The Beloved

“This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

All that matters is to accepted by the Father as a child radically beloved by Him.

In His presence, we find out who we truly are. He sees into the cracks and crevices of our heart; His light shines into every dark corner of our mind. He is the one who searches us, who knows us intimately, discerning our thoughts from afar (Psalm 139:1). He knows every terrible secret that we so carefully lock away far beneath, always fearing that we will finally be sniffed out for what we truly are.

And yet, He embraces us in our totality.

At the end of ourselves, fearful and alone behind the mask we put on before the world, He whispers these words into our hearts: you are precious in my eyes, and honoured, and I love you (Isaiah 43:4).

Before we spoke a word, He was singing this song of love over us. He takes great delight in us and rejoices over us (Zephaniah 3:17). He saved us, not because of any righteous that we have done, but because He is a Father of mercy and love (Titus 3:5).

He embraces our wounds, our vulnerability, our rebellious self, our wandering ways. He accepts us in our totality – not just those parts of us that our particularly holy or righteous or beautiful, but all of us in our ugliness, sinfulness, and pridefulness. He sees to the very core of our being – He sees what we truly are, vulnerable, broken, alone. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out,” says Isaiah about the faithfulness of this God in the midst of our brokenness (Isaiah 42:3).

He is Abba, Father – the God who runs after alienated and estranged children to bring us home. He gives us a place at His banquet, when we barely deserve the crumbs under his table.

The core of our being is constituted by the truth that we are Abba’s delight, beloved by Him, precious in His sight. When the beauty and strength of youth fades and the illusion of our self-sufficiency and autonomy shatters, when worldly glory vanishes and the fickle approval of man fails, His love remains. When our abilities crumble and our bodies grow frail, when our minds are dimmed and our hands grow weak, we still have the love of God and yet have all.

At every moment, we owe our existence to the love of God. The very core of our being is utterly dependent on the sustaining, creating, renewing love of the Father which never fails, which never fades, which is always faithful. In Him we live and move and have our being, always loved into being by the God who is Love.

To accept this radical love – to put on our identity as the beloved – requires a total conversion of the heart.

To accept our identity as a child of God is to lay down every illusion of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and strength. There is no part of our existence that receives its being apart from the life-giving love of the Father.

To be accepted by Him in our totality shatters the facade we put up to be accepted and approved by others. To be embraced in our totality by Abba means we can lay down our striving for the glory of man, because we have been endowed with the robes of righteousness that the Father lovingly puts on the backs of His children. We can walk with new confidence, new boldness. This is perfect love that casts out fear (1 John 4:18), fear of man and fear of condemnation (Romans 8:1).

Run out of hiding. Lay down your striving. Throw down your fear. You are accepted by Abba through Christ. He embraces you not because of your righteous deeds, but in spite of them. He rejoices over you and invites you in your pain, in your rebellion, in your hiding, in your hurting.

He will not break a bruised reed, nor will He snuff out a smouldering wick. Come to Him, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He is gentle and kind. Let His perfect love cast out fear; let the truth that you are His beloved speak against every lie of the enemy.

We hear Heaven’s music on the horizon, and we are invited to the banquet as Abba’s children. May we have faith to accept the invitation.

Vulnerable Beauty

What do we make of the person in our midst who, according to this world’s measure of value, has little or nothing to “bring to the table”?

The boy with cerebral palsy, dependent on his caregiver for the most basic of tasks. The woman made homeless by circumstances outside of her control. The lady next door with Alzheimer’s. The man with Down Syndrome. The young person who, through no fault of her own, never had the opportunity to receive education and is unable to find paid work.

In a society where human value is commodity-value, the ability to enter into relations of exchange and reciprocity, what makes these people valuable in and of themselves? Where is their worth to be found?

Where is their place in a worldview that measures human value on the sliding scale of autonomy, freedom, self-expression, productivity, exchange?

