear friend, also assured me that David would be most pleased about having his blog entires shared.
I first saw this post in late 2008, when I was in an early season of learning to be loved by God … just straight up loved, no earning, no merit, no striving. It was early days for me of wrestling with a call to Christian obedience and service, and a longing to have a heart at rest that could trust that it was loved by the Father, no matter how well my ministry projects went or how many times it seemed I had to learn the same lesson over and over and over.
It’s a sweet gift to visit David’s thoughts again as I now serve with a ministry whose focus is to help move people’s hearts into the confidence that they are fully cherished by God right where they are, and that our obedience and following after Christ is completely generated and motivated by his incredible love and our response to it. It’s never about my owing what I could not possibly pay, and never about his exhaustion or disgust that I have not come far enough.
His love is enough.
So, from David Roper, something wonderful to ponder.
Carolyn and I often spend our quiet times reading from A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, an Upper Room publication (If you’ve visited Shepherd’s Rest you’ve seen the copies in each bedroom.) The Old Testament passage for this morning was Zephaniah 3:17.
With apologies to Zephaniah and Bruce Waltke, my old Hebrew professor, here is my translation…
The LORD, your God is with you—
your hero, mighty to save!
He takes great delight in you.
He is speechless with love for you.
Every time he thinks of you he breaks into joyful song!
I’m awed by the notion that God takes great delight in me and breaks into song each time he thinks of my name. But it’s the phrase I render, “He is speechless with love for you” that captivated me.
The verse is usually translated, “He will be quiet in his love,” or in some translations, “He will quiet you.” But the verb doesn’t suggest tranquility or rest. It actually means, “to strike dumb.” And since the verb is in parallel with other verbs that suggest God’s strong emotions (“takes great delight,” and “breaks into joyful song”) it must point to what He himself feels.
I wonder then: Could the analogy be that of a lovesick swain who is bowled-over, flabbergasted and dumb-founded by his love for the beloved-so overcome with fondness that he is tongue-tied? Is God, in some inexplicable, anthropomorphic way, “struck dumb” with love each time he thinks of us? If so, to be loved like this is, in turn, to be rendered speechless. As Isaiah would say, “I am undone.”
And who is it that God so loves? One who is strong and able, brilliant, and breathtakingly beautiful? No, it is one who is “weak and the weary… who takes refuge in the name of the LORD” (Zephaniah 3:12).
DHR Jenni-Westerman, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament.