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What comes to mind when you picture turning toward God?
Psychologist Patrick Carnes suggests it all comes down to what kind of God we think we’re actually dealing with. There are four basic options.
First, we may have in mind a Non-Existent God. In other words, no God at all. We don’t have to worry about approaching a God who isn’t even there.
Second, we might picture a Non-Involved God. This is the God who is primarily concerned with the Oort Cloud, solar flares, and the Crab Nebula, and has little to no interest in our petty problems. Why even bother to approach such a God?
Our third choice is the Punishing God. He sternly holds us accountable for falling short of his perfect ideals. We are always on probation.
Finally, there is the Accepting God. He knows everything about our failures, yet cares about us anyways.
It seems incredible that after twenty centuries of telling and retelling the story of Jesus, a clear majority of those who identify themselves as his disciples picture a Punishing God – a God with whom they associate words like judgmental, strict, and rigid. According to David Kinnaman in his book unChristian, “The most common message that people hear from [Christians] is that Christianity is a religion of rules and regulations.” When churchgoers were recently asked to identify the main priorities in their faith experience, the number one response was “being good, doing the right thing, and not sinning.”
The reason this seems incredible is that it is so utterly at odds with the way Jesus himself pictures his Father in his own teaching. It’s likewise a total reversal of the way the apostle Paul imagines how we should relate to God.
Consider Ephesians 3:12: “In him [that is, Christ] and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” If we are locked in to Jesus and he is locked in to us, we may have assurance that God is always awaiting us with open arms.
But many of us simply don’t believe that. We will not allow ourselves to believe that.
This is the phenomenon of Yes-But. Yes, God has lovingly called sons and daughters into his forever family – but he was talking about other people, not me. Yes, God overflows with grace – but I have disqualified myself from receiving such grace. If only you knew my family secrets. If only you knew my shame. If only you knew why I don’t deserve kindness, and why it will be better for others and even for God when my life finally comes to an end.
Psychologists remind us that there is an important difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt is when we know we’ve made mistakes. Shame is when we think that we are a mistake. Guilt is the gap between how we act and how we think we ought to act. Shame is the gulf between who we are and who we think we ought to be. Guilt generates a fear of punishment – appropriately so – but shame fills us with a far more grievous terror: the fear that we are going to be abandoned. And abandonment is the darkest of all human fears.
Here is God’s good news: The guilt of our sins has been paid for by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. And no matter how much shame we may feel, God will never abandon us.
We may approach him, Paul says, with confidence – confidence that he is really there, that he cares for us, and that he is faithful. He accepts us even when we fail, and he is at work at this very moment in the smallest details of our lives in order to bless us.
In a world (even a church world) that is skewed toward belief in a Punishing God, how can we cultivate spiritual confidence?
Try settling the issue of trusting God when your alarm goes off in the morning. For the next seven days, wake up with Ephesians 3:12. Change the “we” in Paul’s sentence to the first person singular. You might even say it out loud: “In him and through faith in him I may approach God with freedom and confidence.”
If it feels in those first moments that you’re about to drown in the same old sea of anxious, fearful thoughts, gently steer your attention back to God. Picture yourself setting your own spiritual thermostat. Move the needle over to Confidence.
God says he can be trusted. Take him at his word.
The more we experience his grace, the more our confidence will grow. And in that confidence we can begin to leave behind the Yes-But of guilt, shame, and fear of abandonment.
In 2009, something memorable happened on the day of commencement at Azusa Pacific University. President Jon Wallace pulled aside three new graduates and invited them to stand before a small group of faculty, parents, and distinguished alumni.
He announced that these three were going to serve under-resourced people in impoverished areas. They were each given several minutes to share their passion for serving the poor and vulnerable for the sake of Jesus. Everyone applauded warmly. That’s when President Wallace turned toward the three of them and said, “Someone you do not know has heard what you are planning to do. He wants you to be able to go and serve without impediment. So he has anonymously provided a gift.”
Jon looked the first student in the eye and said to her, “You have been forgiven your school debt of $105,000.”
Did she hear him right?
The dark financial cloud that she assumed would long accompany her…was gone. Tears began to fall as she grasped what was happening.
President Wallace said to the second student, “You have been forgiven your debt of $70,000.” And to the third he said, “Your school debt of $130,000 has been totally forgiven.” In an instant, the lives of those three students were changed by the generosity of someone they had never even met. “Your debts are gone. Now go and serve freely.”
Grace. Unexpected, unearned, undeserved favor. Followers of Jesus believe this is what happened at the cross. It was a spiritual “commencement.”
By God’s grace, that dreadful cloud – the addiction, the failure, the squandered opportunity, the bitter memory, the deep regret – whatever we have assumed would always cast a shadow over our lives – was dispelled.
What makes grace so amazing is what happens when we receive it.
Our Yes-But is transformed into a Yes-And.
Yes, God will welcome me when I turn to him. And now I am truly free to go and serve a world that so badly needs to hear about an Accepting God.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.