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!