I started touching on this subject in my recent post and in the resulting discussion I had there with Michael, and now I feel I’d like to look at it in a bit more detail.
But let me sum up the basic idea first:
God loves me as I am – that’s a given, and that’s not because of what I’m like, it’s because of what he’s like. He made us and he loves us – each of us, not dependant on anything we do, not dependant on our character or looks or intelligence or even on how “religious” we are. Those of us who have had the privilege of being brought up by loving parents will have some clue as to what this is like – good parents love all their children simply because they’re their children, not dependant on their being clever or pretty/handsome or good at school or excellent at PE or whatever. good parents may punish bad behaviour and reward good behaviour, as a way of encouraging positive behaviour in their child, but they don’t love you more when you get good marks and they don’t stop loving you when you get bad marks or even drop out of school.
ok, that was a very long “summing up” of only one point – I guess it’s just something that I feel needs repeating. God loves each of us and he loves us as we are, no conditions.
now, if we take that stuff I said about good parents encouraging positive behaviour in their children, that actually leads us to the second part of the equation: God does actually want me to change – he loves me as I am, but he knows what I could be like, he knows I could do so much better, given the right conditions. he made me, and the Bible tells us that originally we were made in God’s image – which is pretty awesome! and this means God knows my potential, and he knows that my potential is so much higher than where I’m at!
when I was growing up, there were people around me who had high expectations from me in terms of using my brain. my mum tells me she taught me the English alphabet when I was 3. my older brother and/or sister (don’t remember now) taught me to read and write in Hebrew before I started school. I remember my big brother attempting to introduce me to computer programming when I was 14. the general family expectation was that I would do well academically – was this because they recognised my own intelligence, or because they expected me to live up to the family standards? my guess is that it was probably a mix of both. which leads me neatly into the way God looks at me and wants me to change and to grow – there’s the issue of my loving parent wanting to see me fulfilling my potential, and there’s also the expectation that I would live up to the family standards.
let me try and explain what I mean by that.
you know that stuff in Exodus 20 referred to as The Ten Commandments? this stuff was given to the Israelites just after God had made them his people, it was – the way I understand it – basically God saying: you’re part of my family now and this is how we behave in this household. we’re a loving household, so we don’t steal and murder and covet etc.
I see the same principle in the Epistles – we are saved by God’s grace, but then we are called to a different way of life, we are called to live a life that will bring glory to our Father in heaven. As soon as you put your faith in Jesus you are immediately part of this new family, you are adopted into the household of God – and this is unconditional, it doesn’t depend on anything you do – but there is the expectation, the encouragement, now that you are part of this family, to live up to the family standards. (and fellow believers are called to encourage one another along this path, to hold each other to account and to gently and lovingly kick each other in the shins when we see a fellow believer going off-track.)
so God wants me to live up to his family standards – and for this purpose he has given me his written word, and the counsel of fellow believers, and his spirit to guide me.
and he also wants to see me live up to my potential – which includes the above, but also includes my own personal potential, because each person is unique and we each have a different set of gifts/strengths/skills/abilities. I’m married to a man who is really good at woodwork – it’s not just that he has had the training for it, but he clearly has a natural ability, and he clearly loves doing it. When I see him come out of the garage (which he uses as a workshop) after mending a wobbly chair or whatever, he seems fully alive. He is fulfilling his unique potential. I, on the other hand, am not particularly gifted in practical areas – not that I’m hopeless, but that’s not where my strength lies. But I can write poetry, which comes naturally to me, and my husband isn’t gifted in this area. We’re all different.
of course sometimes there are gifts we have which are hidden and need to be brought out to the surface. if we weren’t encouraged to explore them when we were growing up, or if we were discouraged… it’s helpful now and again to try doing something new, something you haven’t tried before, or even something that you believe you aren’t good at – there was a stage in my life when I believed I was hopeless at cooking, thanks to people around me who had put me down so much that I just absorbed their messages. God put me in a situation where I had to do it, and I had good instructions from someone who knew how to cook and also knew how to give instructions, and it worked. Sometimes he has to throw us in at the deep end or we’ll just stay sitting at the edge of the pool with just our feet in the water and keep admiring all those amazing people who can swim so well, whilst sighing about our own inability.
