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God Relentlessly Pursues Your Heart: a reflection on the Atonement

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19 February 2018 by romanin

return-of-the-prodigal-sons2

Image from the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

If I asked you what it means that we have salvation in Jesus Christ, what would you say?  For most likely it would be something along the lines of “Jesus Christ died on the cross to take away our sins, so that we could be counted righteous and go to heaven when we die.”  But is that truly all that God wants out of salvation? I used to think so, but I am learning there is more to this story!

The answer to the question “What does God want out of salvation?” begins in Genesis, where everything else begins. In Genesis 1-3 we see the creation of the universe, the creation of mankind, and then mankind’s choice to sin (often called the Fall).  Before the Fall, mankind’s relationship with God was one of honor, dignity, vulnerability, respect, and love. But we don’t see that today, do we?  What you and I often feel in relation to God is fear, guilt, and shame. When we look at the cross of Christ, we often only talk about Christ removing the guilt of our sin, but not fear or shame. Often, even in accepting the cleansing of guilt, we still feel self-conscious about our imperfections. We long for relationship and belonging, but we are often afraid that our deepest parts are unlovable.  Even when we accept forgiveness from God, we still feel that the sin of our past defines us.  We struggle with who we are and whether we will ever be truly accepted.  We struggle with shame

But it’s clear from Genesis that the initial condition God created with people was one of complete intimacy. Intimacy between mankind and God and intimacy between the man and his wife. The Bible says that Adam and Eve were “without shame.” What an amazing state of being! Why is it, then, in reuniting with God through Christ, we chiefly talk about the problem of sin as breaking a law, and rarely talk about the problem of a broken and shame-filled relationship that we so often hold onto after accepting forgiveness?

Our justice system is a prime example of this. A man or woman may be convicted of a crime, heard before a court, and sentenced to a fine and a prison term to pay for the crime committed. We say, “justice was satisfied” and everyone sleeps better at night knowing a criminal is behind bars. There’s a problem though. What happens when that man or woman finishes serving their term and is released? They are often still treated or viewed as a criminal – dangerous, a threat, unsafe, and untrustworthy. Why is this the case if justice was satisfied? Our justice system has dealt with the guilt but the silent demon in the whole machine is shame. Guilt focuses on what a person has done, but shame focuses on who a person is. And although the criminal has paid for his or her crime, nothing has been done to restore their honor and standing in society.

What if this flaw in our justice system was exactly how God dealt with us? What if salvation were only about removing guilt and not about restoring honor and dignity? Many live as though this is true. Perhaps that’s why we wear masks at church, hiding the shame in our lives for fear that if other Christians knew, we would be ostracized or treated as some sort of “half-Christian.” We all hear that voice in our heads time and again, accusing us and even bringing internal doubt as to whether we are indeed saved.

But God is calling us to a better freedom. When we were redeemed, every part of us was redeemed. We need to believe we are who Jesus says we are. I believe Jesus means to remove our shame and restore our honor, lift us up to the men and women he created us to be, transforming our identities into His. How else could we ever obey the command to “be holy as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:13-16)?

In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul writes regarding this. In this section of Scripture, his description of salvation is revealing. He begins by pointing out our state before salvation. He uses words like separated, alienated, far off, strangers. He says that we were without hope. Note that all those things are rooted in relationships, not in a transgression of a law or in wrongs we have done. This means that while the Gospel indeed deals with the sin we have done, it also deals with who we are or who that sin makes us!

As we continue in Ephesians 2, Paul teaches that Christ’s death on the cross brought us near, reconciled us, united us, and killed that hostility. He then points out our new state: we are fellow citizens, members of the household of God, bricks in God’s new holy temple! The effects of sin are reversed! Something more special than just forgiveness is happening here. We are forgiven so that we can be brought near to Christ and become His children. That is amazing!  He not only shares His righteousness with us by forgiving us and saying, “go and sin no more,” but He goes beyond that to share His honor with us.  We become family; we get the honor of having a royal identity, a blood relation to the King of the universe. We are completely accepted for who we are, in spite of all our imperfections, dark pasts, shortcomings, and shame.  We are honored!

In John 12:24, Jesus says something magnificent: “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” We become completely accepted by God himself. We have a place to belong in the household of God. In essence, the “who-we-are” changes. We are re-instituted into an honoring, intimate relationship with God, and as His child, have an opportunity to engage in mutual honoring and intimate relationships with other members of the Body of Christ.  This is the answer to that question, “What does God want out of salvation?” This is why God created us! He wants you because he created you to be with Him and He will not let shame get in the way.

How would it change your life to know that you, every part of you, inside and out, good and bad, ugly and pretty, was completely accepted by the God of the universe?  How would it change how you live to know that each human you meet is the object of a Holy God’s affections?

In 2007, I had a chat with a woman whom I was interested in dating. I must have lost my mind, because in our conversation I decided to tell her all of the dirt of my past sexual sins and addictions to pornography. I don’t necessarily recommend this tactic, but in my case, I had accepted God’s forgiveness for how I used to live and how I used to treat dating.  I had a choice during this pivotal conversation: I could go back to my old habits and put on a mask, or I could be completely honest.  I chose to risk honesty.  I then proceeded to tell her that I would go out with her if she would plan to marry me. She said “OK!”  For the first time, I felt freedom in a relationship with a woman; I had confidence from that day on that we would one day marry. Why? Because I had showed her my unlovable parts and she had loved me anyway!

God knows our darkest past and yet He pursues us relentlessly. How much would you love Him in return if you knew how much He accepted you for who you are?  Would it not also change your view of other believers to know that they too are entirely and completely loved and accepted by God? It is in this that Paul charges us to “walk in a manner worthy of the call to which [we] have been called” (Ephesians 4:1), and to “love one another with brotherly affection” and again to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10), or even to “laugh with those who laugh, and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).  Brené Brown, a writer and speaker on the topic of honor and shame in our society writes: If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.  If in our new identities as family members in the house of God, we could drop the masks, give our shame to the Lord, and love one another like family, what a place the church would be!

It is in this new, intimate relationship with God that we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrew 4:16).  We have confidence before Him because we are accepted and loved as sons of God. We can be like the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal, returning home to find his Father overjoyed, to find an unmerited ring on our finger, undeserved shoes on our feet, and a robe that seems at first to lie about who we are; but it is not a lie; we truly become restored as an honored member of God’s family. We can enter into the joy of our Father’s house, eat at the celebration table prepared because we have finally come home.

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