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.