Each of us was made in God’s image. This means that each of us was beautifully created with a desire for relationship and the capacity to love as God loves. This was embedded in our make-up and design. Because we are unique as individuals, we have the potential to manifest God’s goodness in unique, individual ways. I believe that the love Jesus calls us to is not a self-emptying, but a “self-actualizing love”. Such love is the fullest potential of our created nature and the fullest expression of our created selves. God demonstrated His love towards us when He sent His one and only Son. The cross was a manifestation of God’s power and glory – it revealed to us His being (1 Corinthians 1:18). Each act of love is a revelation of God.
However, as we know from across the Scriptures, mankind fell. While we have that potential for love within us, the world we live in is one marred by enmity, destruction, violence, brokenness. Think of a stormy, raging sea. Living in this world is like being tossed about and hurled against both rocks and debris.
Hurt people hurt people. This is not necessarily a rule, but does account for a lot of suffering in this world.
The gospel comes to us like a lifeboat, and Jesus stretches out His hand: Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
The Good Shepherd welcomes us into His refuge. Yet, as we are brought aboard, we are bruised, battered, broken, and bleeding. The work has only begun.
We were created to love and indeed capable of so much, but we cannot manifest God’s complete love from broken and hurting hearts any more than we can run with broken feet.
Jesus, in saving us, breaks us free from our past. He severs all the wrong things that we have done, that weigh us down, especially acts of violence and selfish desire that separate us from Him and from others. Jesus offers us a new life, a new beginning. He gives us a new heart and puts His spirit within us (Ezekiel 36:38). He takes away the lusts and desires that Satan traps us in (John 8:44, Galatians 5), sometimes instantaneously and sometimes through a process of transformation.
Jay Stringer notes in his book, “Unwanted”, that many unhealthy sexual desires are entangled in trauma and pain. While we often think of sexual addiction, which often becomes harmful to ourselves and to others, as a “sin” matter, we also need to realize that it is a heart matter. Sin and lust are tangled into our story, our healthy desires, our sense of purpose and being – this is why salvation is nothing short of a miracle. Jesus alone can do that work of un-knotting our beautiful selves from our fallen selves. Yet, to add complexity to this analogy, Jesus doesn’t discard the “bad” parts of our story, but actually redeems it all.
Forgiveness is just the first step: God does not simply make us “holy”, but makes us whole.
Sanctification is not the elimination of our unique created selves according to God’s image and design. Salvation does not rob of our individual selves to replace us with identical selves. Nor do our scars simply vanish all at once, as if they never existed. We cannot ever return to Eden, to that unspoiled, un-wounded innocence. God does a far more difficult, impossible work by taking us, just as we are, and making us into vessels for His work. He does not turn back time, but the skill and gentleness of the Master is evident in the fact that He can take a story gone wrong and a life gone off the rails and actually make something new and beautiful.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. (1 Timothy 2:20-21)
Redemption is the weaving together of three tunes into a new harmony. Think of the Apostle Paul: there was the created Paul, imbued with natural talents and aptitudes, there was the fallen Paul, marred by sin, hatred, violence, and murder… and then there was the redeemed Paul who shone with the light of the gospel not by erasing or forgetting his past, but by celebrating how God was able to transform it. When Jesus appeared to His disciples, He asked Thomas to feel the scars on his hands. Our scars are there and they are a part of our story, not inflicted by God, but redeemed by God.
The gospel is a gospel of peace. The Kingdom we have been brought into is one of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Righteousness, simply put, consists of the “right ways of God”, the way He intended the world to be. Peace is wholeness, completeness, shalom – within ourselves, with one another, and between humanity and God. Peace on earth and goodwill to all humanity. Peace means relationship rather than separation and dysfunction. Joy is gladness, delight, favor … it is a state of celebration. It bubbles from a wellspring of life.
The gospel of peace is a rich vision of resplendence and restoration, a gospel of a new creation and a new way. In order for us to fully embrace all the treasures of the Kingdom, we must be willing to let Jesus do His perfect and complete work in us.
Contending for the gospel of peace doesn’t just mean recognizing beauty as the ideal, but engaging in God’s mission to bring the world to beauty. It means dealing with the messiness, ugliness, and brokenness of humanity… starting with ourselves. We see this messiness in the stories of each person Jesus encountere, but do we as a church engage with this kind of truly redemptive work?
We can sing songs of celebration and praise every Sunday and indeed we must, but we must recognize that the work is on-going: there are more sheep to be brought into the fold and more wounds of broken-heartedness to bind. Salvation is a journey, not a one-and-done affair.
