Sternness. If I had to guess, I would say that sternness is not usually the number one trait a woman looks for in a man. I would also guess that a man who goes courting with sternness rather than flowers will awaken fear instead of love in the heart of the woman he approaches. Unfortunately, when I thought of Christ, all I saw was sternness. Just as I was afraid of the Father because of His justice, so I was afraid of Christ because of his sternness. I had learned to trust the Father, who casts our sin behind His back, but I was still afraid to approach Christ. I was afraid to have him turn and look at me. I was afraid of hearing his "Go and sin no more." Despite my best efforts, I still find myself sinning, so I thought I knew what kind of look Christ would direct at me.
I was troubled by my lack of love for this lover of mine, my fiancé. I had said yes to his proposal. I mean, really, the alternative wasn't a very bright prospect — marriage or eternal death. Um, let me think. And really, he is quite the hero, dying for me even before I said yes, and then coming to life again. Who else would or could do something like that? However, before I got a chance to meet him in person, he disappeared to get a house ready, and I was left wondering what kind of. What kind of character does he have? Does he know about all my character flaws? How will he react when I continually mess up?
Years ago, in South Africa, a young woman was preparing for marriage. One day, my husband and I were at her fiancé’s house, and she was there, cleaning house, washing curtains, mopping floors. She told me she wanted to see whether she could do the work marriage would require of her. That thought startled me, but I understood it. I didn't really think I could do the work my marriage to Christ would require. I, too, was trying to see whether I would measure up, but I was failing miserably. I dislike sudden change, so the idea that I would go from miserable failure to perfect angel upon my death wasn't very hopeful. Besides, I wasn't dead yet. There was still time for Christ to see how miserably I was failing, and what would he do if he saw it?
My realization that I was not attracted to Jesus sent me to get to know him. I began to read the book of John in depth and to talk with Jesus in prayer, asking him to teach me about himself. Jesus has unique experiences among the Godhead. He is the one who dwelt among us. He lived on earth as a human. I'm trying to live on earth as a human. If anyone can teach me how to do it well, it would be Jesus.
One of the first things I realized as I began to know Jesus was that he never directs his sternness at me. When he speaks sternly it is at something at work within me, but it is not at me. A few years ago, I was speaking with a friend about the passage in Romans 7 that says it is no longer I who sin, but sin which is at work in me. My friend said that the passage didn't make sense to him. How would saying we didn't do it help anything? Saying it is just something at work in us sounds like making excuses. After talking with my friend, I sought God on that passage. God showed me that we, people, tend to keep sin tangled up with our identity. We see sin as part of who we are, part of our nature. We try to keep from acting according to that "nature" but only by repressing it, which doesn't work for long. It always escapes our restraint. When someone addresses the sins in us, we get very defensive, because our identity is tangled with the sin. We see them as attacking us, attacking our nature. When we see sin as part of our nature, we put ourselves in a very weak position for overcoming sin. We hold onto it with one hand, while trying to get rid of it with the other.
Before we can truly be set free from our sin, we must see that our actual nature is the image of God and that sin is a foreign thing at work in us. So, God first teaches us who we are and reveals to us anything that does not belong to our nature, then having separated the two, Christ addresses the sin sternly, commanding it to leave, but he turns the face of his favor to us, to what is truly us. Understanding this has actually helped me to value the sternness of Christ. We are working together to remove a parasite that has attached itself to me and is draining me of my true strength and character. He is also gentle, wise, and discerning. In removing sin, God has a process. First, He establishes His love for us. He stays on this step until we cease to flinch at His approach, until we feel secure enough to climb on His lap. Then, having gained our trust, He begins to reveal to us a true picture of our identity. His Holy Spirit searches our hearts and reveals to us what is truly our character, and what is foreign to our character. Before God begins any process of weeding, He takes the time to strengthen our roots in His love, to build up and nurture that which is truly us. Then as we open our hands and hearts to Him, His Holy Spirit separates the roots of our character from the roots of sin, so that God can uproot sin without uprooting us. Only when God has accomplished all of this does Christ speak sternly to the sin at work within us, while continuing to speak affirmation and encouragement to us.
