“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.