Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Unguarded Love

Being loved improves my sense of humor, among other things. I’ve been waking up every morning and thinking about how I am loved by God. It’s like being free. I love life again. I love people. I love without fear. I lost the plot there for a while, but now I am loved.

Yet, I wonder how long it will last. Not that God’s love runs out, but I know that I will leave. I will be seduced by lies and forget that I am loved. I always leave. Like a spouse with Alzheimer’s, I will forget who I am and will treat the Lover of my soul suspiciously, as if He’s my enemy. It will take time for Him to pursue me and convince me once again that He is on my side, but He will. Again and again. In spite of my hostility, my rejection, my foolishness. He loves me.

I’m realizing another reason I have a hard time understanding God’s love for me. When it comes to love, we have to—we’re told to—do something that God himself doesn’t do. We guard our hearts. The more you expose yourself to people by loving, the more you expose yourself to pain. They go hand-in-hand. God doesn’t guard His heart from pain. He endures pain because He loves us. He endures our leaving, our forgetting.

Among us, love and grace extends only so far and then we begin to want a return, a payment; we begin to protect ourselves from hurt, pain, and damage to our heart that comes when we love. We begin making demands. We withhold love. We limit what we give away. Or we leave.

I’ve had a lot of discussions during the last couple of years about when divorce is ever justified—in cases of adultery, abuse, abandonment? Self-protection always comes into play. But I’m struck by the truth that God never divorces, no matter how justified. He never leaves; He never requires anything in return because self-protection is never a thought for Him.

God risks hurt, pain, and inevitable damage to his heart. He continues extending love and grace even when there are no returns, even when we reject Him and use Him. He pays the price Himself; He meets the demands of love Himself. He doesn’t guard His heart, but takes all of it on Himself because He never stops loving.

Our love, our grace, our forgiveness can’t look like God’s perfect love—it’s impossible. We can’t bear the pain, we can’t handle the betrayal. We can share in his suffering by loving, but at some point as we love, self-protection kicks in. Then we walk away or demand payment. God, at that point, pursues and pays. We give ultimatums. He lets us go and woos us back with love and grace. He endures the pain of our leaving because He loves us.

Still, I think the more we are filled with His love, the greater our capacity to accept the consequences of loving others because He takes some of the hits for us. Our returns on love come from Him, so we don’t have to demand them from others. Our hearts are guarded by His love so we are free to love. His love is a protection that enlarges our capacity to love instead of limiting it. I’m going to enjoy it while I can.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I'm in Love

I’m going to go ahead and say this at the risk of sounding cliché ... love changes everything. I forgot about love. I was reading recently Henri Nouwen’s book Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, and his descriptions of joy and experiencing eternal life now thoroughly convinced me that I didn’t know what he was talking about. Joy has eluded me for some time, and even the happiest times have been tinged with sorrow. I’ve become so taken with the idea that this world is broken and incomplete and that all our hope lies in life with Christ after this life, that I’ve forgotten that we can have a taste of that here and now. I forgot about love.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been loved well. And those who loved me well are the same ones who wounded me most. I’m not unique in this. I’ve wounded those I love. Our love is a poor reflection. It’s only in part, only a taste of perfect love. And at other times, it leaves an altogether bad taste. But we begin to think that that is what love is. The poor reflection becomes the reality and prevents us from accepting perfect love because we are accustomed to striving and qualifying and compensating and wounding.

Yet His perfect love covers all our wounds. “When perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” (1 Cor 13:10)

The assurance of perfect love is a beautiful and powerful thing. It allows us to let go of all the other things we’re laboring for and rest in God’s embrace. It allows us to have joy in the midst of difficulty. It gives meaning to our work and all we do. And the opposite is also true, without the assurance of God’s love, everything we work toward is a futile effort to prove our worth or fulfill our obligations or just to survive. None of it matters without love. Love changes everything.

I have always thought of the passage in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 as referring to my love for others. But for the first time today I read it differently. I used to read, “If I have eloquent words, prophetic gifts, superior knowledge, boundless faith, if I give all I possess to the poor, or sacrifice myself… but don’t do it out of my love for others, it means nothing.” But today I read, “If I have eloquent words, prophetic gifts, superior knowledge, boundless faith, if I give all I possess to the poor, or sacrifice myself … but don’t have assurance of God’s love, it means nothing.” I guess they are very similar ideas, but the difference is in my inability to love well. I can’t work up love for others. Only through the assurance of God’s love do my motives change. Only then am I able to do anything in love.

If I have not love”—if I don’t have God’s love, if I’m not convinced and assured of His love for me, none of my ministry, or sacrifice, or insight, or success, or faith means a thing. Love changes everything. Today, I woke up loved. What a difference it has made.

Monday, July 20, 2009


You know, we choose most things in life based on what it can offer us. A car, a job, a home, a city, a college, a spouse, a church, a friend. In the same way, we are chosen based on what we have to offer—as a spouse, as an employee, as a friend, as a leader. So, we begin to think that this is where our value lies, in what we have to offer. In beauty, in wisdom, in wit, in skill, in knowledge, in charm, in character. And we go about trying to prove what we have to offer, to prove our value.