And where will our value be when our security, health and wealth falls like a tower of cards, subjected to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”?

Whatever grounds the value of human life, it cannot be what Western society says it is.

It cannot be economic or exchange value, for that would exclude the unemployed and homeless.

It cannot be reason or intellectual ability, for that would exclude those with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.

It cannot be autonomy or freedom of expression, for that would exclude the voiceless, the forgotten-about, the oppressed, those on the fringes.

It cannot be strength, beauty, or riches, for that would exclude the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the powerless, those who do not live up to the standards of beauty provided by fickle culture.

There must be something deeper, something more foundational, that gives worth to life. The image of God cannot be found in the functions and activities accorded value by our economically driven society.

The truth of what the human is is simply this: to be loved into existence by the God who is Love. 

Our existence is entirely gratuitous. We exist by nothing but the overflow of divine love, lovingly willed into being by the God who loves to create. The image of God dwells in us simply because we are. That which makes us valuable before God is not our ability, autonomy, economic worth, but simply that we are made by Him and stand in relation with Him.

In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it (1 Timothy 6:7). We are dust breathed into life by the Spirit of God (Genesis 2:7). We are not responsible for our being. We did not even create ourselves; much less are we able to exercise creative autonomy over the world. We are subject to it, dependent on it.  Our existence comes from outside of us.

We are the products of sheer grace, sheer mercy, and therefore truly vulnerable before God. God has opened Himself up to us in creating us, and our lives are open before Him, truly dependent, finite, contingent on Him for our every breath and our very existence.

In the bodies and lives of those who appear in our midst as helpless and vulnerable, we are confronted most starkly with the true nature common to all of us. In this fragile, interdependent world, all of us are vulnerable, finite, limited.

If we have been blessed with “able” bodies, these will perish. If we have been blessed with wealth, this will fade away. Our minds will deteriorate, our beauty will fade. What is true of Peter is true of us all; “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

Whatever makes human life truly beautiful, truly valuable, it is not our perfect bodies and perfect minds. It cannot be our quality of life. It is not our supposed “rights” and freedoms which could, for whatever reason, be taken from us at any moment.

It is simply that we are beloved by the God who lovingly created us, lovingly sustains us, and lovingly entered into relationship with us, by entering into the vulnerable, weak body of a human being in Jesus Christ. 

The acceptance of our mutual vulnerability and finitude radically alters the way we do church. The church cannot – must not – mirror society’s measure of value, based on autonomy, exchange-value and success. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is a place for all, not just the beautiful, the well-off, the able-bodied. Our communion must not be a gallery of the middle- or upper-classes, but a place of welcome for all and sundry.

Because when we come together, we acknowledge that before God, we are all like grass. All is from Him, for Him, to Him. We have nothing that did not first come from Him. Beauty fades, our bodies weaken, our wealth perishes, but His eternal love for us remains, in spite of it all. 

All that matters, the only thing that defines us and grounds the value of our being, is that we are beloved by God. The image of God dwells in us simply because He is, and we are. We are loved into existence by Him, out of the gratuity and overflow of His love, by His Spirit.

The God who is Love dwells in our midst. His beckoning voice shatters our value-systems and worldview. In the Kingdom, there is no hierarchy based on productivity or use-value.

In this kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first. Let our communion acknowledge this, showing prejudice to no-one, standing in solidarity with all, for we are all one, for we share one nature.

The Lord is like a father to his children,
    tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are;
    he remembers we are only dust.
Our days on earth are like grass;
    like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone—
    as though we had never been here.
But the love of the Lord remains forever
    with those who fear him.
His salvation extends to the children’s children
of those who are faithful to his covenant,
    of those who obey his commandments!”

Psalm 103:13-18

To Live Like it’s Your Birthday

Your birthday is perhaps the only day in your life when people celebrate you for your sheer existence.

