on changing into your real self: Matthew 28

read Matthew 28.  Change always involves loss.  Even if it’s change for the better, there is always something we miss from our former life.  That’s why we mourn even the loss of an abusive marriage, a bad job, an evil boss, a megalomaniacal dictator or a grueling educational degree.  We humans don’t like change.  It rests uneasily on us.  We have buyer’s remorse.  Hold it, we wonder.  Did I make a mistake?

A relationship with God will always change you.  Sometimes, we have second thoughts about the changes God makes in us.  When Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God fed them in the desert.  He rained down manna from heaven:  “the manna looked like small coriander seeds, and it was pale yellow …. The manna came down on the camp with the dew during the night.”   Despite this heavenly provision, the Israelites complained about what they had left behind:  “‘Oh, for some meat!’ they exclaimed.  ‘We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt.  And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic we wanted.  But now our appetites are gone.  All we ever see is this manna!'” They forgot about the hardships and indignities of slavery.  They were ungrateful for the bread from heaven.  They remembered only “the good things of Egypt”.  They even claimed they ate the fish “for free.”  They have no appetite for the plain small pale things of God, and pine for the things that explode with flavor. Numbers 11.

Enormous changes take place in the last chapter of Matthew.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary visit Christ’s tomb – only to feel an earthquake and see an angel come down from heaven, roll aside the stone, and sit on it.  The angel’s “face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow.”  The angel tells them that Jesus “has risen from the dead, just as he said would happen.”  The women run from the tomb, and the very Jesus they thought had abandoned them by dying, meets them. He meets the disciples on the mountain.  Jesus gives the disciples the great commission, telling them to go and make disciples of all the nations.   The chapter ends with the most resounding promise ever made to man: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

And then Jesus left.  Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:9.  If you’ve never read the Bible, here’s the quick summary of Jesus’ life: he lived for 30 years in relative obscurity; he had a 3 year ministry, during which he said he was God’s Son and was with God when the world was made, and that, in accordance with the prophesies about the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures, he came down from heaven to be killed as a sacrifice for our sins; he was crucified by the Romans, at the request of the religious leaders, who killed him out of “envy”; he rose again on the third day and walked among the people for 40 days, after which he was taken up into the clouds; two angels said he “will return from heaven in the same way” he left, an event known as the Second Coming.  Acts 1:11.

So if Jesus left, how can he have promised his followers that he is with us always?  How are we to cling to that promise, when we feel all alone?  How can we trust the slow painful process of growth that a relationship with God entails?   There is a seeming simplicity and plainness to faith in God, that stands in stark contrast to the explosively flavorful life promised by the world.  How do we stay true to a seemingly absent God?  Who among us can be Penelope, knitting faithfully on our island home, while our Odysseus has set sail for a faraway land?

It’s a daily choice.  Some days, it’s even a moment by moment choice.  It’s a choice perhaps best illustrated for me by a former cocaine addict standing up and saying, “either God is…”  she took a step.  “Or He isn’t.”  She shrugged.  If God is, she was free of her addiction.  If He isn’t, she could have walked out of that room, and straight back into her former lifestyle.  She clung to her choice that God is, out of a sheer survival instinct.  For her to think, even for a moment, that God isn’t, would have spelled certain death.

It’s easier to see for a cocaine addict.  It’s not so easy to see sometimes if drugs are of no interest to us.  We forget what life was like without God.  We remember only the good things of our former slavery.  It’s like pining for a bad boyfriend.  You remember only the explosive connection, and you forget all the times you were alone, while he was out drinking and partying it up with his buddies.  The same is true of our spiritual lives.  When you choose Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes and lives in your heart.  You feel the peace that passes all understanding enter you, and you know Christ is real.  You know that the peace you feel is supernatural.  You know it’s different from anything you’ve ever felt before.  You know you didn’t make it up.  You know you couldn’t have made it up.  It’s not a human thing.  It’s a God thing.

