Saturday, April 8, 2023

Thoughts on Another Good Friday

Another Good Friday has come and gone.  It has been eleven years since my world was turned upside down by the Cross, a symbol that I grew up with.  While I always knew the stories and the verses, the Cross simply did not make sense to me.  I get upset when things don't make sense.  Well, that's perhaps an understatement.  Nothing will disrupt me more than presenting me with something that I do not understand.  It's why I don't like riddles or word problems, or practical jokes.  There is something inside of me, a switch that gets flipped, when I am confused.  

I couldn't reconcile my sin with the hope that the Cross offered.  I had spent over seven years running from God.  Not just running.  I was up to my eyeballs in filth and darkness.  I was rushing through life, mostly dead.  Everything was clouded by despair and shame.  Sin breaks God's heart because he knows how shame will take root in our minds and how that will separate us from Him.  He knows that shame keeps us in the darkness.  Shame keeps us from confession.  Shame keeps us trapped in the shackles that have held us down for too long.  

God understands that the shame sin produces in us will only keep us from him.  He is a jealous God, and he loves us in ways we sometimes don't even know we deserved to be loved.  And for no other reason than he is an artist and we are the work of his hand.  He took time and skill and crafted each of us, from our heads to our toes, and everything in between.  Our hearts were shaped and molded by perfect hands.  We were filled with all of these good things, and God wants us to know him, so that he can show us all the wonderful ways in which he has created us.  He has good things in store for us, but sin interferes with those gifts.  Our shame keeps us from seeing who we truly are and what we were created for.

I'm the kind of person who is a skeptic, until I'm not.  I was skeptical about the Cross and the love and freedom it offered.  I knew all the right things.  Not only was I raised in the church my entire life, but I also attended Bible college to learn more, and I have never not gone to church for a significant period of time.  Church and God have always been a fixture in my life, even when I was actively running from God.

But knowing about God, studying God, it's not the same as actually connecting with God.  For many years, I lived my  life thinking I had to do the right things to please God.  I had to go to church regularly, read my Bible, pray all the time, help the orphans and widows.  In the worst years, I was going to church.  That was it.  And then when I started living a double life, hiding in sin, betraying my marriage vows, church wasn't going to be enough to assuage my guilt.  I was participating in the godly things, without letting God close to my heart.  And since I wasn't completing my list everyday of all the things that would make me holy and bring real peace, the amount of shame that engulfed me was overwhelming.

So, honestly, Grace came in and surprised me eleven years ago sitting in that counseling session, completely filled with grief and shame for all the evil things I had done.  I was skeptical that God really loved me more than he hated the lies I had been perpetrating for years.  I was doubtful that the Cross held enough grace and power for me, after what I had done.  I could not understand why I didn't need to be punished for the magnitude of my sin.  The counselor's words weren't fancy and they weren't revolutionary in many ways--but they were to me and to my heart in that moment. 

God had been preparing me for that moment for who knows how long.  He had been stripping away the lies, though I didn't realize it then.  He was able to chip away just enough that I could hear these words: "What if, just for today, on Good Friday, you let Jesus take the punishment for your sin?  Because he already did 2000 years ago."  That was the pivotal moment for me.  That was the moment that my skepticism turned to faith.  That was the first time I truly believed that the Cross was a place of grace and forgiveness FOR ME.  That the Cross came to do away with the punishment we deserved.

It's not a lie to say that my sins deserved punishment and death.  But it is a lie to tell myself that Jesus can't love me after all I have done.  Because we have a Cross that tells us otherwise.  I deserved punishment and yet, Jesus loved me so much that he chose to step in and stand in my place.  He took the punishment that should have been on my shoulders and he bore it all the way to Cross.  And he nailed it to the Cross, where it remains.  He ushered in grace in that moment, and my life has never been the same.

Do you know what changes skepticism?  It's faith.  It's taking a leap off of a cliff where you can't see the bottom and you don't know if you will actually land safely, and trusting that even though you can't see the bottom, you will be okay.

It took two months for me to come home to Jesus, after coming home to my husband, because he had a lot of work to do in my heart, to prepare it for the truth of the Cross.  He had to chip away the shame and fear and lies that had been my constant companions.  He had to diminish those lies just enough that I could see the glimmer of light on the horizon.  And he did that through my husband patiently loving me and holding me while I grieved the life I had lived.  He did that through songs that would come on, that I didn't fully embrace, but I was at least listening to.  God was with me every step of the way, bringing me to that counseling appointment on Good Friday in 2012.  He was orchestrating things behind the scenes, putting words into the counselor's heart and mind and then prompting the counselor to speak those words at the exact moment that God knew I would finally be able to hear him.

I didn't come into that counseling appointment less skeptical of the Cross.  I came in terrified of it.  When I say terrified, I don't even think that's a strong enough word for the fear that was welling up inside of me.  All I could think was punishment.  And I realized that day that I was ready to take the punishment.  I honestly think that's why I was able to hear and finally understand.  Because I was ready to be brave and face what I had coming to me.  I had hurt a lot of people, deeply.  I deserved punishment and I deserved to be held accountable for what I had been doing.  I didn't expect it to turn out the way it did.  God completely upended everything by loving me and showing me that the price for my sin had already been paid.

Listen, all God wants is a willing heart.  He can handle the weight of what we have done.  He is strong enough to carry our messes.  He is filled with enough grace that he can see beyond all of that sin and into the heart of his creation.  He can see all the things he created us for, and he is simply waiting for us to give him a chance to show us what he made us for.  

God didn't create me to chase after love and affection in any place I think it resides.  Those desires are still within me, and they are very real.  I long to be loved and to be truly seen for who I am, even with the loudness and intensity of emotion I can often bring with me.  And when God didn't line up with how I thought he should be, when he didn't play out in my life the way I expected him to, when he didn't protect me from the harm of others, I quietly erected a wall around myself and taught myself to believe that I didn't deserve anything but pain and death.  

Jesus simply says come to me.  

We don't find Jesus and the truth of the Cross through striving.  

We find it through surrender. 

Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Are you weary and burdened?  There is a place of safety and rest you can drop your cares and just be loved and held.  But God won't force himself upon us.  He will simply wait.  And when you find yourself as I was, burdened under the guilt and shame of everything you did to try to prove you didn't need God or that you didn't deserve God, Jesus tells us he wants to trade that heavy burden for one that is lighter and easier to carry.  He doesn't say we won't have to bear pain and hard things in this world--but he does promise that if we bring those hard and painful things to him, he will take them and replace them with loads that we can actually carry. Because his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

When Jesus was on the Cross, he was placed between two criminals to die.  The Romans had perfected crucifixion and this was a standard death sentence.  So three men were crucified, and both of those criminals were impacted by what happened that day.  One mocked.  And one believed.  And one ended up with a promise that he would be joining Jesus in paradise.  That's the end game and I get excited thinking about this story in Luke 23:40-23, because I desire to be with Jesus in paradise.  And if there was hope for that thief on the Cross that day, there is still hope for me and you today.

'But the other criminal protested, "Don't you fear God even when you  have been sentenced to die?  We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn't done anything wrong."  Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom."  And Jesus replied, "I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise."'

Jesus, thank you for remembering me when you came into your Kingdom.  Thank you for loving me and choosing me, in spite of all the ways I despised you and your Cross.  Thank you for chasing after my heart and pursuing me, simply so that you could hold me and love me in ways I never thought I deserved.