You did nothing to bring yourself into the world; just about all the effort on that front was on the part of your mother. You had pretty much no part to play in your own birth. Your birthday, therefore, is a time of celebration and rejoicing simply because you are here; simply because you exist. 

It’s no accident, then that the language of God’s grace in the Bible is the language of birth, of new life, of new existence in the world. The apostle Paul puts the grace-wrought life of the believer like this: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, ESV)

Our reception of God’s grace, then, might be likened to the celebration of our birthday. Just as, on our birthday, we are made the recipient of rejoicing and celebration and gifts not because of any effort of our own, but simply because we exist, so it is with God’s grace. The Father has lavished His grace upon us, has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, has predestined to adopt us as His sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:3-14), not because of any merit or effort of our own, but simply because He loved us even in spite of anything we have or haven’t done. Even before we were born, He knew us, He called us and set us apart by this grace (Galatians 1:15).

This Gospel of Grace changes everything. We are truly accepted and celebrated just as we. Our Father in Heaven rejoices over us, His new creations, not because we have done anything to deserve it, but because He delighted to bestow His grace upon us and adopt us as His own.

We didn’t bring ourselves into this new life, nor did we cause ourselves to be born into His grace. But, like an eternally recurring birthday, we are constantly the recipients of spiritual blessing upon spiritual blessing, grace upon grace, life in abundance, simply because the Father’s nature is to give.

We are grace-born children. We could never earn the Father’s blessing, yet He simply pours His love upon us without measure. Our identity is secure. He delights in you simply because you are you, and you are His. 

Abundant life begins with this scandalous truth. Our identity is secured by the work of Another, and His work cannot be undone. To be great by this world’s standard is to be constantly striving, constantly seeking approval from others, constantly working and toiling for a sense of value before the watching world. It is a wearying work, and it will never satisfy, for, in the world’s economy, you can always be better, stronger, richer, more popular, more successful, more beautiful, have more friends, have a bigger house, and so on.

In the economy of heaven, however, our identity is secure in the Father’s love, by His grace that demands no merit or achievement on our part.  Like a new-born baby, we are celebrated and loved simply because the Father is Love, without qualification. And this makes us truly free, because, when we know our identity to be eternally secure, we can forget ourselves altogether.

So much worry and anxiety and trouble comes from building our identity upon the approval of another. True freedom comes from the self-forgetfulness of grace, because our identity is rooted in the Father’s grace bestowed upon us like a birthday present we didn’t do anything to earn.

It was for this life of freedom that the Father set us free. Receive the gift.

 

Move On

I have a confession to make. I’m rather good at feeling sorry for myself.

The sort of self-pitying behaviour I’m talking about swings two ways. On the one hand, when I mess up or make a mistake, I tend to wallow in self-condemnation and guilt. I’m an introspective type; sometimes a little too introspective, I’ve concluded. It means that when I do wrong, I beat myself up to no end.

On the other hand, when I feel low, I find it easy to fall into self-justification. You too might be accustomed to the type of fatalistic, self-justifying behaviour in the following scenario: you’ve had a bad day, so you think to yourself, “It doesn’t matter what I do now. Nothing I can do can make things any better or any worse.” The mind says to the will, “You’re already feeling down. The day is already a defeat. It doesn’t matter if you eat another donut, watch another episode of Suits, drink another beer, insert-unhealthy-behaviour-here to make you feel more comfortable about yourself.” Numb yourself from reality, and justify it to yourself. You deserve it. Not.

Both types of self-pity – whether it’s self-condemnation or self-justification – are destructive, numbing, and paralysing. Neither of them are God’s purpose for us. They leave us stagnant,  wallowing in a pit of self-despair. Like Elijah on the mountain, we find ourselves in a pitiful state of defeat, obsessing about our own woeful lot, without the perspective either to accept the past for what it is or press forwards into the future.

I think God sometimes says to us something to this effect: Get up. Gird yourself and move on. Get a grip and press forward. Ouch.

