By Linda Rex
3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER—As the years go by, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have been on with Jesus. The person I am today is profoundly different from the person I was as a young adult. I had lots of dreams back then, and I voiced many strong convictions about what I believed to be true about God, myself, and others, much of which I have since renounced as wrong or inaccurate.
Life seemed to be a lot less complicated back then. I believed that if I just did everything the way it should be done, my life would be blessed, I would be happy, and things would go along quite well without any difficulties or suffering. Whatever difficulty or suffering that might come would be because I sinned or because I was being persecuted for doing what was right. It seemed as though I was on God’s side so he had to be on mine, making sure everything went as it should.
I’m a little embarrassed to think about how naïve and unschooled I was, but it was merely the outgrowth of unhealthy theology and a protected yet legalistic childhood. I have, through the conditioning of God and everyday human existence, come to have a more rounded and mature view of things. There is indeed evil at work in this world, and evil affects anyone and everyone at some point. No matter who we are, we won’t escape failures, difficulties, struggles, and challenges.
A fundamental change in my life began when my view of who I believed God to be was challenged. I believed God was Father and Son, and the Spirit was their power or essence. As I grew in my understanding of who the Holy Spirit really is as the third Person of the Trinity—reading in the scriptures and believing all the examples of his personhood illustrated there and growing in my personal relationship with the Spirit through prayer and listening—my understanding of who Jesus and the Father are began to change as well.
Knowing the Father as our loving Abba and Jesus Christ as his Son the Messiah, the Word who came and took on our human flesh, dying our death, rising again, to bear our glorified humanity in the presence of the Father forever, is life-transforming. As the Spirit brought me nearer and deeper into the life of the Trinity, what I believed kept moving beyond just a religious creed into the realm of personal experience. The reality of Jesus Christ in me, with me, for me, began to take a clearer shape. Jesus was no longer some story character—he had revealed himself to me personally by the Holy Spirit. I began to hear God’s still small voice in my heart and mind, and I began to know and believe I am loved, forgiven, and accepted. The more I believed the truth about who Jesus was and why he came and the more I knew I belonged and was included in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, the more my behavior began to change.
I was more than happy to do my part in obeying God—I had constantly been bombarded by the shoulds, oughts, and have-tos of the belief system I held and all it did was make me worse. The harder I tried, the more I found myself shackled by unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. I struggled often with depression and self-loathing. This obviously wasn’t God’s way of doing things. Eventually, the change I noticed within myself did not come about because I tried harder, but rather because I admitted I couldn’t do it and I needed Christ to do it in me and through me by his Holy Spirit. It happened when I was honest with others about my struggles and failures, and sought help. It happened when I was transparent about my failures, became fully known and yet loved, accepted and forgiven within a healthy spiritual community.
The worst thing about toxic or legalistic religious environments is that they do not allow people to be authentic and real and so find genuine healing and renewal. It seems that when people come together to form a church, they bring with them their masquerade gear and spend copious amounts of energy hiding from one another. In this type of environment, addictions and co-dependencies thrive. Healing and renewal are often limited or are complicated by unhealthy boundaries and toxic relationships.
It is much better to be in a safe spiritual community where each person is able to be genuine and transparent, and is allowed to grow up in Christ. Growing up in healthy ways requires the freedom to make mistakes without condemnation and with the support and encouragement of those who have previously traveled those same difficult paths. A healthy spiritual community allows for falling short without condemnation, but challenges brothers and sisters to grow up into the fullness of who they are in Christ.
Saul was not a bad person. He was a zealous God-fearing Jew. He meant to do the right thing, and he was trying to live life the way he believed God wanted him to. I don’t know why he was so adamant about imprisoning and executing the believers in Christ, but perhaps his zeal for God was also inspired by a need for the approval of his Jewish peers and a need to accomplish what no one else was doing quite as well. Whatever his reasoning, it seemed to be borne out of a heart seeking to please God.
