Instead of Speaking the Truth in Love, Try This

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We Christians are in quite a pickle with this speaking-truth-in-love business.

We care deeply about the truth, and we care deeply about love, and since God’s truth leads to life, we thus conclude that the most loving thing we can do is to share it. Everybody else, even our fellow Christians, has reported that they don’t find our truth-telling loving. People track their insecurity, anger, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts back to the truth we so lovingly shared.

We think they’re just angry and bitter, lost in their sins, until someone lovingly drops a “truth” bomb on us — and then we see the shattering effects of speaking the truth in love.

How do we move on from there with the knowledge that no matter our intentions, our word choice, or our tone, our truth-telling offends more than it reconciles? We’re stuck: Silence seems like tacit agreement, which compromises truth. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be holy and set apart. Speaking up rarely comes across as loving, which, obviously, compromises our call to love. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be known by our love.

What’s an others-loving, righteousness-pursuing Christian to do?

I’m finding that the problem isn’t necessarily with believing in absolute truths or making judgment calls according to a God-given standard. We all have our beliefs. (Of course, some beliefs are antithetical to love, and many more beliefs make it difficult to love fully.) And the solution isn’t changing our minds, because, again, some beliefs aren’t truthful or good or beneficial and they need to be called out. Nor is the solution merely changing our motives to a more tactful tone. Poison with a spoonful of sugar is still poison.

I think we need to abandon the legalistic idea that (nicely) presenting people with the law is an effective, life-giving thing.

I grew up hearing people talk about God’s Word as life-giving and powerful in and of itself. That’s why people post combative Bible verses on billboards or leave Bibles in hotel drawers or shout about hell on the sidewalk. God’s Word is magical and always applicable in whatever form a person encounters.

This isn’t true. In fact, Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees’ strict adherence to the law set a stumblingblock to them and others. Paul talks about how the law brings death. Even though it’s perfect, even though it’s good, even though it’s right and true, the law brings death.

Why? Because nobody is perfect. The Pharisees, the people waving signs, the church paying for the confrontational billboard, and all the people they want to toe the line — nobody is perfect. It’s not motivational to see how badly we fall short. It’s devastating. It makes us want to rebel or give up. The law cannot bring life, no matter how nicely it’s phrased.

The only reason many Christians see the law as life-giving is because (1) many Christians don’t realize how badly they transgress the law, not with the planks blinding their eyes; and (2), more charitably, the law comes to them at a time of receptiveness and growth.

If someone were to scream at you on the street that you’re going to hell, you’d be offended. If you already believe you’re worthy of hellfire and that’s why you’re in a Southern Baptist Church this morning, the spittle-flecked rant against sin is meeting you where you’re at.

The thing is, Christianity isn’t about keeping the law. It’s about development and life. It’s about bearing with the weaker Christians and holding back condemnation from stronger ones. It’s about judging rightly. It’s about wisdom. Because Christianity understands that nobody can keep the law. That’s why there’s Jesus and grace and forgiveness.

It’s exactly like childhood development.

When a baby is born, he is utterly incapable of walking. It doesn’t matter how nicely or persuasively you explain how mature people must walk. He can’t do it. There’s a whole process of development before he can walk. And for some infants, disability prevents them from walking at all, ever. Reasonable parents support their infant in his development, knowing that working on holding up his head and rolling over all develop into the skills that allow him to walk later on. They don’t even mention walking. It’s pointless, and if their unrealistic expectations start coming out in anger or disappointment, children can even regress in development. Holding up walking as the standard a child must meet even when he’s unable to do so is shaming and damaging.

But there is still a standard. While reasonable parents aren’t even discussing that standard with their crawling baby, it’s important that they know there’s a general developmental milestone children should be meeting within a certain time frame. Without knowing those benchmarks, they could miss warning signs that set their child up for struggles later on. It’d be insane for a parent to ignore the fact that their three-year-old child isn’t walking yet, insisting that it’s fine, that there’s nothing wrong, that it’s just the way she is.

Those developmental milestones are in place not to shame kids unable to reach them but to alert parents to something else that’s wrong.

That’s what the law does for us. It alerts us to what’s wrong. And grace allows us to be wrong, weak, and imperfect, trusting that God will complete the good work he started in us. Grace acknowledges that we start from a place of helplessness and sickness, even death. It allows for a process of salvation. It allows for the celebration of who we are in Christ — competent, wonderful, beloved creations — knowing that we’re going through the natural bumps and setbacks and limitations of immature people growing up.

Just as I delight in my son’s crawling, unfazed that he’s not walking (even though I of course want him to be walking eventually), God delights in who we are now, even if we fall short of the perfect and the mature. (And we do.)

We ought to take God’s perspective — the loving parental perspective — when approaching the weaknesses and imperfections in ourselves and others. This is the way of love: viewing everybody not in terms of how badly they fall short of the law but in terms of which stage of development they’re in. This is the way of grace: celebrating the progress, meeting the needs, and strengthening the capabilities people currently have as a way of paving the way to more growth.

I absolutely do not believe that salvation is a one and done deal that unlocks instant, attainable perfection. That is, I don’t think that making an initial profession of faith enables you to perfectly keep the law just like that.

No, faith rescues us from a legal, accusatory way of perfectionism that holds weak, hurting, broken people accountable to an impossible standard. Faith changes the dynamic between us and God — now we understand that he is not our accuser, but our defender, our lover, our parent, the one who knows us best, celebrates us as we are, and loves us no matter what.

Faith also changes the dynamic between us and the law. Under Christ, it is a beneficial schoolteacher rather than the revelation of our doom. We look to it like a child glancing up to the alphabet chart to remember which way lowercase b goes. We strive toward the goal, we might get frustrated that our handwriting still isn’t where we want, but our eternal salvation isn’t bound up on getting it right then or tomorrow or even several grades later. We’re still learning and growing. We’re still immature. Maturity comes after a long process of development involving lots of failure and imperfection.

How does all of this apply to speaking the truth in love?

Now that the law is more like an elementary spelling book or a developmental guideline than federal law, we need to approach our application of it with wisdom.

My precocious teenage self once theorized that knowledge is knowing things, understanding is knowing how to apply things, and wisdom is knowing when to apply things. I still stand by those distinctions.

We need to speak the truth with wisdom as well as love. Wisdom involves three steps: knowing what’s right and wrong; knowing how to communicate that knowledge of right and wrong in a helpful, loving way; and knowing whether that particular moment is the time to share that knowledge.

