When Your Heart Condemns You

photo credit: http://stephenonbible.blogspot
photo credit: http://stephenonbible.blogspot
“Shame on you. How can you even call yourself a Christian?”

The accusation of an enemy cuts deep; the rebuke of a friend even deeper. But the condemnation of your own voice from deep within stops you dead in your tracks. How can you even answer?

When your own heart condemns you,
where can you turn for an alibi?

Memories of past failures come back to haunt you. Countless “if-only’s” scroll down your mental timeline. Caught between a past you cannot change and a present you can’t escape, your heart begins to beat to the rhythm of every criticism that has ever been leveled at you, both intended and implied.

“They must all be right. There must be something fundamentally wrong with you,” your heart testifies against your spirit. Shame seeps deeper into the core of your identity, stripping away your last defense and paralyzing your final attempts to stand up to the accusations.

When your own heart condemns you, where can you turn for an alibi?

As much as it may feel like it, you are not alone in this struggle. Although it takes place in the lonely prison of your own mind, godly men and women through the ages have fought this same battle.

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”– and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Psalm 32:3-5

David had plenty to regret and plenty of opportunities to regret it. His inexcusable behavior towards Bathsheba and Uriah, his failures in handling the antics of his children, and even the cries of “foul play” from his opponents came back to haunt him again and again. Instead of attempting to ignore or deny the accusing voice within his spirit, David recounted his shameful past in full, remembering not only the causes of his shame but also its resolution. Yes, he really had done those awful things that kept popping up on his mental record. But he had also laid them bare in God’s presence, confessing them to Him and receiving His full forgiveness.

Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Psalm 32:6-7

So when the mighty breakers of condemnation began to overtake his spirit, David clung to the Rock. Only God’s verdict of “forgiven” could release him from the skeletons of his past.

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him. Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart
Psalm 32:1, 10-11

David combatted his recurring shame with a tenacious faith in God’s unfailing love. By faith he could sing of the blessedness of being forgiven. In fact, by faith he could go a shocking step further and sing of the joys of being counted righteous. Giving in to his shame would hardly do justice to God’s love. Celebrating his position as God’s beloved child would.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. …Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
1 John 3:16-20

And this is precisely the refrain that the seasoned disciple John picked up in his letters to younger believers. Speaking out of the depths of his own experience, he taught them how to respond to voice of condemnation in their own hearts: Go back and remember the extent of Jesus’ love for you. Recount the ways His love has compelled you to live out love for others. Remember the time you gave something up that you really treasured? Remember the time you forgave that person who had really hurt you? Why did you do what would otherwise be counter-intutive? Because Jesus’ love lives in you. Because you really are God’s beloved child.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “”Abba,” Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
Romans 8:15-17

And for those times when even our faith in God’s love runs dry and our memory of His good work in us fails, God picks up the struggle on our behalf. Paul described how God’s Spirit testifies to our own, answering our heart’s condemnation with His resounding assurance: of course you are Mine!

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Romans 8:31-35

God knows the battle that shame wages within our hearts. He not only silences the Foe whose voice accuses us from without, He also refutes the voice within ourselves. Our standing as His children is secure because of Christ’s track record, not ours. Not even our own hearts’ testimony against us is enough to separate us from His love. He is both Advocate and Judge. He reserves the right to decide who He loves and why.

God reserves the right to decide
who He loves and why.

And so when shame nibbles away at your confidence and condemnation steals over your spirit, run to your Alibi. Cling to your Rock. Listen to His affirming words telling you who you really are. Let His Spirit’s voice echo through your soul until it becomes one with your own.

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. …
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

And that is what we are!

1 John 2:28-3:1

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Lowering the Flags of our Fathers

attachment“This church, along with our whole city, was completely destroyed. The Allies’ bombs wiped it from the face of the earth.”

I shifted uncomfortably as our middle-aged German guide came to this point in our tour of historic Worms this weekend. She had proudly taken us around her beautiful city, pointing out the significant remains of its long, multi-layered history dating back to the Roman Empire and playing a significant role in the Protestant Reformation. But now photographic images of the mass devastation that this civilian population endured at the hands of our grandparents confronted me with a side to the story that I had never really considered before. How could this local citizen so calmly look our group of mostly British and American scholars in the eye and talk about it? Rather than use this opportunity to protest the “terror bombings” carried out against her people at the close of WWII, she shocked me with her humble confession.

“Well, we were the ones who provoked it, after all.”

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits?

This willingness to bear national shame over the Holocaust and the nationalist aggression of their ancestors has impressed me during my brief time here in Germany. This is a country with a long history to be proud of. But nestled among the soaring cathedrals and elegant castles are more recently erected monuments to their shame. A set of pillars in Worms (near the Jewish cemetery) with an inscription memorializing those who were made victims of German nationalist pride. A bombed-out church in Mainz with a series of plaques, describing its proud history but concluding with a humble reminder that any society built on violence and oppression will be judged with a similar end.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Listen! The LORD is calling to the city– and to fear your name is wisdom– “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it. Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures… Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing… Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations. ”
Micah 6:8-16

As I listened to our tour guide’s personal acknowledgement of causes for both national pride and national shame, I couldn’t help but draw mental parallels to how a similar situation has been handled in the USA. We treated two entire races of people as if they were not equally created in the image of God, holding one set under our thumb as slaves and later as “liberated” but unequal citizens, and getting rid of the other set through massacres and round-ups into reservation camps. While these are arguably sins of the past, the question still remains of how we respond to their fallout today.

