Now I realize that the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, to ignore my original goodness. Because without claiming that first love and that original goodness for myself, I lose touch with my true self and embark on a destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of my Father. — Henri Nouwen
I can’t look you in the eyes.
My client said it to me. I could hear him crying, but he buried his face in his hands. He was drowning in shame from acting out, yet again.
And then he said something that stunned me. I know God hates me and can’t look at me.
He was a young seminary student. He’d been listening to some sermons from supposedly reliable guides. He’d told me what he had heard before – God can’t look at us in our sin. When he looks at us (and if we’re a Christian), he sees Jesus.
I asked him to look up at me. He couldn’t. I waited, and asked again after a bit. And finally he raised his head slowly, and looked. I suspect that in my eyes he saw love and felt safety. His eyes welled up more. At least you care, he says.
In some warped take on God’s love and human sin, he’s been told a lie. I heard it again recently by a popular preacher who barks with force at his congregation – Some of you need to know God hates you. He doesn’t just hate your sin. He hates you. I’ll spare you the guilt-and-shame-filled YouTube clip. And yet, thousands flock to it.
Like moths to a flame, many of us are simply irresistibly attracted to messages that either radically overstate our depravity or radically understate it. Preachers, if you want to make it, tell people what they want to hear. Two methods seem to work well.
1. Many want to hear they’re awful. Preach shame and guilt to them.
2. Many others want to hear they’re just fine. Don’t require anything of them.
Both are lies. Both minimize the extraordinary and challenging love of God in Jesus.
What I told this young seminary student is to get to know the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who looks the most repulsive in the eye and smiles. He loves and welcomes them, and then calls them to more. The extravagant Father in Luke 15 runs toward his prodigal son, bringing shame upon himself, in order to convey his extraordinary grace and love. You are my son. He gives him the ring, the robe, the feast. And then he expects him to live like a son.
Original goodness preceded the Fall. Before humankind fell, God smiled on them, bestowing dignity in his royal image. Listening to some of these preachers, you’d think God forgot what he created. But what Jesus sees in messed up human beings is what exists prior, that original dignity and glory. This originally good self is hidden now, but God promises to reveal it, to reveal you. As Frederick Buechner says, “The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all.” But because of Jesus, we’re washed, cleaned, restored.
God doesn’t hate you. He’s not repulsed by you.
When he looks at you, he’s not wincing.
And, He’s not looking at Jesus, instead, as if in some twisted form of divine logic God can never look upon his children again, but instead must gaze upon his Son as our righteousness.
No. You’re not disgusting. Don’t believe the twisted, repulsion theology that has more in common with Pharisaism than Jesus. God declares you not guilty. He adopts you. He loves you. Because of his relentless covenant faithfulness, you are loved, welcomed, enjoyed.
But don’t believe the opposite lie either…that God is just some positive-thinker in the sky. Don’t trivialize God’s love. Don’t use his forgiveness as an excuse to discard living a life of extraordinary love for others, compassion, sexual fidelity, humility, and more. God’s love is both welcoming and challenging. God smiles on you and invites you in, but he’ll not leave you unchanged. By his grace, you’ll be challenged radically, not by a Divine Guilt-and-Shame Manipulator, but by the Incarnate God who humiliated himself for you.
It’s because he knows you. He knows that original shimmering self that is you prior to the tragic cosmic Fall. The doctrine of original goodness desperately needs to be restored, not to let us off the hook, but to let us in to a life lived free from shame, freed for a cruciform life of self-sacrificial love.
As you celebrate the Incarnation in Christ’s birth, witness Christ’s smile. He didn’t come to remind you how bad you are, but how much you’re worth.