Whether it’s beneficial or not to the other person depends not only on the truthful content of your beliefs or your kindhearted motives; it depends on whether it’s what the person needs to hear at that time. Are you, metaphorically, suggesting that they walk when they’re just learning to crawl? Are you asking a pig to fly? Are you throwing pearls before swine or answering a fool according to his folly?

We can all look back on a time when someone said something that stuck with us and changed us for the better. It hurt like heck at the time, but it was true, and it was needed — not only in the sense that we were wrong, but in the sense that we were ready to hear it even if we didn’t want to hear it. We were capable of understanding and processing what was said in a way that was helpful, just like a parent encouraging her one-year-old to take her first steps. It was fifth-grade material given to a fifth-grade student, not a death sentence. It was frustrating and hard, but we could handle it.

That’s why Paul emphasizes showing patience with the weaker brothers and understanding with the stronger. That’s why there’s no condemnation in Christ: we can struggle and flail at our own pace. We can go through the grieving process and recover from trauma and be ignorant and mess up all the time. We can rejoice with those who rejoice instead of reminding them that kids in Africa are starving. We can weep with those who weep without cautioning them to give thanks always. We can meet people where they’re at without worrying that our love will enable them to live sinful lives. 

If that all seems complicated, it is. If it seems like we all need to take classes on human psychology, it’s true. If you feel like maybe you’ve said a lot more than you should, you’re probably right.

Tellingly, when we approach truth-telling with wisdom, we likely won’t speak much at all: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

After all, most of us are still learning to walk.

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The Practice of Loud Time

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of Christian spirituality overvalues the distinctly spiritual and undervalues the physical. There are plenty of reasons why this is, but one of them, I’m convinced, is because we’ve silenced or tuned out the voices of people who live an embodied spirituality — women.

Think about it. When you think of great historic Christians who influenced your understanding of spirituality, who comes to mind? Lots of men, who, even if married or fathers, dedicated themselves to full-time ministry or contemplation. Maybe some women, most likely single and dedicated to a life of celibacy and contemplation. People whose days revolve around thinking, reading, praying, silence, solitude. These are the people in our pulpits and seminaries and historical narratives.

The only spiritual experiences we hear are of those whose vocation sets them apart from the physical world as much as possible. Is it any wonder that when we want a closer walk with God, we think that quiet, solitude, contemplation, and Scriptural study are not merely critical components of devotion but THE THINGS that comprise a relationship with God?

Take the ubiquitous quiet time. We’re told that’s God’s time. That’s the place we meet God. If you don’t have that in your life as the TOP PRIORITY, are you even a Christian?

Jamie Wright, in The Very Worst Missionary, recounts her visceral reaction to a Christian mom’s group that encouraged young mothers to give up even more sleep to find quiet time with Jesus. The group was shocked at Jamie’s treasonous insistence that for these moms, sleep was more important than quiet time. But Jamie wanted to know why quiet time had to be quiet.

[W]hen the group leader made that little quip about quiet time needing to be quiet, an unexpected volcano of molten outrage burst forth from the depths of my soul. …

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, then call it ‘loud time’! Call it ‘chaos time.’ Call it what it’s supposed to be, which is ‘intentional time’! … I will not be getting up any earlier. Nope. I’m gonna honor God intentionally in my sleep, because I’m pretty sure God wants me to be the very best mother I can possibly be to my boys. I will listen for God’s voice in the wilderness, and at the water park, and under McDonald’s indoor play structure, because that is my daily loud time and God is faithful to meet me in the chaos” (pages 83-85).

As that mom group demonstrates, the female spiritual life is mostly about how to fit the vocation of the celibate, the contemplative, and the clergy into the insanely busy, physical, exhausting vocations of mom, wife, and housekeeper. Our spiritual reflections are on how to carve out a quiet time or wade through a busy season of life until you can get to another season with more quiet time. Hang in there!

There’s often a sense that our work is meaningful and eternal and spiritual, but only because of its future implications. We’re the cradle-rocking hand that rocks the world — that is, all our work matters because it raises kids who will change the world. We’re the great women behind the great men — our work matters because it enables men to do great spiritual things.

And that’s true. Behind every man who “dedicates his life to God” (as if laypeople don’t), there’s another person — most likely a woman — keeping him fed and cleaning his toilet.

What we women need to realize is that this work matters and is spiritual and eternally significant not just because it enables “greater” spiritual work. This is spiritual work. It is intrinsically meaningful because the human body and the everyday good life are intrinsically meaningful.

Redemption involves saving human souls and also tidying up the living room, bringing order to chaos, bringing balance and beauty to every aspect of life. Traditional women’s work is not lesser, merely a stepping stone to greater spiritual things. It is as great and as meaningful and as dedicated to God as joining a convent or taking priestly vows or shipping off to China as a missionary.

One of the church’s strengths is drawing from the experience of people with different vocations. I’m certainly not advocating that women shouldn’t listen to those with time and energy to contemplate, pray, and study, or that they shouldn’t try to incorporate these practices and insights into their own lives. I’m saying it should go both ways.

The everyday, physical, mundane spiritual practices women have faithfully lived for millennia are critical for a relationship with God. Women’s spiritual lives give unique insight into what it means to live an embodied spirituality. Our experience as mothers provides transformative information about the nature of God as love and about a sacrificial life. What other normal Christian experiences physical, emotional, and mental sacrifices than pregnant, nursing, and primary caretaking mothers? Getting up to a day full of exciting things like scrubbing the bathtub and wiping snotty noses forms the soul in unique ways. Dutifully doing things that must be done again the next day (or five minutes later) teaches us how to live with hope of the resurrection and restoration of all things, in defiance of the fallen world’s decay. There’s no better way of understanding sin and grace and salvation than raising children with love and patience.

The holy practices of cleaning, waiting for a slow toddler, budgeting, driving to a chorus of “are we there yet?” — these things are not only a meaningful, transformative spiritual experience for the women who live them, they are meaningful, transformative spiritual practices for everyone. Even the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy.

It is patently false that the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy have the edge on spirituality. That is not how an embodied, incarnational Christian spirituality works. All of us need the spiritual experience of women who are too busy and tired from motherhood and homemaking to preach sermons or write blog posts. Not just to hear how on earth they find quiet time for Jesus every morning at the crack of dawn, but how they practice loud time and how we can practice it too.

An Everyday Embodied Spirituality

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The thing that pushed me away from Christianity was actually the least Christian of Christian-y things: an ultra-cerebral, hyper-emotional, over-spiritualized spirituality that suppressed or demonized my human embodiment.