Lately, I have seen that God has a picture gallery. Our pictures are hanging in that gallery. We, in our efforts not to be vain, try not to look at ourselves too much, but God is inviting us in. He has lights shining on our pictures to bring out the full effect of the painting. He has a bench in front of it. He loves to sit on the bench and gaze at our pictures. He is inviting us to sit with Him as He puts His arm around our shoulders. He wants us to gaze in awe upon His picture of us. He wants us to take time to gaze upon our picture and be amazed at God’s creation.
A friend recently had an experience where she saw that her sense of shame was keeping her from looking up at God. She told me, "I saw myself on the floor, child pose, in front of Christ. It seemed a pose of worship, and of reverence. But then I heard very clearly that I was being immobile. When you are immobile, you cannot move, work, help, or create anything of beauty. I was told to get up!!!" She told me when she got up, there was Jesus with a huge smile, arms outstretched, and He said, "Dance with me!"
God does not want us to hide our eyes in shame. He wants us to lift our eyes and meet His. A few days ago, as I was reading John 21, I read a note that it is a bit tricky to translate the part about Peter being naked and wrapping his outer cloak about himself to dive into the water. I began to wonder why God had included that detail, and began to think about other passages of nakedness. I saw the passage in contrast to Genesis 3. Adam and Eve sinned. Immediately, they knew they were naked and tried to make clothing out of leaves and then hid from God. Their sin and their nakedness drove them from God. Now we have Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times and who is naked. He wraps his outer garment around himself, to cover his nakedness, but he heads toward Jesus as fast as he can. Instead of allowing his sin to drive him to hide from God, he takes his sinfulness to Christ, and Christ allows him to declare his love for Christ three times to bring healing to the part of him which was hurt by his denial of Christ. Then he acknowledges the longing of Peter to demonstrate his love for Christ by enduring suffering for him. That promise to suffer for Christ which Peter made and found himself unable to keep would be honored in the end. Peter would come to be fully himself, completely Christ's. What a beautiful story!
“What do you see?” If you read through the prophets, you find God asking the prophets this question many times. I think it is still an important question today, one we need to ask God. “Father, what do you see? Jesus, what do you see? Holy Spirit, what do you see? What do you see when you look at me?”
I think that for many of us, our own sinfulness fills our vision, and we are pretty sure it fills God's vision also (or would if we dared go into His presence). Like the Israelites, we'd rather not hear His voice or come too near Him, because we think it pretty likely there would be some yelling and hitting if we did. We hope we're not so bad that we would be killed, but our hungry hearts, which long for the love of the Father and Lover and Counselor, are so filled with a sense of shame that we dare not risk entering His presence.
Several years ago, I had an exchange with God regarding the Father's image of us. At the time, I was having one of those 1:00 a.m. experiences when you are exhausted and irritable and still have a lot of work in front of you. I found myself very angry with Joshua about something. I don't even remember what it was. I was trying hard to keep from yelling at him, but my anger was building. Suddenly, I remembered the passage about temptation, where God promises to provide a way out. With desperate hope, I prayed for God to provide the way out so I wouldn't yell at Joshua. Then, I found myself yelling at him anyway.
I was crushed. I had tried as hard as I could. I had asked for help. Yet I had still failed. I turned back to God and prayed again, “Where was the way out? I couldn't find it.” Instantly, I had a picture of God with His back to me. I felt hurt and asked, “Why would you turn your back to me when I needed you?” Immediately, I received two things: an understanding and a worded answer. The understanding was that my Father was choosing not to see something that would tarnish His image of me. God knows who I am, and He knows that it is no longer I who sin, but sin which is at work in me. He chooses to see me as I am, not as I do. The words were “I can't take away your sin yet, because the reason you don't want to sin is that you are afraid of me. I can't take away your sin until you understand my grace.” Both the words and the understanding came with a sense of deep love and tenderness that I can't replicate in writing.
“The reason you don't want to sin is because you are afraid of me.” As soon as He said it, I knew it was true. I was afraid of God's anger. I was afraid of what God might do in His anger. I clearly deserved and needed punishment. How else could I learn to be good? About a year later, God would ask me whether punishment was working, and I had to answer that, no, I was so terrified of punishment that I couldn't move. He then asked why I insisted that He punish me. I thought that was a strange response. However, at this point, I couldn't see that punishment wasn't working, and I couldn't think of any method except punishment to get me to obey.
