March 30, 2008
Pastor Brian Shimer
"Restoring the Christian Soul I: Hold to the Truth"
Colossians 3: 1-17; Romans 7:18
- After the sunrise worship time a young man came up to me and talked with me about how he has struggled to
accept who he is, as he is in his walk with Jesus.
He is battling to just believe "God loves him" even him,
and to accept that love as it comes to him.
He asked if I had any advice for him.
Back in February a young friend emailed me to say she was seeking to come to grips with the love God has for her and asked me to send her any Scriptures I would recommend reading about how much God loves her, even her.
When I began working on this message I had recently come from reading a magazine article on the story
of Ted Haggard the pastor in Colorado who over a year ago now confessed to adultery, his own struggle
with homosexuality and stepped down from pastoral ministry. As I read his story I encountered a man
who with all his training and with his evident faith in Jesus had not yet dealt with a very basic aspect
of his own life - the grace of accepting himself where and as he is. No, I am not saying he ought to
accept his sinful desires as all good, but he must first accept that who Jesus has made him is not equal
to those desires and then can allow Jesus to work with him on those desires of the flesh.
Ted's testimony sounded similar to Paul's from nearly 2,000 years before, when Paul said, "I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7: 23-24).
The difference between Paul and Ted Haggard, however, is that Paul in that passage in Romans was clear:
he was not battling himself, but sin. Ted was not clear on this. He seemed to be seeking to manage
the horror of his sinful thoughts and desires alone - trying in effect to "clean himself up" rather than bring those
desires out in small groups, confessing them to brothers in Christ, and having others pray with him for freedom.
His own lack of self acceptance - that the new man inside was not equal to the sinful desires that warred against him - kept him from being able to say with Paul in the midst of his struggle "thanks be to God through Jesus Christ my Lord".
Previously in the Romans 7 passage Paul clearly delineates between the sin with which he is struggling and the person he is. In 7:18 he says, "I know that no good thing dwells in me, that is, in my flesh". It is "sin living in" him with which he struggles, but this sin is not the person Jesus has made Paul to become. Many times people will pull this verse apart and live believing that there is "no good thing dwelling in them" whatsoever. But that is NOT what Paul said, he said no good thing dwells in his flesh.
Like the other two I mentioned, Ted seemed to have lacked an understanding of God's love for him, even him.
When this delineation is not made, when we do not accept "who we are in Christ" and work with Jesus to be cleansed from sinful desires (as Paul addresses in Colossians), we end up hating ourselves, beating up on ourselves because of sin, and seem to believe that we have to "Make ourselves clean" in order for God to love us.
This is a perversity of the Gospel message which says that God so loved the world, so loved Janet, so loved John, so loved Sally, so loved Ellen, that he gave His only son that as we believe in him we receive eternal life.
To thus reject who we are, to push away the love God has for us, even us, to disbelieve that He accepts us as
we are, is to dwell not in Christ but in our own pride. Pride? How could such devastating self hatred be
prideful? The pride is in this, that to hate myself, says, I believe I want to be good enough for God "on my own", that I want to keep the law on my own to win God's love for me; in short it means wanting my own righteousness, not God's!
- Oftentimes, such attitudes are promoted by the interior script we carry around within us. It is not just what comes to mind but the barrage of words we speak within our heads that we dare not speak aloud which can be so crippling. These are old thought patterns, old tapes which have long been there and can carry such a weight against what we believe about "who we are" or "what we can become".
Romano Guardini, a Catholic philosopher and theologian wrote regarding self-acceptance saying, "I must agree to be the person who I am. Agree to have the qualifications which I have. Agree to live within the limitations set for me… The clarity and the courageousness of this acceptance is the foundation of all existence."
We encounter this basic agreement in many of the Old Testament patriarchs of the faith - they did not try to be anyone but themselves, and they were honestly themselves before God.
Abraham set out from his homeland to follow this God previously unknown to him and who learned as he went what it meant to be this God's followers. Joseph tried to "be somebody" and earned his family's wrath, but then sought to follow the God who was "with him" through slavery and jail - which allowed God to work in his life and lift him to prominence. David was simply a shepherd boy who sang to his sheep, but that simplicity of heart, that desire to please God, won God's favor and also King Saul's - for a season—and when David when to fight the giant Goliath, he refused to wear the king's armor - which would be to seek to become something other than who he was. Instead, he went as a shepherd boy against the great warrior - David accepted himself as he was, where he was and from this stance fought.