The Christian Savior took on flesh and lived thirty years of ordinary everyday life before doing anything remotely heroic. The Christian hope involves the resurrection of our bodies, even the weird, embarrassing, gross parts. The Christian liturgy involved all five senses — kneeling, signs of the cross, incense, weekly edible sacraments, music. The Christian spiritual life looked like loving the guy next door, even if you hated him, and taking care of your family, and living your life, minding your own business, and doing daily, mundane practices like prayer and drinking a little wine for your stomach problems. The most distinctly Christian things about Christianity — the incarnate life and death of Christ, the resurrection, our daily unspectacular worship — require the physical.

What passes as Christian spirituality today looks like none of that.

Long sermons catering to knowing the right things and long periods of worship meant to inspire strong emotions dominate churches. The church’s most common ministries, like Sunday school, involve teaching the right stuff about the Bible.

The evangelical Christianity of my youth saw our relationship with God as something separate than and primary over everyday life. Truly dedicated Christians spent as much time in relationship with God as they could, with daily quiet times (preferably right at the beginning of the day, since Jesus is more important than sleep). How often you consciously thought about Jesus was a sign of how mature you were in your faith, I was told. Moms and secular workers and kids in school got a pass, a pat on the head, an encouragement that “there are seasons when you don’t have as much time for Jesus, and God understands that; just spend as much time as you can with him; there’s grace; don’t worry.”

But I did worry, because when my relationship with God is something separate from the rest of my life, everything that I do ultimately becomes a distraction. Marriage, kids, brushing my teeth — all good but distracting things. And even though I knew there was God’s grace for stuff like that, I felt that everyday life — both its requirements and its pleasures — were guilty little sins that God turned a blind eye to. What did it say about me that I would rather read a novel that didn’t even mention God to shutting my door and praying?

Since my devotion to God was measured by how much I consciously thought about him, spoke to him, and set aside time to him, every time I chose to do something else with my time, I felt like I was betraying him.

Then there was the fundamentalist influence, that required a total separation from and/or spiritualizing of everyday life. Certain enjoyable things were off-limits (like drinking or watching R-rated movies), and enjoying those things revealed a crooked heart more interested in the things of the flesh than the things of the Spirit. It was confusing to get a hang of the exact rules, but I eventually figured them out: intellectual and artistic stuff was okay if it came to the right moral and theological conclusions; caring for your personal appearance was okay if it involved looking good for your husband, making sure men didn’t stumble, celebrating “femininity,” and showing respect to God on Sundays (otherwise it was vanity); hanging out with people was okay if you called it “fellowshipping.” Everything needed to have an explicitly Biblical stamp of approval to call it good or Christian.

Then there was the river of asceticism and dualism from which these evangelical and fundamentalist tributaries flowed: the life of the saints, who gave up everything to go to foreign countries or “do ministry,” or hole themselves away for a life devoted to quiet time. These were the super-Christians, the ones who took Jesus seriously and literally. Again, we lesser peons who drove to work and raised kids and lived in the suburbs got understanding pats on the head that our lives could kind of be like Jesus’s too — but the really serious Christians weren’t afraid to give up everything and go anywhere and dedicate themselves to Official Christian Ministry. That was the ultimate Christian life we needed to work up to.

In other words, our relationship with God was something separate from our everyday life. Our ministry was something separate from our everyday life (unless you were a super-Christian who gave up everyday life for an extraordinary, ministerial life). Our spirituality relied on the cognitive (researching, assenting to, and nicely strong-arming others into believing the right things; consciously thinking about, talking to, or hearing from God), the emotional (feeling the joy, happiness, connection to, and presence of God), and the supernaturally miraculous and huge (obvious ministry, inexplicable miracles).

Yes, yes, there was sometimes room for the everyday life, but it wasn’t the best use of your redeemed life. Maybe self-care was okay if it made you better able to do your ministry, or maybe reading that secular novel was okay if you made you think about God in a different way. Conscious thought about and interaction with God was the definition of Christian spirituality. Explicit serving of others was the definition of the sanctified Christian life.

All of that sounds awesome — but I just wasn’t cut out for that. Quiet times felt destructive to my faith, a place where I begged for God to show up and got silence. The constant giving and going of this always-happy, always-exciting, always-huge, always-others-centered spirituality exhausted me. The duality of wanting so badly to love and serve and worship God by putting him first but needing to brush my teeth or wanting to read a secular novel ate me up.

I felt God’s presence in relationship with people. I wanted my body and my daily needs and my desires and my humanity to be significant to God instead of distractions to my relationship with him. I wanted to unite the spiritual and the physical, the everyday and the supernatural.

Having tentatively lived this spirituality for a couple years, I’m confident in saying that this embodied spiritual life is transformative and healing and 110% Christian. It’s not that conscious theological thought or prayer or quiet times are un-Christian. We are spiritual creatures too, and God is Spirit. Those are Christian acts. They’re just not inherently “more Christian” than physical things.

I don’t hear God speaking into my soul. But I have gained lots of wisdom from the world and people around me, and that is the voice of God. I don’t do Official Christian Ministry. But with every relational interaction, I try to think about how to respect the other person and make peace with them. I don’t have a designated time for Jesus, because I have the opportunity to meet God in every moment and every person. I don’t consciously think about God every second of my life, because he is in all things, and all good things come from him. I don’t verbally pray without ceasing, because my “prayers,” my response to God’s goodness, come in the form of deep-belly laughter and tears and silence. I don’t experience God in a supernatural way, because he entered into the natural and made it holy.

I take care of my body as an act of defiance against death and decay, because I trust that my body will experience the resurrection. I enjoy sex and baby snuggles and stupidly insignificant conversations with my sisters, because God created me to need and find joy in people. He too lives within an eternally Triune relationship. I wash the dishes and make the bed and vacuum the crumbs off the floor, because I reflect God’s image in taming the chaos. I read secular novels and study art by crazy atheists and think about interesting things that non-Christians have said, because the image of God as creator resides in all of us. I take time to care for just me, because God loves me — not primarily as an instrument to serve him or others, but as a beloved child of God.

And I go to church every week, and say the same prayers I said last week, and have some awkward and not eternally significant conversations with fellow churchgoers, because the Christian life is not about the exotic and the emotional and the supernatural, but about the everyday and the repetitive and the incarnational. Sometimes the sermon is really inspiring, or the Eucharist makes me cry, and sometimes I just sit in the pews, unmoved, knowing that in this mundane act, I’m following in the steps of our Lord, who lived a totally ordinary life too.

Many of these thoughts stem from Tish Harrison Warren’s book, Liturgy of the Ordinary.