And, of course, we want to keep concealed those things that we consider shameful—the things that we fear might reduce our value, the things that might give us away by revealing we’re not worth as much as we first appeared to be because we offer ugliness with our beauty, brokenness with our charm; the package of who we are includes what is wounded, scarred, insecure, and selfish. These things reduce our likelihood of being chosen. They reduce our worth.

This is how we are programmed to think of value and worth. It’s as if everyone has a price on their head. Maybe this is why it is so difficult to accept a love that isn’t based on what we have to offer.

I want to prove to God what I have to offer—my moral record, my faith, my ministry efforts, my spiritual maturity, my insight, my good choices, my penitence, even my suffering on his behalf. It all becomes part of my attempt to prove my worth. It also becomes part of my self-salvation project, as Tim Keller calls it. It is an affront to the cross and is anti-gospel. I can’t accept God’s love because I want to be my own savior, to be enough on my own. Yet I never will be. It takes accepting this to receive God’s love.

I was reminded today of Brennan Manning’s words that I read back in April, but they have taken this long to sink in. He said, in essence, forgiveness doesn’t follow repentance, but repentance follows forgiveness. This is so essential to grasp. All my penitence, and faith, and character, and beauty comes as a response to God’s love and grace, as a result—not as a way to earn it or be worthy of it. God’s love and grace and acceptance and forgiveness is offered before I wallow in contrition or say the right words or fix myself up.

We so badly want to offer something. Yet Christ is the only reason we have anything to offer. As Eugene Peterson says from Ephesians 5, “Christ's love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness.” Christ’s love gives us our value and worth—it doesn’t require our value and worth. This means we can accept His love without concern for what we have to offer Him.

For most of us, we’re not used to being loved like this. We’re used to being loved for what we have to offer. Perhaps we’re even used to being cut off from love when it seems we have nothing to offer. Being loved by God requires reprogramming. We have to learn to be loved freely. Once we can accept that love, we can accept our true value, our true identity—an identity and value that comes from the assurance of His love. A value we don’t have to prove to anyone.

I think our reprogramming has to be constant because it’s so easy to go back to default mode. I wake up in default mode, and it’s not like I can press a few buttons and be assured once again that I am loved. It’s like having to do a total system restore—wiping clean what’s there and writing program all over again. I have to be convinced all over again of God’s love for me, not just to know it, but to taste it. Without that assurance, everything else is warped. Maybe Manning is right when he says, “There is only one thing God asks of us—that we be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is everything and for whom God is enough.” I’m finding that without this, nothing else matters.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Awkward Moments

I keep covering myself with words.
You see too much,
and I’m not enough,
so I pile on the words
to cover and cover and cover
until you don’t remember what you saw—
a piece of me
naked, deformed, or bleeding
while everything and everyone screams,
So I keep covering myself with words
so we can smile and pretend
we’re not wounded.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Now They Know

Dreams are the last to let go
They’re the last to know
They don’t find out with the rest of us
But have to learn it slow
Of memories and longings
Of who and where and when
When they find out
New sorrow comes
With them all traces end

"These things--the beauty, the memory of our own past--are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself... Now we wake to find... we have been mere spectators... Our life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation." C. S. Lewis ~ The Weight of Glory

Grief Comes in Dreams

Last night as I slept
you showed up
like a ghost
with a sunburn
and a smile
and a piece of art

Everything about you
and that place

with the windows
and painted doors
was strange
and yet familiar

You didn’t understand
why I had to hide
but I had to
I had to
You couldn’t see
what isn’t yours
I’m not yours anymore

And today I cried
by surprise
because you were strange
and yet familiar
and the whole world
seems strange
and yet familiar
even me

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

book review: saint

Another Ted Dekker thriller, I listened to Saint on CD during a long road trip with my sister and her kids. Again, the spiritual truths in this one knocked me over, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. At first it seems like your run of the mill Bourne-esque assassin-who-can’t-remember-who-he-is story (one of my favorite movies, by the way). But of course, it is so much more, as I knew it would be because it’s Dekker.

What I didn’t know is that our assassin is a character from a previous book that I read (both part of a series, but they can be read alone) called Showdown. But what made this so remarkable is that in Showdown, he is a character who is chosen by God, given gifts and powers, and is full of potential and zeal. Yet, in Saint, that character is unrecognizable—instead we see a skilled assassin, who, in fact, has no recollection of his true identity. You see where it’s going, right?

In the story, the organization that trains assassins believes that the key is in taking away their identity completely, causing them to forget their origins, making them believe they are someone else, and motivating them through lies. They train in a pit where they are fed lies until they believe and their memory is erased. They are sent on missions that train them not to trust any reality except the one they learned in the pit. There are parallels to our human state at every turn.

