Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Vision of Delight

I wonder how many people understand what God thinks of them. I mean, really understand what He really thinks. I have, I think, some insight into what He thinks about us because of what I think about my dog.

Max was a rescue dog; we adopted him into our family (more on that one later, perhaps) as a totally unknown quantity. We liked the look of him and, when I get around to uploading a picture of him, you will understand why. Actually, I must confess to being a bit put off by the drooling he demonstrated on his first trial walk with us, and the potentially soggy carpets of which it was a portent. Fortunately, we managed to see past that to - well, what? Obviously, in the 40 minutes or so that we spent with him, we had no idea what he would be like or if we would be able to manage him, especially as we had never owned a dog before. I don't know what it was about him, but we decided to take him on.

He's a big dog, a boxer-labrador cross (I usually explain to people that he runs and dribbles like a boxer and eats and swims like a labrador) and has loads of personality; a great sense of fun, and is full of vitality. Consequently, he needs lots of exercise, and we have no option but to go with him. That is usually no problem because we enjoy the excercise too.

The thing about Max is that he is always behaving like a dog. He spends his whole life doing doggy things. He loves to play with his tennis ball, to chew sticks, to roll about on his back, to run and run and run, to swim, to sniff (all sorts of things), to do the things a dog must do (doggy-doo) and, having done them, to make sure other dogs know he was there (graffiti is much less of a problem when seen in this light). He likes to meet other dogs; sometimes he likes to play with them, and other times, for some reason, take a dislike to them. My amateur behavioural psychology of dogs is not yet well-tuned enough to see for certain who starts the bother that we sometimes get into. Sometimes it's Max, sometimes it isn't.

Whatever he does, he is doing what he is designed to do. He can't help it, he's a dog, and being a dog is what he does best. The point is, I love him being a dog. He delights me in all sorts of ways, just by being what he is, and doing what he does. It is fascinating studying him, and interacting with him. There is one specific aspect of his behaviour that is especially delightful: his willingness to please and live under my authority as his pack leader. Even when he gets things wrong, I still love him, and so I correct him, and he still follows.

What can we draw from all this? Well, God made us as human beings and he really likes what he has made. He doesn't expect us to be anything other than human beings, except, perhaps to be human beings in full possession of our spiritual faculties. He made us with incredible talents and abilities, and I'm sure he is disappointed when we invent all sorts of religious reasons for placing aspects of our God-given make-up off-limits (see the entry on 'Grace'). Of course, there are contexts where our nature may be wrongly indulged but our human condition is not, of itself, abhorrent to God: after all, he brought it into being.

God is most delighted with us when we recognise his authority in our lives and follow him and his plans and purposes for our lives. Even when we get things wrong, he still loves us and corrects us as necessary; always with the intent that we continue to follow him; never to push us away.

So, just as I delight in my dog because he is a dog and want him to be the best dog he can be, God delights in me because I am a human being, and his longing is that I become fully the human being that he made me to be.

Just knowing that God delights in me makes a whole lot of difference to the way I view Him, and approach Him. It makes me feel special just as I am, and does my self-worth a whole heap of good.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Grace

The Grace of God is amazing. I am amazed that I could spend so many years of my Christian life in ignorance of it and in trying to earn the favour I have already been given for free, amazed that I could wander so far from the path and still find a ready welcome on my return, amazed that, eventually, I have begun to realise that His grace and not my effort is the thing that holds me close to God.

So much of what I have learned of the Christian life was, in fact, nothing more than legalism. I have to say that no-one was actually trying to lead me into error; we were all of us sincerely trying to do the best we knew how. Even so, well-meaning people teach new converts rules instead of relationship, and we learn a pattern of behaviour rather than a walk. I ‘grew up’ (from the age of 17 onwards) with a list of things to avoid in order to not be ‘worldy’. I even learned a number of things that I should do in order to be ‘spiritual’. All these things I willingly took on board because of a genuine desire to please, to do right, and, less commendably, to be accepted in my new social circle. I learned to talk authoritatively about things of which I had no real experience, to stand up for things that needlessly erected impenetrable barriers between me and my friends and family.

I have wondered why God puts up with our legalism and our imposition of it on others – and I have done my fair share of that. I think the problem arises because, although we are tuned to the right station, the tuning is poor and interference from other sources confuses the message. Strangely enough, I think that it is precisely because God is gracious that he puts up with our lack of grace. He knew where I was at and where he wanted me but He could not uproot and transplant me too soon without damaging me.

