Today I’m cranky. I’m too old now to continue jumping through hoops, accepting every blithe rhyming couplet on the nature of the universe, or liking and sharing emotional blackmail. I promised myself I would not do artificial guilt this year. I’m cranky about all the tripe I’ve been fed over the years before Snopes was invented. At the same time, I’m conscious that I’ve probably propagated as much tripe as I’ve swallowed. Ouch.
Here’s an example. When I was 14 I heard a story about someone’s dream or vision. Now, it may be that this vision was a highly personalised message to its recipient, in which case, whatever God wanted to say to him was fair enough, and I’m sure there was a good life lesson in there that benefitted someone. I, however, am now on the back end of 40 years’ exposure to twice-weekly sermons, decorated with many a parable and undocumented tale. I love sermon illustrations and metaphors and I love it when God speaks to me in these terms. But I must have been pretty naïve to blindly accept that every single one of everybody else’s revelations was a must-have for my own life. I must be at a running total of thousands by now. It’s one of the things that makes me feel uncertain about the way we do church.
In this dream, the man is shown two people, one of whom is powering on in ministry, and one who is crying his eyes out. In the dream, Jesus approaches the weeper and gives tender comfort, speaking soft words of love. The other man gets nothing, not even a glance. God asks the dreamer, “Which of these men do you think I am most pleased with?” The man replies, “The one you are spending all that time comforting.” “No,” corrects God. “I am most pleased with the one who does not need all that comfort.”
I look back on this “grow up, crybaby” story (even knowing that it probably suffered many alterations and translation errors before it ever reached my tender ears) and feel a kind of fury. What sort of theology segregates one grace-saved sinner from another, to begin with? Is not the faith to bring our heart issues before a compassionate God, an equal faith to that which helps us to step out bravely in ministry? Are not the two inextricably entwined?
What kind of God would we have if He claimed to crave intimacy with His beloved family, but rewarded only those who didn’t want it too much? It simply doesn’t add up. “Be someone who doesn’t need Me” doesn’t sound like an invitation to relationship, does it? I believe God loves us – really loves us – not begrudgingly or conditionally or only in an intellectual sense. Dependence on an unfailing God is healthy, the opposite of codependence on other people. But this story made me ashamed to approach God. It made me think that only mature believers, risen to some ascetic plane, were pleasing to Him; that I must strive therefore to be a ‘mature believer’; that that meant employing a great deal of denial whenever I felt lost, alone, confused, riddled with failure, exasperated with pervasive flaws, afraid or angry. In short, He was not ‘safe’ to talk to. And oh, how I needed to talk to Him. And be myself before Him. And let it all come out. As if … as if I could hide anything I am from Him!
The story also let me infer that ‘mature’ equated to ‘unemotional’. It implies that I must grow out of humanity. I envisaged a whole race of robotic preachers churning out trite cliches from between their smiling ivory tower teeth. Oh, how I wanted to be perfect. Eventually I realised that, being glass-skinned, there was no point trying to appear before God polished-up. He had to know exactly what was in me, so might as well level with Him! But I did all my prayer through a veil of shame. My prayers began not with thanks but with apologies. “Sorry I’m not perfect. Sorry I messed up. Sorry I’m so emotional. Sorry I’m not there yet.” It coloured my whole life Defensive. Those of you who know me have seen me in this mode. I had an assumption that most of the people around me weregetting it right. So my defensiveness was laced with a frantic feeling of not being able to keep up. It produced a great deal of resentment. Only as I got older did I understand that struggle is pretty much universal.
How little I understood what really pleases God. And here’s the rub: do I tell you what I think pleases God, at the risk of generating for you a story that may frighten you away from Him? Spoiler alert …
After all this time, I still believe that Jesus, exhausted and preoccupied, dropped everything when the little kids ran up to Him, because that’s what He wants most: to be the one we run to. For us to have faith – which is the thing He says we can’t skip – that when we come with all our tangles and burrs and dirt-streaks and dumb questions, He will take us seriously, say whatever needs saying and only that, soothe the hurt places, receive our eager smiles and chatter, and brace us to go back out and face life. I think that may be the faith that pleases God. The faith that says, “I truly believe that Your grace has me covered. That this is not about me and my qualifications, but about You and Your provision for us to be together.” He does not scorn the unpolished: He willingly becomes the Polisher, and He is not in a hurry.
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking … All the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea … He who comes to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.