“I can't take away your sin until you understand my grace.” In my mind, grace meant another chance, specifically, another chance to run the gauntlet. I had to try to get through the tests without falling down, but if I did, I could try again. Unfortunately, each successive attempt found me starting with greater injuries than the time before, so I fell sooner. To be honest, I didn't find grace a very hopeful concept. I knew that a second chance at running the gauntlet shouldn't be the definition of grace, but grace didn't seem very powerful and motivating. I felt pretty sure I could prove that even before the just judge: those times I wasn't punished and did the same thing again, those people who weren't punished and kept doing wrong, those times I let wrongs go and was hurt again by the same people. In my mind, grace needed force and punishment to help it achieve its intended purpose, yet God indicated that my perspective on grace was wrong.
I longed to be perfect and sinless, but God said that couldn't happen until I understood His grace. So I prayed again, “Then, please, teach me your grace!” I also began to meditate on this exchange. The understanding that God cherishes His vision of me as a beautiful image was comforting and life-giving. I had a pretty poor image of myself. His statement about my being afraid of Him led me to confess to Him a few months later that I didn't really love Him but was serving Him out of fear. It was troubling that I wasn't fulfilling the most important command, but was only trying to act as if I were. His statement that He couldn't take away my sin until I understood His grace kept me seeking to understand grace. Nearly four years later, I have come to understand that at least part of what God was trying to teach me is that grace is not removal, grace is supply. Fear has to do with punishment and removes strength from us, but grace has to do with love and gives to us strength, power, and even authority. We need strength to fight the battle, so we must put aside fear, guilt, worry. I have also come to see that what Christ did on the cross was bigger and more powerful than anything I imagined.
We need to know that God chooses not to see the sin at work in us, but has placed it behind His back on Christ's shoulders at the cross. When He looks at us, He does not see failures and sinners, but rather, He sees favored, beloved, pleasing sons and daughters. In John Jesus says that God the Father loves us even as He loves Jesus, not less than, not differently from, but just as. We also need to ask God to give us a true understanding of grace and the immensity of its power and authority and effectiveness.
Now, I need to tell you, shortly after I had this experience, I was sharing with a woman I highly respected, and she told me she didn't think that the experience was from God. I've been reluctant to share this story on the blog for fear of the same thing happening, but this past week, two things happened that have nudged me to share. Firstly, my oldest daughter, Alitzah, drew a two-sided picture based on a conversation she had had with God. On one side of the paper, she drew God smiling down at people enjoying creation; on the other, she drew God with His back to someone sinning. Secondly, I ran across a verse. In Isaiah 38:17, Hezekiah says, "for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back." I felt it was time to share.
When we lived the nomadic life of a bush missionary, habits were a constant battle. I have heard that it takes about six weeks to form habits and a few days to break them. Well, when we were living in the bush, we would be home about six to eight weeks, the perfect amount of time to make a habit. But then team meetings and the need for English conversation and groceries would send us to town for about a week. During that week of rushing to accomplish doctors’ visits, government paperwork, meetings, shopping, one special activity for the children, the habits I had worked hard to form slipped away. When I returned home, I would have to start all over again. I never found anything that worked for me.
One thing which really troubled me was what to do when the children were stressed in transition. Did I make allowances or keep exacting standards? I remember talking with an older woman about this. She told me that I must always maintain strict discipline because if I didn't the children would be lax and undisciplined adults.
This idea bothered me. It certainly seemed valid. We've all seen "spoiled" kids. It certainly seemed Biblical: "Spare the rod; spoil the child." Yet something troubled me, and I didn't understand what or why.
However, here I had a very good reason why God had to be a Father who drives us to obey Him by fear rather than leading us to obey Him by love. If God were to spare the rod, He would spoil the child. He has to maintain strict discipline or we will fall away. That's just the way we are. We backslide, so God has to stay behind us with the rod.
While I was trying to work through this thought and before I was able to put it into words as an objection, God spoke to me. "If that is true, Heaven becomes impossible." Suddenly, I began to remember Scriptures about Heaven: no pain, no crying, no suffering, perfect love without punishment. God spoke again, "You are trying to build your righteousness on a foundation of punishment and rewards." Here, I don't remember the words, but rather the idea. If we build our righteousness on a foundation of punishment and rewards, in Heaven where there is no punishment, the very foundation of our righteousness will be removed, and our righteousness will crumple. I remember God's next words, "You have to build your righteousness on a foundation of love. Love will remain."