When the time came, He got me moved to University in a whole new city. Lesson number one was that there is life in other denominations (even the Baptist one!) and nowhere near as many taboos! I was daft enough however, to go back after graduation because of some misshapen view of the will of God for my life. It took Him another seven years to move me out again.

Whilst I was always taught that God loves me (and on many occasions was fully aware and convinced of that fact), and that we are saved by grace, not works, I never really understood the enormity of the concept of grace (I think enormity is probably the right word). I found that a lot of the things I was supposed not to do were actually very attractive to me, and the things I was supposed to do did not fit in at all with the way I functioned. (For example, I am not good at rising at 5 o’clock on a Friday morning for a weekly leaders’ prayer meeting and then doing a full day’s work. Why is staying up late to pray less spiritual than getting up early?). Failure to comply brought guilt. Guilt led to separation – well, an assumed separation – not just from God but also from my fellow believers who appeared not to be afflicted with my inadequacies. Discovering that many of the taboos were not actually in the Bible only added to the confusion, and made me feel rebellious because I could see no good reason why I should not enjoy these things but could not admit openly that I did.

(I once read an article in a denominational magazine about the ‘Loophole Mentality.’ The thesis was that Christians who claim that they can do certain things because the Bible does not forbid them have a ‘how much can I get away with’ attitude. It was another way of categorising worldly-mindedness. I think this is pharisaical. Why invent rules that God has not put in place? All that leads to is misplaced guilt. I also think it is farcical because every group’s rules are different. Now, of course there are things best avoided, but what those things are for me depend largely on what my shortcomings are; my limitations should not become blanket restrictions for all. Conversely, I have a responsibility that my liberties do not become stumbling-blocks for you.)

Well, eventually God managed to teach me a lesson about faith, and got me moved to yet another city in the North. Once there, I left behind the narrow straights in which I had been trying to sail and moved into more open waters. It is true to say that many of the behavioural patterns I had learned continued to operate in my life. It is also true to say that many of the unwarranted constraints were off and I began to explore who I was and to make up for lost time. I regret to note that some of the new experiences were sinful ones, and I have been horrified at how low I could sink after so many years of apparent Christian living. Some of my most damaging episodes (to others) left me wondering if I could ever walk with God again. Yet I have been gobsmacked by God’s determination that I should be His. I found myself restored and useful once more – and entirely because of God’s grace. Unfortunately, I continued to be motivated by performance to earn acceptance. Some of us are very slow learners, and old habits die hard.

The biggest blow of all came when my mother’s illness and death from cancer led me into depression. For several years, I could not read the Bible, I wondered if there were really a God, and came close to giving up completely. It is only the grace of God that has kept me. Before this darkness closed in He warned me very clearly what I was to encounter, although I had no idea what the prophetic picture he placed in my mind meant for me at the time I saw it. I had also received a prophetic word that ‘God was going to shatter some of [my] evangelical faith.’ I think the prophet concerned had either misheard God or had been reluctant to give full voice to what he heard: my faith has undergone wholesale demolition. Forewarned truly is fore-armed, and these presages of what was to come became anchors for me in my darkest times.

My only expression of faith in my journey through the darkness has been to say, ‘God, you must hold on to me because I cannot hold on to you.’ If only we could see it, this is exactly how God’s grace operates anyway: we none of us gained entry to or remain in the kingdom of God by our own effort. I am not ‘saved’ because I follow anyone’s rules; I am ‘saved’ because it pleases God to save me. I am learning that I am in a covenant relationship with God; his incomprehensible grace is part of that covenant, and he has held on to me, and I grow in confidence that he will always hold on to me. I am learning (painfully) that God is in no hurry with me, and that when faith grows weak because progress seems so slow, hope looks forward to the day when I shall be a little more tangibly what God wants me to be. He who has begun a good work in me will complete it. I am finally beginning to learn what it means to be a new creation, and not just to talk about it: my present, never mind my future, does not have to be determined by my past. I do not have to walk about with the burden of past failure, or to measure up to anyone’s expectation of what I should be right now.

In my experience, sin has certainly abounded but Grace, I am delighted to say, abounds much more. He gives more Grace; and love, and mercy, and forgiveness, His Holy Spirit, acceptance, sonship, and all he asks of me is that I do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. Who has any right to demand more?