This is not the blog post I intended to share today.
Fifteen hundred words fill a Google Doc on the topic of God’s love that were supposed to be published instead. While in prayer yesterday, I sensed it might be good for me to write a reflection on our time in New Orleans.
We are moving back to Oxford, Mississippi, in just over two weeks. Transitions are difficult for me, and I imagine they are difficult for all of us in some ways. I wrote a blog titled “What People Don’t Tell You about Change” when we left Oxford two years ago to move to New Orleans, and it still conveys a lot of my thoughts about seasons of transition.
This one is different for us. We are not moving to a new city like New Orleans where we don’t know anyone. We are moving back to the same place and into the same house others rented while we lived in New Orleans. We are reconnecting with a lot of the same friends. But I am not the same, and I have come to see these differences as a testament to God’s love towards me.
In our society, the word “love” often means something akin to “acceptance of me as I am without ever challenging or disagreeing with me.” This definition of love is prevalent among Christians, too. In one sense, it is true that God accepts us as we are when we come to him. He does not require that we “clean up our act” before following Christ.
In fact, we could never come blameless before a holy God, which is why the gospel is good news. God came to us. Christ, fully God and fully man, died for our sins and defeated sin and death so that those who repent of their sin and confess Christ as Lord and Savior are declared righteous before God.
That God accepts us as we are is only part of the story of God’s love. He also loves us too much to leave us as we are.
Take a moment to imagine what makes a parent a “good” parent. When I think about what constitutes the love of a good parent, giving unhinged freedom and little direction to a child are not on the list. A good parent who genuinely loves his or her children will provide loving boundaries and discipline. How much more will God, the only perfect parent, discipline us because of his love? The writer of Hebrews understood this:
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons and daughters?Hebrews 12:5-11
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and rebukes every son he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons and daughters. For what son or daughter is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons and daughters. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.
Definitions of God’s love on Instagram as “acceptance that never challenges or disagrees with me” are appealing, but, the longer I study the Bible, I must admit that this is not the God of Christianity. “If your god never disagrees with you,” as Tim Keller puts it, “you might just be worshipping an idealized version of yourself.”
C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory,
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
The love of God as evidenced by scripture is a love that sanctifies or changes us. God’s indwelling Holy Spirit is constantly challenging our cherished assumptions, attitudes, and actions because we “are being renewed in knowledge in the image of [our] Creator” (Colossians 3:10). As Hebrews 12:10 says, “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” God’s love cannot be uncritically accepting because it is too concerned with our sanctification.
A friend asked me a few weeks ago, “How do we know we are saved? I mean, I know we are saved the moment we place our faith in Christ, but how do we really know we are saved every moment after that?”
This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., came to mind, which ironically has nothing to do with salvation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Like I said, nothing to do with the discussion I was having with my friend.
It came to mind because I think we can say something similar about a Christian: the arc of the Christian life is long, but it bends toward sanctification. This theme is threaded throughout scripture. It does not mean we will never doubt God or have setbacks, but we know we are saved because, over a life lived in pursuit of Christ, there is evidence of God’s sanctification.
For example, we might see, on reflection, how a temptation has lost its shine over time. We might remember when we changed our minds after we were challenged by scripture, the Holy Spirit, or a faithful friend. Maybe we apologized because we were convicted of our wrongdoing, or we retracted a false charge against someone after realizing we misjudged a situation. Our priorities might shift in dramatic ways.
In the words of Lewis, we will see the areas of our lives in which making mud pies once sufficed but do so no longer.
Sometimes, sanctification or change is exponential; other times, it’s subtle. We have lived in New Orleans for two years, and I will remember this season as one of exponential change.
It would take up too much space to recount all of the ways I am returning to Oxford different, but I will briefly share a few. (If you are interested, I did write a short blog series on suffering in June in which I shared some ways God changed me through a string of hardships. You can read it here.)
It’s funny: although we moved to New Orleans so I could study on my seminary’s campus, I can attribute only a small number of these changes to the seminary classroom. But I am especially grateful for the honesty of my seminary professors about their first years in ministry. They almost unanimously voiced regrets, missteps, and ignorances from their first ministry jobs, which was a comfort to me because I looked back on my first three years in ministry with many “could’ves” and “should’ves.” I have learned so much about ministry while in seminary that would have served me well during those years, but I am thankful I had this opportunity to learn from them.