Of course, that sense of guilt is not, in itself, a bad thing, so long as it leads us to repentance. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, talks about this healthy guilt as “godly grief that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). On the other hand, the type of self-aggrandising, self-pitying, despairing guilt, the guilt which holds on to past sins and does not let them go, is a “worldly grief [which] produces death.”

Guilt that leads to repentance is an essential part of sanctification. Repentance means that we accept our own mistakes, but then we are enabled to leave those mistakes at the foot of the Cross, knowing that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12, ESV). We can press on, knowing that by God’s grace coupled with our partnership and obedience to His will, we are being perfected by Him, being “renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16, ESV).

Guilt that leads to self-pitying condemnation, on the other hand, leads to death. It involves, in a way, a rejection of God’s grace; we think that our sin is too powerful for His love to overcome. This type of guilt is a burden too great for the human soul to bear. Acceptance of God’s abundant grace, on the other hand, results in a type of self-forgetfulness, allowing us to forget what is behind and press on to what is ahead, “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14. ESV).

God calls us out from the cave of crippling despair, from our state of wallowing in defeat and condemnation. When the Israelites complained to Moses during the Exodus from Egypt, thinking themselves defeated what does God say to them? “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on” (Ex. 14:15).

Move on. 

Today, God may be telling you to move on. The story of Easter is that death has been defeated once-for-all-time. Our sin and rejection has been left at the foot of the Cross, nailed to the tree; our condemnation is met with His acceptance. Our old self – self-pitying, self-condemning, self-justifying – has been crucified with Him on Good Friday; we are raised to a new life of freedom by His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Freedom to move on.

When Jesus raised Lazarus to life, He said, “Lazarus, come out!” To each one of us, too, He calls, “Get up, come out, leave behind your grave-clothes, and move on.

The Wanderer

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.

I’ve been running for a while now, but my commitment to training has never been exemplary. Over the years, my dedication has come in fits and bursts, as temperamental and varied as the English weather.

The times when I’ve been most dedicated are when I’ve had a race to fix my mind on and work towards. Anyone who does sports will know the motivating power that an upcoming competition exerts over your training. You subordinate your diet, your health and your routine according to the hope of the prize at the end – the taste of victory, the sense of achievement, the medal at the finish line.

When I don’t have a race or event to work toward, I find my motivation to train slips away all too quickly. I care less about my diet. I do less exercise. My running becomes the thing I cut out of my busy weeks for the sake of more urgent tasks.

And the fruit of losing that motivation is evident: I feel lethargic, unfit, unhealthy, and lacking in discipline.

This, too, has been the story of my walk with God during this season of life.

A few weeks ago I began to feel incredibly burnt out. I’d been doing lots of stuff – good stuff as well – and yet I’d lost sight of the reason I was doing it. I’d stopped setting my mind on the goodness of the gospel, the reason for our hope and the saving power of God – and had gone on in my own strength. It was like I was doing lots of things for God – church events, CU events, the like – but I’d stopped doing them with God.

My burning-out brought with it feelings I’ve constantly struggled with in the past. A sense of alienation from God. Lack of clarity about why I was doing what I was doing. Feeling a loss of God’s presence. A lack of joy in my devotion to God. The sense of being a servant rather than a son.

I, so prone to wander, had lost sight of the grace that saved me at first, the grace that leads me on. Like the “foolish Galatians” against whom Paul has much to say, it was as if what had begun in me by a work of the Spirit, I was trying to continue by an effort of the flesh (Galatians 3:1-3).

“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home,” pens John Newton in his famous hymn. The grace in which we started out is the same grace that leads us home, the same grace that sustains us day by day, the same grace that brings us before God. Having lost sight of that grace, I’d wandered away from the fold of grace, just like the unmotivated runner who loses sight of the prize and sabotages his training.