And then the feeling passes.  You wonder if Christ has left you.  You remember the good things of your former life.  You forget the restlessness.  You forget the eternal inner murmur. You remember only the illusion of freedom.  And you begin to doubt.  Did I really experience that peace?  What if I made it up?  You pine for the spicy flavors of your former life.  You think maybe compromising God’s laws wouldn’t be such a very bad thing, would it?  The bread from heaven looks pale and tasteless in comparison.

And yet.  And yet you know, deep in your heart, that there is only one way.  You say, along with Peter: “Lord, where else can I go?  You alone have the words of eternal life.”  You have studied and read and thought about every other promise made to man by every other religion, and you realize they’re all based on human effort.  You can doubt me on this one, but I challenge you to go take a deep hard look.  Christianity is the only religion in which God himself came down to die for man.  Every other religion, or ethical way of thinking, depends on man earning his own way.  Everything else is what theologians call a “works based” religion.  It’s about what we can do.  Only Christianity says humans are so imperfect, that we can do nothing: a perfect God had to be sacrificed for our sins, so that imperfect us can live in heaven with a perfect God.  We are saved by grace alone, and not of works, so that no man can boast.  The only way to earn our way to heaven is to be perfect, and no one can do this.  No one except Jesus, and he chose to die instead.

Our daily choice, therefore, comes down to this: do we accept that we need God’s help?  Do we accept that we’re broken?  Or do we slip into thinking we’re fine, thank you very much, and it’s time we made our own way again?

For a man, this means accepting the hard truth that you are not, in some supernatural sense, all powerful.  It means accepting your weakness – a concept that rests fitfully with a man’s image of what he is supposed to look like.  But strangely, weirdly, wonderfully, by accepting his brokenness, a man ends up becoming more manly.  He becomes more whole.  He becomes a man capable of combining strength with gentleness.  He becomes a man of compassion, as well as of power.  He becomes kind, as well as strong.  He becomes a man of communication as well as action.  In his chest both lion and lamb lie down together.  He becomes, in other words, like Christ.

For a man, the choice to let God change you comes down to abandoning violence and abrasiveness, in favor of gentleness and a sense of quiet strength.  A longing for gentleness lurks within the breast of every beast.  Take, for example, the compassionate way in which Fitzgerald describes the aggressive Tom Buchanan in the opening chapter of The Great Gatsby:  Tom “had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven – a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax… I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game… He had … a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward… you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat.  It was a body capable of enormous leverage – a cruel body… His speaking voice [had] … a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked – and there were men at New Haven who had hated his guts…. I always had the impression that he approved of me and wanted me to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness of his own.”  When the narrator runs into Tom on the train, “his determination to have my company bordered on violence.”  Tom Buchanan is all lion, no lamb.  And yet within his violent aggressive manner, Fitzgerald brings out Tom’s sense of loss and wistfulness.  It’s as if part of Tom wanted to be a lamb, but he had given up long ago.  Tom is almost a caricature of the violent side of a man’s strength – and is therefore a perfect example of the kind of identity that a man can have softened, if he decides to submit to Christ’s authority instead of his own.

For a woman, to choose Christ means accepting that her all consuming desire for relationships is, on some divine level, self-serving.  Accepting this is counterintuitive.  Don’t women just want to help?  Don’t women just want to connect?  Yes, they do.  God made women that way.  But when a woman’s desire for relationship stems from a deep dark well of insecurity, she loses her way in every relationship.  The relationship becomes about her, and her need, instead of about the other person.  It is about receiving rather than giving.  It is necessarily selfish instead of selfless.  In contrast, it’s only when a woman finds her identity in Christ – instead of in her role as mother, daughter, wife, lover, friend, or nurse -that she finds a strength and connection that transcends her need.  A woman needs to discover in Christ the friend, lover, husband, helper and companion who meets the deepest depths of her desires – because only Christ meets her needs and yet  gives her back her identity.

From that position of strength – when a woman can look at Christ, and say with the adoration of a newlywed for her groom, “I’m with HIM” – she can truly give to others in a way that eluded her before.  She can give out of fullness, not emptiness.  She loves as she has been loved.  She can begin to handle it when others disappoint and reject her.  She can be there for others, because Jesus Christ is always there for her.  In Him, we all have everything we need.  We are no longer from Mars or from Venus, but from heaven.

