It is a good thing to step back and consider what the Lord has done in history, so that I can understand myself in context. It is also a good thing to step back and consider what the Lord has done in my own short life, so that I can better understand my God.
I have recently had a birthday and I am now twenty-six years old. I feel as though I am going around a bend in the road into a new season of my life. At the same time, I think I have rediscovered something I had lost – and dearly missed without knowing quite what it was that I had forgotten. It is very simple and nearly unbelievable: I had almost forgotten how it is that God loves me.
Yes, I know how God loves me. I can describe the love of God in theological language. I tremble at the thought of the justice of the Holy One and at his just love and mercy. So, no, I didn’t exactly forget how God loves his saints. But I failed to remember that – and what that means in my own life. The past ten years, in particular, have been filled with spiritual – and physical – struggles as God has slowly cracked apart my pride. I have struggled long with things that were only symptoms of my failure and lack of knowing God. Many sins have I had to face – sins which turned out to only be at a surface layer, no matter how deep and fundamental I may have thought them at the time of discovering them.
Now the gospel is transforming me yet again – that same gospel I have believed since before I can actually remember anything. In the few very early memories I have, my childish heart was made happy because God loved me. I did not really understand sin, but, while I knew there were horrible terrors unknown to me, all that was “out there somewhere” because I was assured that God loved me and that he would take care of my family and myself. I was happy because God forgave me when I was disobedient because of Jesus, somehow. And in this I was content as a young child.
Then I began to learn of sin a little more. I grew cold and hard. I knew indeed that I was a sinner, but, on account of my pride, I was but rarely able to behold my own iniquity – so I often begged God to show me my sins so that I might repent. He left me in this state for a number of years, though I was secretly miserable because I knew I wasn’t pleasing God. I believed the Scriptures and I knew in my soul that I was living with a sinful heart and committing far more sins that I was aware of. But I yet clung to the fact of Christ, knowing that he stood between my sin and the Father – even when I could not feel it.
Finally, God began to show me a few of the sins in my life, even as he used the Westminster Standards to deeply shape my heart in those formative teenage years. I slowly began to be able to identify more and more what sin was – both in myself and in the culture around me. At this time I began to struggle with ill health and weakness, as well as with my uneasy conscience and abiding fear. I wept in private nearly daily. The blackness of the darkness of evil intruded into my presence often. I clung to the fact that God is – and that I was his because he has spoken. I sought to repent; but my pride proved to be a greater wall than I could ever possibly surmount in my own strength.
Then my life was turned upside down. Or so it seemed at the time. It was at this juncture that I began to understand that a local church truly, Scripturally, ought to be a part of the individual believer’s life and not just an optional thing that is sometimes nice to have. Arrogant and lonely, I struggled with this in a particular congregation, as well as with the other recent upheavals. Even darker days in my heart ensued. My health was still less than perfect – and my very soul was anguished. I cried out to God – but, still, most of the time my Father seemed quite deaf to my voice, even as I remained blind to my own iniquity. Again, the utter blackness of the abyss drew near to me. Rarely did a day pass when I did not weep in private. Yet, I still knew that God was faithful who had promised – I knew the very King of glory stood between myself and his own holy wrath. Even so, my soul drew near to the gates of death in the foolishness of my heart.
Strange, slow days for my heart followed this. I suddenly was brought face to face with the humiliating fact that, not only the very sins I had been denying were present in my life, but also that I was exceedingly selfish and dishonoring God in my heart. Even though I was greatly humbled, I yet remained centered on myself. I regained my health to a great degree – but after encountering a very large disappointment, my health began to erode again. I was afraid to admit that because I was too afraid, too self-important, and too self-reliant. I planned things. I embarked upon things. I continued to learn, little by little, more and more about the importance of other believers in the life of the Christian – and a little bit about proper humility towards the due authorities appointed by God, especially in the church. I learned more about sin and suffering, more about Scripture and its applications in my own soul. And, little by little, I learned more of the awesome, fearsome, holy, kingship of my Lord and Savior and of his everlasting covenant. I believed that nothing I ever did could ever change that word of God – and in that there was great comfort, though I yet was uneasy in his presence.