even with my gift of writing, God had to intervene or I’d have carried on writing “just for the drawer” (do you say this in English? I realise I’m translating literally from an expression we use in Hebrew – the idea is that you write but don’t show it to people, you just keep a notebook hidden in a drawer.) – and this was thanks to a teacher who didn’t give me encouragement when I needed it. When I was a kid I wrote mainly poetry, though now and again I had a go at fiction too. At home I was encouraged, and at school I used to show my poems to friends. But at some stage, when I was already at high school, I showed a story to my literature teacher and her comments were really discouraging – I don’t remember what she said now, just how my face fell and I became very despondent about the whole writing thing.
so for years I wrote on the quiet, not sharing my writing with people very often. then in 2002, when I was back home in Israel, God started to stir this whole thing… he gave me a friend in my fellowship who writes, and who recognised this gift in me and encouraged me to get back into it. through this same friend he gave me opportunities to do a kind of writing that I’d never done before – she runs the drama group at the fellowship and I wrote a few sketches that were performed by the drama group. and then in 2003 when I came back to the UK to get married, I had time on my hands because my temporary pre-marriage visa didn’t allow me to work, and I saw an ad in the library for a creative writing workshop, and heard God whisper in my ear: stir up the gift that is within you. and I started going to this weekly workshop and discovered that I can write short stories! and gradually my confidence grew, to the point where I’m now able to say to people that I’m a writer, without feeling shy about it.
yes, God has been working on me, he has been changing me. but he changes the bits that he chooses to change, and he sets the timetable. it’s not about what I think could do with being changed, it’s not about my own preferences, or about what the world around me says – it’s about God’s agenda. he is the one who made me, he is the one who really knows what my true potential is.
my part in all this, the way I see it, is to (1) enjoy and absorb God’s love for me as I am (2) cooperate with him in his efforts to change me, knowing that “daddy knows best” and holding on to this truth even when his chiselling hurts. What I am not called to do is (3) beat myself up over the head because I’m not like so-and-so who is so good at such-and-such – I was not made to be like someone else, I was made to be uniquely me. When God is chiselling away at me, it isn’t in order to turn me into some sort of clone, identical to a whole load of others. It is in order to bring out the real me, the me that I don’t even know is there underneath all the muck and stuff.
part of the reason this chiselling hurts at times is because we get so used to the way we are, we get muck and stuff stuck to us along the way and we become so used to it that we regard it as part of ourselves and can’t imagine being without it.
one of the things I constantly struggle with is procrastination – or, to be more truthful, no, I don’t constantly struggle with it, I very often give into it, but I know it’s not good and I believe God is trying to chisel away at it, but I resist the chiselling because, to be honest, I find it very hard to imagine myself as a non-procrastinator. would I suddenly become very boring? I think part of me sees procrastination as kind of cool, which makes it harder to allow God to work at it.
in my pre-rebirth days, when I was trying to live the Christian life but hadn’t yet been born again of God’s spirit (here’s a tip: don’t even think about it, it doesn’t work. living the Christian life is humanly impossible, only God can make it remotely doable. if you want to do it, you need Jesus.) – I was gradually allowing God to start changing me in certain areas, for example he was making me an honest person (which is pretty good for an ex-thief) and he was teaching me kindness and compassion (which I really didn’t have before, I couldn’t care less about other people), but there were areas in my life where I was totally clinging to what was familiar to me and not letting go. for a long time I remained adamant that “of course” God doesn’t mind who I sleep with “as long as I don’t hurt anyone” – that’s just the stuff I’d grown up with, which sadly doesn’t take into account the fact that our bodies are not disconnected from our emotions and that who we sleep with does affect our feelings and can mess us up big time. It was only in 1999 that God finally managed to get through to me about that stuff and I allowed him to clean me up from the muck that had stuck to me along the way.