The False Spirituality of Those Who Deride “Me Time”

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In my formative days, I read lots of articles calling “me time” selfish. The job of a wife and mother was to give and give and give, these women insisted. Any unhappiness, resentment, or exhaustion about this endless giving was a sign of her pride and selfishness. She didn’t need a break. She needed to give more. The blessing of giving and giving and giving was the only satisfaction she needed in life, and the only respite she was allowed was one quiet time with Jesus — at the crack of dawn, of course.

This is spirituality at its falsest. This is the corpse-stinking spirituality that Jesus railed against when he called the Pharisees white-washed tombs. On the outside, this spirituality sounds so good: how selfless, putting everybody’s needs ahead of oneself! How pious, having all the needs you can’t ignore met by Jesus alone! How can anyone argue with a spirituality like that? But on the inside, it’s just death and decay: frazzled, resentful, tired, cranky, unfulfilled women, always striving and never satisfied.

The only reason they continue like this is because they think their sinful nature brings this dissatisfaction on themselves and that someday God will reward their selflessness.

They’re right that they bring most of this on themselves, what with their refusal to acknowledge their human limits. They’re wrong that God is passing out participation prizes for Most Burnt-Out Woman in the hereafter.

A False Humility

Christians get selflessness and humility wrong. Even C. S. Lewis’s famous correction misses the heart of humility: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

Christian spirituality’s ultimate goal is not selflessness — that is, it’s not a negation or repudiation of self. It’s redemption, reunification, restoration: all things come together in shalom through Christ. Shalom means more than peace or the absence of chaos. It means wholeness. As one rabbi explains it, “In the Hebraic way of thinking, wholeness is the joining together of opposites. … [T]hat is the source of peace – the knowledge that all my opposing energies are somehow linked and part of a single whole.”

When Christ says he has come to give us life to the fullest, he is referring to this shalom. It’s a reordering. It’s a balancing. And in the context of shalom, humility is a reckoning of how my life affects others’ lives and how that in turn affects the shalom of the whole world.

A selflessness defined as unending giving is self-centered and proud. It ignores two important realities: you have limits, and you are not the driving force in other people’s lives.

A truly humble person recognizes and accepts her limits. She knows she is human. Just as she needs restorative sleep and good food, she needs meaningful self-care. While the anti-me-time articles bemoan the self-centeredness of today’s culture, frankly, I haven’t met a single person who practices intentional and meaningful self-care. We all seem to operate at half-power, eating junk, skipping sleep, burning the candle at both ends. We act like we can go forever, like illness and exhaustion and hunger and burn-out are just unfortunate little accidents instead of warning signs that we’re overextending ourselves.

From a purely utilitarian perspective, this is wasting our potential to serve others. We’ve all been there, pouring ourselves out as living sacrifices to one group of people, and then coming home to yell at our husbands and kids before crying ourselves to sleep.

From a perspective of shalom, this is about as unbalanced as we can get. We refuse to accept our mortality. We refuse to accept our bodies and minds as good things in need of love and stewardship, rather than annoying extremities getting in the way of real spirituality.

Besides, if we’re truly interested in other people’s well-being, constant giving is not everybody else’s default need.

There is a self-centeredness that says, “I am the center of the universe. Everyone must serve me.” But there’s also a self-centeredness that passes as humility: “I make the universe go round. I must serve everyone.”

Both share an inflated sense of importance in other people’s lives, while ignoring the actual impact we have on those around us. Giving indiscriminately often devalues others. It teaches us to see them as fundamentally helpless, in need of our particular help. It enables them to depend on us in areas they need to depend upon themselves. It takes away chances for them to develop skills and virtues. It’s critical for children and husbands to respect their mom and wife’s space and time: it teaches them generosity, patience, empathy, and, yes, selflessness.

A False Contentment

This is a really weird thing about humans: it’s sometimes harder for us to say no than to say yes. Again, while our culture may applaud self-care, few people practice it. Our understanding of love is codependent and conflict-averse. We’d rather give in to our kids’ and husbands’ demands than stick to our principles. It’s far easier to limp along with everybody else superficially happy than face their displeasure — or the reasons why it’s so hard for us to say no.

When women tell other women to give more as a solution to their burn-out, they’re peddling a false contentment. “It’s just the way it is,” they say. “This is just the season you’re in. Get over yourself and stop looking at other women’s green pastures.”

There’s a grain of truth in this. The world is broken, and life is hard and unfair, and sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it.

But as Christians, our work is one of redemption. We must see our restlessness and groaning and “ill content” as signs that the status quo is not God’s best. We must be prepared to do the hard work of redeeming and re-balancing that everyday brokenness around us. This starts with our own imbalanced lives.

Often our constant giving and our “just accept it and move on” attitude mask the true issues we need to work on. Do we really need to get over our “selfish” desire that our husband cook dinner once a week, or do we instead need some work on our fear of holding our husband accountable? Do we really need to check that attitude that wishes we could go to the bathroom without tiny kids tumbling in after us, or do we need to deal with childhood abandonment issues that make it impossible for us to disappoint our kids?

While ignoring our emotions and pressing on is difficult, it’s often a cop-out to the harder but more rewarding work of redemption.

A False Gratitude

These anti-self-care women are like the Israelites in the desert. They moan for God’s provision (even if they won’t admit it) when they can just walk out of their tents and collect all the manna they want. They want the relief, but they aren’t willing to take responsibility for getting it.

We often don’t acknowledge how desperately we need something until we get it. We ignore our needs and burn ourselves out and don’t realize it until someone comes along and meets that need. That conversation or that day off or that time when hubby washed the dishes for us provide us a relief we didn’t even know we needed. Thank God for a hubby who occasionally washes dishes!

We treat the meeting of our needs as a luxury instead of a responsibility. We wait for met needs as something that falls into our tent instead of something God requires us to go out and gather.

And by “gather,” I don’t mean ignoring the needs and trying harder. I mean acknowledging our needs and adjusting the balance of our lives so that they consistently get met. God’s provision is miraculous, but in a mundane way that involves our everyday work.

I once read an article by a woman who claimed me time didn’t work because it made her want more time alone. It made her more resentful toward her husband because she was the only one putting the kids to bed and making the dinner and doing the dishes. It put her in a fouler mood. Her solution was to stuff her emotions and maybe get some Jesus time.

I can guarantee you that’s not working for her. Needs don’t go away. They resurface as something destructive — like resentment or health failure.

