Tag Archives: redemption

rainbow after the storm

“Nothing to shout about”, or, my four-month break

It was July 4th. That was when I decided I needed a break. Four months. Important things have happened in that time. Much of it never made the news.

  • We found a new church home. My daughter was hugely relieved as she gets attached easily and “church dating” has been really hard on her.
  • I returned to Yosemite for the first time since my childhood best friend was killed there in a rock climbing accident in 2005. It was even more beautiful than I remembered.
  • In Monterey, my wife and I spent 10 hours battling seasickness in a tiny boat to see an actual, live albatross in flight overhead, something I had wanted to do since I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at age 12.
  • Within three days in late September, two of my favorite bloggers each posted that they are hanging it up, one for a break, and the other, for good.
  • My family witnessed, together, an outcome in the World Series unprecedented since before my daughter’s great-grandparents were born.
  • And yes, our country chose a new president, and I have sat with various friends through all their different reactions: some elated, some terrified.

I have posted before about sabbath: how important, and yet how little valued it is in our day. Especially for those who believe in their work, it is easy to justify the never-ending, bit-by-bit deplenishment of spirit that comes from doing just one more small thing.

Important things have been happening in our society. I know what I’m supposed to do if I want to be a successful writer: I need to write about what’s hot. I need to tap into the zeitgeist. I can only be relevant by connecting with an audience, and if this is a hard, cynical age, marked by division and mistrust, then I need to toss a coin, choose my side, and start shouting.

That is what I could not bring myself to do. As I stood on the sidelines these past four months, witness to all the sound and fury, I could not help remembering the words from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”

I care passionately about what is happening in our society. I believe this is a historic moment. And I believe, at a time like this, that some things— like how we treat those who disagree— are more important than which side wins.

Some hear me calling for reconciliation and mutual respect, and they hear only the voice of white privilege, brimming with complaisance and naïveté. Some hear the voice of betrayal. Some hear nice words but with no real power. But I do not believe that Christ was complacent or naïve, or that bipartisanship equals betrayal, and as for those “nice words”: history has shown they are the only words with any real power to heal.

look of anger and fear

A humble alternative to anger and fear

It’s been a rough month. A friend recently reflected on it all by observing that she’s never had to rely so heavily on the “angry” and “sad” Facebook reactions. I haven’t been blogging much, because it’s been hard to know what to do with that anger and fear, other than talking about it all amongst ourselves on Facebook.

Let’s take Brock Turner. I’ve got nothing to add to that conversation. The stories that need to be told now are going to come from those whose voices have previously been silenced. I believe that the gospel message can have life-saving relevance to sexual victims. But I am not the one to offer it to them.

Or Pulse Nightclub. That was a hate crime against the marginalized… the very situation in which Christ’s words should be most relevant. But so many others have used my sacred texts to beat up those same people for so long, how can I now use them in the ways they were intended, for comfort and compassion and healing? It’s like the Billy Joel lyric, “If I only had the words to tell you, if you only knew how hard it is to say, when the simple lines have all been spoken, and the radio repeats them every day.”

I haven’t wanted to speak recently, because, if I’m being honest, it’s just easier not to. So many see the calm, gentle messages of the gospel as clueless: out-of-touch when confronted with actual pain or suffering (that, for example, is the entire plot of the hit musical “Book of Mormon“) as if Christ’s death and resurrection had included no taint of pain or suffering.

Loud voices today are shouting that given our reality, other than total disengagement, fear/anger is the only possible response. But that is a lie. Other engaged responses exist. Better ones. Ones that have power for good instead of evil.

Christ on trial was not afraid or angry, but silent. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand what was happening.

Christ on the cross was certainly alone and in agony, but even then he chooses words— not of fear/anger— but of forgivenessreconciliationredemptiongrace.

If the Bible is wrong, if we were never made for other places than this, if the notion of heaven is mistaken, if the notion of God is mistaken, then by all means: be afraid if you like. It makes sense if this world is all there is.

