The good news of being (un)worthy

This week I surprised myself. For a long time, my counsellor has wanted me to say, “I am worthy of. . .” rather than “I am worth enough to. . .”

I have resisted.

“Worthy,” used of myself, has felt too presumptuous, too entitled. Too opposed to grace. In my mind, God alone is worthy, and all I receive is by grace.

And that is true. For many things, that word does belong only to God. God alone is worthy to be worshiped. God alone is worthy to receive glory and honor and power. 

But this week, without prompting, I found myself changing an unhelpful and untrue belief to the statement, “I am human and I am worthy of presence and care even when I am sick.”

I’m realizing that the word “worthy” always begs two questions: Worthy of what? And why?

I’m realizing, too, that there’s inherent worthiness and bestowed worthiness and lived or earned worthiness.

Inherent: God is inherently worthy of worship. That’s who He is.

Bestowed: Every human being (and, for that matter, all of creation), is worthy of respect and care from ourselves and from other humans simply by virtue of being made and loved by God.

Lived: And we’re called to live lives worthy of the call we have received, and to entrust leadership to those who have shown themselves worthy (Eph 4:1, Phil 1:27, Col 1:10, I Thes 2:12, I Tim 3:4, 8, etc).

In case we’re tempted to get too big for our britches, God makes it clear: we are not worthy of his love. God loves us because He loves us, not because of our intelligence or service, our good behaviour or even because His image is woven into each of our cells (Deut 7:7-8). His love is freely given, sheer grace. This is good news. We did nothing to earn God’s love, and we can do nothing to make Him stop loving and longing to draw us deeper into his love.

And yet, He makes it equally clear: His love bestows a certain worthiness on us. In the world’s economy, the man in the sleeping bag on the downtown corner and the woman too sick to talk or walk or sit may have a net worth of nothing, or worse than nothing. But in God’s kingdom, they are just as worthy of our respect and presence and care as we are, simply because we are all made by God in his own image, and treasured by Him (Gen. 9:5-6).

Why do I hazard a step into exploring this word that can be so easily misunderstood? Why not stay safely back in the realm where the word “worthy” is reserved for God alone, and think of myself as unworthy?

  1. Both Jesus and Paul use the word “worthy” more times of human beings than of God, and if I want God to shape my life, I need to prayerfully ponder Scripture and be open to God shifting the way I think of Him—and of others and myself.
  2. As Jeremy Begbie says, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good.”[1]
  3. As is evident in some of our beautiful old hymns, if we don’t think carefully about what we mean by “unworthy,” we can easily slip into the error of equating “unworthy” with “worthless.” And that both insults the God who handmade us and leaves us trying to defend or prove ourselves, or give up on ourselves and the work we’ve been given, or any number of other unhealthy postures.

No one who has been individually crafted by the God of the universe to reflect His own glory, and has had the breath of life breathed into her by that same God who counts each hair on her head and knows what each of her days will hold and has planned and suited her for special work that only she can do, can ever be considered worthless, or unworthy of our love and care.

What, then, do we do when we recognize that while we are unworthy of God’s love, we are, by that love, made worthy of the respect and care of ourselves and our fellow humans?

Well, what did Jesus do with his much greater worthiness? He didn’t cling to it, flaunt it, or use it to get his own way. He didn’t need to cling, flaunt, or manipulate, because He knew who he was. And so, having nothing to prove, He was free to humble himself, stooping with a basin and towel and letting his arms be stretched wide on the cross, so that we might begin to believe that we, too, are made worthy by His love. He lived the love He had received from His Father. He acted in a way worthy of the calling He had received.

He calls us to do the same: to rest in His love that makes us worthy, and then, secure in that love, to love others in a way that lifts them up too (John 15:4,9; Matt 11:28-30; Phil 2:5, John 13:14, 15:12-13).

“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith” (2Thes. 1:11).

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[1] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 279.

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Your needs and the needs of others: the good news about balance

It’s one of the questions I struggled most with in Afghanistan, and continue to struggle with now: How do I balance my needs with the needs of others? How do I concurrently live the realities of life in this limited body and Jesus’ unequivocal call to love others as he has loved me, and to take up my cross and follow him? 

This week, the question arose again through a couple of requests which I didn’t have the energy to meet, along with some words from a Bible verse that I’ve long stumbled over:

“. . . in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). 