When the world turns away from the God whose Spirit gives life, it chooses the opposite: death. Because God loves the world so much that he is determined not to abandon it to its fate, he chooses to enter that world in human form to take upon himself the consequences of that fateful human choice, to triumph over it once and for all, to open the way back to life. That is what God’s love does. Without the fall the incarnation would surely still have happened, as creation was always intended as the arena for the coming of God, yet it would not have resulted in a cross. The cross only becomes necessary as the inevitable outcome of God entering a broken world not just to complete and crown it but heal it of its wounds, to overcome the consequences of its rebellion. Naturally we are not called to die for the sins of the world. We do not overcome death by our death. However, if we are truly to become one with Christ, that will not only mean knowing the love of the Father, it will also involve a vocation to join in some way in his sufferings for the healing of the world (Rom. 8:17; Col. 1:24). Our attempts to be the channels of God’s salvation to theworld through acts of kindness, mercy, forgiveness, alleviating poverty, washing ugly wounds, cleaning smelly drains, visiting awkward neighbors and so on will at times be hard, tiresome and even painful.
And yet that is the shape that love takes in a fallen world. It is as weenter into the suffering of a broken world, as we become one with the crucified Christ in the Spirit, ‘sharing in his sufferings’ that we know the fullness of the Father’s love, so that that we can also know his resurrection life…To pray the prayer ‘Come Holy Spirit’ is a wonderful, but perhaps also a sombre thing to do. It is wonderful because it asks God to draw us into the same relationship of love that Jesus had with the Father. It is sombre because it is asking God to draw us into the same relationship that Jesus has with the world, which led him to a cross. When the Spirit unites us with Christ he beckons us to walk on the path blazed by the divine Son of God, through the cross to resurrection, a path that ends at the right hand of God with Christ ‘in his glory’ (Rom. 8:17). The cross is the shape that the love of God takes in a fallen world.
—Graham Tomlin, The Prodigal Spirit: The Trinity, the Church, and the Future of the World
I’m thinking out loud right now about the kinds of security strategies we employ which actually represent ‘twisted’ ways of participating in the life of Christ in our world today. I’ve taught about this a bit in my Psychology in Relation to Theology seminary courses and wrote about it a bit in Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. But I’d love your feedback and thoughts.
There were at least four established Jewish movements in Jesus’ day, according to most scholars – The Pharisees, The Essenes, The Sadducees, and the Zealots. Of course, like most movements today, each was complex. But generalizations can be made about the particular way in which each represented a security strategy for the Jews of that day. These are psychological strategies. Often, our theological strategies are masked in psychological ones, and I’m proposing that this was the case then as it is today. The Jewish people in the two centuries before Christ, after all, restlessly coped with multiple anxieties – the loss of a central place (Temple, land), an anxiety around Messiah’s return (manifesting in an array of apocalyptic and militaristic scenarios), conflict around accommodation to Empire (withdrawal vs. participation), and more. Perhaps, their theological positions were not merely developed in a vacuum. Maybe, they were attempting to cope with a very real disappointment with God and anxiety about their future? Let’s take a look:
The Pharisees – a complex group (with multiple camps within it) who were the Torah-zealots of their day, rigidly guarding the boundaries of Jewish orthodoxy. Their security strategy was a hyper-vigilant protectionism which provoked the ire of Jesus, who did not come to abolish Torah but to see it come to life.
The Essenes – A group of ancient ascetics who had given up on a Temple-centered Judaism, who lived by a strict code, and who imagined wildly apocalyptic scenarios for the coming of Messiah. Their security strategy was withdrawal and avoidance, a self-protective strategy to keep them from mingling with the sellouts, their Jewish brothers and sisters who mixed and mingled with Empire.
The Sadducees - In contrast to the Essenes, the Sadducees were accommodators, who rolled with the upper echelon of society. Though we don’t know a whole lot more than that, it appears that their security strategy was political in nature. Hanging with the influencers kept them from having to feel the incredible powerlessness many Jews of the day felt.
The Zealots - Anxious for the kingdom to come, Zealots would take up arms to speed its day. These warriors of God adopted a militaristic security strategy which bred a sense of power and control amidst extraordinary anxiety about the Jewish future. Even despite the radically cruciform way of Christ, Christians would take up arms for their cause for generations after.