But for those who agree with me that God is real, we cannot be the leading voices crying out for personal safety. Anyway we have no control over that, and meanwhile we have more important things to do.

However bad the neighborhood may get, however few we may become, however cold the love of most may grow, some of us at least will always be here crying out the gospel message: peace not anger, love not hate, good not evil.

I look around me, and I see the love burning quietly in so many hearts, and believe the promise of scripture: the light will always shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.

April Fools' Day secret

Of deep dark secrets and April Fools’ Day

My family loves April Fools’ Day. It’s a classic day of lighthearted pranks, what with the biscuits that look like chocolate chip cookies and the purple food coloring in the toilet tank. We are tricking the people we love and it’s all in good fun, but on this day, I can’t help stopping to reflect, just a little, about the deeper questions of truth and untruth.

When does a prank become a “little white lie”? When does a little white lie become a deep, dark secret? And what is the harm of a deep, dark secret anyhow?

What’s the harm?

The truth has become a slippery commodity in the 21st Century. There is almost no claim you can’t support with a little creative Google searching. From global warming to GMOs to gun control, whatever side you are on, you can find experts to back you up. The result is that many of us have simply thrown up our hands. “You believe your ‘truth’, I’ll believe my ‘truth’, and they will both be equally ‘true’.”

This works fine for things like, “Is it better to shop at Vons or CostCo?” because really either way will work. It works less well for questions like, “Do cigarettes cause cancer?”, and even less for, “Does the third rail cause death by electrocution?”

Bottom line: some things are true whether we like it or not. There is an inescapable reality to confront: in the natural world, in the choices we make as a society, and— most importantly— in the personal choices we make in the course of our day-to-day lives.

Secrecy is a red flag

Scripture says, “People loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” That is a litmus test. If our “truth” is a harmless one, we can generally tell because we’re happy to talk about it. I have a friend who loves shopping at CostCo and will talk at length all the great deals on 12 pounds of nutmeg.

On the other hand, suppose we find ourselves thinking, “Well, I shouldn’t tell him about that, it’ll only upset him.” In my experience, more often than not, such omissions are motivated more to hide my own shame than out of any genuine concern for others.

I heard a public service announcement once that said, “When you’re lonely or sad, it’s always there for you… If alcohol is working for you, maybe it already owns you.” But it is just as true for every form of addiction, whether shopping or food or gambling or pornography or drugs, or anything else that the Bible warns can hold us captive. What fuels the addiction is the secrecy and shame. It may seem ridiculous, but all of us recovering addicts can relate to the plight of “the tippler” from The Little Prince: “I drink to forget… to forget that I am ashamed… ashamed of drinking.”

And the truth shall set you free

Scripture offers one prescription for those of us in the throes of self-damage or self-destruction: start by getting rid of the lies.

  • When he [the devil] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
  • But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.” Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
  • Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin… Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

As we joyfully trick the people we love this April Fools’ Day, let’s spare a moment for some internal spiritual house cleaning, and see if we can find some ways we are “tricking” them that may be not so joyful.

Other recommended posts:

Spring renewal

Spring renewal, or, starting again when it’s too late

I had a really bad breakup once. I thought we were going to get married; I had structured my whole life for months around that plan. Then I asked her and she said no.

When you are that wrong about something that important in your life, it makes you question everything, like, “What else am I utterly clueless about?” And that was what I did: my job, where I lived, my understanding of God… everything was on the table. This went on for months. Fall turned to Winter turned to Spring, and then, as it drew close to Easter, and I travelled to visit my parents for the holiday.

Sunday morning, my dad (not normally an early riser) woke me up: “C’mere! I wanna show you something.” And he led me out onto the porch, where we looked out over a dew-covered field at the sun just peeking over the horizon, the whole sky awash in the glory of the sunrise.