As the truth of his origins is revealed, he can’t accept it. He feels so lost and confused. He doesn’t know who to listen to or who to trust, and he only wants to return to the pit where he is comfortable instead of his true home, Paradise. I don’t want to give too much away, but what really struck me in this story was that I knew who he was—who he was meant to be, his true identity, his power, his genius, his potential—and I wanted so badly for him to know too.

I’ve been thinking about our true identities since then. I think of it as our imago Dei—the way we were meant to be and live and function. We’re deceived and trained and lied to. We don’t know who we are. And hearing the truth seems so strange. We want to hide in our comfortable pit with all our lies. But who we are, who we could be is beyond what we can fathom. What if we could see reality? Would we throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us? (Hebrews 12) What if we could see the potential in others? Would we desperately want them to discover their true identity and be set free from the lies? What if we can see spiritual reality... if only we ask?

Had to add this link to Don Miller's blog. It's a poem for a newborn baby. It's fitting here because it's about our spiritual amnesia, and it's beautiful.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

book review (sort of): the principle of the path

I don’t really think it’s fair to review a book that I didn’t finish, so I am only claiming to give my first impressions here. Before I had to return it, I read the first five or so chapters of Andy Stanley’s The Principle of the Path because it was recommended, but as I was reading so many red flags went up for me. It’s a teaching I’ve been running away from for several years after mistaking it as the central message of Christianity for too long. The main idea here is that your choices now affect the path of your life in the future. True. I agree with his basic premise, but I have a problem with it as the way of life—especially the Christian way of life.

Instead of embracing brokenness and depending on Christ for transformation, the message could be interpreted as make right decisions and you’ll get what you want in life. He goes as far as to say that if you have cancer, it is because of the bad choices you have made. There is some truth to this, but it seems to me to set us in a place of pride if life is going well for us—as if it’s all our doing—and a place of judgment toward those who are suffering. It could also bring self-condemnation for our own failures.

I agree that you reap what you sow—it’s a truth that shouldn’t be ignored. I really appreciated how he showed the correlation between our desires and our decisions. We often want one thing but don’t make decisions that will get us there, and then we’re shocked when things end badly. For example, wanting a spouse who loves God, yet dating any person who shows interest. Or wanting kids who follow Christ, but never teaching them the Word or modeling it for them. Wanting to be financially stable, but making decisions that take you deeper into debt. Then we blame God.

I have to go back to the problem of balance again. What Stanley wrote in this book is what I’ve been swinging away from because it led me to judgment and away from mercy. Maybe some need to swing toward it if it’s a principle they’ve not embraced—if they’ve been thinking of God as a sort of an escape hatch so we can do whatever we want and He’ll work things out for us. And if He doesn’t, it’s all His fault. That’s a problem.

Yet, if it’s all up to our good choices, we’re screwed. We’re lost. We’re like sheep. Sheep are stupid. We screw up. We make a mess of our lives and others’ lives. Thank God that He rescues. It’s not all up to us.

As silly as it sounds, I was really struck by this when I watched Confessions of a Shopaholic this weekend. It shows what a mess we can get into—ruining relationships, finances, career. Addictions are like this. Sin is like this. And sin is so deceptive, so enticing. We need a Savior. Is God the kind of Father that bails us out every time or the kind that tells us we made our own bed and have to lie in it? I think neither. Maybe he is like the father in this movie (not in every respect)—when she realizes the pit she’s in, he stands beside her in love, he sacrifices for her, he shows mercy and helps her face the consequences and make the hard decisions that get her out. Reminds me of our need for Christ in order to find freedom—he empowers, he transforms, we cooperate. Maybe the church should be more like her support group—they walk with her as she painfully trudges her way out of her mess. But often, we shoot the wounded.

We need to recognize our capacity to be both victim and villain. Only then can we both accept consequences and mercy. We can take responsibility for our choices and receive grace. In turn, we can extend the same to others. But this is another of those things that is so tricky to balance!

I am wary of teaching that points to our ability to choose well rather than pointing to the cross. To me, it smacks of humanistic moralism and is void of the Gospel. I fear this unbalanced teaching has flooded the church, leaving us dependent on ourselves for our own salvation and with excuses not to love others and show the kind of mercy Christ gives. Perhaps in later chapters, Stanley did indeed point to our need for Christ so I don’t want to disparage his teaching entirely. Yet, in the chapters I read, he several times knocked the concepts of repentance and forgiveness as bailouts. As bailouts, they should be condemned, but as part of our response in relationship with Christ, they should be upheld as part of the principle of the path—as they key to returning to the path. Can we return to the path any other way?

I think we need to take another look at our motivation for making good choices—is it promised success and good consequences alone? This should not be mistaken for Christianity. Paul David Tripp wrote, "There really is no place for Christ in many people’s Christianity. Their faith is not actually in Christ; it is in Christianity and their ability to live it out." If we’re not careful, leaning hard on the principle of the path could look like that. We need the balance that only Christ gives.