I don't know whether this is as thought changing to anyone else as it was to me. Punishment and rewards may be the steps that move us from ground level into the house of righteousness, but they are not the foundation. Even these steps themselves must be built on the foundation so that they don't separate from the house. In order to enter righteousness, we must move off the steps and over the threshold. We must be people who will obey fully and completely, simply because we love.
This revelation didn't answer all my questions. It actually brought more, but it did bring some serious challenges to my faith. God basically said that I cannot hold onto both my hope of Heaven and my belief that our righteousness must be maintained by fear and external pressure. Only one can be true. I have to let go of one or the other.
There are times when we are out in the middle of the sea in the midst of a storm. There are times when we despair of life itself. There are times when the storm is so strong that all the faith and trust we think we have grown seems to disappear entirely. There are times when our hearts and our lives resonate the chaos of the storm rather than the peace of Christ. During those times, we despair of righteousness itself as we watch all the worst comes out of us, just when we thought we were doing better. During those times, we despair of love itself, "Don't you love us?" During those times, we remember that it was Christ, himself, who put us on this boat without him, and our hearts cry out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" During those times, as we look at our lives, resonating to the chaos rather than the peace, despair would tell us that He has forsaken us because we aren't good enough. How thin our single strand of faith seems in the midst of that furious storm!
It was during one of these times that I asked the Father a question. Paul tells us to continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Well, I was filled with fear and trembling as I asked God the question I couldn't restrain any longer. "Oh, God, if I hated sin, ... I know you hate sin. Please don't be angry with me. I'm not arguing with you. I just want to understand. ... If I hated sin (and I know you do), and I knew certain situations brought out the worst in my children, I wouldn't put them in those situations! But you do. You are wise. You must have a reason. Why, Father?"
Immediately, I heard a thought, "You are trying to mow. I want to remove the roots." But over the next month or so, a parable grew in my mind. In this story, a gardener had a visitor. Of course, he did what anyone who loves gardening wants to do – he took his visitor to see the garden. The visitor looked at the garden, and then he asked the gardener, "Why are there so many weeds?" The gardener explained, "It's been raining for two weeks, so I haven't been able to get out and weed. Now the sun has come out, but the ground is still too wet to weed. The rain and sun have caused the weeds to grow." At that point, I felt as though God leaned over and asked me a thought, "Didn't the carrots need the rain and the sun? The weeds did not grow because of the rain and sun. They grew because they are planted in the ground."
I do not believe God was saying the gardener planted the weeds. The Bible tells us that an enemy planted them. Still, if there weren't weed seeds and weed roots in the ground, weeds would not grow. The rain only showed us what was already in the ground. We couldn't see it before because it was hidden underground, but it was there nonetheless, and God wants to remove those hidden roots of sin. This still isn't a full answer. This still leaves us asking, "What does it mean? How do we get rid of the weeds?" However, as I think about this story, three comforts come from it.
First, the God who sees our hearts saw our sin before it grew out of our hearts into our actions and thus became visible to us and everyone around us. God saw it, because it was already there. He saw it, and He loved us. He loved us when we had this sin hiding in our hearts, and He does not forget that love when the sin grows into action. He isn't even surprised.
Second, there were carrots in the garden, not only weeds. Two things are at work in us. Sin is at work, yes, but the Spirit is at work, as well. The sin that is at work in us is not us. It is working against us. It is only distortion. It is not creation. The Spirit who is at work in us is us. The Spirit is working on our behalf. We are born of the Spirit. We are a new creation. We are being made one with God. We are of God's kind! Our us-ness is with God.
Third, God said, "I am trying to remove the roots." He is at work. He will accomplish His work. Someday, we will stand before Him spotless, without any hidden blemish. He has already credited righteousness to us. That righteousness will be ours, inside and outside! The sin which is at work will be completely removed, and what will remain is the righteousness born of the Spirit within us.
As I have struggled to know God, my sense of my own sinfulness has continually gotten in the way. I got angry easily, and I tried desperately to change that. I was afraid of myself. I was afraid I might hurt someone. I tried making a covenant with myself that I wouldn't become angry. I tried to keep from saying or doing anything hurtful, but still the anger remained, and what is in the heart comes out. So, I continually hurt those around me. And I continually hurt myself. Each time I became angry, guilt would attack me, and the guilt would feed my anger, because now I would be angry with myself. I couldn't find a way out.
