Last week I explored the first obstacle that arises within me when it comes to successfully internalizing the affirming words of God. The Baptism of Jesus gives us one of the clearest windows into how it is that God establishes and validates us at an identity level. These simple words represent the very life we long for: “This is my daughter/son whom I love; with whom I am well pleased.”
We are all designed with a soul craving to hear these words, and faith gives us the capacity to hear these words from the very mouth of God. So what is it that gets in our way?
Speaking from a purely personal level, I shared that my first obstacle is a theological one. It is easy for me to read this account in the Bible and believe that it was true for Jesus. But it represents a completely different set of variables when I imagine them being spoken to me. I am quite aware that I am not in the same league as Jesus, and therefore have had historic difficulty with being able to materialize these words at a soul level.
There is a second obstacle that I face as well when it comes to securely living as a person whose identity is anchored in the belovedness of God. It stems from my activist personality. Without going too far down a rabbit hole, I will try to succinctly share another dimension of my faith journey and story:
I grew up around a fundamentalist version of Christianity, and there was a lot of that I rebelled against. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to embrace the parts of that which were very beautiful and timeless, and am grateful for the heritage that I was formed in. One of the deficits I still feel though comes from the frantic nature by which faith and works were contrasted with each other in my tradition. One of the cardinal doctrines of my tribe was that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith. To be clear, I agree with this 100% – verses like this seem to make that abundantly clear.
But in the hyper vigilance to stay true to the doctrine of salvation by grace, anything that was seen as being too “works” oriented became an enemy. So when thinkers from streams of Christianity/Catholicism brought their gift of social justice emphasis to the table, they were usually seen as dangerous. Many fundamentalist Christians felt that what was being communicated was that Christ-followers had to care for the poor, seek justice, and battle oppression. If a Christ follower wasn’t doing this, it was deemed fair to question the fruits of their faith.
Despite there being plenty of Biblical evidence to actually make that case (see Matthew 25.31.-46 and James 2.14-26 for a couple of clear examples), it was received as near heresy by many of my fundamentalist brothers and sisters. To be fair, the moderates from this group would insist that they weren’t against these important endeavors. They just wanted to be sure that there was no confusion between the doctrine of saving grace and the works that would then flow from salvation once grace had been received.
I struggled for many years to make sense of these seemingly polar opposite interpretations of Christianity. I believed in the doctrine of salvation by grace, but I was drawn to the activistic nature of Jesus of Nazareth. It seemed undeniable to me that he was in the business of healing, reconciling, and advancing the cause of justice. Everywhere he went he talked about the kingdom of God, and he told people to pray that the kingdom of God would express itself in such a way that a glimpse of Heaven came down to earth. I didn’t interpret these as efforts by which we were saved, but I did see them as necessary ways that we joined the work of Jesus.
Eventually I grew to a place where I could deny the dichotomy of these two, and instead integrate them into a single understanding of both Jesus and his call to follow him. In fact, that is really the heart of my upcoming book 10:10.
But even as I continue on the search for a more integrated view of God and the Bible, I still stumble upon discoveries that reveal the fragmented view that I actually carry. The Baptism of Jesus – and the blessing represented by this encounter – have shone a light on an imbalance that I continue to carry with me.
As evidenced by the amount of time and energy I’ve put into this series of posts, the need to ground my/our identity in the belovedness of God has emerged as a paramount theme for me. I have sensed God doing some deep soul work within me, building upon themes that have been sinking in for close to two decades now.
A couple of weeks ago I spent a large chunk of time meditating on the Baptism of Jesus, and prayed that the Spirit would guide me into a deeper realization of that blessing within my own life as well. As I walked around and prayed this, I found that an interesting image continued to emerge in my reflections.