Imagine how horrifying it must have been to realize that the One Saul had been trying to impress was actually the One he had been persecuting. His efforts to earn God’s love and approval, and the adulation and approval of his peers, was actually an action in opposition to God and in persecution of Jesus. Saul needed to know who Jesus Christ really was. He needed to have his image of God reformed into something which more perfectly apprehended the Triune God of love. As Saul sat in the darkness of blindness for a few days, he must have thought at least once—now what do I do? How can I possibly make amends for this?
What if Ananias had refused to listen to Jesus when the Lord told him to go lay hands on Saul so he could see again? What if he had stood in judgment of Saul and had condemned him, insisting he pay for his crimes against Ananias’ friends and fellow believers? But he didn’t. He humbly obeyed Jesus’ command and met Saul right where he was, offering him grace and love, and entrance into the body of Christ, the church.
Saul, whom we know today as the apostle Paul, never minced words when he spoke about his past and his failures in life. He was transparent and honest about the people he had harmed and the suffering he had incurred. Instead of being a reason for shame and guilt, God made his failures an essential part of his witness to the resurrection power of the risen Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was effective often because people saw the profound reversal which had occurred in his life when he met Jesus Christ.
A church should be a spiritual community where people can be authentic and transparent, and safely transverse the changes necessary between spiritual infancy and the spiritual maturity of Christlikeness. This is a journey that takes time, and we all have ups and downs as we travel. We are bound together in Christ to offer one another both grace and truth—to enable one another to be challenged as well as upheld when things don’t go as we planned or hoped they should, or when we fall short of Christ.
The Spirit creates such a community as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, and live and walk in him, tossing aside the old as unneeded scraps of clothing ready to be burned, and putting on Jesus Christ who is our life and the truth of our being. As we live out the truth of our real reversal in Jesus, the Spirit enables us to participate in bringing others to experience this transformation as well, creating a fellowship of care which reflects the inner life of the Triune God. Our spiritual community isn’t meant to be a closed group but rather a welcoming place where others may find healing and renewal as well.
Dear Abba, thank you that by your Spirit you bring together people to form spiritual communities where they can find healing and renewal, and share that gift with others who are broken and suffering. As believers, change our hearts and minds so that we begin to live together in ways which are transparent and authentic, and are safe for others to participate in and to come to know and grow up in Christ in a healthy way. We thank you for never ceasing to bring us to yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ … and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ ” Acts 9:5-6, 20-21 NASB
by Linda Rex
Over the years I have had to learn the difficult lesson that sometimes it pays better to stop being so nice to people. Being nice can actually make things more difficult and painful rather than creating a place of safety and healing for those involved. In fact, being nice can actually cause a dangerous situation to continue which needs to be made right.
But being nice isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, right? God would want us to be nice people wouldn’t he? Isn’t God always a nice God?
And being nice can seem like the Christian thing to do. If someone is a follower of Christ, they will always be nice, right? They will never be mean or unkind. Jesus was always nice, going around healing people and helping people when he lived on earth, wasn’t he? Or was he?
What about when we are parenting our kids? We may want to be a good parent, so we are always kind, and thoughtful, and generous to our kids. We may give them everything they want, and never say anything to correct them, thinking we are being a good parent by doing so. When they get in trouble in school, we may take their side instead of allowing them to experience the painful consequences of bad behavior. But when we do this is it really the most loving and best thing we can do for them?
Parents may find it very difficult to correct their children and to hold them accountable—it just feels heartless to make a child experience the consequences of their bad choices. Putting limits on a child, and enforcing them, and dealing with the accompanying tears and frustration is not a task for the faint of heart. It’s tough being a parent sometimes.
And it may appear that when a person speaks difficult and painful truth, they are being cruel and heartless, when actually they are doing their best to make a bad situation better. Everyone needs someone in their life who won’t just be nice, but who will speak the truth in love.
If you have a friend who will never tell you the truth about your hurtful behavior, are they truly your friend? If your friend is so busy being nice to you they don’t tell you the truth about how insulting and rude you were to someone the other day, are they really doing what is best for you? Are they really loving you with God’s love?