I remember one day, four years ago, while I was looking again at my temper, I prayed desperately to God in my journal. I told Him that Paul was able to look at himself and say "I do what I don't want to do, and I don't do what I want to do," but I myself want to be angry. When someone hurts me or does something wrong, I want to be angry. I prayed, "Please help me, not because I want you to help me -- I still want to be angry, but instead help me because I desperately need you."
The next day, I was reading a book. I don't remember the book. In it was the verse, "There is no other name in Heaven or on Earth by which we must be saved." As I read, the verse became a song. "There is no other name in Heaven or on Earth by which we must be saved. There is no other name in Heaven or on Earth by which we must be saved. Halleluyah to the Lord above, Halleluyah to the God of love, Halleluyah, Halleluyah, Amen." I sang that song all day.
It was not until much later in the day that I realized that the song was a promise from God to me. A few years before, I had meditated upon Psalm 40:1-3.
.******. I waited patiently for the Lord to help me,
.******. and he turned to me and heard my cry.
.******. He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
.******. out of the mud and the mire.
.******. He set my feet on solid ground
.******. and steadied me as I walked along.
.******. He has given me a new song to sing,
.******. a hymn of praise to our God.
.******. Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
.******. They will put their trust in the Lord.
Suddenly, I saw that in giving me a new song, God was making a promise to lift me from the mud and mire, to set my feet on solid ground, and to steady me as I walk along. The song became a promise to me, and a war song when I was discouraged.
God also kept me meditating on Romans 7. In both verses 17 and 20, Paul says that it is not he sinning, but sin at work in him. I had talked about this passage with others, but we couldn't see how saying it wasn't you sinning helped the situation. If you sin, you sin. How would it help to say you didn't do it? But Paul said it, so we can't just ignore it.
As I meditated, I came to sense that God was asking me to see that there are two things at work in me, but only one is me. I cannot claim both as myself. Either the sin is who I am, or righteousness is who I am. But if I see the sin as myself and ask God to take it away, I am basically praying, "Take it away, take it away, it's me, it's me." I had an image of a hero ready to take out the villain, but He couldn't because I was all tangled with the villain. We have to untangle our sense of self from the sin within us. As long as it is who we are, we will never be victorious. I can choose which is me.
God is the God who says, "Come away with me to a quiet place and rest." He is the God who told Martha that Mary had chosen the better way. He is the God who said, "Let the little children come to me." Jesus said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father." When Jesus said these things, the Father said these things. In the prophets, God cried out that He longs to hear us call Him Father. But even reading these things, I didn't understand.
One day, one of our daughters was asking why the word LORD is often in all caps in the Bible. My husband loves that kind of question, so he began to explain to our children how the Hebrew names of God are translated. Now two days before, a Kenyan friend had told me that her husband was having some time off work and had asked her to let their houseworker off so that they could have some family time. I understood. We do the same thing. Well my husband got to the name Lord GOD, and said that it could be translated Lord LORD.
In that moment, I heard God speak. He said, "You've always been afraid of the 'Lord, Lord' passage." Well, that was certainly true. He continued, "You have always thought that I was saying, 'You haven't worked hard enough; get away from me.' That is not true. I am saying, 'It is family time; let the slaves and servants go.' I knew that He was saying, 'If all you ever do with me is ask me for a list of things to do, then leave. This is family time, play time, I want the people who have gotten to know me.' He was also saying, "You've always tried to be my slave, but you're not a very good one. You aren't meant to be a slave. You are meant to be a child. Be my child."
It is hard to put into words exactly what God says. Sometimes, I hear words and other times, thoughts; sometimes, I see a picture or have a story come to mind. One thought that began to come to mind is that I try to earn my rest. After my work is done, I can rest. But I started to see that we have to work from rest. I had this thought, "You don't say to a car, earn your petrol (gas)." We can never earn our rest. It is a gift.
I also began to understand the Hebrew day, which begins at sundown. What happens in families at sundown? The evening meal, the family fun time, bedtime. All restful. In the Hebrew week, there are six days, each beginning with rest followed by work, which culminate in the seventh day, the weekly Sabbath, a day of complete rest and celebration.