I could almost see Jesus in my prayers (not to the level of detail that I could actually see what he looked like – and don’t worry, it was’t the blonde haired, blue eyes Jesus =)) and in it he was leading me into an experience of the blessing of affirmation (which is one of the reasons the “Learn Christ” imagery has been so powerful for me). It was almost as if he was taking me right to the same river where he had been baptized, and was inviting me to allow the Spirit of God to descend in love over me just as it had happened for him.
Each time this image would emerge in prayer I would have the same reaction. I would let it sink in for just a second, and then I would move away from it almost immediately. In the context of my prayer/meditation, I would feel Jesus grab me again, and hold me still. It was almost as if he knew I couldn’t take the blessing, even though I wanted it. It was more than I was able to receive.
So I began to prayerfully ask that God would reveal to me why it was that I was having such a hard time receiving the blessing of affirmation. At an intellectual level I am 100% clear that I crave this, need it, and would do anything to get it. The fact that I was squirming as the blessing was starting to sink in was interesting.
I dwelled on this for awhile, and finally something began to come clear for me. I feared that if I stayed too long in the blessing of affirmation, I might lose the fire the fuels my activism. I was afraid that if I allowed the words of the Father to go in too deep, I might become spiritually lazy and demotivated. I might lose the edge to fight for what’s right, to stand up against what’s wrong, and to present myself to Jesus to be used however he would so choose.
As this became clear to me, I once again realized the degree of fracture that has occurred inside of me when it comes to integrating the blessing of God and the activism of Jesus. Clearly my fears were unfounded – it was after Jesus internalized the blessing of God that he launched out into his mission. There can’t possibly be a contradiction between the two.
And yet, for me, these seem to be in conflict with each other. It’s as if my soul is still confused as to which side to listen to. Do I draw from my fundamentalist tradition that preached salvation by grace, independent of my actions? Or do I draw my from the activist stream, who insists that true faith binds us to the kingdom activity of Jesus?
That is the wrong question of course. To bifurcate those does tremendous damage to the holistic view of faith that the Bible presents. But for me it is still a very real battle. I get tricked into thinking that I have to choose between one of the other. My identity is either rooted in the unmerited love of God, or my identity is rooted in the activistic nature that seeks to join Jesus as he holistically transforms the world.
That is a long description of a battle that may be uniquely mine. But I share it because it points to the potential power that comes from “Learning Christ” in this way. It’s been such a sweet season of grace for me as I have meditated on this. In a very personalized way, God has helped me to repair the artificial split that often plagues me as I seek to follow Jesus. I see in increasingly clear ways that not only is there no conflict between the identity of the beloved and the identity of the activist – they are absolutely and fundamentally dependent on each other.
I have felt God whisper to my heart, in only the way that God can, that my activism is something that God smiles upon. But the source of that activation means everything. If my activism comes from the need to prove myself, to earn God’s favor, to demonstrate my capacity to people, to seek some form of recognition, or make some type of statement, then I go down a path that robs me of life and vitality.
But if my activism comes from a deep and abiding connection to the heart of God, as it did for Jesus, then it flows from a divinely powerful place. And THAT changes everything.
I realize that not everyone is going to face the same obstacles to internalizing the blessing of God as I do, and that’s fine. To those who have different barriers than me, I pray that you will be given the gift of naming it, and that your increased self awareness will aid you in more deeply actualizing the affirming words of God.
I also know that many of you who read this fall into the same activist mold as me, and I am really hopeful that this will spark some thoughts for you. There is a disturbing trend that I continue to see on a regular basis, and it comes down to a basic fracture between identity and action. There are people of who faith who love this kind of identity language, but don’t seem to translate it into action. And then there are us activist types who really struggle to center our energies first on being rooted in our identity as daughters and sons of God.
Over the next couple of posts I am going to build up to my favorite moment in the Bible where I see Jesus seamlessly integrate these into each other. For now, let’s reflect on the universal starting point for all of us. Spiritual transformation requires new levels of learning Christ and internalizing these precious words:
“This is my daughter. This is my son. This is my beloved. With her/him I am well pleased.”