And what about God’s love? We’re all okay with God being a nice God, giving us so many things, and being good to us, as long as he never makes any demands of us and never tells us when we are wrong. We are happy to have a nice God, but not a God who has the right, and the responsibility, to correct us, and to guide and teach us. As long as God stays on his side of the universe and leaves us alone, but makes sure our life is happy and blessed, we like God.
But I’m not so sure God is a nice God. I’m more inclined to believe God is a loving, compassionate God who has a passion for his children becoming the beautiful, Christlike creatures he initially created us to be. God’s heart toward us is not that our life be easy and convenient, but that we grow up into the fullness of the image of God we were created to bear.
I tend to believe God isn’t as concerned with keeping us happy as he is helping us to be transformed into the image of his Son. Sometimes the process we must go through includes difficulty and pain and suffering. We experience the consequences of our behavior, our words and our choices, and we experience the consequences of the things other people say and do. We experience life in a broken world full of broken people, and this is the crucible in which God forms us into new creatures.
I am a firm believer, though, that there is nothing we go through in this life which God cannot redeem or restore, when and as he so chooses. Those unjust and hurtful things people have done to us or said to us over the years are not ignored by God. In his own time and way, he works to make everything right in the end. In Christ who became sin for us, he takes all these things and redeems them, transforming them into a means for accomplishing his Christ-like perfection in our character and way of being.
We can participate in this process of renewal and restoration by allowing God to use our brokenness and pain as a means of helping others to heal and be restored. We respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives to heal us and comfort us, and then we turn to others who are suffering and in pain, and share with them the gift which God has given us.
Sometimes healing requires the painful process of removing what is causing the pain—surgery is sometimes necessary in order for healing to occur. This can be true even with regards to our emotional pain. What we do not deal with, we carry around with us, and it often causes difficulty for those around us. So we need to own our stuff, and face it, and get help with it if need be. This is why we have counselors and other people God has gifted to help us with emotional, mental and spiritual struggles and wounds. These are people who will tell us the difficult things we need to hear, while listening to the horrendous things we need to say.
In other words, we need people in our lives who aren’t so much interested in being nice as they are interested in helping us be whole. We need friends or companions on our journey through life who are real, genuine, honest and compassionate. We don’t need people who are nice all the time, but rather who are willing to take the risk of speaking the truth in love, and standing by us when life gets tough. And not only do we want to have these types of people in our lives, but these are the kind of people God is calling us to be.
As parents, we can be people who are more interested in our children growing up to be honest, faithful, compassionate, and genuine people, than keeping them happy and not ever disappointing them. As parents, we can allow our children to suffer, to grieve, and to struggle, while at the same time, helping them to bear up under what they are not able to bear on their own. We can encourage them to take risks rather than taking all their risks for them in their place. We can do things alongside them in such a way that eventually they are able to do them on their own without our help—and this may mean allowing them to struggle and fall down in the process.
In other words, we will all be healthier people, with healthier friends and families, if we would stop being so nice and start being truly loving. We are able to do this because this is the nature of God in us—the God who is so genuinely loving he was willing to join us in our mess and become one of us. This God who lives in us by his Spirit is the God who confronted evil and sin in sinful man by taking our broken humanity upon himself and redeeming it. God was too nice to be nice to us—he became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in him.
This God by the Spirit tells us what it looks like to live in true spiritual community. He tells us to avoid living in ways which are hurtful to others, and names what those are in his Word. He by the Spirit enables us to have the courage to speak the truth in difficult situations, and to handle the meltdown which occurs when we directly address unhealthy behaviors and words. This God, who may not always seem to be nice is the God who is Christ in us, and who enables us to stop being nice and to start being truly loving and compassionate in how we live and what we say.
Thank you, God, for not being nice to us—for not allowing us to continue in our broken and unhealthy ways of living and being. Thank you for joining us in our humanity, and forging for us a new humanity which reflects your divine life and love. Grant us the grace to respond to your transforming work and to stop being nice, and start being truly loving and giving–in your name, Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” 1 Jn 4:7–9 NASB
When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.
I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”
The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.
When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.
To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.
One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).
But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!
The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.
One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.
The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.
This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.
I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB