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
It’s been interesting to watch companies alter their advertising strategies to accommodate public concerns about body image and eating disorders. It’s good to see positive changes about these things. Helping young people have a healthy view of themselves as they grow up, and treating everyone, no matter their appearance, with respect and dignity is a worthy cause.
But there is another change I’d like to see in our media and advertising strategies. Unfortunately, sex sells, and so often it is used to sell even the most mundane products. Sometimes I’m appalled at how often the word “love” is used to refer to having sex with someone. Selling sex and calling it love seems to be the media strategy of the day.
As I sit impatiently through another lengthy ad about some pharmaceutical product, I am appalled by our addiction to pleasure filled, pain-free, hedonistic living. It seems like we are in general as a culture addicted to sex for its own sake. Sex is no longer experienced as a sacred event in which two people in the real presence of God share a deep intimacy unique to themselves alone within a covenanted relationship.
This isn’t a condemnation of sex outside of marriage. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of a lack of knowledge and discernment about love, what it is and what it is not. It is an expression of my grief that we are missing out on something beautiful, precious and divine. It is a realization that we are not living in the truth of who we are and who we were meant to reflect in our love and sexual relationships.
How we treat sex and sexual relationships says a lot about us as human beings. So does how we view love and love relationships.
There is a substantial brokenness at the heart of each one of us that causes us to run from a deep, committed relationship with God. And in running from intimacy with God, we also run from intimacy with one another.
We are happy to experience physical intimacy, because for a while it feels a lot like real intimacy. But real intimacy demands so much more from us—vulnerability, commitment, sacrifice, humility, submission, surrender—all the things we’d prefer to have to live without. We are happy to live with the counterfeit because the real is so demanding. And when a real relationship fractures or ends in death, the pain is excruciating. And we don’t want to deal with the pain.
Living in intimacy with God goes right along with this. We can be content with a superficial relationship with God—he makes no demands, we’re free to set our own limits. Or we can go deeper—surrendering all of ourselves, making ourselves fully vulnerable to God and others, sacrificing for his sake, living in commitment to him and his will in full submission to him—this is a real and deep relationship of love. But that means that God calls the shots in everything, including our sex and love life.
We can compartmentalize our relationship with God. We’ll be at church on Sunday or watch the evangelist on TV, send in a few bucks here and there for a worthy cause—and we’ve done what God expects, we think. Then we can go on about the rest of our life anyway we want. And God allows us to do that.
But this is so much like having a casual, physical relationship with someone and then walking away whenever we decide we’re done. We can have an occasional feel-good relationship with God, say that we love him, and then go on with our lives. We can dismiss him as someone we use and discard as the situation requires.
God meant for all of life, all that we are, to be a part of our relationship with him. That includes love and sex. As King David wrote in Psalm 139, God is present at all times in the Spirit. There is no part of our lives that is lived outside of God’s presence and power. And as Jesus bears our human flesh in the presence of the Father, all of our humanity is deeply and completely open to and known by God.
Love and sex are meant to be outward- and upward-focused rather than inward-focused. There is a sacredness to our relationships and our sexuality that precludes casual expression. Our bodies, souls and spirits, as well as those of others around us, are held as precious, to be respected, cherished and honored, not just used for self-fulfillment or self-indulgence. Love is something so much deeper than a casual sexual encounter—it is an expression of the divine.
In giving us his Son Jesus, God calls each of us to go deeper with him in a relationship of love—to love him with all that we are. And he calls each of us to love one another in the same self-sacrificing way Jesus demonstrated for us as he lived, died and rose again as a human being. We called out of darkness into God’s light, to take the path of transparency, integrity, sincerity and purity.
Taking this path in no way diminishes the pleasure and beauty of sex or love, but rather it concentrates it, giving it an intensity, freedom and power it would not otherwise have. And because sex and love are expressed by human beings in broken ways, we should accept that they are only glimpses of the divine. They were never meant to be the ultimate experience in themselves, but to create in us a thirst for something beyond this life that only God can satisfy.
I hope and pray that at some point, we as human beings, made in God’s image, born to be in relationship with God and one another, will draw the line and stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated, used and controlled via our sexuality. And when someone talks about love, it will not just be about sex, but will also be about commitment, compassion, service, giving, sharing, understanding and sacrifice. May God hasten that day!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Holy Father, forgive us for not understanding or appreciating the precious gifts of love and sex you have given us as human beings. Open our eyes to see that in Jesus and through your Spirit we live moment by moment in your presence, that all of our life is taken up in you, including our sexuality. Grant us the grace to live in true intimacy with you and one another as you intended from the beginning. Through Jesus our Lord, and in your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:9–11 NASB