Jesus wants to do a deep work in us, a work that only just begins when we confess faith in Him and receive that newness of life.
Jesus wants to heal us. Jesus wants to mend those broken limbs that get between us and the love and fellowship we were meant to have with one another. Jesus wants to transform us, beginning with our hearts. He’s not done with you and I just yet.
Sometimes I feel that we are scared to engage with the full reality of human experience and the full humanity we bring to the table, each of us flawed and hurting in different ways. It is messy. There are no straightforward answers. Discipleship is easier if we think of it as just communicating Christian principles, doctrines, and teachings: it feels impossible if we think of it as walking with others through their struggles and sorrows even as we struggle and sorrow ourselves. No one really feels “up for the job”.
One of my friends undergoing a tremendous amount of grief as a newly bereaved widow found that some Christians were uncomfortable with grief being a journey. “Trust in Jesus and move on”, some people chose to admonish her with a slew of sanctimonious, hurtful language. Somehow the common Christian idea is that true faith means healing happens instantaneously and completely.
You are supposed to get over your grief, just like that.
You are supposed to get over your trauma, just like that.
Even if it doesn’t work like that, you have to pretend that it does. If you need time, if it doesn’t happen all at once, if it is messy and prolonged and there are ups and downs and ebbs and flows… maybe you just don’t have enough faith. Maybe you aren’t trusting Jesus. Trusting Jesus means turning off the tap. Trusting Jesus means ignoring the pain, smiling through the tears and pushing the tears away.
No, trusting in Jesus means facing our fear and trauma and grief. Jesus doesn’t push us over the cliff. His is an invitation, not a confrontation. Gently, patiently, the Shepherd waits for us to be ready and open our hearts to His hand.
I’ve written about the culture of performance and achievement in Christianity, one that glorifies and almost fetishizes suffering. An analogy that comes to mind is the story of female gymnast Kerri Strug, who was celebrated for completing a gymnastic vault with a broken foot and helping her team win a gold medal. She pushed through the pain and was celebrated as a hero. The team coaches, everyone on the sidelines, everyone watching on TV, and the many young girls who grew up idolizing her story were mesmerized by this act of heroism. But nobody stopped to ask why this kind of pressure is routinely placed on someone injured, someone young, someone hurting. Nobody stopped to question the culture of sacrifice and suffering, even abuse, that young athletes were put through for the glory of Empire. They were expected to do whatever it takes, no matter how painful, for gold and glory. Only in recent years has the exploitation, cruelty, and sexual abuse in gymnastics been exposed.
Are we doing the same thing in Christian culture today? Do we have a fundamentally unhealthy attitude to serving from a place of glorified scarcity and suffering?
We often think of discipleship as teaching, but Jesus was so much more than a teacher. Jesus lived in relationship with his disciples, listening to their fighting and bickering, eating with them, drinking with them, traveling with them, ministering to them. The church as a discipling community has a responsibility to grapple with the gospel of peace in all its realities, including peace in our hearts. We need to be trauma informed, we need to understand and support emotional health, and we need the resources and wisdom and training to do this kind of difficult work. This is what Shepherding actually means, not thundering precepts and principles, decisions and dogmas, to cowering sheep.
Too often, our grief-stricken brothers and sisters – including abuse survivors, the bereaved, the ones who are actively suffering because of racism and discrimination – are told that their stories and their hearts do not belong among us. They cannot be fully themselves unless they can spin their stories towards a happy ending. They can only have a voice, only belong, if they keep up a Christian performance of happiness even when they are being actively wounded… sometimes by us.
Beauty that is only skin deep is not beauty. Sometimes we do not want to do the difficult work of partnering with God as he makes beauty from ashes and turns mourning into joy. We want the joy without the mourning, but the reality is that those who mourn are beloved and blessed by God, and so they should be beloved to us. When we settle for a cheap facade of salvific beauty, we disrespect the very idea of beauty itself. Beauty is not pretense.
The responsibility of the church community is to walk alongside each and every one of us as we work through our pain, loss, hardships, weaknesses, strengths, sorrows, joys, defeats, and more. We have the responsibility to be patient, to bear one another’s burdens, to love.
When Jesus calls us to radical love, He is not just giving us a command we can obey just like that, with the snap of one’s fingers. If we could, we would already be free. His word and example were actually an invitation, a call to let him do his work in us and heal us so that we can be set free from every obstacle that prevents us from loving and cripples the good that we want to do, that we were made to do. We think it is so easy to love one another, but the reality is that the call to love one another is a call to bravely and gently confront everything within us that prevents us from living that way of love.