Rahab was a prostitute - she did not try to pretend to be anything else - but she also feared the God of the spies who had snuck into her city, and out of that fear and reverence for this great and true God, she protected them and helped them escape in exchange for her protection. Rahab she was who she was - a sinner desiring to be saved by grace.
When it comes to our lives, there is not much we can change about ourselves.
On the outside I must accept the shape I have. Oh, I could seek to lose or gain weight, I could do exercise to strengthen my frame, but as far as any true change, I must rather accept this package God has given me. People today have the ability to change their eye color with contacts, hair color with product, teeth color with whitening, and the size and shape of multiple parts of their bodies - but at some point we need to ask, why? What are we seeking by making these changes?
Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing any of these, but if we continue to seek to change this, that and the other, because we are continually dissatisfied with "what we see in the mirror" perhaps we need to just step back and accept—this is the package I have been given.
I remember when my Auntie Ruth had a face lift. She was thrilled with the change she saw in her face. She had fought what she viewed as her terribly ugly "jowls" removed from the base of her cheeks. But you know, when she came for Thanksgiving that year, none of us knew she had had this surgery, none of us knew she had had this "makeover" and since we had never noticed the "jowls" that so infuriated her - to the point of spending thousands of dollars to fix them—that we did not even notice she had had the facelift done! She was so disappointed we had not noticed, something we did not hear about until months later!
How much do we seek to change something because we do not accept who we are?
Once I have said "Yes" this is who I am, this is where God has me, this is what God has for me at this point, then I am more open to listening and hearing from God. If I am constantly battling God because the things on the outside or disbelieving God because of the things on the inside, then, I am much less willing to listen for God's affirmation of me, nor will I believe God when He does affirm me.
- When we do not accept who we are - when we instead hate some aspect of ourselves and seek to amend that part by changing it somehow or by covering it up - we will tend to create a false person behind which to hide. We will create a mask - the vision of the perfect person we want to be through which we then relate to others. This persona becomes an act we must perform.
Have you ever found yourself becoming a "false self", where you are just "playing a part" but not being true to who God has made you?
I know I have done this more times than I can count in my years of ministry. Thankfully I have a wife who recognizes fakes and has smelled me out and called me on it. It becomes easy to find my identity in the role of being a pastor rather then in the fact that I am God's son, and to do so because I rejected some aspect of who God has made me. God has assisted me to enter the grace of self acceptance over the years and has transformed me in order that I can truly be the person He has made me.
For those of you who are readers there is an amazing description of thus "playing a part" in C.S. Lewis' book The Great Divorce which describes the gulf dividing heaven and hell. In it a person called the Great Tragedian actor comes to visit heaven on the bus from hell (part of the story line) and there encounters his wife who belongs in heaven. First the contrast between them is immense - she a shining, solid, beautiful splendor and he a ghostly figure who cuts his feet on the grass of heaven. But the most remarkable thing is the great Tragedian Actor is just a huge mannequin, a created persona for this tiny, cold, damp, shrunken thing attached to it by a chain. This, the true man, a small dwarf-like creature was the one the wife addressed, the one she greeted with a kiss, the one she looked at with great love in her eyes, and the one with whom she pleaded to let go of the "great, ugly doll": "Let go of the chain. Send it (the doll) away. It is you I want," she says.
But the dwarf would not listen, instead while still playing the part allowed itself to be absorbed into the great mannequin.
Sarah, this Lady asks the mannequin, "Where is Frank?" and says, "And who are you, Sir?"
To which the great Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice says, "You do not love me."
Then she replies, "I cannot love a lie. I cannot love a thing which is not. I am in Love and out of it I will not go" (by CS Lewis, Five Books in One Volume: The Great Divorce, Washington DC: Canon Press, c. '74, pp. 182-188).