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits? Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

In teaching my children about the American Civil Rights movement, I was shocked but actually not-so-shocked to discover that our Christian history book had simply skipped it, deigning the injustices suffered and the victories won for oppressed minorities within our country not worth mention. Such refusal to acknowledge and disclose the sins of our past can only lead to further hardheartedness and future recurrences.

And in more recent days, I have been deeply disappointed by the refusal of persecution watchdog organizations like International Christian Concern to report on the terrorist shooting of African-American Christians at worship in their Charleston church, not to mention the strong trend of Black-church burnings that continues across the South. Were such attacks on Christians or churches perpetrated in other lands, ICC would most certainly have reported them. And yet despite multiple emails pleading with this group to cover the persecution of Black Christians in their own country, they remain silent.

“Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job 42:6

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:3-4, 17

Among the many biblical virtues that patriotic Christians love to promote, somehow confession and contrition seem to get lost. And yet these are the hallmarks of true religion. Upright Job went back and set the record straight, lowering himself in repentance when he realized how wrongly he had spoken of God. And integrity-bound David recorded his confession for all posterity to read when he abused his power to take whom he wanted and get rid of whom he didn’t.

The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to [spare] them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends so that you will bless the LORD’s inheritance?”
2 Samuel 21:2-3

Even on a national scale, David recognized the need to accept responsibility for his predecessor’s racist sins. As Israel suffered the ongoing repercussions of Saul’s unethical treatment of the Gibeonites, David humbly took it on himself to do whatever it would take to make things right.

Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

And this is the spirit of contrition and national humility that I see dawning in the American South. The shocking display of racism that left nine worshippers dead is jolting devout Southerners into a public acknowledgment of the stain on our heritage. The Confederate flag may represent much that we are proud of, but it also represents much that we should be deeply ashamed of. Perhaps in its place we would do well to take a lesson from the Germans and erect monuments to those our ancestors have wronged, lest we forget and repeat the mistakes of our past.

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”
St. Christoph Church, Mainz, Germany

In A People Garden

IMG_9140Would the world be a better place if it weren’t full of people? People, not things, perpetrate violence and atrocities on the earth. People pollute the ground with their waste and the air with their emissions. People overfill certain parts of the planet, cementing over its other inhabitants and upsetting their life-sustaining cycles and webs.

The narrative that rises from focusing in on these harsh realities can often cast people in the role of barbaric imposters, of foreign invaders whose very existence on the earth brings nothing but harm. But is this the picture that God sees? What story does He tell about how we fit in His global garden?

Last Sunday I encountered one of those a-ha moments in which my experience suddenly fleshed out my theology. Literally. I had spent the afternoon meandering quietly through a private walled-in garden. Blooming roses crept up ancient stone walls, weeping willows swayed beside a meandering stream, and birds, wind, and water mingled their voices together in peaceful song. That evening, as the garden began to fill with people coming in for an open-air concert, my mind cynically assumed that the perfection of the garden would be marred with their fabricated fashions, noisy chatter, and energetic gestures.

But to my surprise, I discovered that, far from messing up the beauty of the garden, the people completed it. Their vibrant colors, sounds, and movements filled the garden with a new element of life that I hadn’t even noticed was missing. In fact, as I looked around the by-then familiar green-scape and listened to French horns sounding across the distance, it struck me that the people were the most beautiful flowers in this garden. They were the crowning touch. Their creative accessories complimented the decorative designs on the plants. Their effervescent spirits animated the terrain. And their artistic composition filled the space with melodies that the birds quickly picked up and played back.

As I reflected further on this unexpected discovery, I realized that I was experiencing a foretaste of the garden-city, the new creation for which we long and towards which we proactively work as we wait for God to bring His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This garden resonated with echoes of Eden, bringing human “progress” in harmony with natural development.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
So God created man in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis 1:11,20, 27-28

In the beginning the world was empty, the ground was bare. God planted grass and trees, animals and eventually people in His fertile garden, giving them all the same commission: Live. Grow. Blossom. Reproduce. Spread out. Fill the earth with your unique contribution to its vast array of textures and colors, functions and sounds. Testify in your own limited way to the presence and nature of your Creator. Echo back to Him the song of creation, imitating His innovative work in the world.