My dad and I have not always had the easiest relationship, but as we stood there together, the two of us just taking it in, thinking about the Easter message of resurrection, renewal, new life from the ashes, it felt like a new beginning. It felt as if the whole world were being born again. I didn’t have to be tied to a failed relationship, to past difficulties, to anything that defines me in ways that damage me. I could leave all of that in the grave and start afresh.

We always have that chance. The message of Christ is that, sometimes, there must be death in order for there to be life:

  • Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.
  • For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.
  • Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
  • If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; behold, everything is made new!

The worst mistake we can make is to be looking always backwards at “when we had that chance…” Yes, there are missed chances, but there are new chances too. There is no “back in my day”. If you are still alive, then today is your day.

Today is the first day after Easter. Whatever it is that you missed in the past can be in your future too.

Start now.

Christ is risen.

The end is not “the end”.

What Google says the Bible advocates

Correcting what the World thinks “the Bible advocates”

I’m depressed. Go to Google, type “Bible advocates”, and see the popular suggested searches that appear: “violence”… “killing non believers”… “slavery”. You can’t even get “love” to appear. Type an L to try and prompt it, and you won’t get anything. Google just sits there, confused, not suggesting anything. Same with F (for forgiveness) and J (for joy). P (for peace) just gives you “polygamy” and “death penalty”.

So today, I am fixing it. Some of that stuff is treated in the Bible, but none of it is what the Bible is about. Here is what it is about:

Google suggestionWhat the Bible is really about
A“abortion”, “child abuse” Abundant life, Atonement
B(no suggestions) Baptism, Begotten son
C“child abuse” Christ, Carry your cross
D“death penalty” Divinity
E(no suggestions) Eternity
F(no suggestions) Forgiveness, Freedom, Father
G“genocide” God, Grace
H (no suggestions) Holy Spirit
I“inc” Incarnation
J (no suggestions) Jesus
K“killing” King of kings
L (no suggestions) Love, Lord
M (no suggestions) Mercy, Messiah
N (no suggestions) All things new
O (no suggestions) Only begotten son
P“polygamy”, “death penalty” Peace, Prayer
Q (no suggestions) Quiet
R (no suggestions) Redemption
S“slavery”, “stoning”, “socialism” Salvation, Sacrifice, Son of God, Sabbath, Service, Freedom from sin, Defeat of Satan
T“the bible advocates slavery, violence, genocide” Trinity, Truth
U (no suggestions) Unity
V“violence” Virgin birth
W (no suggestions) Worship, Will of God
X (no suggestions) Example of Christ, Crucifixion
Y“yelp”, “yale” Pray
Z (no suggestions) Zion
Victory: New Year's resolution

How a New Year’s resolution can rescue your soul

Some folks are down on the New Year’s resolution, but I am a big fan. At the heart of any resolution, there is a spirit of transformation, which is one of scripture’s favorite topics:

  • “The old has passed away. Behold! The new has come.”
  • “See, I am doing a new thing! I am making a way in the wilderness.”
  • “He said, ‘I am making all things new.'”

The sense that a new year brings new promise— a new hope, a chance to leave behind the mistakes of the past and start fresh— these are all principles that originated with Christ. Before that, there were two categories of people: the worthy, and the fallen. Once you had strayed from the path, there was no recovery, and the “worthy” took every opportunity to make sure you knew it. As my friend April Kelsey recently put it, “You became a cup of spit, a licked candy bar, a white sheet rolled in the mud. Consumed. Polluted. Spent.”

This view is still held today by the Pharisees among us who have missed the point of Christ. But that is my point: they have missed the point. If, today, you are one of the “fallen”— if you have made some mistake so horrible, if you have strayed from the path so far, if you are carrying some monkey on your back from which you can never be free— then there is good news: you can be free.