God made provision for those needs: the hard work of learning to say no, to set boundaries, and to require and accept help from her capable husband. It’s easy to pine away in our tent, stuffing our emotions, waiting for a miraculous provision to drop in our laps. It’s much more difficult to take responsibility for doing our part to meet those needs.

A False Understanding of Sin and Grace

Many Christians believe emotional, relational, and mental needs are sins in and of themselves. And because they are sins, they require censure and punishment. Stop being discontent, be grateful. Quit your whining, be kind. God’s grace is sufficient for you, so be happy about it. Give more. Try harder.

But all sin arises from brokenness. We’re grumpy because we’re tired. We’re discontent because we’re not living the way God desires for us. We whine because we don’t know how to convey our needs in an effective way.

Brokenness is not evil. Brokenness does not respond to punishment or censure. And God’s grace is not a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of living life go down. God’s grace often is the nasty-tasting medicine, but it brings the spiritual life and spiritual health we most crave.

We wouldn’t expect a person on crutches to run at her full capacity. We wouldn’t yell at a cancer patient to get off her butt and do the dishes. We understand that broken and ill people operate on lower limits, and the only way they get better is to give them the time and space they need to heal.

This spirituality of stuffing your emotions and giving more is like demanding that a woman run on a broken leg. A spirituality that calls self-care “selfish” is like harassing a cancer patient for being sick.

Healing is not a walk in the park, to be sure. It involves waiting, inconvenience, tears, setbacks, unpleasant medicine, therapy, courage, and grit. It’s not all bubble baths and massages and shopping days at the mall (if any). But all healing takes understanding, time, and a break from serving others.

God’s grace invites us to acknowledge our brokenness in all its unloveliness. It allows us to prioritize our pain as meaningful and our healing as important. It allows us to take sick days, to slow down, and to ask others to help us in embarrassingly intimate ways.

A False Provision

Women who deride self-care as selfish say that the only thing they need is Jesus.

This is B.S.

Our physical needs can’t be met by the spiritual. Our emotional needs can’t be met by the spiritual. Our relational needs can’t be met by the spiritual. That’s not blasphemy. That’s how God designed us. We’re physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual creatures, with physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. And he has provided for those needs in numerous ways, often mundane, like working, being married, having friends, and developing into a mature adult.

The surprising thing about Christianity is yes, it’s a spirituality of giving, but it’s about God’s giving to us first. We love because He loved us. That order is important. The strong hold up the weak, the wise teach the foolish — and all strength and wisdom comes from God.

He is gentle with the broken. He values the burnt-out. His burden is easy. He prioritizes rest, to the point where he wrote it in stone: ON THE SEVENTH DAY YOU SHALL REST.

And as Jesus said, man was not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.

You were not made for spirituality — that is, for endless days of sacrifice. Spirituality was made for you, to heal you, restore you. Out of that healing, you heal others.

If you mix up that order, you get the hypocritical religion of the Pharisees that Jesus decried. The worst part? It’s a false righteousness, because all of us are broken and none of us can be strong without true healing. It sounds good to ignore yourself and prioritize other people’s needs and desires by default, but that isn’t even a real possibility. At the worst, you will die in some capacity. At the best, you won’t experience the fullness of a whole, healed life.

If you ignore your emotional, mental, and relational needs, if you rally to push through without true rest and healing, they will resurface again and again — or live just under the surface, in a pit of anxiety and stress.

Listen to your resentment and burn-out and angry fights with your husband. They are symptoms, God’s invitation to heal. And yes, that will definitely involve some “me time.”

We Don’t “Just Need Jesus”

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When someone shares her tough problem on a Facebook group, it irks me when people say, “I’m praying for you! (heart)” — and nothing else. There are many Facebook threads of, “Praying!”, “Praying for you, girl!”, “I’ll be praying for you!!!” and then a long comment from Bailey Bergmann Steger, sharing all the advice and experience she can.

It irks me when people “just pray,” because prayer doesn’t make problems go away. Solutions make problems go away. A girl asking about how to handle this tough conversation with a friend doesn’t need a thread of “just prayer.” She needs wisdom, guidance, and advice.

Spiritual and relational problems have real solutions. Christians don’t like real solutions, I’ve noticed. We like to shuffle all the problems up to Jesus and let him take care of them, as if there is no hope, no solution, and no way we can contribute to bringing about change.

I’ve said it many times too: “The world is so messed up. We just need Jesus.”

I said it because it was the pious response modeled for me by Christians dedicated to remaining separated from the world but still shaking their heads over the world as it sunk to hell.

“Jesus,” in this case, is a magical fix, a last-resort fix, something we invoke at the Wednesday prayer meeting.

In light of systemic hatred and prejudice in our world, I am quite confident the world doesn’t “just need Jesus.” Jesus as a magical fix, invoked only in prayer, doesn’t target the systems of racism, sexism, and abuse of majority power. It leaves people’s hearts unchallenged and unchanged. In fact, “just Jesus” often fostered these systems.

Christians and their prayers and Biblical interpretations supported the enslavement of blacks on the basis of their race. America is still reaping the consequences of “just Jesus.”

Christians and their prayers and Biblical interpretations continue to support the subordination of women and the antagonism of the LGBT+ community.

Christians and their prayers and Biblical interpretations continue to create environments and excuses for sexually, emotionally, and spiritually abusing the vulnerable.

We don’t need “just Jesus.” We need information, education, empathy, and resources to combat these systems of oppression. We don’t just need revival of our hearts. We need actual change worked by actual people.

What many Christians miss is that Christ came to redeem the whole world — not just our individual hearts. He came to smash oppression, not just die on the cross. As the church, we are the hands and feet of Christ. We are the body of Christ. We must now walk the earth healing, teaching, freeing, challenging, protecting, and conquering.

Prayer alone will not change the world. Invoking “just Jesus” alone will not change the world. But Jesus through the body he left on earth can change the world.

NB: I wrote this reflection in July 2016 and just now found it in my drafts. It’s still true today!

e.e.’s Easter Vigil Baptism

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Though I find my baptism at age seven meaningful, Erich and I chose to have e.e. baptized as an infant for a couple reasons: the church has always baptized infants, and paedobaptism honors the childlike faith of children raised in Christian homes. e.e. will grow up believing in Jesus, receiving communion, and participating in the church. That simple faith is more than adequate in God’s eyes; in fact, Christ commands us to believe as trustingly as little children. When e.e. is older, he will have the opportunity to publicly profess his faith in confirmation, a choice that he will fully make on his own, when and if he is ready.

Here’s the Episcopalian rite of baptism, with images from e.e.’s special day.