God … will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God…
Psalm 52:5-9

Of course the story goes on to show how we have abused our role in God’s garden, stealing the fruit that wasn’t ours to eat and oppressing our fellow inhabitants with our selfishness, greed, and outright contempt. And God has much to say about how He will come and tend His garden, uprooting the weed-like plants who defy their Gardener’s order and choke out His other plants.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3

But God also intervenes in His garden to nourish and restore the plants that have been trodden underfoot or impeded from what they need to grow. Jesus came to walk among hillsides of tender shoots, watering weary souls, restoring withered limbs, and even raising dead branches. He cut off fruitless vines who were leeching life from those who needed it, and He grafted in foreign vines who longed to be included under His life-giving care.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

God takes great delight in His people garden. He shines the light of His face on us in warming, life-giving relationship. He satisfies our parched hearts with streams of living love. He crowns us with beauty and fills our branches with fruit, the satisfaction of a project successfully accomplished or the fruition of a dream finally fulfilled.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. … No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.
Revelation 22:1-5

And best of all, God is in the process of planting us as near to Himself as it gets. He is gathering His vast array of plants into one garden-city, built out of organic stones and filled with the light of His presence. Even as we wait for the fulfillment of His story, we are already flourishing in His courtyard, rooted by His stream, and abiding in His Vine.

IMG_9033So who or what are we in the story of creation? Would the world be a better place without us? I am reminded that, according to God’s narrative, humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of His eye. Without us, His garden would be beautiful but incomplete. Our expansion is what He intended from the beginning; our advances are potential reflections of His image within. We are an integral part of His earth, planted here to thrive.

Redefining Greatness

attachment“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Driving through the Scottish countryside for an anniversary getaway last weekend, my husband and I laughingly but seriously asked each other the question that we occasionally revisit in our life together.

As a child there were all sorts of things that I dreamed of being: the prettiest girl in the school, the fastest runner on the field, the smartest student in the class. Those aspirations have taken different shapes over the years, but they all boil down to what my father proudly called a “vision for greatness.”

Greatness is being God’s shadow.

That deep internal drive to distinguish myself, to be the very best in each area of life has been with me for all long as I can remember. A fellow student in the honor’s program at college once gently criticized me for the way it pulled me away from simply enjoying my friends, asking me why I was always so “driven.” At the time his question didn’t make sense. Weren’t we all pursuing the same goal of excellence and success?

Of course I recognized that my definition of success was radically different from that of the world. I wasn’t seeking fame or fortune. I wanted to be great in the kingdom of God. But for me that was still a matter of individual achievement. I threw myself into being the best teacher, the best cross-cultural communicator, the best champion of the poor, the best homeschooling mother, the best hostess, the best counselor, etc.

I thought that by being great in the roles God called me to I would bring greater glory to Him. But without realizing it, my headlong pursuit of greatness was actually all about my performance, about my setting lofty goals and then being publicly recognized for having achieved them.

Over more recent years God has re-defined my vision for greatness.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…
Genesis 1:27-28

And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:49

Greatness is being His shadow. It’s copycatting His character and His work on earth, mimicking in the seen world what He is constantly up to in the unseen world. It’s living as an interactive image of the Creator, fleshing out in each mundane detail of life what He is actually like. This happens each time I give ear to the complaint of my frustrated child, each time I forgive the offence of an insensitive stranger, each time I respond to the distress of a silently suffering friend.

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. …And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

One of the greatest moments in my life was the time I was accidentally mistaken for Jesus. There was a high-end market in the South Asian city where we lived that I tried to avoid, partially because of the aggressive crowd of street-urchins that would hound me from shop to shop. The rare occasions when I did visit there were usually times when I wanted a special treat, an escape from the usual slog of work and ministry. As much as I wanted to ignore the grimy hands tugging on my clothes, God’s Spirit would prick my conscience, reminding me that He never indulges in a hiatus from caring for my needs. And so, albeit begrudgingly, I would buy packs of roasted nuts and distribute them around, sometimes also taking the time to bless each child in Jesus’ name.

…Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet…
Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:26-34

On one occasion my husband and I, out on a special date, witnessed one of these beggar children chasing a potential benefactor across the street, right into the path of an oncoming car. We rushed over to the little body left lying in the street, pushing through the crowd of his buddies to check him over for injuries. As my husband scooped up the child to carry him to a hospital, he began to squirm and protest in terror, even more afraid of what this stranger might do with him than he was of the fact that he had just been hit by a car. His friends all reassured him that we could be trusted. “We know her. She’s helped us before. Remember? Her name is Jesus.”

At the time I was horrified to discover that I had failed in my repeated attempts to tell those children about Jesus, but in retrospect I realize that I had accidentally done something greater. I had shown them Jesus. This was the measure of my success: not that I had ended their poverty, not that I had founded a school or orphanage, but that I had faithfully lived as a reflection of Jesus in those seemingly insignificant, unintended encounters on the street.

“Her name is Jesus.”

Too often my big-picture focus and goal-oriented agenda cause me to miss the most obvious opportunities to achieve greatness in God’s kingdom. Thankfully God’s Spirit keeps drawing my attention to what my human way of thinking would otherwise miss.

Greatness isn’t distinguishing myself. It’s imitating God.

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2