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 is a phrase, "There are none so blind as those who will not see." Well, there are none so enslaved as those who think they deserve slavery. I thought I was only fit to be a slave, so I saw the Gospel message as a list of assignments. Jesus said, "if you love me you will keep my commands." I didn't realize that Jesus was telling us to focus on getting to know Him and learning to love Him. I thought He was focusing on behavior. I searched Scripture to discern what behaviors God liked and pushed myself to do them: thankfulness, worship, service, evangelism, prayer, Bible reading, meditation, discipline, accountability, compassion, confession, giving, tithing, .... My duties expanded, and the weight of my shackles had me plodding more and more slowly.
I was troubled because I could see that my good actions were not coming from my heart. They were coming from obligation, not love. Phillis Wheatley, the poet who lived much of her life as a slave, wrote, "In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance." I could see this longing in my heart, but I tried to tell myself I was already free. My heart knew the truth. I was making myself a slave.
Three years ago, my husband and I were reading The Jesus Storybook Bible with the children. Wonderful book! In the chapter called "The Singer," Sally Lloyd Jones said that Jesus had come to teach us a song we were made to sing: "God made us. He loves us. He is very pleased with us." Shortly after we read it, I was talking with one of my daughters. At five years old, her eyes were already haunted with the failure I felt, and it bothered me. I remembered the song, and I told my daughter, "God is pleased with you." She answered in a voice of disbelief, "How can that be true?" Her voice and words were a knife in my heart, but I struggled to answer her, because I didn't believe that God was pleased with me.
(As a side note, at that time, God gave us another name for that daughter – Anastasia, which means resurrection. He also gave me a new verse to sing her about His love for her. It has been wonderful to watch her eyes lose their haunted look as God has been healing me. As I am healed, I am able to be part of God's healing of my children.)
Since them, God has been pouring the thought of His pleasure into my heart. I don't know how many times He has breathed those words into my heart. I do remember clearly the last time I heard them vividly. It was a few months ago. I was walking with a friend whom I dearly love and rarely see. We were taking our children to the park. It was a beautiful spring day. Everything was glorious except one thing, my heart would not rejoice.
I tried to make my heart rejoice. I tried to praise God. I knew when you are discouraged, you are supposed to find something good and praise God for it, yet here I was surrounded by wonder and glory, and my heart would not let me praise. The harder I tried to praise God for the wonder I could clearly see around me, the more my heart revolted. I despaired. My heart just wouldn't cooperate. If I couldn't make myself praise God about things which were wonderful, there was no hope. What would I do in hard times? I was still failing God.
It was at that moment that I heard clearly, "I am pleased with you." There was a smile in that voice. I could hear God's pleasure in His tone, and my pressured heart sank into God's embrace. It wasn't rebellious anymore. It was dancing! I could praise God when it came from my heart, and that was enough! I didn't have to manufacture praise! Since then, though my heart still rebels at times, I have found praise flowing from my heart more and more.
Romance stories often have the other suitor, who vies with the true love for the heart of the woman. In God's wooing of me, the other suitor has always been a distorted view of God. One suitor looks at me, and His eyes are full of love. The other looks at what I do, and his eyes are full of anger, and I am afraid of him. Yet the love in the eyes of the One is slowly gaining my trust and my love, and overcoming my fear of the other.
Often, when I would pray, I would sense a stern and angry face looking down at me. No matter how hard I would try to remind myself of God's love and forgiveness, this image would glare down at me. I thought God was angry with me. He saw my deeds, and He saw that my bad deeds outweighed my good deeds. He wanted to punish me, so I cowered before Him. When I went to pray, I felt as though I were suffocating.
Again, it wasn't that I hadn't heard the truth of God's love. I knew about it and tried to believe it. I would quote Scripture to myself and pray it aloud, but doubt gnawed away at me. I remember once when I was praying, I cried, "I hate you, God, but I know it's not You I hate. I know it's this image I can't stop seeing. I know You are love, but I can't stop feeling that you are angry with me, and I hate you. Please help me to see You and to love You." I was desperate. I knew that God is love, and love gives birth to love, not hate. Therefore, when I feel hate, something must be wrong with my perspective.