The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous opens with a letter from a doctor, describing a patient “…of a type I had come to regard as hopeless… He acquired certain ideas concerning… a Power which could pull chronic alcoholics back from the gates of death.” Many of us know of AA’s “Twelve Steps”, but the heart of the recovery that had been missed by so many before is captured in Step Two: “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

As I have written before:

Whatever may be wrong in our lives, don’t we say, “It’s my problem, it’s up to me to fix it?” But the truth is, no matter who you are, no matter how powerful and clever and creative you are, you didn’t create your sin by yourself, and you are not going to solve it by yourself… whatever is causing destruction in your life, more likely than not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry supplying it to you.

No matter what rut you are stuck in, another way is open to you. That was my story. My burden was sexual sin, and my cross was soul-crushing loneliness. When I finally encountered a true scriptural perspective… when I finally could understand that the Bible’s urgings against “sin” were not meant to control me and crush my spirit, but to offer me a way of escape from the very thing that was destroying me… when I realized that Christ had given his life to make that way available to me… that was a new day. That day was not like all the others where I simply determined to “do better”.

So this year, when you make your resolution, the same one you have made so many years before, when you grimly grit your teeth and resolve this time to succeed, “knowing” at the back of your mind that it’s all pointless, that it’s going to be just like all the other times, that you are going to fail… do something different. Quit treasuring up your secret shame and let in the outside air. Others have found the path, and so can you. You cannot find it by yourself. You cannot find it without faith that it is there. But it is there. I know it, because it happened to me.

This year, let your resolution be that you will find it too.

mass shooting, police line, memorial

Mass shooting, evil, and the end of the story

A mass shooting is once again in the headlines in what has, by now, become a familiar pattern. The problem of evil is one that we want to solve, and it is right that we should try, but we can’t agree what the solution is. Here are some of my reflections on the time, last year, when it became personal. (Part 1 in a series.)

October 24th, 2014, my phone rang: my boss from church. The conversation went like this:

  • “Hello?”
  • “Hey there, it’s me.”
  • “Oh my God, I saw on Facebook. I’m so sorry.”
  • “Thanks. So I need to go home for the weekend. You can handle the service?”
  • “Yes, yes, yes– definitely. We are praying for all of you.”

Two hours earlier, in his high school cafeteria, her little brother had watched as several friends sitting at his table were shot point-blank in the back of the head, by another one of their friends. That day, a small town called Marysville, Washington became the latest in a grim litany of place names like Columbine and Sandy Hook and Aurora— places you never heard of until they became synonymous with unthinkable tragedy.

The knowledge that we live in a fallen world, that horrible things happen every day, is not new. And yet, for many, the first question is, “Why?” Why do people perpetrate such monstrous evil, and why does God allow it? We don’t all answer those questions the same way, some assert there are no answers, but the shared humanity, the innate revulsion towards evil, is undeniable. That fact— that nearly all of us are fundamentally incapable of inhabiting a worldview in which human slaughter is unremarkable— may be the first, best evidence of God’s image in us: eons out of mind, we remain better adapted to Eden than to the place where we actually live. 

At the same time, we remain fascinated with tragedy. It dominates the news and inhabits every form of our self-expression, from Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead to Madame Butterfly and Faust. We visit with evil during playtime, but are shocked when it follows us home. “Do not give the devil a foothold,” warns Christ, probably because he knew how readily we do so.

Yet Christ is unique in that he offers, not just a warning against, but a solution to the problem of evil, by offering his own life as a ransom for many. The redemption song is loud in our DNA— whether in Marguerite’s delivery from Faust’s demons or in Rick’s reunion with Judith, the voice of the angels will be heard. The power of God cannot be gainsaid. 

The message of Christ’s resurrection is that, come the worst this world can deliver, this world is not the end of the story. It is easy, on any day like this, in any place newly joining that sad roll call, to think about the lies the devil tells and the death the devil threatens. On a day like that, even as we battle to write such horrors out of the book of our public life, it is worthwhile to look inside our own hearts and remember that there is always one chapter more: a chapter all about the one who is, in the end, the way, the truth, and the life.

Read Part 2 of this series: “How to make peace with God after loss.”