Now, do these four movements correspond, in any way, to our contemporary evangelical security strategies? Do we see ourselves in them? Do we define Jesus through them?
Here are some initial thoughts with some initial descriptors. I welcome push back, as I’m developing some of these thoughts for further use down the road.
Modern-day Pharisees – Policemen for Jesus. Guardians of tradition. Hyper-vigilantly aware whenever someone appears to cross the line. Black and white. Noble in their passion for truth, but dangerously close to forfeiting intimacy with God in their fervor for rightness about God. A security that comes from certainty of doctrine rather than confidence in Jesus.
Modern-day Essenes – Monks for Jesus. Guardians of purity. Prone to see everything in this world as a distraction from real relationship with God. So noble in their heavenly-mindedness, yet prone to be of little earthly good. A security that comes from self-protection rather than bold and cruciform engagement in the life of Jesus.
Modern-day Sadducees - Salesman for Jesus. Players in the game of faith. Willing to accommodate in any way to advance the cause. Passionate in their desire to be “all things” but in danger of selling a hollow faith. A security that comes from being important, relevant, striving to become a power-player for Team Jesus instead of enjoying the freedom to have influence (…rather than need influence).
Modern-day Zealots - Warrior for Jesus. Ready to fight alongside General Jesus in the battle for truth and goodness over heresy and sinfulness. Aggressive in every endeavor. Passionate for a faith-in-action, but prone to run people (and especially women) over. A security in a dominant and forceful presence (in preaching/media/web/relationships/etc.) instead of resting in the cruciform, self-sacrificial, powerless way of Jesus.
Send me your thoughts. And, if you’re being honest, you’ll likely see yourself in one or more of these, as I do. The bigger question is how we go about doing the hard work of self-evaluation, as well as evaluating our churches, our denominations, our movements, and institutions.
How do I cope in one of these ways? How do I lead from this kind of posture? What anxieties/disappointments are really operating behind the scenes? What values have I adopted (and defended, as if from God) as a result, perhaps, of my own unconscious needs? What movement have I aligned with because it scratches this psychological itch?
Christmas stirs hope. There is a palpable excitement around gift-giving and tree-trimming and party-hopping. And there is also the (legitimate!) hope that the same Jesus who came once upon a time will come once again.
But the reality for many is disappointment, once again. Sure, we’ll numb ourselves with countless distractions. We’ll play Bing Crosby tunes as we sip cider, we’ll shop until our feet hurt, we’ll make plans and think up ‘white elephant’ gifts and watch the Advent candles lit every Sunday.
But we’ll hurt.
Sure, few will see. After all, Christmas is all about happiness and hope. But you can’t shake your disappointment, can you?
You’re single again this year. Or, perhaps, you’re single for the first time in a while.
Your sense of financial security is hanging by a thread.
Your kids are far more of a mess than you ever thought they’d be.
Your marriage is a dance of strangers.
Your 20-something idealism has turned to 30-something cynicism.
You have to spend the holidays with a family that doesn’t get the pain they caused you.
You’re not making in the dream job.
You’re desperately unhappy in your dead end job.
Amidst it all, ads come on the television that show new cars wrapped in bows, red lingerie on Santa’s supermodel helpers, happy families gathered ’round the fire, and gorgeous homes with stockings and fireplaces and trimmed trees.
And each Sunday, another candle is lit. Advent. Longing. And it hurts so bad.
And that’s exactly what you’re doing there this Sunday morning. There is no need to anesthetize any more. Feel the disappointment. Walk the long walk Mary and Joseph walked in the shadow of powerful Herod’s military palace, symbolizing Roman hope and shaming the weak and feeble. Enter Bethlehem only to feel unwelcome and abandoned. Claim your justified doubts about God’s plan in all of it. Go to sleep with the stink of animal manure all around you. Christ is born in that mess, not despite it.
Be there, in your disappointment. Or, you might miss it…