When we lose our wonder and cease to fix our eyes on the incomprehensible, saving work of the Cross, we wander into all kinds of dry and dark places.  Like crazed wanderers in the desert, we stray from the life-giving springs and deep wells of grace to go after the false hope of a mirage. Our hearts are so prone to grow lethargic at the indescribable goodness of the gospel that saved us – at such great cost.

Like a river of living water that never runs dry, it is God’s grace – freely given, poured into our hearts through faith – that gives life, life in abundance. Fixing our eyes on Jesus changes everything. It produces in us hope, endurance, joy, assurance, security, and breathes new perspective into every circumstance. It is the power of salvation to those who believe.

Fixing our eyes on this great gospel, let us “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 ESV). The hope of that prize changes everything.

It’s Okay to be an Introvert

I was always a quiet and unassuming kid.

I kept a small, close circle of friends, and even then, I’d much rather spend time in my own company. I’d while away my childhood days with my head stuck in a novel, or, even better, by fabricating fantastical towns and worlds out of Lego bricks.

For the most part, keeping company with myself suited me just fine.

As I grew up all that began to change. As I entered secondary school and puberty, I was thrust into a world of new social interactions, of canteen politics and classroom cliques. While trying to survive the hormonal minefield of the troublesome teens, I also had to learn an art that didn’t come all too naturally to me: the art of socialising.

The years went by and I was slowly drawn out of my own skin.

While the skill of conversation didn’t come naturally to me, I started to become more at home around other people. My quiet childhood years now blossomed into more amicable teenage years, and I found a new love for being with people.

Now, in the middle of my degree, I love the busy social life that university affords. The friends I’ve made here number among my best and closest friends, and for them I’m grateful beyond measure. In contrast to my insular past, I’ve learnt to open up. I now thrive by being around people, meeting with friends, and attending social gatherings, which is something that would terrify me as a child.

What I’ve realised recently, though, is just how far the pendulum had swung.

In putting away my overly-introverted tendencies, in forcing myself out of my shell and realising I enjoyed being in the air, I left a little bit of myself behind in the process.

Deep down, I’m still an introvert – and, by playing the extrovert, I’d forgotten that.

Before I began to burn out, I didn’t realise just how much I needed quality time to myself. I’d want to spend all my waking hours in a flurry of activity – being around people or working or meeting up with friends. I like the feeling of keeping a full calendar – but, mistakenly, I’d sacrificed carving out vital time to myself.

I’d look up to my friends who seemed to be doing it right – able to balance sixteen coffee dates a week with commitments to their degrees and being on society committees and so forth. “They’ve got it right,” I thought, “I want to do it that way.” I’d mistaken doing more, being more available, with serving my friends better, as the “better way” of doing life.

The problem is, I began to stretch myself thin, I began to grow weary and burnt out.

How could I serve others from the overflow of my heart if my tank was half-empty? I compared myself to others who seemed to cope so well – and grew discouraged that I couldn’t do the same. But, simultaneously, I realised that I wasn’t able to sustain that level of busyness. Something had to change.

This past half-year has been a long process of learning that it’s okay to be myself. In trying to imitate others I’d burnt myself out. In a culture where being an extrovert seems the most desirable personality trait – exuding confidence, constantly energetic, socially adept – I’d mourned that I had neither the energy or the persona to be like that. Jesus, quoting the book of Leviticus, teaches “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

But how can you truly love your neighbour unless you love yourself – the unique personality and quirks that God has individually given to you?

I’d bought into a lie. 

What I’d forgotten is that to each of us, God gives a unique purpose, unique gifts, a unique personality, by his grace, that fits into his plan for the church – his body – as a whole. In a much-quoted passage, Paul writes:

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts,yet one body…But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

1 Corinthians 12:18-20, 24b, 25

In learning to be myself, I’d gone too far in the other direction, forgetting the unique gift I had been given not in spite of, but because of, my personality. I can’t serve as another member of the body that I’m not. But, in corollary, another member of the body can’t fulfil what I’ve been called to do. Both introvert and extrovert has a unique role to play.