What to do with sinners

Jesus and the “ho”, or, what to do with sinners

Fifteen years ago, a friend shared an insight from scripture. I lay awake most of that night turning over what she’d said, and I’ve remembered it ever since, mostly because I profoundly disagreed.

She was talking about the story of “the woman at the well“. Quick recap: Jesus strikes up a conversation with a woman drawing water and reveals himself as the Messiah, first to her and subsequently to her whole village. My friend’s observation was drawn mainly from this line: “Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.'”

“I read this story a bunch of times,” she said, “and this time it just hit me: Jesus is callin’ her a ho! He is totally in her face! We gotta confront people over their sin, because look what can happen if we do… she and her whole village got saved!”

Now first let me say, balancing Jesus’ message of grace and truth is a tricky business and none of us consistently gets it right. Maybe my friend had been way over on the side of ignoring damaging behavior, even among those close to her. Maybe, with this new conviction, she was emboldened to show them a better way out of their self-destruction (think of an alcoholic intervention). I do believe that, reading it as God intended in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, scripture is alive and active, and different aspects of a story may strike different believers differently, depending on the word that God has to speak into their particular situation.

That said, here is how the story of the woman at the well strikes me. (For convenience, for the remainder of this post, I will refer to “the woman at the well” as “Allison”.)

Who is she?

To me, the first thing worth noting in the story is that confrontation about her sin (a form of social pressure) is the last thing that Allison needs. The social pressure on her is already turned to 11. How do we know? Just take a look at where Jesus found her:

So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water.

Things to know:

Nobody goes to collect water at noon. Have you heard the expression, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun”? It originated in India, but it could equally well apply to the Middle East. Carrying a heavy water jug in the midday heat is lunacy. Instead, normal women go at the crack of dawn, all together. It’s fun! They chat, they socialize. The only way you’d go at noon is if you were such a social outcast that you couldn’t tolerate any of that.

She’s an hour outside of town. Jacob’s well was a mile and a half out into the middle of the desert from Sychar, about an hour’s walk. Lots of other wells were closer. Again, what is Allison doing out there? The most obvious answer is that she badly, badly wants to avoid running into anyone.

What she’s used to

Jewish men of the first century were not shy. Doubly so for a religious leader like Christ. Suffice it to say, when one of them called you a whore, you knew it. It didn’t take multiple close readings of the text to tease it out.

Most of the time, however, they said nothing at all, because Samaritans were their northern heretic cousins, so in their view, any Samaritan (and especially a woman) was simply beneath contempt. The text clearly reflects Allison’s astonishment when Christ even condescends to speak to her: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”

They begin to converse somewhat comfortably, until Christ ventures onto a sore spot, bringing out an answer from Allison that is all half-truth and evasion:

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Much of the bible is culturally pretty inaccessible to us, but a world where a woman would rather walk an hour into the mid-day heat than see another person… that is not so far removed. Her story could just as easily have been set in Puritan America; she is only missing the scarlet letter. In a world like that, our heroine only meets two categories of people: those who know what she is and shun her, and those who don’t know what she is.

The Jesus surprise

In that kind of context, what do we make of the statement that seemed so confrontational to my friend? Is Jesus really “calling out her sin” and “getting in her face”? As I read it, the answer is no. Rather, Christ is pulling one of his favorite tricks and confounding expectations.

By restating the source of her shame in the gentlest and most non-confrontational language possible, Christ declines to fit into either of her pre-defined categories. He is something new, unexpected, revolutionary: a person who knows what she is but doesn’t shun her. That’s the point that blows the doors off, and it’s only ten verses later that the woman who was too ashamed to show her face at the watering hole that morning is running down Main Street announcing the coming of the Messiah.