How do I understand this? It seems to command that I see myself as “less than,” inferior to everyone else, and to insist that I always subjugate my own needs and desires to those of others.

I want to love well. I am willing to give my hours, my life, to serve God and others. But over these recent years, God has seemed to say in a myriad of ways, “You matter too.” My limitations insist that I slow down, learn to say no, and keep praying through the questions and complexities.

So this week I slowed down and read those words more carefully in their context. Those words follow these ones:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but. . .”

Paul is not talking about basic self-care, or living within our limits, or stewarding our health, our gifts, and our core relationships. He is talking about “selfish ambition and vain conceit”—prideful pushing others down and ourselves up, climbing the ladder by stepping on others, arrogantly thinking that we are better than others. The treatment for that kind of arrogance is turning the situation around and humbly considering others better than yourself.

            Paul continues his words with the example of Jesus who modeled this kind of humility perfectly —and it was not about letting the desires of others determine his days. He was single-minded and knew how to say no. When the crowds were wanting more of his miracles, he left to be alone with his Father. He said no to the plans that both the crowds and his closest friends had for his life—to be a military leader and free them from the Romans. This humility had nothing to do with insecurity or thinking himself or his task unimportant. Precisely the opposite. It was tied to a view of others as precious enough to be worth his single-minded faithfulness to his God-given call. 

Jesus’ vocation was not determined by what each individual wanted, but by what God knew the world needed. He honored others most profoundly not by saying yes to their requests (though he did that when he could), but by remaining faithful to his God-given call and stewarding himself and his relationship with his Father in a way that strengthened and enabled him to fulfil his unique calling.

In case I missed what God was saying, he spoke again the next day, this time through a friend who, unbeknownst to me, has also been working through Philippians, and “just happened” to mention, without my saying anything about Philippians, what she’d been seeing in the verse immediately after the one that had caught my attention.

 “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4).

Paul doesn’t say we shouldn’t look to our own interests, just that we shouldn’t look only to them. We should also look to the interests of others. In God’s sight, we all matter, we as much as those we are called to serve. The question is not whose needs are more important, but which needs (including my own) God is calling me to meet right now, and which he intends to meet in another way.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, willingly giving up our life with the promise that as we do so, we’ll find it. And when he lived this among us, he was careful also to model not laying down his life when it was not the Father’s way or timing. Early in his ministry, when the crowd tried to seize Jesus to throw him off the cliff, Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Later, when he knew his time to lay down his life had come, though he could have called 10,000 angels to intervene on his behalf, he instead let broken people nail him to the cross. He listened to his Father’s heart and calling on his life and said yes to what fit with that and no to everything else. And we are called to do the same.

Finding grace in a fearful word

Sometimes I encounter a perfectly good word that has, in my mind, grown into a bad word. 

And sometimes I’m invited to let that word become itself again, a neutral word, a potential means of grace as much as of harm depending on the intent behind it and how I receive it. 

Yesterday I encountered one of those words, an important and necessary word, but one that at first raised instinctual walls of protection in me. I had to stop and breathe, to back up and listen to what was really being said. Turns out there’s great grace in the word when I look more deeply and let it be itself rather than painting it with the fear that has grown up around it in my mind.

The word is expectations, and the context was a sermon. The first sermon, in fact, by our new senior pastor. As he started talking about beginnings and the importance of looking at expectations—ours of him, his of us, ours of God, God’s of us—my heart sank and I could feel my walls going up. A hidden part of me wanted to curl up and cry with disappointment, fear, and self-protection. 

Too heavy expectations—my own, and other people’s—have nearly crushed me, and I’ve come to fear the word “expectations” and the burden that it signifies.

But as I continued to listen, the pastor shared how he’d been praying about God’s direction for the church, and had sensed God say to him, “Tell them how much I love them.” Not just as a group, but as individual persons. I could feel my heart shift, lighten. This I understand. This I want. This I need for myself every day, and this is my deepest desire and prayer as I write and as I sit with people and listen. “Oh, Jesus, settle us a little more deeply into your love!” More than anything else, this is what I long that my life and my words communicate: we are loved, gently, passionately, securely. And I know that with this at the heart of our new pastor’s calling, we’ll be fine, because in Jesus’ love there is both safety and transformation. More specifically, in Jesus’ love, there is the safety that makes space for transformation, permitting us to lower our walls enough to let Jesus take our hearts in his hands and soften and mold and remake them into hearts that beat not with fear but with love. 