So I celebrate my friends who are extroverts – I love your energy, your charisma, your affection, your drive, your passion. I uphold your ability to lead the church and to inspire others, to lift others up and boldly follow your vision.

But, to my introverted friends, and to myself, I extend this reminder. We each have a unique role to play. A different way of looking at the world. A different way of loving people. A unique stake in the mission that others do not have. Just because the gift may seem, at times, less prominent, less visible, lower-key, doesn’t mean it isn’t as important. We are part of the same body, so don’t mourn not being like others. Embrace your unique gifts.

I’m learning, once again, the art of being an introvert.

Kept

Doubt can hit us in many forms.

It can creep in subtly, nagging us with undermining, subversive questions. Intellectual objections and personal experiences erode our sure foundation, undercutting the rock we stand on, until we suddenly find ourselves falling as the ground beneath our feet caves in. Such doubts conspire to throw us into a violent sea where we suddenly find ourselves cut from anchor, tossed and turned every which way in the anxiety of losing sight of God.

Sometimes doubt attacks us more suddenly, triggered by an experience that makes us ask, “God, are you there? God, are you really good?” The loss of a family member. Personal sickness and pain. The turning of circumstances for the worst. The times where you look up to the heavens and wonder who, if anyone, is looking back down on you.

Experiencing Doubt

Doubt is an incredibly isolating experience. Especially if you’re in a community of faithful people, you can feel cut off because you find yourself questioning the beliefs that you, and those closest to you, held for granted. You think, “I’m alone in this. Other people won’t understand what I’m going through.”

Then there’s the feeling of isolation from God. You feel disqualified and distant from God, because you feel that doubt is not the mark of a true Christian. “If I was truly faithful,” you might think, “I wouldn’t doubt. I would stand firm in faith even though everything conspired to make me doubt.” Yet, that hasn’t been your experience. And, in the midst of that, you wander why God would continue to love you.

Doubt is a harrowing experience.

Kept by God

I’ve always seen doubt as the loosening of my grip on God, like a climber losing grip on a rock face. In other words, I’ve tended to picture the surety of my faith in terms of how well I can hold on to God. And, when I’ve no longer been able to do that, I’ve felt like a failure, like I haven’t been a good enough Christian.

Throughout the Bible, faith is talked about in much different terms from my vision of the self-dependent climber trying to grasp on to God by his own intellectual or spiritual exertions. Rather, the Bible pictures the believer as “kept safe for Jesus Christ” (Jude 2, NRSV). It is God “who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing” (Jude 24). Here the emphasis is not on the effort of the believer to hold on, but by the faithful, steady love of God, holding on to us.

At the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he prays that the believers there may be “kept sound and blameless (5:23), but that because the one who calls us is faithful, he will accomplish this (5:24).

You see, faith is not the act of grasping on to God by our own strength, lest we fall. Rather, our faithful God holds us, keeps us, protects us and clings to us as his own children.

The Faithfulness of the Father

Think about a baby held in the arms of their mother. They try to cling to her for safety and comfort and security, but by their own little strength, they cannot hold themselves up. Rather, their mother lifts them up, draws them close, quiets them, holds them close to her. They are secure in their mother’s arms – not because they are holding on to her, but because she is holding on to them.

It’s like that with us and God.

Time and time again I’ve felt distant and disqualified in seasons of doubt, thinking of my doubts as undermining the authenticity of my faith. Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that actually, doubt can, and indeed must, lead us to greater dependence on God. When we shift our mindset from “I’m lost because I can no longer hold on to God” to “I can’t hold on to you, God, but I need you to hold on to me,” doubt can become the means by which we’re led to greater dependence, trust, and obedience.

Doubt, then, is a humbling experience. But, I need humbling, that I might be flung back into the arms of my Saviour, away from the path of self-dependence into utter surrender in the arms of the Father.

Let’s say, with Spurgeon, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”