Darkness Before the Dawn (Part Two)

Veni Sancte Spiritus
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

Mick Turner

God accepts us and blesses us. So, why is it that many of us have trouble fully accepting this free gift of grace? Why is it that a significant number of God’s family displays such a negative mindset? Why is it that church pews are often filled with people wearing either plastic smiles or, even worse, displaying such a sour countenance that visitors might think these folks had been baptized in vinegar instead of water?

 Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that many of us, deep down in our spiritual hearts, just don’t believe that we have really been accepted. If we are among that number, our situation is such that we are actually rejecting the very gospel we proclaim.

 A renowned Christian theologian, I think it was Paul Tillich, once said that the key to the whole Christian gospel was the fact that we are accepted by God. In fact, he went on to say that the way to appropriate God’s grace was to accept that we are accepted. I am no theologian and, at best, possess a second or third rate mind. But I am capable of comprehending the truth of this statement. We cannot begin the spiritual journey as outlined by Christ until we accept the gift of grace. And the most fundamental aspect of accepting God’s offer is to accept that we are accepted. Yet many Christians don’t seem to get this point. In fact, in their broken, weak state they can’t fathom that they are in any way acceptable to God. Something is wrong here. Very wrong.

 The crown jewel in the center of the Christian message is that the lowliest, neediest, and most broken people are accepted if they have faith in Christ. Just take a look at the kind of people he chose to hang out with when he was on earth. He associated with thieves, lepers, tax-collectors, prostitutes, cripples, paupers, and even a woman married five times. It now strikes me as absurd to think that I, even with my hang-ups, sins, shortcomings, and defects of character, am beyond the loving pale of God’s grace. However, many people both within and outside the church feel they are unworthy of God’s grace and thus reject the gift that was designed for them in the first place.

 Consider the familiar story of the Prodigal Son as told by Christ in the fifteenth chapter of Luke. We are so familiar with this tale of a wasted life saved through love and redemption than we often loose the impact that it should have on our lives. Especially if we are wastrels and rogues like the wandering Prodigal. Perhaps more than any other passage in Scripture, the parable of the youngest son of a wealthy landowner illustrates the incomprehensible, counter-intuitive love of God. Brennan Manning speaks succinctly about the Prodigal in all of us and God’s incredible acceptance:

 “When the prodigal limped home from his lengthy binge of waste and wandering, boozing, and womanizing, his motives were mixed at best. He said to himself, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of Hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father”. (Luke: 15:17-18). The ragamuffin stomach was not churning with compunction because he had broken his father’s heart. He stumbled home simply to survive. His sojourn in a far country had left him bankrupt. The days of wine and roses had left him dazed and disillusioned. The wine soured and the roses withered. His declaration of independence had reaped an unexpected harvest: not freedom, joy, new life but bondage, gloom, and a brush with death. His fair-weather friends had shifted their allegiance when his piggy bank emptied. Disenchanted with life, the wastrel weaved his way home, not from a burning desire to see his father, but just to stay alive.”

 Yet even with these mixed motives, borne as much from desperation as from contrition, the wastrel was accepted by his father and a celebration ensued. Of course it is best if we respond to God’s offer with a pure, contrite heart and full acknowledgement of our failure and powerlessness. Yet how many of us are actually capable of this? Not many I suspect. I know I am not. But God accepts our response to his offer in spite of our conflicted hearts and spirits. In fact, if one is to believe what Christ teaches in the parable of the Prodigal, then he in accepts our desperation just as much as he accepts our repentance. This is truly “radical grace.”

 So what is our response to what God has done? What are we to do if we truly and sincerely want to partake of God’s marvelous offer to accept us, love us and empower us to be better people? What are we to do if we genuinely desire to become Children of the Light? First, we should deeply reflect on just what it is that God has done through Christ and what He is continuing to do through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. Brendan Manning again puts it in cogent and moving words:

 “We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that he should bother to call us by name, our mouths wide open at his love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground.”

Just how do we go about accepting this radical offer made by God? We just accept it. It is really that simple. There is no great mystery here, no elaborate initiation rites, no secret oaths or pledges. We just accept it because God offers it. We accept it on faith and leave God to work out the details and understanding later. The comfort we find in accepting God’s love comes after faith, never before it. Remember, it all begins with and hinges on faith.

 Christians seem to have an uncanny knack for taking simple truths and complicating them through debate, dogma, and doctrine. The “Doctrine of Grace” is one thing; the reality of God’s grace is quite another. It is freely offered to all who would humble themselves enough to receive it. I suspect that each of us has his or her own way of resisting God’s grace. Some of us, as mentioned above, feel we don’t deserve it; some of us are too prideful, feeling that we can fix ourselves on our own; others think the concept of grace is just too simplistic. Whatever our reasons for struggling with this basic Christian principle, until we resolve our conflict, we will not advance very far on the spiritual journey.

