I was desperate for the Lord’s favor.
I wanted to know that I was accepted, wanted, loved. I didn’t feel any of those things. I felt cold, dead, unwanted, and unlovable. I was sure that there was a reason I didn’t feel close to god, didn’t feel blessed or righteous. There had to be something I did, some sin, that kept me from the presence of god.
There must be something I could do, something to redeem myself, to get back in favor with the Lord. I begged god to lean his ear towards me and to hear my supplication. I needed to be heard and to be loved again. Without this love, I was destined to remain what I feared more than anything else. Without this acceptance, I was doomed to be an outcast, left outside of the warmth, joy, and love of other people. If god didn’t love me, how could anyone else?
This was the way I spent much of my early twenties. Whenever I felt the internal cold, the dampening of my mind and spirit, the depression, I was sure that god had abandoned me because I was genuinely unlovable at my core. I didn’t know that I was living with bipolar depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety. I didn’t realize those core beliefs that had developed from my childhood were tainting my understanding of my emotional state. I didn’t understand any of this; all I knew was I felt far away from light, life, and love.
Intellectually, I knew god loved me. The classes I taught told people that god loved us all without reservation. I knew about grace and mercy, and my theological system was dependent on unabashed love.
But it wasn’t right for me.
I was the exception. I was the one that god couldn’t love. I was too broken, too much of a burden, too sinful to be loved by a holy god.
I spent a lot of my time in the New Testament as I studied the Bible, preparing or teaching and preaching. Paul’s exhortations, the warnings to not fall away, Jesus’ words about being more righteous than the religious leaders, all of these things fed my fear that I couldn’t live up to the mark, that I couldn’t do enough to deserve to be loved by god.
These days, I have a very different view of both god and myself. I’ve faced my mental illness and am self-aware enough to know when my mood is slipping into that dark place. I can talk against the depression tapes that run in my head, telling me I’m always the outsider, always unloved, always unworthy. As I face these core beliefs about myself — voices that tell me I’m not really loveable, acceptable, or wanted — I find my understanding of god opening up more and more, getting bigger and bigger. I view god as much more wide armed, grace-filled, and loving than ever before.
Here’s the truth of what I believe: Jesus looks on us with favor. Period. Full stop. End sentence. There is nothing that can make Jesus not like you or look away from you. I used to believe that sin would separate me from god and cause god to turn his face away from me. Now, I am convinced that (as Paul says) nothing can separate us from the love of god. God’s love is deep, high, long, and wide. It is always enough and never ceases.
In the Old Testament, when god is telling Moses how the priests are supposed to live with and serve Israel, god gives a blessing that is for the people.
The Lord bless and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
May god’s face shine upon you. That image sticks with me. It’s as if the sun would never set, but will always keep a watchful eye on us. The way a parent’s face may shine on the baby in the crib or watching them at play because it fills the parent’s heart with joy.
The face of the Lord has literally shone upon us. God has physically lifted god’s countenance on us. Jesus’ face has seen us. As a babe, the miracle and mystery of the incarnation brought the priestly blessing into reality. The countenance of the Lord was lifted towards us; Jesus’ face shone upon us, and he is gracious to us.
The shepherds tending their flocks by night experienced this. As the chorus of angles faded back through the ethereal veil, they sheepherders, dusty, dirty, shit on their shoes nobodies could still hear the echoes of their heavenly song of proclamation. Bewildered, they looked around and then said, “we have to see this for ourselves.” The headed off to Bethlehem and saw the child and his mother for themselves. The countenance of god witnessed the shepherds rejoicing at the babe in Mary’s arms. The face of the Lord gave those shepherds bravery and boldness to go and tell everyone they met about this crazy thing that is the baby Jesus.
People were amazed. I think confused was more like it. What the shepherds said was unbelievable. God is glorified, and peace on earth is given in a newborn baby. What the hell are these sheepherders rambling about? If it’s true, it’s incredible, but stories like this aren’t real.
Oh, but it is more real than you can ever imagine.
The incarnation, Jesus taking on flesh, bone, and blood, emptying himself of godhood to become us, you, me, humanity, this mystery is real and is the face of god shining upon us.
This is a game-changer.
See, I used to relate to god as if he was my master, and I was trying to be god’s obedient slave. I was sure I would be punished for my crimes, no matter how small. If I didn’t live righteously, I wasn’t good enough to be liked by my Lord.
But here comes Jesus. Born of a woman, born inside the human condition, born with the human condition inside him, he didn’t come to show us how to be good slaves. No, that’s what the law was for. Jesus didn’t come to show us a better way; Jesus came to change what we are.
The way we see our relationship with god is murky at best. We don’t get it; we don’t see clearly. Our experiences, our core beliefs about ourselves, our wounds, and bloody places we hide, all of these make a mosaic of god that Jesus has come to shatter and rebuild.
Jesus came to give us adoption. To make us one of the household. To make us not beloved slaves but beloved children. Jesus came to us, calling us brothers and sisters, and then was exalted to show us that as his brothers and sisters, we will be exalted as well.
This is what it means to have the face of the baby Christ look at us, see us, bless up, and give us peace.
May we, like Mary, ponder these words in our hearts. May we tuck them deep into the soil of our souls that they may bring forth fruit and harvest of love.
Ponder these words with me: god loves you.
Think about this: Jesus calls you sister, brother.
Consider: the Holy Ghost is bringing you home.
We are not alone. The mystery of the incarnation tells us god is with us, not in some ghostly, ethereal way. God is with us in a physical, tangible, touchable way. That baby who emptied himself of godhood called us sisters and brothers grew up in obedience to the Lord — even obedience unto a cursed death on a cross — this is the proof that god is here full of grace and peace for you, for me, for us all.
This is the sign of salvation for us all. No longer are we bound by fear; true love has come to cast fear it a far as the east is from the west. There is nothing to be afraid of. God loves you.
God loves me.
These days I don’t struggle with the crippling fear and certainty that god doesn’t love me anymore. When that fear taps me on the shoulder, I look to Jesus only to find he is watching me, full of joy, shining grace, and peace down on me.
May you see, know, and accept this divine blessing. Let Jesus put his name on you, for you are part of the family of god. You are adopted, wanted, loved beyond all measure.
Originally published at https://culturalsavage.com on December 31, 2019.