If you had asked my thirteen year old self the question, “How do you think God feels about you?” my answer probably would have been something like, “ummmm…. vaguely disappointed?”
Misunderstood God + Legalistic View of Sin = Massive Amounts of Guilt
As a young man, my father’s relationship with God was deeply impacted by an awareness of His holiness. Standing in awe of God’s character and power changed my Dad, and helped him center his life on the twin truths of knowing and serving his God. There was a solemnity and reverence associated with obedience to God’s commands. And though I remember learning about God’s love, mercy and grace, the characteristic of God most often referred to in my home (probably because it was the one that had helped my dad the most) was his holiness and his antipathy for sin. For my parents, a profound reverence for God motivated them to obey. For ten-year-old me, this holy God just seemed to have an awful lot of hang-ups.
From that point (and even before then), I lived my life trying to make people happy. And the easiest way to keep people happy is to figure out their “rules” and follow them! Living in this way allowed me to get the affirmation that I craved and gave me a sense of accomplishment (I love feeling self-reliant.) Combine these personality traits with a view of God that painted him as a pious, hyper vigilant sin-hater and it’s understandable that my basic spiritual concept was “keeping God’s rules will make him happy!” Thus, even after my salvation, the karmic idea of earning God’s approbation became my spiritual north star.
No great leap of logic is necessary to understand the reason I believed that God was always annoyed with me. In my heart I believed that He must be constantly frustrated with me because despite knowing about his holy natural and hatred of evil, I still sinned! I remember creeping back to God with shoulders slumped to ask for forgiveness, again (and again, and again). As I grew older the burden of pleasing God became a weight that I carried—even somewhat embittered by it. When my parents would confront some teen-specific (i.e. stupid) decision I’d made and asked some variation of the question, “Liz, would you do that thing if you truly realized that a Holy God was sitting on the couch beside you?” I would answer with a healthy dose of snark and biting sarcasm. “I guess not! Looks like I failed God again! Imagine that!” It seemed that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop disappointing God. Micha Boyett’s description of the God of her childhood resonated with me. That god,
“was menacing and threatening. That god demanded I try again and try again and get it right this time, a perfectionist piano teacher who wished my fingers were better shaped for the keys.”
And how did I determine what was a “sin?” Thankfully, my parents were voices of reason, pushing against the wave of legalistic fervor that was sweeping through most fundamental churches/camps/schools. Still, even with my parent’s confident assertions that God looked at my heart, not my hemline, my heart slowly began to bend under the weight of opinions offered by the numerous camp speakers, energetic evangelists, and cola-war leaders that claimed quite the opposite: God had a check-list and yes, I was failing miserably. As Elyse Fitzpatrick writes in Good News for Weary Women,
“I know there is an undeniable groaning among women in what we might call modern American evangelicalism. I felt it myself as I struggled for years trying to be a great mom, a good wife, and a faithful friend, while spending hours at the gym and insisting that everyone else live a life that met what I thought were God’s expectations. …The landscape that evangelical women live in is a howling wilderness littered with the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of hardworking, weary women.”
Have you felt this way? Felt that once God saved you, it was your job to prove to him that his investment in you wasn’t a crazy decision? And that obedience to his commands combined with an absence of sin was the key to convincing him. It is a horrible equation where a misunderstood God + legalistic view of sin = massive amounts of guilt.
Brennan Manning looked at this equation in his own life and concluded, quite simply,
“Something is radically wrong. Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace.”
The gospel of grace. What is that, exactly? As a child I knew that “grace” meant “the free and unmerited favor of God.” Mostly, I knew that grace allowed me to get saved. What I didn’t know was that grace is an active expression of God’s love, not only in the narrative of the gospel but also in the overflowing generosity which shapes his daily thoughts about us.