Jesus is there for us always.  He is with us always, until the very end of the age.  He will never forsake us, and never abandon us.  We are the ones who can choose to abandon him, by running after the allure of our former prisons.

The good news is, we have a kind God.  He forgives us when we return to our former lovers.  He knows we change our minds. He knows we don’t like change.  He is with us always, and He never changes.  He rained down bread from heaven with the dew, and he longs to rain down on us the blessing of his presence.  If you want proof, just look at the cross.  He loves us so much, He died for us.  He rose again, and when He comes back, there’s only one person He’ll be looking for. It’s not any of your false selves.  It’s your real self.   It’s you.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on November 18, 2011


the end of guilt: Matthew 27

read Matthew 27.  Why do humans hurt themselves?  Why do teenage girls cut themselves?  Why do people commit suicide?  Why do men pay women in thigh high boots to whip them?  I know pain releases endorphins.  But if endorphins were the only issue at stake, why not take up tennis or golf?  Why not run a marathon?  Why not run seven marathons in seven days in seven continents, as a Danish female lawyer recently did – the 7 by 7 by 7 – after which she said on NPR, “my knees hurt a little”?  To run a marathon is a challenge. To cut and whip yourself is demonic. What is at the heart of the human capacity to hurt itself?

Why do I care?  Because people that I know do these things.  Why does it make me cry? Because I know they feel helpless to stop.  Why do I sympathize instead of judge? Because the heart issues at stake spring from the same deep fissures we all share.  There is a spiritual issue at work in self-inflicted pain.  It’s a spiritual issue with which every human struggles.  I would argue that behind cutting, S&M, and bondage lies a deeply misunderstood spiritual issue.  It is the problem of guilt.

People think that guilt is a bad thing.  They complain about “Catholic guilt.”  They curse guilt as a force that leads from self-sabotage to self-inflicted pain to even suicide.  They make fun of guilt.  Prov. 14:9.  They think that guilt itself is the problem.

The Bible teaches the opposite.  The Bible says that guilt is a good thing.  It is intended to lead us to repentance and new life.  No one is supposed to stay in guilt.  That’s not God’s way: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” 2 Cor. 7:10 (NIV).

But humans have a spiritual enemy.  This enemy goes under various different names in the Bible – Satan, Beelzebub, the devil, the thief – but his goal is the same. Our enemy wants to rob us of the good, rich and fulfilling life that God intended for each of us.  Our enemy came to lie, cheat and steal.  Our enemy is a liar.  “He is a liar, and the author of all lies,” Jesus said.

It is the enemy who teaches that the only cure for guilt is to hurt yourself.  It is the enemy who lies to us when we mess up: “of course you messed up.  You ARE a mess. You’re a loser.  You take up too much space on the planet.  How COULD you have done that?  You ought to be ashamed of yourself.  No one could love you.  No one should love you.  You deserve to die.  Crawl under a rock.  Do yourself and the world a favor.  Go jump off a roof.  Cut yourself.  Hurt yourself.  Maim yourself.  Starve yourself.  Suffocate yourself.  Hit yourself.  Overwork yourself.  Run a mile.  Run a marathon.  Run yourself to death.  The world will be better off without you.”  I could go on.  But I know you know that voice.  It’s the same voice that whispers to each of us.  He doesn’t whisper those things to you when you’re on top of the world.  He waits.  He bides his time.  He goes after you when you’re tired.  He springs on you when you’re weak.  The enemy doesn’t play fair.  He kicks a man when he’s down.  He lies in wait, like a lion, and pounces when you’re least prepared.

And then he goes for the jugular.  It’s no wonder that people hurt themselves.  It’s only surprising that they don’t hurt themselves more.

The fact is, it’s a spiritual truth that when we do something wrong, we feel bad.  It’s called guilt.  We know, deep down, that we deserve punishment for our crime. No matter how many times we hear someone say that there is no absolute right and wrong; no matter how often we hear people explain that guilt is a figment of our imaginations; no matter how frequently we try to “breathe” out our guilt, rationalize it away, ignore it or bury it, the guilt remains.  We are all Lady Macbeth, unable to wash our own hands clean of the spots.