One day, my friend Joyce told me a story. She had asked God, "Do you play?" and God told her to watch her husband. At that time, Joyce opened her front door to go out but saw something that made her shut it immediately. She said, "Don't open the door. The cat has a mouse and wants to hide it in the house." William, Joyce's husband, whispered to her, "Watch this." He opened the door and shut it quickly while tossing a small ball across the floor. He yelled, "A mouse!" Their daughters began to shriek. At that moment, God leaned over to Joyce and said, "I am a Father."
One of the hardest things I have done has been sitting on top of my children's toys to play, without saying anything about the room. The interesting thing to me has been that as I play with them, the children are much more willing to work with me. Also interesting is that I am more rested and able to work as well.
I have always liked the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The story starts with the main character, Adam, looking for a wife. He wants a wife who is "young and strong and had a lot of work in her." He wants her to be beautiful. Other than that, in his mind, one woman is pretty much like another. Of course, by the end of the movie, his heart changes.
This Adam was definitely made in the image of God as I saw Him. I could say God loved me, but the only supporting evidence I knew for that was that He had died for me. However, what I perceived was that God wanted me for my work, for what I had to give. Of course, I didn't think God was selfish. He didn't want me to give for His own sake; He wanted me to give for the sake of the world.
The first reason I had for believing this is sheer need. People are in deep need. There are the lost, those who haven't heard and believed in God. There are the poor. There are those who don't have water and food. There are the orphans and the widows. I saw an immense amount of need, so I perceived God as a Father who is never satisfied. Again, I didn't think this was wrong of God, though my heart did. I felt that the need was so great and urgent that even when I give, it is never enough, and I should give more.
I was very tired. I didn't spend money on myself. I didn't rest. I labored for the Lord. I kept giving and giving and giving to God. My prayer list grew longer and longer. I didn't read just for fun. Instead I read devotional books. I rarely watched movies. I fasted. I was both proud of everything I had given up for God and jealous of others because they had the things for which I couldn't stop longing. I remember being so hungry (not physically hungry, but longing hungry) that I prayed desperately, "Please, God, I just want something nice. Please give me something nice." Almost immediately, a friend called. That was about the only nice thing I thought pleased God.
God began to untangle this. First, He made me buy china. I had been looking at the china online for four years. I was proud of my sacrificing the china for God. I had given it up for the kingdom. But somehow, I began to feel that God wanted me to buy the china. I argued with Him, then I understood God to say, "You can't give to me anymore if you won't let me give to you." We (my husband and I) bought the china. It is beautiful, and it has helped me to see God's love for me.
God also told me I needed to learn to feast, to rejoice. Then He asked me whether my self-restrictions were working to remove desire. I had to admit they weren't. I still longed for the things I was denying myself. He told me, "I did not put desires in your heart in order for you to prove how much you love me by sacrificing them. I put desires in your heart so that I can delight you. I delight to delight you."
This astounded me. I had thought all the desires of my heart were bad, and my heart deceitfully wicked. But the God who created us very good created us with a delight in good things, both tangible and intangible. Just like I love to hear my children giggle as I tickle them, God loves to delight us. He created us with tickle spots!
Sibling rivalry. Sharing. As soon as child number two is on the way, these are the issues parents begin to ponder. How will baby number one deal with baby number two? Mom and Dad work hard to make sure both children feel loved, to make sure baby number one doesn't feel pushed aside by baby number two. Then comes baby number three, four, five. Each family with a different number.
Two children is fairly simple in theory. One for each side of mom when reading a story. One for each parent when on an outing. After two, things are less simple. You have to be creative at storytime. Someone drapes along the top of the couch, someone sits on your lap, and you have to peer around a head to read the book. You change seats in the middle of storytime. On outings the youngest children hold your hands, the older children walk in front where you can see them. Family dynamics shift with each new member. Big families seem overwhelming. How do they do it?
You also have the issue of sibling friendships. Who favors whom? Who plays with whom, and who doesn't get along with whom? The dynamics can shift from day to day, but they can also be fairly consistent. My husband and I enjoy watching the interplay of siblings as the context shifts.
Peter and Andrew and John and James loved their big brother Jesus. They wanted to be his favorites. Say you love me best. Say I can sit next to you in Heaven. Of course, Jesus gets to sit next to God in Heaven, so he really only has one side left, but the two sets of brothers are thinking of Jesus' two sides and wanting those seats for themselves. They quarrel over this issue frequently. And as frequently, Jesus reprimands them.