Why don’t we think of salvation as bringing us to a place of emotional healing? Why do we only think about salvation as being the forgiveness of the wrong things we have done? Why don’t we think about the gospel as being a gospel of peace?
One of the toughest questions we must deal with in the church is why seemingly godly teachings are connected to so much emotional unhealthiness, especially considering that Jesus preached this gospel of peace. We need to realize that teaching and preaching is never purely doctrinal and intellectual, disconnected from emotions, practice, and being. If we preach technically correct ideas, but congregants end up hurting, condemned, burdened, or anxious, we may need to consider where we have gone wrong. We must stop blaming the people who are hurting, telling them they are the problem. Given the prevalence of mental health struggles, we must recognize that preaching and teaching should always be considered in terms of emotional health. Every teaching is an emotional message, not just an intellectual one. Sometimes, theologians and preachers pass on unhealthy and unbalanced attitudes that they themselves have. We need to grapple with the question, “What does it mean to feed Jesus’s sheep?”
Christians can be shockingly unaware of abuse. For example, we talk about marriage with high and lofty ideals, as if people don’t come into marriage with wounds that can make more wounds and with relational patterns inherited from a world where abuse is a prevailing norm. The wind and tide of culture flow in the current of unhealthy and harmful relational patterns. Harm is reproduced, over, and over again. The way of Empire invades every sphere of human activity, which means we must recognize it in order to battle it, hand-to-hand, in order to create sacred spaces of light, drawing lines that the darkness cannot cross.
One of the most important things we must do before we can live the way of love is to care for and accept and nurture ourselves. If you must, think of it as allowing Jesus to care for us. “Self-care” is sometimes mocked as unchristian compared to sanctimonious, destructive, self-neglect in the name of sacrifice. Perhaps, knowing how difficult healing can be and knowing that there are parts of us that we do not want Jesus to touch, we would rather just suppress emotional and spiritual health under the excuse of obedience – hardships and sacrifices we invent for ourselves, even the “false humility and neglect of the body” of the legalistic spirit (Colossians 2:20).
A lot of the toxicity in holiness culture can perhaps be attributed to a culture of avoidance, and a culture where we idolize the stories of emotionally unhealthy, tormented, yet highly successful and well-known “saints”. Perhaps the glorification of self deprecation and self-deprivation in Christians reflect a fear of pursuing wholeness and health. Spiritual pursuits may serve to deflect from the heart issues that Jesus wants to address in order that we may truly do His work in a way that represents and glorifies Him.
Bearing emotional wounds and unable to care for ourselves, we cannot truly care for others the way they need to be cared for.
If we cannot be gentle with ourselves, we won’t be able to be gentle to others. Instead, we might admonish them to just tough it out, trust Jesus more, pray it away, or thank God for their suffering.
One of the first gifts God gives us is our body and our being. This is a being we must steward with gentleness. Satan wants us to hate ourselves and hurt ourselves, because he hates us. He wants us to believe we are worthless and unworthy. But we are worthy.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
The religious leaders looked at the “sinful woman” weeping at Jesus’s feet as a degenerate transgressor. Samaritan society likely excluded the woman Jesus encountered at the well for a myriad of reasons. The crowd raised fists with stones in their hands to pummel the woman caught in adultery. But Jesus saw their hearts, each and every one of them. Jesus saw inside Zacchaeus’s heart, Paul’s heart as he murdered Christians, Peter’s heart when he betrayed Him, and the heart of the sinner who hung next to Him on the cross.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:25-26)
Heal me, LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise. (Jeremiah 17:14)
Think of the cross as the ultimate symbol of God’s love and of the love God calls us to. We do not wait to begin to love one another until we have fully healed: Loving one another in brotherhood and community is part of our healing. We cannot have one without the other. In fact, we will never experience healing until we step into that place of love, for it is love that covers a multitude of sins.
Taking that step towards love, even in our incapable, faulty, broken, messed-up selves, is an act of faith. It is laying hold of that salvation Jesus has bought for us and claiming that which we do not think we possess, but actually do. In doing so, we trust Jesus with our story and with the fear that we will mess up, fall down, tumble over, fall into the water, and hurt others in that process. This is why we need grace, both for ourselves and for others. This grace stems from Jesus’s grace: abundant, gentle, persistent, patient, kind.
“I cannot love the way You do,” we may respond to Jesus’s call to the cross.
“You can,” He says, “For I first loved you.”