The reason for our guilt is that God’s laws are written on our hearts.  Another word for these laws on our heart is our conscience; we all have consciences.  The Bible teaches that our consciences can be “hardened” or “seared,” but the conscience is always there.  If you read about “pathological” criminals, you will find that even the most liberal of studies admits that the number of criminals who truly seem to be pathological – who really seem to have been born without a shard of a conscience – can probably be numbered on one hand.  These pathological people may be lacking a conscience the way other humans suffering from mutations in their DNA lack a finger or a toe.  Or they may have a conscience, but other factors like personality disorders and childhood trauma may have buried it.   Or they’ve been torturing animals since before they could walk, and so when they torture a human they’re consciences have become so granite hard they could pass every lie detector test known to man.  Who knows.  But for the vast majority of human beings, a conscience – of varying degrees of hardness – remains a reality.

So guilt, whether we like it or not, is also a reality. The “entire world is guilty before God.” Romans 3:19.  We have all broken his laws.  Guilt is a “burden too heavy to bear.”  Ps. 38:4.  Guilt probably has a far greater hold over us than we know.  The house elf, Dobby, in the Harry Potter books, expresses an image to which we all can relate.  Every time Dobby does something his master has forbidden, he hits himself.  “Bad elf, Dobby.  Bad, bad elf.”

It is when we don’t recognize our guilt that it engulfs us.  Not knowing we feel guilty, leads people to hurt themselves, in order to punish themselves for things they have done wrong. That’s the way Judas chose after he betrayed Christ.  He hung himself.  But there’s a more beautiful scandalous way.  It’s the one Peter chose after he betrayed Christ.  He wept.

No one likes to look at the cross.  Personally, I think I missed about two thirds of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ because it was so gory.  But even though we don’t like to look at the cross, if we stay with it, it transforms us.

The thing is, someone has to be punished for a crime.  It’s just true.  I can’t prove that to you.  But deep down, you know it.  God is perfect justice, and we are made in His image.  We know wrongs must be paid for.  The reason the cross looks like the worst possible thing, but is really the best possible thing for us, is that God himself took our punishment.  We don’t need to whip and cut ourselves, because Jesus was whipped and cut for us.  It’s that simple.  And that impossible.  But nothing is impossible for God.  Nothing.

The thing Mel Gibson’s movie missed is that Jesus didn’t just get whipped, tortured and killed.  He suffered hell.  The movie hints at this: there is one supernaturally poignant moment, when the sky itself seems to weep.  When Jesus cried out on the cross: MY GOD MY GOD WHY HAVE YOU ABANDONED ME?, he was being abandoned for our sins.  If God is all that is good, being abandoned by God is, well, it’s hell.  When Jesus cried out: “It is finished,” he meant – it’s over, Satan. Human sins are paid for. Jesus was the true Passover lamb, the one who took our sins upon him, willingly, out of love.  Jesus was the only perfect man who ever walked the earth, and so his sacrifice satisfied the demands of God’s perfect justice.  Everything you’ve ever done wrong, can be forgiven.  All you have to do is ask.

So when you do something wrong, don’t pretend it’s not wrong.  That way leads to death. We all do it.  We say the things WE do wrong are really okay, and the things OTHER people do wrong are bad.  But wrong is wrong.  (that, I can prove :)).  We don’t get to pick and choose which sins are wrong and which are alright.  You’re going to feel guilty when you do wrong, even if you try to pretend it’s right.  Your conscience knows better than your mouth.  So stop pretending.  Admit you messed up.  Look instead at the cross.  God was mocked, so you no longer have to be.  God wore a crown of thorns, so you can wear a crown of glory.  Don’t let the enemy lie to you a second longer.  Hold your head up high.  God loves you, exactly the way you are.  He knows your weaknesses.  He knows the things that trip you up.  He knows you’re going to betray him again.  It’s okay.  It really is.  Don’t hurt yourself.  Accept that God allowed himself to be hurt, so you don’t have to.  Weep.  Crying lasts for a night, but joy cometh in the morning, and it comes without regrets.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on November 17, 2011