God’s written some severe mercies into our family story.
That’s not to say we’re anything special or different than anybody else.
Trauma comes in at least as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins ice cream.
Loss is boxed into more varieties than you can find in the cereal aisle.
Pain intrudes like a nasty case of the stomach flu, leaving us squarely in the middle of a messy story.
These are the realities of life in a broken world.
And Christians, myself included, tend to conscribe to all sorts of theological straw men instead of working the steps of spiritual formation because it’s uncomfortable to sit quiet in the conundrum of God’s sovereignty and His love.
The prosperity gospel crowd “names and claims” health and wealth here and now on their terms like positive thinking will reconfigure God’s priority list for character over comfort.
The legalists thump Scripture verses supporting their simplistic solutions to complex problems to pretend there’s no paradox.
And the Pentecostals tend to expect God to respond to their requests like a vending machine. Faith in, selected product out.
Meanwhile, I’ve spent decades tousling God for control over my life and the lives of “my people”, tightly fisted, resisting His plot twists on our stories.
Gradually, however, I’m concluding, like Mr. Beaver in Narnia, that while Aslan “Isn’t quite safe, He is good.”
Honestly, I still can’t wrap my mind around the sheer mystery of God’s sovereignty but I believe that it’s in alignment with His heart and with that confidence, I live by faith.
I’m not embarrassed to trust God even though I don’t understand His ways. Faith is a gift and I’m not an Indian giver.
I’m getting more comfortable opening my hand to his sovereignty and responding to agonizing questions in life with,
“I don’t know why.”
Or, “I’m not sure I’ll be able to figure that out this side of heaven.”
Or, “I’m so sorry that happened.”
I’m demanding explanations less and sitting in silence more because processing the hardest parts of our stories, it’s like taking a cross-continental road trip. And there aren’t any shortcuts really.
We can detour from the recommended route if we choose to, but it’ll come back to bite us in the derriere personally and relationally further down the road. Ultimately, we’ll realize, or we won’t, our desired destination can’t be arrived at without racking up the miles on a road marked suffering, with all of its potholes, riding shotgun with Jesus who’s already travelled the route before.
So how do we move forward on the transformative journey of engaging our stories with integrity so we can learn to love?
I plunked some such question down with a sigh to our mentor just this morning.
It’s not that I haven’t heard his answer before, or even that I’m not mud wrestling the process almost every day. It’s just that sometimes I need a refresher course like summer rain for thirsty ground, and he’s always there, pointing us back to Jesus when we want to kick our stories to the curb and hitch hike to Neverland instead.
These musings, they’re only my scribblings. The speaker’s words, they’re the rare pearl of wisdom.
So, Bruce responds to me gently,
“Four words frame the path to spiritual transformation which is ultimately the path to genuine love: Accept. Enter. Remain. Embrace.”
Initially, it sounds a bit like a quick and dirty get-rich scheme, but actually, engaging this path feels experientially a lot more like weeding a garden. The fruit is produced only with commitment, endurance, perseverance, resilience and time.
Accept: On our own customized timeclock that’s sensitive to our developmental process, when we’re ready, God gives us the courage to acknowledge that He’s written or depending on your definition of sovereignty, at least allowed some things into our stories that are jolting, even devastating. We have been dealt unjust blows, often at the hands of others and the ones we expected to protect us from injury, including God, didn’t. We might prefer to pretend otherwise but that’s not true and ultimately, it’s the truth that sets us free.
Enter: Engaging the tragedy and hurt resulting from evil and the curse requires the marriage of a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit and a posture of surrender. We can’t solve the storm in our hearts with any mental exercise routine. We have to let go of things, like the little box we keep God all neat and tidy in. We have to be more committed to discovering the truth than defending our definition of truth. We have to be willing to revisit our story like a rerun instead of re-interpreting it according to narrow theological constructs or our own warped rendering.
God isn’t afraid of participating in gnarly stories. After all, He arranged His own murder for the sake of rescuing the ones who’d murder Him.
“When you murder love, love loves you in your commitment to murder Him.”
Soak on that tongue twister for awhile….
Remain: A deeper spiritual health realizes that pain is essential in spiritual formation, not in a masochistic way but in a transformative way. When we surrender our will toward suffering, we drastically reduce the despair of pain. Even though initially, pain relief motivates us, over time we accept that we don’t have to be “fixed” to be healthy. We might never be fully resolved about the aches in our hearts and that’s OK but we afford loss its greatest transformative value so that our pain is not wasted.
Embrace: Somehow in this complex process, God changes our mind about what love is and re-arranges our story in our hearts so we want it because we can see that it’s the one God’s writing for us. Instead of shaking our fist, we sit and weep cathartic tears when we realize that God has been composing our memoir to look more like Jesus. And that frees us up to look in the mirror at ourselves with tenderness and see the broken-beautiful image He sees.
We’re a little like Kintsugi pottery where the artist breaks china vessels to epoxy them back together with gold laquer. The damage is incorporated into the aesthetic of the restored item and it becomes artistically “better than new”.
Love is like that too. The Artisan’s masterpiece is shaped like a cross, a fragmented body exquisitively bonded with the blood of Jesus, and the resulting value of the work is priceless. That’s God’s model for love and it’s better than picture perfect, it’s broken beautiful.
Transferring that love from the vertical to the horizontal, it’s messy–messier than eating Chicago style popcorn. But, as we join ourselves to Jesus, He empowers us to pay forward the love we’ve received to the people in our stories and reveals to us what that should look like with each individual character.
I still have more questions than answers about the theological tension of God’s sovereignty and love. I’m saving them up for heaven when ironically, they probably won’t matter to me anymore at all. But for today and tomorrow and as many brief years as I am entrusted with this vaporous life, I keep breathing in His steadfast love and then I breathe out gratitude for His fresh new mercies, even the severe ones.
And in the end, I’m trusting that His faithfulness is indeed enough.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning; Great is your faithfulness. -Lam. 3:22-23