Regular old confrontation, regular old judgment, regular old shame… we’ve had all these available to us for thousands of years before Christ. None of that is transformative; none of that was why Christ needed to come, and live, and die, and rise. We sell our birthright for pottage when we walk up to a stranger and casually condemn. Let us rather walk up to a stranger in unexpected love and grace and mercy; it is in that context that the message of Messiah can be spoken and heard. Remember John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Other recommended posts: 

Relearning to love after we lost our baby

Compassion for “them”: relearning to love the people we were before we lost our baby

When you read about a horrible disaster— a doomed airliner, a tsunami, anything that suddenly shatters peace and calm and well-being— when you read an article like that, sometimes there are “before” photos. The people in harm’s way are normal people, just doing what normal people do: having fun, laughing, taking selfies… They’re enjoying themselves, and sometimes the photos survive and get published after the fact. You look at the people in those photos, and you can see it in their eyes: there’s an innocence, a naïveté, an uncomplicated trust. They have no idea what’s about to happen to them.

We have photos like that all over our house. They aren’t disaster photos. They are photos of our wedding. Of our family trips when our two oldest kids were small. Of us at the coffee shop, that time we snuck in a date night and my wife surprised me with a little white stick whose digital read-out bore the single word “Pregnant”. That was a good night. We were happy. We took photos.

From that day on, we rechristened our family as “Party of Five”. We bought bunk beds and a mini-van, and a gigantic double-stroller that we called “The Land Behemoth”. After the ultrasound, we started buying boy clothes. One said, “Little Rookie”. Another, we bought in Napa; it said, “Vintage 2007”. And then there was the picture my wife didn’t want to take. I scheduled our church directory sitting about a week before our due date; she wanted to do it after he was born, but the dates wouldn’t work, so we did it beforehand anyway. We didn’t know that was the last photo there would ever be with our entire party of five. We didn’t know there was already a kink in his umbilical cord. We didn’t know we were about to lose a baby.

When something bad happens to your children, part of you has a biological need to blame yourself.

When you look at the people in those pre-disaster photos, sometimes you want to reach through that lens and warn them. How much more so when those people are you? When something bad happens to your children, part of you has a biological need to blame yourself, and for a while, we were so angry at “those people” in our photos. They were so stupid and ignorant. They should have done more. They should have known.

Our baby boy (Boaz, we named him) would have turned 8 this year, and in that time, learning to have grace for “those people” has been an important part of our healing. Many of the lessons we learned from scripture have helped with that journey:

  • Matthew 24:38 says, “…and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came.” In the same way, we had to realize, there was no way we could have known. We did the same things that everyone else does; it was not our fault that it worked out well for them and badly for us.
  • Ecclesiastes repeatedly talks about things that are meaningless. We had fixated on finding the meaning: what was God trying to tell us (or being honest, why was he punishing us)? We finally had to let that go, realizing our need to “find the meaning” was a need to keep control. Instead, letting go and rejoining life was the legacy we wanted our baby to have. As Ecclesiastes finally concludes, “There is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.”
  • For me, the greatest lesson was from 1 Peter 4: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the painful trial that has come upon you to test you, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.” The redemptiveness of Christ’s passion was never so clear to me as in the midst of our own grief. His suffering was not wasted, and through our own suffering, the scripture says, we gain a unique partnership in that redemption.

I do not believe that God causes suffering, and I do not agree with the many people who say, “God did this to teach you… whatever.” We live in a fallen world, and we have to live here, because we are fallen too. Bad things happen here. That is not God’s fault, because this isn’t the place he designed us for. But he is here at work in this place too, finding ways to bring redemption out of the heartbreak that inevitably accompanies our life under the sun. As I became fond of saying in the midst of our loss: “Out of soil the devil has sown for evil, God can make many good and green and living things to grow.”

This article originally appeared as a guest posting at Me Too Moments For Moms.

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Show of hands: if a sweet little girl mistook you for a famous movie actor, how many would be flattered? Probably most? At one point in my life, I would have assumed that. And how many would react with shame? How many would feel hot tears of hurt and anger welling in their eyes? How many would perceive mockery and want to lash out?