That's hard to confess. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time staring at the screen, remembering how awful that tangle was. I was tired of fighting my heart to make it behave properly. I kept remembering all God's promises regarding a renewed heart. The prayer "unite my heart to fear your name" resonated deeply with me. I didn't want to keep fighting my own heart. I praise God for His love. He is truly greater than our feelings. He doesn't flinch away from honesty but meets it with love and healing and freedom.
Sometime after that, I was in my kitchen washing dishes. Our daughter, Hannah Gail, had dropped her china saucer, and it had broken. My husband had scoured the floor to find the pieces and then had painstakingly puzzled them back together. My heart ached to know whether a broken heart could be healed. Suddenly, while I worked on dishes, I saw very clearly an image of a Father bending over His work, fitting the broken pieces together. I knew that Father was the true suitor.
I remember something that God said to me between the time I told Him I didn't love Him and the time I told Him I hated Him. It was shortly before we moved to Nairobi. I was sitting under the girls' queen-sized loft bed, their only play area. It was a mess, as always, and I was struggling with anger at always having to clean it up. I was struggling with anger and guilt at being angry. I was struggling with the feeling that I didn't love them. I wanted to be a loving, patient Mom, but I felt that I was failing. I felt that I was supposed to make them behave properly, and I was failing. I wasn't disciplining them properly. I wasn't loving them properly.
All I could see was what they were doing and what they were failing to do. I felt all God could see was what I was doing, and what I was failing to do. While I was under the loft, I heard God reprimand me gently but firmly, "My name is I Am, not I do." This has taken a long time for me to understand. The distorted god, whose name is I do, looks at our deeds, and he is angry, because he always wants more. Our God, whose name is I Am, looks at us, and He gazes in love because He sees who we are, and He sees we are very good.
I remember the first time I saw my husband, Joshua. It was my freshman year of college. He was a junior. Joshua reminded me of a squirrel. He came into a room where I was visiting someone, talked for a few minutes, then darted off. I doubt he even saw me. Indifference at first sight!
Later, as I noticed other things about him, I became more certain I didn't want to be associated with him. Joshua was a weird missionary type. He would walk around campus barefoot, wrapped in a woven shawl from India. He was friends with other weird missionary types. When several of those weird missionary types decided to go to the seminary across the street for graduate school, it confirmed to me that I did not want to attend that seminary.
My Grandma, the one who married the red-headed boy, always told me not to tell God “never.” He would laugh, and that “never” would happen. Well, I did end up getting a master's degree at that seminary. I did become friends with Joshua. Though I argued with God on the matter, I even ended up marrying him, but that is a long story.
Well, in the same way, I knew that God was not the God of my dreams. I was a Christian. I would say that I loved God, because I was trying hard to do so, but the spark just wasn't there. I didn't have any theological problem with this. God wasn't supposed to be what I wanted. I had heard about people who create their own God according to what they want. I didn't want to do that.
Instead, I tried to make myself love the God about whom I heard. He is the God who loved us so much in the past that He gave His Son to die for us. He is the God who will love us so much in the future that we will have a wonderful life with Him in Heaven. At present, it doesn't feel like love, but that is because of our sinfulness. “No discipline is pleasant at the time,” but it's good for you. The problem is that we are “at the time,” so His love doesn't feel pleasant. So, despite my effort to love God, I felt terrified of God.
But two years ago, God asked me a question. We had just moved to our new house near Nairobi. I was busy getting settled in. As I was working on laundry, I heard God ask, “What does your heart long for in a Father?”
I did not know what to say. How could I answer this question? He was asking me, who is the God of your dreams? How could I tell Him that He's not it? But He asked me. I couldn't be rude and ignore Him. I focused on the laundry to give myself time to think. Then I gathered my courage and told Him, “I want a Father who will lead me to obey Him because I love Him, not drive me to obey Him because I'm afraid of Him.”
Immediately, I heard, “What makes you think I'm not like that?” I was flabbergasted. My initial response was, “Because of how you act.” Still, He cared enough to ask me what I longed for, maybe I should actually think about His second question. What does make me think He's not this God of my dreams? Maybe my dreams are true!