During our time in New Orleans, I was also reminded that conviction and compassion are not opposed to one another. If we have lost our fervor for either of these, we have lost sight of how Jesus did ministry.
I have become more confident in certain truths about God and what scripture teaches, yet I also hold other secondary or tertiary convictions more loosely and humbly.
The world has become more complex to me on a number of issues, and my mind has even changed on some of them because of new evidence that persuaded me in a different direction.
In our polarizing climate, changing one’s mind is rarely viewed as a positive step by his or her tribe. But we have to wonder if we are serving a god of our own making, as Keller put it, or dwelling in echo chambers if we have changed our mind very little over a decade or so. Peter Boghossian (a philosopher with whom I have several disagreements about God and religion) said something profound in an interview: “It should be a virtue to change your mind.” I think he’s right if you’re changing your mind not for the sake of doing so but because you have been persuaded by evidence that supports a different position than what you previously held.
Because of this, I’m also slower to respond these days. I am more comfortable than ever saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough information to have an opinion on that right now.” I am content with taking a week, a month, or a year to do some research and listen to opposing viewpoints before declaring my position. I am more willing to voice my convictions or opinions when I do have them, yet I am also more willing to do so with humility, knowing that they could change if confronted with new information.
I long less for friendships in which we agree on everything. In other words, I don’t think the best friends are those who define love as “acceptance of me as I am without ever challenging or disagreeing with me.” (I also now realize this definition of love, when taken to its extreme, can lead to manipulation and abuse, which is not love at all.)
I think friendships are strongest when truth-seeking is valued and disagreements don’t sever the relationship. In the context of Christian friendship, this means a shared love for uncovering the truths of scripture and encouraging one another to follow Jesus. I love what Greg Morse writes about the kind of friends we should seek and model:
Your soul needs friends who are willing to risk wounding your pride in the moment for the long-term good of your soul…Greg Morse, “Find a Friend to Wound You” from DesiringGod.org
Praise God, then, for the faithful wounds of true friends who protect us from ultimate injury. They tell us plainly, “You’re flirting with destruction!” Or “Spiritual sloth is unacceptable!” Friends who ask us hard questions, who crush the whispering lizard on our shoulder, who are for our eternal soul above our momentary feelings – these are true friends.
Find these friends. Thank these friends. Imitate these friends. They are, as a friend of mind calls it, God’s ‘community of grace’ to you.
I was reminded again that the best things in life aren’t things. Things must be stripped from time to time in order to understand what Christ meant when he said,
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal… But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.Matthew 6:19-20, 33
These changes might sound novel, but most of them were painful. Changes often are painful, and the writer of Hebrews thought we should anticipate nothing less:
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.Hebrews 12:11
Yes, God accepts us as we are and declares us righteous. But he loves us too much to leave us as we are and longs for us to walk in the righteousness we have received. If he were to change us all at once, I think it would be too overwhelming. He is gentle and patient with us, revealing deeper nooks and crannies of our souls that require transformation. The arc of the Christian life is long, but God’s Word teaches us that it bends toward sanctification.
So we are returning to the same city–the same house–but I am not the same. I am thankful for that.
I woke up yesterday with many different emotions, knowing that so much transition is around the corner. I remembered this poem from one of my English courses in college called “Theories of Time and Space” by Natasha Trethaway:
You can get there from here, thoughNatasha Trethaway, “Theories of Time and Space” in Native Guard: Poems
there’s no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:
head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion – dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on the mangrove swamp – buried
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must carry – tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock
Where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:
the photograph – who you were –
will be waiting when you return.
Ship Island in Gulfport has a complicated history. Trethaway conveys in her poem that you cannot help but return to the dock different than you were when your photograph was taken.
Seasons of sanctification might change us as quickly as a trip to Ship Island, or they might unfold more slowly. When God begins to sanctify the soul that belongs to him, in the words of Trethaway, “there’s no going home,” even if we are returning to the same place.
At the end of it all, we realize we don’t want to go back home the same. Even if the process is painful more than pleasant, we find our desire for making mud pies again has waned because we’ve learned the One who created us knows us best. He knows we are too easily pleased.