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We present Emmerich Erich to receive the Sacrament of Baptism.

Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
I will, with God’s help.

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Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

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Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do.

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Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support Emmerich in his life in Christ?
We will.

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Let us join with those who are committing themselves to Christ and renew our own baptismal covenant.

Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

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Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the  prayers?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.

Excerpted from The Online Book of Common Prayer

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The Creativity of Holy Week

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That typical family photo where the baby finally smiles when the adults aren’t looking

Whew.

Holy Week has me exhausted. As a reader and choir member, I attended nearly every service this week. This is my first journey from Ash Wednesday through Lent all the way to Resurrection Sunday, and I loved every second of it.

I’m used to Easter being a one-day event, maybe with a little bit of heart prep on Palm Sunday. On Easter Sundays of yore, I got gussied up in a new dress to sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” at whatever Baptist church we attended at the time. And that’s pretty much it (not counting the Easter egg hunt, Starburst jelly beans, and Resurrection Eggs — all holy rituals in their own right).

This Easter was an all-out marathon. Like I said, I’d never fully participated in the church calendar before, and was honestly skeptical of certain parts. Lenten sacrifice, for example. I gave up something for Lent this year (though, really, being a parent of a newborn automatically enrolls you into intense Lenten sacrifice — NO SLEEP). I didn’t get the point. It didn’t make me feel closer to God, or remind me to pray more, or in any way improve my spiritual life. I wasn’t even suffering: turns out it was an easy thing to give up and I didn’t miss it at all. When I returned to it on Easter Sunday, I wasn’t eager to have it back in my life.

Lenten fail? Or maybe Lenten success? Maybe my Lenten takeaway is that I don’t always need the things I think I need, that they aren’t as big a deal to living life as I formerly thought.

Holy Week is hands-down my favorite part of the liturgical year so far. I’ve been researching a more creative spirituality, using the senses and imagination to enter into Scripture and prayer (like Ignatian imaginative prayer and lectio divina). Holy Week provided many opportunities to engage with the Gospel readings in creative ways.

On Palm Sunday, we marched around the parking lot waving real palm branches after a bellowing bagpipe (a truly authentic recreation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem). One couple driving past even stopped to follow us into the church after seeing our joyful, freezing cold procession. We all processed into the church, where the organ blasted “All Glory Laud and Honor.”

The youth Sunday school classes provided a dramatized reading of the Passion. Our deacon read the narration, the students read for Jesus, Peter, the High Priest, etc., and another student drummed ominously underneath the entire reading. It was beautifully, simply, non-cheesily done, adding more layers of interest and art to engage you with the Gospel text without distracting you from the Gospel text, if that makes sense.

Every Wednesday we walked through the stations of the cross, visual representations of different moments during Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. I say “we,” but really, Erich, e.e., and I only attended a handful during Lent. Noon is smack dab during e.e.’s nap time, and he was cranky. I contemplatively nursed him during many of the stations.

On Maundy Thursday, the choir led a Taizé service — chants as opposed to hymns, sung over and over to facilitate meditation and prayer. Veni, sancte spiritus, we intoned repeatedly as we processed into church. At the close of the service, the priest cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”

No blessing or dismissal followed.

We stripped the altar — candles, hymnals, chairs, the Eucharist, everything disappeared into the sacristy. Then the lights went out. In pitch darkness, a wooden clacker cracked out three strikes, and we dismissed in silence.

The Gethsemane vigil began, with individuals watching and praying for an hour at a time, in faithfulness to Christ, who asked if his disciples could stay awake for even one hour while he prayer in agony. (The answer for me was absolutely not this year. See parental exhaustion above. I’d love to participate next year.)

I’m sure something great happened on Holy Friday, but e.e. wanted to nap right before the noon service.

And then came the Easter vigil. This was my favorite service during Holy Week. The procession entered with the Pascha candle, the deacon sang to the candle for a long time, and we passed on the light down the aisles with our own tiny candles, which melted into a wax puddle by the end of the service. Erich, used to Catholic masses, snootily huffed that they should have used beeswax candles instead. I, used to nothing, was excited there were candles of any sort.

I was not excited that Erich tried to juggle a candle, a pacifier, and our baby dressed in a slippery christening gown all at once. Oh yes — e.e. was getting baptized during this vigil. By candlelight. (A whole post on that is forthcoming!)

Afterwards we shouted, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” and the lights went up and the organ blasted and we belted out a triumphant song.

Sort of. In reality I was trying to get a wailing e.e. to calm down with a bottle without getting milk and candlewax all over his lacy gown, and that makes things less triumphant.

On Easter Sunday, we wove lilies and daffodils into a cross and just had a wonderful, joyous Easter service, complete with — of course — “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” Our deacon wore a balloon bishop’s hat for the dismissal (obviously), and e.e. commanded a fleet of preteens to hunt Easter eggs for him.

A glorious Easter weekend, indeed.

What were your favorite moments from Holy Week this year?

// All of that Lenten/Holy Week meditation culminated in these thoughts on female disciples, faithfulness, and a new narrative for Easter.

The Gospel According to the Female Disciples

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Saint Veronica wiping the face of Christ, Mattia Preti

During the weeks of Lent and Holy Week itself, the hymns are full of deep, dark confessions: was the one who crucified Christ. was the one who abandoned him. was the one who denied him. Just like his disciples.

That’s the narrative: we’re all terrible, faithless, sin-filled, wimpy people, just like Peter who denied Jesus on the third cock crow, just like the disciples who couldn’t even keep watch for one hour, just like Pontius Pilate who caved in to the crowd’s demands, just like the multitudes who chanted, “Crucify him!”

But that’s the male narrative.

The women? That isn’t like the women at all.

Mary anointed Christ’s feet and mopped it with her own hair, a foreshadowing both of Christ’s burial and of Christ washing the twelve disciples’ feet. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” Jesus told them. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

Mary knew these things. She knew even without his example.

Pilate caved into the crowds’ unjust demands. His wife urged against this: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”

There’s a common narrative about how the crowds cheering for Jesus on Palm Sunday were the same ones shouting for his crucifixion a few days later. This is absolutely not true. Luke records “a multitude of people and of women mourning and lamenting for him.” Christ even stops along the Via Dolorosa to address the women.