God is amazingly patient. I know that if it was me, if I saw someone come to faith I’d want to do a major sort-out all in one go – but I think humans can’t actually cope with that, not when you come to faith as an adult, having accumulated tons of baggage along the way. I was 27 when I first started to gradually let God into my life, I was 40 when I was finally born again, I’m 48 now and he’s still working on stuff and from what I hear from others who have been walking along this road for a lot longer, it doesn’t stop…
so God’s job is to change me more and more into the person I can be, my job is to let him do it – to listen to his voice, to obey and not resist.
but I can only do this, I can only trust him with this, through knowing that he loves me as I am, knowing that his love for me doesn’t depend on these changes happening – that it isn’t a case of me having to become more X or less Y so that I can gain God’s love and acceptance and approval. He loves me because I’m his. He has loved me since before I even began to know him. He loves me as I am, not because of anything in me. (This reminds me of a guy I went out with ages ago, who made the mistake of saying something to the effect that he loved me because…. all sorts of stuff including that I only used transparent nail polish. I immediately had to test him by going out and getting some glittery blue nail polish and painting my fingernails and my toenails glitzy blue. I needed to check that his love for me didn’t really depend on what nail polish I used.)
so when I talk about self-acceptance, about accepting myself as I am, I’m not talking about saying: God loves me as I am and therefore I don’t need to change. I’m talking about accepting myself as I am whilst being constantly open to what God wants to do next – allowing him to set the agenda, and not beating myself over the head about stuff that God hasn’t challenged me about. and I’m going to repeat here the example I gave Michael in that discussion, because I think it’s a really good example:
years ago, when I was living in London and doing the 9-5 rat race kind of life, I remember talking to a Christian friend and sighing about how I was never managing to get up early enough in the morning to pray before leaving for work, so I had started doing it on the bus on the way to the office. I was saying stuff like how bad it is that I can’t get up earlier to do it, and she said: but has God asked you to? at which point I realised that actually God wasn’t challenging me about this, it was me with some expectations resulting from stuff I’d heard in church, it wasn’t God. so I accepted myself as “not a morning person” and learned to live with it. and carried on praying silently on the bus on the way to the office.
so the “not being a morning person” is a part of me that, though some people might think isn’t so good/healthy/whatever, is something I’ve learned to accept about myself. I am no longer apologetic when I mention it to people, I no longer talk about it as though it’s something embarrassing that should be mentioned in hushed tones. It’s just how I am. for a long time I struggled with it and forced myself to go to church on Sunday mornings, but at some point I realised that if I go to the morning service, (a) I don’t get much out of it because I’m half asleep (b) God doesn’t get much out of me being there, because I’m half asleep (c) other people don’t get much out of me being there, because I’m way too sleepy to be sociable… so what’s the point? I started going to evening service instead, and that way we all get so much more out of it.
so sometimes there are things about me that I might feel bad about but there’s no need for me to feel bad about, because in God’s eyes there’s nothing wrong with them, the negative thoughts/feelings I’ve got about it come not from him but from wrong messages I’ve absorbed, and it’s those wrong messages which need to be challenged. but sometimes it’s the other way round, there are things that I don’t realise are wrong until at some point God shines his light on them and says: come on now, don’t you see how bad this is for you… now, let me just put my knife here… yes, I know, I know it hurts but you know this needs to go… there, doesn’t that feel so much better? and then I get up and realise I can walk with a lighter step because I’m so much more free now, and yes, how did I not see it…
I am and am not the same person I was when this process began. If I met the person I was back then in 1989, how much would we have in common? I think I’d be able to recognise something in her, that core me-ness underneath it all, but I don’t think she would recognise me as anything to do with her – she didn’t have it in her to relate to people like this, born-again Christians who believe in weird stuff like celibacy until marriage. Poor thing, she still had a lot to learn.