Then it so happened that God destroyed me. Slowly, one by one, he took my skills, my plans, my hopes, my abilities, plucking them from my greedy, clutching hands. He took my church family from me – family which meant more to me than my extended family. He took from me the capacity to enjoy things I previously delighted in – including the ability to think, reason, and converse coherently. He took from me strength, stamina, and the ability to work hard. My health was slipping quickly and I felt as though he was even taking from me my sanity. I was disappointed, frustrated, crushed, frightened, and, in some respects, truly outcast. In these dark days, I learned of God’s love – more precisely, of the strength of his love to his people in defending them and judging their enemies. God shall never leave the ones for whom Christ died unvindicated. Yet – all this! – and I was still filled with pride. Anguish overwhelmed me because I believed I was no longer good enough to work hard – ergo, that I was unable to love others; thus, unable to obey and please God. I was humiliated because I was ill; staggering, though not drunk; weeping, though not truly “depressed”; mourning as one doomed to die, but not dead, afraid of the justice of God, knowing I could not please him; seeing primarily the strong, hard face of my King set against those who rebel against him and against his holy Father – my Father.
I do not quite know what happened next – save this – my Father granted me mercy. Somehow, he showed me that which I had long known and declared: it was not the quantity of expenditure of energy in my deeds that would come before him and find his approval, gaining his attention and love. I was already – and had been all along – one beloved for the sake of Christ – and for his sake alone. My obedience added absolutely nothing to that. I knew that – Oh! how I knew that! – but I had forgotten to remember to apply that deeply and broadly to every area of my life – I had retained my pride to a great degree, keeping it hidden under the face of love. I still do not know how it was that God finally granted me this understanding – I do not know if it was through blessing me in a different, loving congregation of his church; or perhaps through reducing me to sitting nearly idle and lifeless, listless and too weary to be ashamed of my inactivity, too confused to be able to confront life; or perhaps through placing me into the loving, protecting, comforting arms of my family at such a time. However – in my anguish he showed me a truth so profound as to leave no room for that humiliation that results from pride – only for a quiet, silent, humble wonder at the mercy of God beyond any I had yet known. The gospel – perhaps I have finally learned it. For Christ’s sake – Christ, the Lamb of God and my merciful High Priest, for me, as well as for the whole church – for Christ’s sake, I am one beloved, one provided for. This is my name. My given name means “the barren one, gift of God” – and my barrenness and weaknesses have indeed proved a gift of God in order to destroy some fundamental falsehoods I had been cultivating for the past ten years.
This is my testimony: I am a sinner. I am beloved of Christ. I do not have to labor to deserve his favor and blessing – his love is freely given – as freely given to the weak as to the strong, who are better able to engage in the deeds associated with the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. The response of faith is heart-obedience – and the measure of heart-obedience is not calories expended, but in willingness to put aside self – all self – willingness to be weak, willingness to be patient, willingness to trust Christ wholly, entirely, and to draw strength only from him and his promise. It is not labor alone that sanctifies us. Nor is labor itself love. Love is the reason for the labor. Love is obedience – and love is the impetus for obedience.
I know not what lessons come next. I have learned much of thanksgiving, of praise, of hope, of steadfast love, discipline, patience, work, fear, humility – but I have much yet to learn. I am twenty six years old now. I have hope that my body shall yet fully be healed, even as I have been blessed significantly already. I must re-learn self-discipline for holy reasons. I must learn how to walk in love – in love freely bestowed. I must learn how to accept love freely bestowed. I must learn how to lean on Christ. I must learn how to pray without ceasing. I must learn how to identify the wicked, creeping pride that buries itself under good things, that I may, in a godly, truly humble way, make war on the wicked parasite of selfish pride and fear of what others might say. This – this – only because I am now free, no longer enslaved to pride as I once was, because God loves me freely.
When I was a young child, my favorite song was “Jesus Loves Me.” I think I sing it now, again, with a little bit greater understanding:
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong.”
For the glory of God!