I have been there - I Have lived a lie, sought to create a persona people would love, sought to live what I believed would please God and man rather than honestly dealing with the reality of my life. It is a place without the possibility of love, for when I refuse to accept who I am and instead try to create a false picture of myself, a false persona, like the Great Tragedian, there remains no one for others to love in me. God of course will do everything, bringing every possible circumstance to awaken us from our slumber and assist us to "release the chain" to which we cling, but even God will not love the false self, for it is truly no person at all!
- Obviously Paul was not writing to the Colossians to teach them to accept themselves - indeed, he wrote to help them correct some of the erroneous thinking surrounding them, in order to get them to rediscover the supremacy of Jesus Christ, how in Him is the reality they needed to answer the needs in their lives.
But look at what you just heard read from the third chapter - the beginning of how to "walk out this new life" section of this book. It is in finding life not in what I look like, nor in the old voices within, but in finding my life in Christ that is the key to walking with Christ.
He tells these believers that they have been raised with Christ - in Christ we have a new perspective upon all of life - so set their hearts on the things above - the desire to become more like Jesus taking preeminence over the desire for any other religious attachment. Later in the chapter he will share these heart characteristics with which to clothe themselves.
He then tells them to set their minds also on the things above - and to do so because they have died and their true lives are hidden with Christ in God.
What are the earthly things that capture our minds? Certainly there can be crass sinful thoughts - the minds of the Colossians had been captured by all kinds of erroneous philosophies and doctrines that were spewing nonsense into their lives. Our minds can be caught by thoughts about how we don't measure up, how we need to change this or that in order to be "better", etc and to this Paul still says, "think higher thoughts".
Notice Paul illustrates the same kind of clarity here as in Romans with the division between who they truly are - in Christ - and the sins from which they want to be cleansed.
If the fullness of life is discovered in Jesus, then to put to death the deeds of the flesh, to rid myself of the attitudes of the flesh, to give up lying to others become ways of putting off the old self with its practices and of putting on the new self "which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator." To deal with the flesh, with the attitudes of the flesh, with lying, is not to hate myself, but to delight in who God has made me and to be done with sin. We cannot dwell in self hatred and in Christ simultaneously. We cannot contend with sinful passions while hating the person we are because we are encountering sin in our flesh! We must first accept: God made me and that is good! And then in Christ counter the flesh.
Notice in Colossians the position from which we are to deal with sin in the flesh, it is not a position of battling from earth - we are not fighting in our own strength whatsoever, but from this new life found resident in Jesus. It is then not "alone" that I "put to death" what belongs to these earthly members, but with God's Holy Spirit within me. It is from the position of being a renewed person that I can put on this new life in Christ.
Paul writes in verse 12, "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves…" Notice this beginning statement - as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Notice it for it is here that self acceptance begins - to acknowledge that God loved me enough to die for me, even me, to accept that life means I have been chosen for God's family, am made holy by Jesus, and is an expression of the fact that I, even I, am dearly loved - is to accept who God has made me and to acknowledge that I do not need to change a thing for that to be true.
- Self-acceptance is the beginning of transformation, it is the starting place. To accept who I am, means God is free to love me and work in and through me.
As Christian author Leanne Payne wrote: "the humble acceptance of myself as fallen but now justified by Another who is my righteousness is the basis on which I can accept myself, learn to laugh at myself, be patient with myself. And then, wonder of wonders, be enabled for at least part of the time to forget myself." (Leanne Payne, quoted by David K Foster in Transformed into His Image, Mastering Life Ministries:c. '02, p. 72, ubp).
So, what does it mean to move into the place of accepting who I am in Christ right now?
It means, first, to admit that you do not accept something about yourself - what would it be?
Then, it means writing down this thing or this list of things you hate about yourself.
For me it meant writing out pages of angry thoughts against myself, every interior lie I was spitting at myself, putting it down on paper, making that which swam around within me in some subjective pool into an objective, visible reality.
Then, we must learn to listen for God to speak into our hearts - to hear God bringing His affirmation to us, for as the Father spoke to Jesus, saying, "You are my son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased," God will speak to us.
(Ted Haggard's story from article Public Perfection, Private Despair by Lee Sparks, published in REV! magazine, Jan/Feb 2007, pp.45-51)!