God loves me
“Grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is a gift. All that is good is ours, not by right, but by the sheer bounty of a gracious God. …We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt. This and so much more is sheer gift; it is not reward for our faithfulness, our generous disposition, or our heroic life of prayer. Even our fidelity is a gift! ‘If we but turn to God,’ said Augustine, ‘that itself is a gift of God.’ My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
One of the first things that I had to learn was that the love of God and the love of Jesus were the same love. Somehow, I’d gotten it into my head that God the father was the exacting judge and that Jesus was the loving go-between who shields us from the Father’s dislike. So incorrect. God’s love is richly described in scripture and his greatest expression of this love is God (the Son) leaving God (the Father) and dying for ME (I John 4:13-15, John 3:16, Romans 5:8). I had been pulling all the descriptions of God’s love out of scripture and sifting them into piles labeled “The Father,” and “The Son” (sadly, I’d never even considered the love the Spirit has for me.) Thus, after mentally reuniting the trinity I began to see God’s love gloriously woven throughout scripture in the words and actions of all the members of the Godhead. I saw that God’s love (whether seen in Jesus’s earthly actions [John 15:13] or the Father’s gracious disposition [Ps 136:26]) is impervious, and unchangeable—even in the face of my sin. What a glorious truth. Theologian G.K. Chesterton once called this “the furious love of God.” Brennan Manning describes it as God’s “single relentless stance toward us: He loves us.”
Another mistake that I made was dividing the love of God that offers the free gift of salvation from the love of God that calls us children and invites us to see him as a generous and forgiving father—like the Father in the tale of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32, Rom 8:15, Matt 7:9-11). Instead, using my formula of good actions = a happy God, I cobbled together my personal list of do’s and don’ts and led a life centered on “getting it right.” I was going to be the best! I was going to make him happy! He would love what he saw in me! But as I grew older (finished high school, got a job, started dating) and the “heat” of life brought my sinful nature to the surface, I often faltered. I finally began understanding that,
“This kind of thinking always ends up making us proud, angry, and judgmental – or despairing fearful and unbelieving. The only way to be free from this heart trouble is to believe. We can believe that God is as good and powerful and wise and loving as He says He is…and then we can rest. He has done everything that ever needed to be done for us (John 14:27.” E. Fitzpatrick
God began gloriously (and I don’t use that word lightly) opening my eyes and showing me that his love continues to be unearned and that grace is what “rules” my Christian life. God’s love, like the grace that saved me, was a free gift. A daily gift, offered new each morning and wholly unconnected to the good or bad things that I did. As the poet writes in Lamentations 20: 22-25
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
As God opened my eyes to these mistakes, He also started rooting out all of the false ideas that I had accepted deep into my understanding and began to sow new seeds of joy, peace and stability. I realized that I didn’t need to keep God’s rules because Jesus had already kept them during his perfect life on earth! My account is now notarized with the stamp of Jesus’s imputed righteousness and his everlasting love for me is a settled matter! Thus, I learned to see myself as a saint in the way that Thomas Merton described, “not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.” When I sang,
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.”
I applied the truth to myself. God’s love for me was unmovable, his compassion for me was unfailing.
And, as years passed, I learned more about this loving and gracious God. I began to see that I was not only a sinner saved and loved, but was also a child delighted in and liked.
God likes me
On the face of it, this seems like a silly phrase. But deep down, all the way into my adult life, there was still a small part of me that thought, “Ok. I know that God loves me. But he is kind of obligated to do that. I bet I’m not one of his favorite daughters.” Because of this, I was plagued with the sense that maybe I should still be trying to do better. Be a better daughter. A harder worker. An exceptional wife. The best mother. As a teenager, Micha Boyett was sure that God was calling her to a full time ministry in Africa. But then her life changed and years later she found herself the mother of a toddler, tired, sleep-deprived with a deep desire for nothing more than to remember how to pray. She felt second best. As she reflected on this part of her life she mused,
“I want a word spoken in my ear that says I’m enough. I want God to understand that I’m human and frail. I want to know that I’m not a failure: The girl who didn’t go to Africa.”
Just a year or two ago, I carried a similar sense of failure as I stood and gazed at the landscape of my life. When I got married, I really thought that I would be an awesome wife. But most of you know how quickly that assumption withers up and blows away. Instead of impressing him, I found myself pleading with God over and over to help me love Paul and do what was right in our relationship. Marriage was a struggle. I sinned often. Which led to learning about the joy of repenting; of coming to God with empty hands and a belief in his loving forgiveness (which I wrote about in this post). It was a longish road, but by our fourth anniversary, I felt like we’d reached a mostly stable place. Phew.