Expectations can be dangerous. If they don’t fit, if I use them to lay a burden on someone that is not theirs to carry or they lay that kind of burden on me, expectations crush the life out of people and relationships.

But well-fitting expectations can be a gift. They delineate responsibility, and for those of us that instinctively feel responsible for everything within our reach, well-fitting expectations can lighten the burden – if we allow ourselves to trust these expectations and not still be ruled by the expectations in our own heads.

This kind of “my burden is light” expectation is the kind that I hear in the pastor’s words, “All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

I am not responsible to transform my own heart. I’m only responsible to keep bringing it back to Jesus.

I’m not responsible for an outcome, another person’s response. I’m just responsible to keep returning to Jesus to be loved and let his love flow through me.

“All that God is expecting of us is rooted in this one thing: let him love you.” 

Turns out that while wrong-sized expectations can be dangerous, healthy expectations are an important part of settling into God’s love. I realize this as I sit with the pastor’s final two-pronged invitation: First, notice what God has done for us in the past. Then, notice our own expectations—or lack of them. It’s those last few words that catch my attention. Where is God inviting me to expand my expectations, to stake my life on who He is? Learning to expect God to be true to himself is part of growing in relationship. It becomes so much easier to risk letting down my walls and allowing Jesus to take my heart in his hands when I come to him, remembering who He is and expecting Him to be gentle as He wisely and tenderly remolds me in a direction that is good. 

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Looking for something to help you settle a little more deeply into God’s love? You might enjoy one of my free email courses.

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When life takes a detour

As I was biking this morning—my own ongoing rehab exercise which I’ll need to do for the rest of my life—I was praying for someone else who has encountered a detour on his path. He followed God into a new job for which he seems so clearly gifted, and then encountered unexpected illness which, at the moment, is making that role impossible for him. I pray for him because I know how desperately difficult it was for me to go from being the carer to the cared for. I wonder if it’s hard for him too.

As I pray, I remember the pain of that process, but also the grace of a Sunday morning a few months after my return from Afghanistan. I was still too sick to go with my family to church, and lying there in my bed, wrestling with how thing seemed to be turning out, I sensed God say to me, “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.”

I’d followed God, and when the route he took me looked different than I expected—passing through the wilderness of illness instead of travelling longer in the mountainous desert of Afghanistan—I needed to be reminded that the different route didn’t mean I wasn’t being led, or that I hadn’t heard right or followed well. It just meant Jesus knows the way and my job is not to map out the route but to trust his love and cling close to him wherever that takes me.

We’re each led into particular ministries and roles and opportunities, and some of them are difficult enough that we need to feel that specific call quite strongly to stick it out. Part of faithfulness is persevering in the task we’ve been given for as long as it’s entrusted to us. But this is important: Our ultimate calling is never to a role, but to a Person. The role may change; the Person, and the call to cling close to Him, will not. 

I’ve thought often of God’s invitation to me that Sunday morning. But until this morning I’ve mostly thought of it in relation to that big and obvious shift in my life. This morning I realized that it relates every bit as much to the blog post that I don’t have words for as to the lines of patients needing a doctor: “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.” 

How do I know when I’m clinging to the call rather than the One who calls? Most often it takes me a while to realize it. I find myself feeling anxious and unsettled, or tired and dry and pressured. I realize I’m trying to control an outcome. Saturday, for example, I felt this heaviness: “I still have no words and Monday is blog day and what am I going to write?” It’s a choice to plant my few mustard-seed grains of faith, to let go of expectations and receive the reminder that it would be fine to repost an older piece of writing this time. And as I pause and sit in stillness with Jesus, soaking in the goodness of being his and he mine, loved regardless of what I accomplish, I realize that the yoke has stopped chafing and the burden become lighter. Then and only then, I realize I’d yoked myself once again to the call rather than the One who calls, and that He has graciously helped me once again remove the heavy yoke of my self-imposed expectations that come with clinging to the call and take up, instead, the easy yoke of walking and working in step with the One who calls to me in love.

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P.S. In case you missed it last week, here’s a link to a free five-day contemplative course offering you space to reflect more deeply on Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 to come to him in our weariness and find rest, trading in the yoke that chafes us for his that fits perfectly.