And while most of the male disciples had fled, the Gospel accounts go out of their way to place his female disciples at his crucifixion — not only the core band of women who had ministered to him along the way, but also a crowd of women who had followed him into Jerusalem. (Perhaps the same women waving palms and hailing him as the Messiah.) Several Marys and Salome stood by his cross. The only male disciple mentioned at the crucifixion is the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Whereas the twelve disciples couldn’t even keep watch for one hour while Christ prayed, the women kept watch over Christ even in death. When he was buried, there sat Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, watching opposite the tomb. And we all know the resurrection story — the women who had ministered to him in life came to minister to him in death and were rewarded with the first visit of the risen Christ. They were the first to believe and proclaim his resurrection, the first apologists, the first preachers.

Women.

You know, women, who are easily deceived and incapable of preaching, teaching, and leading in the church. Women, who need a spiritual covering from a man. Women, whom God saw fit to always place under the authority of another man because men are the real spiritual leaders.

If we’re looking at the numbers, the sex most faithful, most spiritually astute, and most blessed were women — the female disciples of Christ, the female followers of Christ. The (male) religious establishment persecuted and handed Christ over to death. The (male) political establishment ignored his sense of justice and crucified Christ. The (male) disciples fled in terror, denying Christ left and right.

But not the women.

There were many faithful men, of course. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus risked their positions and their lives by burying Jesus appropriately, and Mark notes Joseph’s courage in particular for doing so. John was evidently standing with the women, close enough for Christ to charge him with looking after his mother. The centurions believed after the earth quaked and the sky went dark: “Surely this was the Son of God!” And the crowds who followed and mourned Christ were comprised of many men as well.

But not one woman, not one female disciple, is mentioned as unfaithful. Not one female disciple denied him. Not one female disciple fled. Not one female disciple disbelieved the resurrection.

I’m not arguing for a matriarchal Christianity or the superiority of women. I’m pushing back against the ludicrous ideas that men by virtue of being male are more like Christ’s image, more spiritually capable, more suitable for guarding and guiding Christ’s church.

And I’m pushing back against this idea that there’s one spiritual narrative at Easter — the one where we’re all rotten, faithless deniers of Christ.

Maybe you are. But maybe your story at Easter is less like the male disciples’ and more like his female disciples’ — one of faithfulness, service, and love, of dashed hopes, of quiet mourning, of standing by and watching the reasons for your faith slip away, of watching God die.

Maybe you’re not like the alleged people who cried “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify him!” on Friday. Maybe you’re like the women who followed Christ into Jerusalem and then followed him down the Via Dolorosa.

Maybe you’re not like the disciples whom Jesus said would betray and deny him. Maybe you’re like the disciples who went to the tomb on Easter morning, still serving, still watching, still faithful, and were rewarded with the greeting of their beloved Lord.

Maybe, this Easter, you’re like Christ’s female disciples.

// More good reflections on this topic: Mary, the Woman Who Led God by Dalaina May, and Did Jesus Really Spend His Time with Just Twelve Men?, by Gail Wallace

A Very Pregnant Advent

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It’s a strange experience going through Advent as a pregnant woman, her baby boy due two days after the Baby Boy’s birthday.

I’ve never felt an emotional connection to Advent before. Where there was any sort of emotion in the lead up to Christmas, it was impatience and excitement about receiving presents, or frustration and fatigue about giving presents. There was nothing spiritual about that.

But carrying a child to term during Advent — that has been a spiritual experience.

The groaning, the grief, the long dark nights waiting, the wanting to give up hope but knowing the end is too close to really give up — that’s a spiritual feeling. And none of that is metaphorical, not for a pregnant woman at the end of the third trimester. I sit up most nights, at odd hours, sometimes crying, but mostly punching pillows into place and groaning, mentally screaming into them so I don’t wake my husband.

Ugh, and the hope — sometimes it’s what carries me through the day, but lately, it feels like I carry it, lugging it around like a ball and chain, because it’s what defines and constrains me. People ask me about the hope all the time. “Eight more days,” I say, wearily, more wearily than when I said “eighteen” or “eighty” just a few short weeks and months ago. What makes it bleak, like all hope, is that there can never be an actual countdown. We can only say, “Someday!” and “Soon!” and “Maybe today!”, and then wake up the next day and the next to say the same thing again. We get more discouraged the closer we are.

That’s a spiritual thing.

Another spiritual thing — all our doing and preparing makes a way, but it doesn’t make it happen. My husband is always asking, “Did you do your exercises, did you drink your raspberry leaf tea, did you look up yet another thing on the internet to try and get this baby out?” And I always tell him, “None of those things will make the baby come. They just get my body ready for when the baby decides to come. And nobody knows what makes the baby decide to come.”

That’s a very spiritual thing, a very Advent thing — there’s so much work to be done in the world, in us, but it’s only a preparation for when our Hope and Change and God decides to come. We have to do the work, but the work doesn’t do what we want it to do — it doesn’t make the waiting shorter or the coming quicker.

That’s the flip I’ve had to make in my mind: right now, it’s not about doing, it’s about going on. The nursery is ready. My body is ready. My mind is ready. My heart is ready. And I spent a lot of time and energy readying those things. Now, when I wake up in the middle of the night, when I’m sitting around on the couch, when somebody asks me about the due date for the millionth time, I can’t do anything. I must just go on. I just get through another night, let another day pass, take another breath — because he is coming. My baby is coming. He will come.

And I won’t remember any of the waiting and groaning, because the grieving hope will be turned to certain joy.

That’s Advent, isn’t it? That’s pregnancy. That’s life.

Whatever we’re waiting for, may it come quickly.

Why I Don’t Hate Calvinism

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I spent a good part of my formative theological years in Reformed, Calvinist circles. Yes, the stereotypes of Calvinists being argumentative, stubborn, and more than a bit tone-deaf are mostly true (I being the chief at fault there), but Calvinism itself was a safe haven for me.

I’ve always been keenly aware that what I most needed saving from was myself. First it was from the vile sins of a totally depraved heart, like getting frustrated when people were rude, or being a jerk of a big sister, or failing to read through the Bible in a year, or neglecting a robust prayer life. Then, as my faith started shifting, it was from my ignorance of my own ignorance — my people-pleasing, my fear, my brokenness, my humanness, the subconscious things that controlled what I believed and how I acted — things too subtle for me to even notice, much less combat.

I noticed how at the core of almost every (if not all) sin was hurt or human weakness. People lashed out in anger when they were bullied. Abusers were often once the abused. Kids shot their fellow students because they were misunderstood and ostracized.

If it were not for that hurt, compounded by human weakness, that turns into despair and then hate, what might this world look like?

And because these things are so subtle, many people are not even aware of when we grossly wrong another person or ourselves because of whatever lies we were taught or picked up or concluded due to our individual experiences.