 I can attest to this fact from my own experience. Paul says that the idea of “Christ crucified” as the means of salvation would be foolishness to the Greeks. Well, for many years it was foolishness to me. I much preferred the complexity of Buddhism and Hinduism, or the sanity of New Thought. Still, somewhere down in the pit of my being, the Hound of Heaven was chewing on me. God was unrelenting in his pursuit of me and I, like Jonah, headed for the hills more than once. Still, God’s grace kept surrounding me and I could not escape. In fact, I came to treasure the comforting feeling of being surrounded by God. Finally, I accepted that I was accepted.

 Once I stopped running; once my struggles with God came to a halt, it was like a whole panorama of spiritual reality opened before my eyes, including a deep sense of optimism and hope. As a result, I began to view the world, including its problems and pain, with a greater degree of compassion and a genuine desire for healing involvement.

  With the help of the Holy Spirit, I came to understand at a deeper level that I was in fact accepted. Accepted in my weakness because this is where the strength of Christ is seen. Accepted in my brokenness because this is where the healing of Christ is seen. Accepted in my faithlessness because this is where the fidelity of Christ is seen. Accepted in my wandering in the wilderness because this is where Christ’s true and stable mansions are eventually discovered.

  As epidemic as this notion that we are undeserving of God’s grace and his willingness to restore us to more whole and healthy functioning is, there is another reason people do not change that is equally prevalent.  In order to actually change your life you have to genuinely want to. You see my friend, many people say they want to change, but they actually don’t mean it. They may even think they mean it, but they are only fooling themselves. The minute the going gets rough, these folks bail out faster than you can say, “Maybe things weren’t that bad after all.” Once these folks get a good whiff of the personal sacrifices often required in any program of transformation they hit their haunches faster than a Mississippi donkey.

 Many years ago I worked as a counselor in an inpatient psychiatric facility. I recall one patient in particular who was a good example of what I am getting at here. We’ll call her Bessie, although that was not her real name. Bessie had been admitted to the facility at least eight times that I knew of. No matter what therapeutic interventions her doctors tried, she always reverted back to her problematic way of dealing with the world, which involved a combination of prescription medication, alcohol, and frequent violent explosions.

 Bessie had been a patient of just about every psychiatrist in town at one time or the other, but the results were always the same. Bessie reverted back to being, well, Bessie.

At one point a new, young doctor came on staff and took over Bessie’s case. He tried a number of new things with Bessie and she at least seemed to be making some changes. Unfortunately, one day while in the hospital she manifested her old behavior. She reached over the nurses’ station and grabbed two medical charts and smashed them against the wall. She then began jumping up and down on them while ripping her clothes off and screaming at the top of her lungs. All of this happened just after she noticed her young doctor get off the elevator. While only clad in her underpants (Bessie was in her 70’s mind you, and more than a few pounds overweight), she started running in circles around her physician while telling him the following:

 “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to, Buddy,” yelled Bessie in a loud, cackling voice. “I figured it all out last night. You’re trying to change me, aren’t you? Well, I’m here to tell you it ain’t gonna work.”

 Granted, many of those who resist change are not as dramatic as Bessie in their behavior or their lack of desire for personal transformation. Still, the results are always about the same. Like Bessie, there is little lasting change. Bessie’s story and the stories of many like her share one thing in common: the stated desire for change was illusory.

 The simple fact is if change is to happen in your life, you have to truly desire it. Like anything of value in life, change begins with desire. I repeat:

 Every positive accomplishment begins as a desire in the mind of the individual. Desire is the initial force that gives birth to our dreams and it is desire that motivates us to achieve those dreams. All great things begin with positive desire.

 I encourage you to begin with an honest, gut-level assessment of your desire to change. You have to ask yourself, “Is my desire for change genuine? Am I willing to, if necessary, make personal sacrifices in order to reach my desired goal of personal transformation?” If you answer these questions in the negative, that’s ok. It just means you are not yet ready to change yourself and your life. If this is the case, my suggestion is for you to pray to God, asking him to impart to you a willingness to change. Be sensitive to anything the Lord may be trying to communicate to you regarding change and/or willingness to change. Keep a journal and write down any insights or messages that may come to you. Go back later and reflect on what you have written, pray about it, and see what happens next. Even the unwillingness to change can be an avenue through which the Holy Spirit can help you to grow spiritually.

 If you conduct an honest, thorough assessment of your desire to change and you discern that it is genuine, it is time to take the next step. You need to begin, through prayer and planning, to set goals for personal change and make specific plans for how this transformation might be facilitated. Enjoy where you are at that moment, because you are on your way to becoming a better version of yourself. Keep in mind that as you grow, you are increasingly able to realize the divine potential that God has placed inside you. You are more and more able to discern your strengths of character and put those very strengths into practice where it really counts, your everyday life. And one more thing, do it all for the glory of God. Like Jesus, your ultimate goal in personal change is to increasingly put yourself in a condition where you can glorify God.

 Doing so was a big part of Christ’s mission on earth; and it is equally a big part of yours.

(C) L.D. Turner 2010/All Rights Reserved

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