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.

 

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.”

A Great and Terrifying Wilderness

There are seasons where God feels closer than your breath, and seasons where He seems further away than the darkest reaches of the universe, obscured by the night sky as you gaze up, wondering to yourself, “Where are You?”

We’re experience-people. We live on touch, sight, smell, hearing, emotions. We often seek confirmation about the world and the reality we perceive by using one of these senses. “How do you know Everest exists?”, you might say. “Of course it does,” I’d respond. “You can go to Nepal and see it for yourself, climb its ridges, touch it.” You can confirm your suspicion by travelling there, or you can rely on the testimony of others.

A more difficult question might be, “How do you know she loves you?” Now, that’s harder. Yet, in many ways, the question of someone’s love is still confirmed by our experience and feeling of love. The way she treats you, the sacrifices she makes for you, your joint experiences – these would go toward confirming her love for you. Our perception of love is tied up, not exclusively but extensively, in our emotions and feelings.

Our experience of God, however, is often not like this. Sometimes our experience of Him is as tangible as Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai; we hear the sound of His voice, we smell His fire or His fragrance, we perceive, somehow, His glory about us. Yet, more often (for me at least) its more like the believers that Peter’s Epistle is addressed to:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. 1 Peter 1:8, ESV

“You have not seen Him,” says the writer of that letter. “Yet you love Him, you believe in Him, you rejoice.” How can that be? When our perception of love is so tied in to our nature as physical beings, based on touch and sight and feeling, how can we who do not see Him love Him and rejoice in Him?

It totally reevaluates our perception of faith. So often I have fallen into the trap of thinking of the outcome of faith as a succession of mountain-top experiences, tangible meetings and encounters. If only I pray right, I’ll have these transcendent feelings of awe and devotion. If only I sing this song, or go to that place, then I’ll meet God, I’ll experience His presence. My idea of faith-experienced is tied up with nice feelings and giddy emotions.

Which is why time and time again I’ve been discouraged and hopeless when it isn’t like that. As if there’s something wrong with my process and method. Like a true relationship with God is like a constant “feeling-stream,” where I receive all these spiritually-charged emotions and experiences. And, when I don’t get that, I doubt, I wonder, I lose heart, because my faith is based on a series of transient experiences rather than a constant bedrock of truth, a truth that surpasses my fleeting human perceptions.

In short, we import society’s longing for instant gratification into our spiritual life, that a relationship with God is about constantly “feeling something,” pious emotions and ecstatic thoughts.

Let’s go back to Moses on his mountain. In Deuteronomy, the story of Moses recounting to the Israelites how God led them through the Sinai wilderness, he says of God, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites…the great and terrifying wilderness you saw” (Deuteronomy 1:6,7,19, ESV).

The authentic expression of faith is not just the amazing, extra-ordinary encounter with God on the mountain top. No. Its the lived obedience and trust in God when He doesn’t feel so present, the mornings you get up and are in terror at the “great and terrifying wilderness” you are about to enter. Its about what happens in the periods of boredom and anxiety in the wilderness. In short, faith is more than feelings. 

And there’s something beautiful about that. Because, our God is not transient and fleeting like our human experience. He is trustworthy, He is faithful, He is steadfast in His boundless love to us from age to age, a constant cornerstone and bedrock. He is the God with whom our feet shall not be moved, in whom we shall not be shaken, and whose Kingdom has no end.

And this is truth that doesn’t change based on our experiences. Truth is constant, when our feelings are not. Take heart, friend. He is with you, holding, leading, loving, even when we don’t feel it.