My kindergartners constantly bullied and hit each other. I thought, at first, they just needed to learn to keep their hands to themselves. But that was not the issue. The issue was that their parents told them to fight when they were wronged. This was the inner city. Life or death might depend on being able to fight back. In a world of fear, hurt, and danger, violence, rather than peacemaking, made perfectly logical sense. It was my namby pamby rule of using words rather than violence that was stupid and immoral.

Due to our experiences, all of us get broken, wrong ideas implanted in our souls as perfectly logical and moral. Everyone is a good guy in their own ideology. Everyone is on the right side according to their view of the world.

Lord, have mercy.

I say that with all seriousness: Lord, have mercy, because we need some hands-on intervention into our brokenness.

This is why I never resonated with Christians’ exuberance over free will. “God is a gentleman. He never forces himself on anybody,” I heard frequently, as if that was the highest praise. “You are not insistent, You do not force me, You are not controlling,” Audrey Assad sings in her latest song “Deliverer.”

Of course, I understood the heart of these sentiments — we aren’t robots; true love comes from the opportunity to choose love freely. And all of those things I would come to believe and value in time.

But if I was honest with myself, both the past and present versions of me, I dislike the image of God the gentleman standing to the side as he watches the world burn; God the gentleman saying, “Depart from me; I never knew you,” when he could have stepped in and made himself known; God the gentleman creating free will in the first place when he knew it would cause us to suffer so much.

Embarrassingly, I resonate with John Donne’s shocking, violent depiction of God’s sovereignty:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Yes, batter me. Break, blow, and burn away all the ignorance and brokenness that drives us to hate and harm and choose all manner of evil in the name of good. We don’t know better, and you do, so do something.

Calvinism allows for a God who micromanages his elect, orchestrating their salvation, keeping them within the fold. I remember feeling such confidence, such an awash of grace, when I first learned the doctrines of irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. Nothing, nothing, nothing — especially not my own ignorance or sin or weakness — could keep me from the love of God.

I was finally safe from my worst enemy — myself.

I love Calvinism for introducing me to a God like that — a Father so acutely aware of my limitations that he doesn’t just sit by as I obliviously wander into oncoming traffic; he runs and snatches me up; he doesn’t let me go even as I kick and scream and don’t understand. He loves me more than he loves my free will, which isn’t, in a world as broken as this, as free as we’d like to think.

***

This image of a fatherly, ever-loving, all-knowing, sovereign God is why I am ultimately no longer Calvinist.

The flipside of a God who chooses and keeps his elect is a God who chooses to damn the non-elect for no reason other than his pleasure — a vile departure from any notion of love. And because God chooses his elect willy nilly (i.e., according to his wise counsel), he’s not really saving us from ourselves as much as he is saving us from his capricious self.

Hence, most people, I discovered, hated Calvinism. It surprised me how much people hated Calvinism and the God revealed in Calvinism.

But this past year, I went through long periods of terror in the hands of an angry God. I felt like I couldn’t keep the faith; it was slipping away from me into agnosticism. I wanted so badly to stay Christian, but I wasn’t able to.

I felt damned.

And I knew from Calvinism that God was capable of saving the elect, that he would never leave me or forsake me, that the elect would persevere until the end. Since I wasn’t able to persevere until the end, since I was rapidly losing the faith, I was clearly the vessel he created for destruction.

No matter how much I railed at this ugly idea, that God damned his creation for his own glory, all I kept hearing was Paul heartlessly repeating, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

Once again, my humanness got in the way of my salvation. This time, there was no rescuer.

***

Ironically, it was this spiritual experience that leads me more than ever to rejoice in God’s sovereignty.

As I’ve stepped outside of the raging Arminian and Calvinist debate, I no longer see salvation in terms of God’s sovereignty pitted against human will. Ardent supporters of either theologies will insist that, as total sovereignty and total free will are opposites, I have to choose one or the other as the primary instigator of predestination.

But I don’t see them as opposites. I see them as paradoxes. What we’re dealing with here is not a logical thing, but a spiritual, experiential thing with too many facets for a systematic theology. And as such, I’ve gained more clarity about the issue from abandoning the labels and the debates and the attempts to stitch together my favorite clobber verses. I’ve paid more attention to the metaphor and the mystery of God’s love as experienced through human love — particularly through parental love.

The more I interact with children through gentle parenting/teaching methods, the more I understand how it’s possible for God to be sovereign — for God to have his way — and for God to respect, honor, and allow our free choices in a way that doesn’t ultimately harm us.

In gentle parenting, when a child throws a tantrum, the parent doesn’t leave the room, close the door, and let the child deal with the negative behavior he chose (the equivalent of the worst of Arminianism, in my mind). Nor does the parent bark orders, punish, or demand that “you better do what I say — or else!” (the equivalent of the worst of Calvinism, in my mind).

The gentle parent knows that her child is acting out of legitimate discomfort and ignorance about how to handle that discomfort — hunger, sleepiness, disappointment, embarrassment, pain.

Knowing this, she sits with her child until the tantrum ends. If the child lunges at her, she gently blocks the child’s hand and says, “I understand you’re angry, but I won’t let you hit me.” If the child starts running around the room and throwing things, she stays within reach to make sure the child doesn’t harm himself. If he can’t keep himself or others safe, sometimes she enfolds him in her arms gently and firmly, empathizing and repeating that she will not let him hurt himself or others.

She will not be moved by the worst of his moments. She will not punish, threaten, or coerce her child into doing what she wants. She is always near, always ready to jump up and protect, jump up and rescue, until her love is so evident and so unavoidable and so relentless that her child collapses into her arms.

Unavoidable, relentless love wins out every time — not because it batters its way through, but because we were made for love, we were made in the image of love. No matter how broken, hurt, twisted, and sinful we are, there’s always a part of a us that can and will respond to love, given enough time, given enough relentless patience.

While I would no longer describe God’s sovereignty as a rape, I wouldn’t describe him as a gentleman either, waiting around to see what our free will will choose. I would describe him as that patient mother. His sovereignty isn’t invasive; it’s intimate. His patience isn’t passive; it’s involved.

Will he get his way in the end, with all men being saved? Will love reach us where we are most broken and hardened? Oh, I hope so. If anybody could do it, this sovereign, patient God could.

Readers, to focus the discussion, let’s not argue within the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism about which side is “right.” I myself am still capable of giving a point by point proof of Calvinism in rebuttal to this article. I’m more interested in hearing how God’s sovereignty and our free will makes a difference in your spirituality, how you have grown in your understanding of how they work together, etc.