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The gift of holy confidence

“You sound like an abused woman.” She was speaking to me.  I stopped mid-thought, trying to make sense of what she had said. I’m one of the far-too-small percentage of women who has never been sexually or physically abused. After a moment to catch my breath I asked, “Can you say more?”

“They find it so hard to leave because it’s what they know.” 

Her words came in the midst of a conversation with three friends who were helping me listen. I was telling them about a moment in which I’d been given a tiny glimpse of the pattern that God is weaving out of the broken bits of my life—a pattern that, in that moment, led me by its beauty into delight in what God is doing, and gratitude for the deep privilege of also having a small role in what he is doing in someone else’s life. I was worshipping. And then I wasn’t. All of a sudden my delight was replaced with fear. Was I slipping into pride? Was it okay to enjoy so much the work I was getting to do with God? I had slipped from worship to being anxious about not being anxious. 

As we talked, I said, “I’m used to doing this work with some anxiety running in the background. I know how to do it that way—how to be small and held and let my anxiety press me closer to God, keeping me dependent on him. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to feel confident without it feeling wrong or dangerous somehow, prideful maybe, even though I knowI can’t do this work without God, and I’m fairly sure this is a holy, trusting confidence into which God is inviting me.”

That’s when her words stopped me and helped me see. I knew how to live with anxiety, how to let it press me deeper into God’s love. But if I was invited to step into a holy confidence, could I let the anxiety go? Could I dare to step into an unfamiliar freedom? How would I stay in healthy dependence without anxiety to remind me of my unceasing need for God?

The questions kept coming:

  • What if God wants you to be big? 
  • What if you’re being invited to leave a comfortable space?
  • Might the uncomfortable place of confidence be the place of dependence?

It’s a fact: we are small and dependent and held(Isaiah 40:6-8; 41:10,13-14; 46:3-4). Without Jesus we can do nothing (John 15:5). It was trying to escape their dependence on God that got Adam and Eve, as well as the folk at the tower of Babel, into trouble.

It’s also a fact: we are created in the image of God, given authority over creation, entrusted with talents to steward and people to serve and tasks to faithfully complete. We are created a little lower than God and intended to judge angels and rule nations as we share in the reigning over God’s kingdom (Ps 8; Dan 7:18,22,27; 1 Cor 6:3; Rev 2:26-27). Love has indeed stooped down to make us great (Ps. 18:35).

Precisely because we are and always will be small compared to God, we can grow into our truest, fullest self, unafraid that God will be threatened by us stretching to our full stature. Like a parent who delights in a child’s first steps and growing vocabulary, God wantsus to grow into our truest, fullest, most able self. He knows that that can only happen as we make our home in His love, and He does all he can to facilitate that process. 

Trust can look many different ways.

In moments of anxiety and feeling small and vulnerable, trust can look like running to the place I know myself safe and letting myself be held. There, I’m trusting that I’m known and loved and welcomed, that God is gentle and kind and will never let me go.

When God calls me to step out, trust can look like moving forward, relying on the God who promises to be with me even when I’m afraid. There, I’m trusting that God will give strength, and that He is enough for whatever may come.

And in those moments of grace when I’m called to step out and am given joy and confidence in doing it, trust can look like fearlessly savoring the gift and celebrating the One who gave it. There, I’m trusting that God is with me and for me, delighting to see me enjoying the work he equips me to do. Paul models for me this kind of healthy, holy confidence which is unafraid to acknowledge that we can’t do anything without God, and equally unafraid to trust that, in Christ, we are made competent for the work to which we are called.

“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. . .”  

(2 Cor 3:4-6)

As I pondered all this, I wondered, “We’re walking toward the cross with Jesus and have less than two weeks to go. How does all this fit?” It felt odd and uncomfortable to be considering confidence—or thinking about myself at all—when I’m walking with the One I love toward his death. 

But as soon as I asked the question, I sensed an answer. This is part of what the cross is about.Jesus went to the cross to restore right relationships—with God, first of all, and also with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. He died to rescue us from our fallen, crushed state, to place us back into our relationship with him and to enable us again for our intended roles as sub-rulers under God and even co-rulers with him (Dan 7: 18,22,27; Rev 2:26-27; Rom 8:17). We honor the cross and Jesus’ great sacrifice when we step as fully as we can into the new chapter his death has opened up—a chapter of hope and freedom, of love conquering fear, and of confidence that Jesus will complete in us the work he has begun.