I, being a younger sibling, got to watch this from afar, from Scripture reading. And I learned from it. Don't want to be close to God. That is selfish. Be happy to be far away from Him. Be happy because at least you are part of the family. So you're not someone special! If you were close to God, someone else would have to be far away. Know your place. It's to be nothing special, but at least you're still family.
It wasn't just the disciples with Jesus. I saw it in the Israelites. Judah gets to be near the temple. Reuben and the others across the Jordan chose to be far away, so maybe that's okay. But what about the others, like Ephraim? And the new Israel prophesied seemed worse. It's not going to be a patchwork anymore. It's going to be nice and equitable, except for proximity to Jerusalem and the temple. Two are close. The rest get farther and farther away. I saw the priests with their special closeness to God, then the Levites, then the rest of the Israelites, then us.
To be honest with you, I wanted to be close to God. I was selfish. I felt resentful of my place of distance from Him. But, desiring to be good, I wrestled with those feelings. I tried to reason with myself and get rid of my selfish feelings. For years, I wrestled. But it didn't work. I still felt resentful, and I still wished I could be one of the ones close to God.
One day, three years ago, as I was sitting on my bed wrestling again with my selfishness, God leaned over me, and with a smile, He whispered something in my ear, "I am not two-sided." I knew instantly what He meant. He has a side just for me. I am one of those chosen to be close to Him. I remembered Paul saying that God's wisdom is many sided, like a diamond, and I understood.
I understood something else. I understood that I might be wrong in my definitions of right and wrong. I heard God again, "If you are trying to remove something from your heart, and it won't move, it may just be because I put it there. You can't remove what I put in your heart." I needed to reconsider my definitions of righteousness. I needed to ask God for His definition. There might be other areas where I am wrong. That is surprisingly very freeing.
We often think of ourselves as God's adopted children. This got me all tangled up. In my heart, I believed that Jesus Christ, God's only begotten son and our adoptive brother, was Daddy's favorite. He deserves to be. He is truly that good, but I felt very insecure as a second-class sibling. I believed I belonged biologically to the Father of lies, but that God was willing to adopt me into His family when I agreed to reject my biological family and its ways. I became part of God's family, but I was always fearful, because I wasn't doing a good job of giving up my old ways. I remembered what Paul said about the natural branches versus the grafted branches. Was I going to find myself rejected by my adoptive Father because I didn't really fit the family?
When I was in high school, my family was friends with another family. This other family was a blended family, with biological, adoptive, and long term foster children. The biological daughter was sweet and obliging and cheerful and, well, spoiled. She was Daddy's girl, and she knew it. The adoptive daughter had been a juvenile delinquent, she seemed secure in herself alone, rather tough. The foster children had been abused. They were very shy and fearful.
That family haunted me for years. While I have seen some good examples of adoption, this was not. I saw how the parents treated the children, and it wasn't the same. The parents were very strict with the adoptive and foster children. They seemed to have good reason. The children hadn't been taught good behavior. They had a habit of lying if it might keep them out of trouble. One daughter had a history of theft. The parents wanted to teach righteousness, and they felt that strictness was the way to teach it, but that didn't explain why the children were treated differently with regards grades. Why would they be so gracious to the one when her grades were low and so stern with the others when their grades were middling? It wasn't ability. It was something else. She had favor with her family.
One day three years ago, as I was walking down our steep narrow staircase in Narok, Kenya, God brought John 17:23 to my heart. In His last prayer, Jesus prayed for us to know that God loves us, even as He loves Jesus. I had never noticed that "even as" before. Suddenly, I saw that we are not just tacked on at the end, as if God loves His favorite, Jesus, and He loves us too with a secondary kind of love. No, He loves us even as He loves Jesus. Jesus doesn't get special favorite son privileges that are withheld from us. We've got all the same privileges. We're God's beloved children, with whom He is well pleased.
I realized something else about that time. I am not an adoptive child. Please understand that I am not saying that adoptive children cannot truly belong to our adoptive families. My brother and his wife have shown me that. Their children, both biological and adoptive, declare that they have inherited their traits from their parents. What I am saying is that adoptive children often carry a deep sense of unbelonging in their hearts, and God doesn't want us to carry that. I am the biological child of God who was kidnapped out of my true family but who has finally been found. I am being folded back into the arms of the one who gave me birth. And my True Father, who knows the abuse I suffered under my kidnapper, is especially tender in all His dealings with me.