Then I got pregnant. And I really thought that I would be an awesome mother. Maybe marriage just wasn’t where my natural gifts and abilities lay. But kids. I could raise kids. I’d teach them about God, and I’d love them with a patience and kindness. My house would be a place of warmth and peace and stability. We’d laugh and have fun and each day would be a joyful expression of everything that was good about my life. I would please God. He’d be so proud and my life would be meaningful. So with shoulders set I marched into motherhood, armed with self-confidence and determination to do it all. Then I failed to meet my own lofty expectations. Raising toddlers, well, it kind of crushed me. I quickly learned that setting up unreasonable and frankly, unbiblical (what?! making elaborate crafts while simultaneously maintaining a spotless house isn’t in the bible?!) expectations only pushed me to towards self-reliance and eventual collapse. I felt broken, worn out and the very least qualified person to raise these tiny blessings, these gifts from God that so effectively showed my imperfections. I had failed again, and I felt so guilty about my failures. But during that time, I heard the voice of God gently reminding me again that his feelings for me aren’t based on my actions. Enuma Okoro poignantly wrote
“God’s light shines especially bright through the multiple and endless fragmented slices that exist in broken people. And the more rays of light, the more people are touched. But no one expects such light to come from a broken image. … I learned to acknowledge the beauty of God through my own brokenness.”
A book I was reading at the time stated that God had an abiding love and affection for those people who were poor in spirit (Matt 5:23). Not impoverished in the physical sense. Rather, these people are empty of self-sufficiency and fully depending on God to meet their spiritual and physical needs. As I read, I realized that I was very uncomfortable with the idea that God wanted me to need him. All the time. Every day. Wouldn’t he find that kind of demanding of me? Wouldn’t that irritate him?
I thought about my own young children, and their daily dependence on me. I remembered that when the disciples asked Jesus to name the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he didn’t give them a list of academic giants, evangelistic wonders or even exemplary housekeepers : ). Rather, he called a child and said to the disciples, “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 18:2-3). Children, especially babies, are pretty helpless. They rely on the affection of their mother and father for every need. This is how I began to see God. He not only loves me relentlessly, but he also looks with kindness on my imperfect attempts to please him, no matter how smudged the paint, squiggly the drawings or out-of-the-lines the coloring. He stands and looks at me with delight (Psalm 147:11). He truly likes me.
Affectionate Heavenly Father + Imputed Righteousness + My Worst Possible Day = NO GUILT.
I can wear myself out by struggling to be the best, only to feel like a failure at the end of every day. OR, I can wear myself out serving God because I love him and feel like the child of an affectionate Father at the end of every day. Obviously, there are many days when I forget this and the burden of guilt blankets my spirit. But I fight hard against this feeling of failure. I remind myself of God’s love and his “like.” And love is a much better motivator than fear or guilt will ever be. Love doesn’t produce laziness. Love does not let you rest on your laurels. Rather, it fills your heart with the desire to joyfully serve God, even if imperfectly. We daily seek our God, our Father, alfor help which he We should daily seek our God, our Father. And friends, he loves to see you racing towards him with uninhibited joy.
“The kingdom belongs to people who aren’t trying to look good or impress anybody, even themselves. …The child doesn’t have to struggle to get himself in a good position for having a relationship with God; he doesn’t have to craft ingenious ways of explaining his position to Jesus; he doesn’t have to create a pretty face for himself; he doesn’t have to achieve any state of spiritual feeling or intellectual understanding. …If the children were privileged, it was not because they had merited privilege, but simply because God took pleasure in these little ones.” B. Manning
I know I used alot of quotes in this post. I’m a big believer in quoting in the vain hope that my own unkempt writing style will be eclipsed in your memory by the more talented authors that I include : ). In reality, this post just scratches the surface of how God has changed me. And I wanted very much to include the numerous books God used. I hope you take the time to at least read “Good News for Weary Woman” and “The Ragamuffin Gospel.” The others are ones that I also loved. Some need to be read with a degree of discernment, but all led me toward the God I’ve tried so hard to portray in this post.
The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
Good News for Weary Women by Elyse Fitzpatrick
Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick
The Reluctant Pilgrim by Euma Okoro
Found by Micha Boyett
Battling Unbelief by John Piper
The Gospel Centered Woman by Wendy Alsup
Godliness With Contentment (blog post) by Wendy Alsup