Once, I couldn’t even have conceived of these responses, but lately I’ve begun to wonder: they might even be the majority reaction. Because here’s the problem: to believe that someone else could think well of us, we have to think well of ourselves. To believe that we can be loved, we have to love ourselves. And that, I think, is a lot less common than people realize. How much more difficult, then, to be able to accept and believe in the love of a perfect and infinite God? This is the reality seen in scripture. But, like a doctor who must wait for some natural recovery before the body can tolerate surgery, I think God’s biggest challenge with many of us is to heal us enough that we can tolerate his healing: is to grow a kernel of love inside us large enough that we will be able to tolerate his love.

Beating us over the head

I was reflecting on this recently in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; specifically, in the part I had always blown off before. You know how, when you’re having a serious discussion, you have to kind of ease into it? Like, “Hey, how ya doing, howsa wife, howsa kids, great, me too, well, listen, here’s what I wanted to talk about.” There’s some small talk. It doesn’t mean anything. So that’s what I used to do with this scripture. I would just kind of mentally skip over it, like “that’s just the nice pious-sounding intro before he gets into the REAL scripture.” Here’s a sample:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

Now, I’m not going to read out the whole thing, but it goes on, and on, and on like that. Easy to blow past, but let’s dig in for a second:

  • He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (v3)
  • He chose us to be holy and blameless in his sight (v4)
  • In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ (v5)
  • His glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the one he loves (v6)
  • In him we have redemption (v7)
  • The riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding (v8)
  • We were chosen for the praise of his glory (v11-12)
  • Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal (v13)
  • The Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance (v14)

Do you see what I’m saying? Every verse is chock-a-block with the reality that God’s love for us knows no bounds. It’s like Paul is trying to beat us over the head with it, verse after verse, because he knows how resistant people are to this message.

The thing in us that hates us

Our world is not much of a place for unconditional love, especially lately. People who were supposed to be there for us, aren’t. Mothers leave, fathers leave. School friends turn against us and bully us on Twitter. Eventually, we internalize all of that external rejection, and then the voices in our heads become our own worst enemy. Gene Wolfe imagined it as an internal torturer, calling it “the thing in you that hates you.”

Whatever replaces “being loved” in your life, more likely than not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry supplying it to you.

Whatever may be wrong in our lives, don’t we say, “It’s my problem, it’s up to me to fix it?” But the truth is, no matter who you are, no matter how powerful and clever and creative you are, you didn’t create your sin by yourself, and you are not going to solve it by yourself. If you’re into alcohol, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry making it and serving it to you. If it’s shopping or food or pornography or gambling, there are multi-billion dollar industries for all of that too. Drugs are a multi-billion dollar black market. You didn’t come up with that sin by yourself.

A man in a twelve-step recovery program was once asked “Which step takes the longest?” Do you know what he said? It’s step 1: “we recognized that we were powerless, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Other steps, people may take a month, or two months, or a year, but that step 1… people will stay out in the howling storm, demons of addiction shrieking around their ears, shouting how they’ve got it under control and they don’t need help, for a decade, or two decades, or five.

Not a “nice to have”

Let’s take another look at that first passage from Ephesians that we started with: “Lord Jesus Christ”, “in Christ”, “through Jesus Christ”, “in the One he loves”, “In him”… in these two paragraphs of scripture alone, Christ is mentioned 10 times. God has a plan of redemption, but it is not one in which we save ourselves. In this plan that I am talking about, Christ is not an optional add-on. Christ is not an “also ran”. Christ is not a “nice to have”. Rather, Christ is the cornerstone. Without the power of the blood of Christ unto redemption, the whole thing would collapse. But with Christ, that which is dead in sin can be made alive. That which is lost can be saved. And even those years that were a loss to sin can be made into gain for the good of God’s kingdom.

To me, one of the most beautiful and memorable promises of scripture speaks to this exact point, in Joel 2:25, when God promises, “Then I will restore to you the years that the locust swarm devoured.” Out of soil that the devil has sown for death, God can make many good, green and living things to grow.