Unconditional love. It's unnatural, and yet something for which our hearts yearn. But when it is given, are we able to accept it? To truly accept it, in that deep place in our hearts that we so often try to hide or protect or pretend doesn't exist?
The human life is strange. At 29, I thought I would have figured it out by now. Maybe not life as a whole, but at least who I am and what I'm doing here. I might be slower than some in doing the soul-searching work of figuring out who God designed me to be. But I also contend that we continue to get to know ourselves up until the day we die, especially considering God's work of sanctification. There are stable features of who God created us to be, yet He is also continually making us new, growing us, making us more like His Son. There is always a way to go deeper, another layer of the proverbial onion to be peeled, more growth to be had, a finer refinement, application of an old lesson in a new area, etc.
For any readers new on the self-discovery journey, please allow me to share some major mis-steps I've made in the hopes that you can avoid them — namely people-pleasing and self-sufficiency. As is common for me, this represents two opposite ends of a spectrum. In various arenas of my life I seem to try out each extreme before settling to a godlier tension — apparently one of those old lessons I keep being reminded to apply to new spheres.
People-pleasing set my focus completely externally and made my foundation of acceptability dependent on the whims of others. Considering that all humans are fallen and that God is the only ultimate source of Truth, this is a big problem. It leads to anxiety, depression, and a death of who God actually created me to be. Everyone misses out in this scenario: I don't enjoy it, other people don't get the benefit of who God created me to be, and God is not glorified. People-pleasing can appear very Christian. Being a "good Christian girl" was a major part of my people-pleasing. In fact, I thought it was pleasing to God. That's the other thing people-pleasing does, it gives a wrong impression of God and of salvation. When we work to please people so as to earn love, we tend to also do the same with God. But His love is not earned; in fact, it is impossible to earn love from God.
A beautiful truth is that God gives His love freely. He delights to love us. First John 4:7-10 says:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
When we think we have to earn God's love, we actually have a low view of God and a high view of self. Not only do we live with uncertainty and likely a profound sense of shame, we tend to also be prideful and judgmental. All around, people-pleasing is a bad life plan.
On the opposite end of the spectrum we get self-sufficiency. This is where we don't care what anyone thinks, sometimes including God. It's a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps view of life: I'm just going to decide who I am and be that person. But here again, there is anxiety, depression, a neglect of who God actually created me to be, and a profound sense of loneliness. Shame may also come into play. We put on a fiercely independent exterior, but inside know that something big is missing. Personally, though I've tried the self-sufficiency thing, it has never actually worked. All it ever amounted to was trying to talk myself into "getting it together." Rather than people-please, I was enslaved by trying hard not to care, kind of a twisted type of people-pleasing. Once again, bad life plan.
In my reaction against people-pleasing, I have been confused about what that means in terms of pleasing God. I understand that "good Christian girl" isn't what we're after, but that has left me somewhat at a loss. I have needed to divorce myself from others as my source of truth and come to God as the only source of Truth. It is His Word and His Spirit that lead me into truth, not what others say or the construct I've created in my own mind. This is a strange one for me because other people are helpful in discerning God's Truth. Certainly there is no such thing as a "solo Christian" and we should be very leery of anyone who claims some special truth from God. That being said, God's Word is the standard, not what I may perceive from the culture around me. Allowing Him to shape my beliefs and looking to Him for affirmation is what I need. So the heart posture is different. Instead of trying to fit into a preconceived "box" of what it looks like to live the Christian life, I need to simply look to Him and live it.
God doesn't do boxes. Try as I might — oh so many times — to fit God into an understandable box or myself into an understandable box or others into an understandable box, they just won't stay. God is unchanging and also incomprehensible. People are dynamic. We can know some helpful things as frameworks, but pigeon-holing myself or others simply does not work, plus adds a lot of unnecessary heartache. I too often fall for the lie that if I can fit things into a box they will be controllable, and that control is the key to mastering life. Folks, there is no mastering life. Life is meant to be lived, and it's meant to be lived with God. Life is an adventure, not a problem to be solved or a monster to be tamed. It is a love story, a purposeful and meaningful thing, a glimpse of the creativity and beauty of God, a preparation for future glory that actually matters, a gift. Jesus came to live a life on earth. Certainly that validates the significance of our time here.
So what is the right tension? This is where surrender comes in. God did give us free will and He does want us to use it, but we are meant to do so while also fully submitting to God. Understanding this truth has been a struggle for me. You see, I wrongly tend to think of submission as a loss of identity. That is a lie from the Enemy! In submitting or surrendering to God, we don't lose who we are. We actually become free to be who God truly made us to be. In surrendering to God, I give up the things of this world that would inhibit abundant life in exchange for His ways; I give up that which brings death in order to gain fullness of life (John 10:10; 15:1–17; Romans 6:23; Galatians 5:1, 16–25). So I should seek to please God, but it's God who I need to please, not the various "God boxes" that are perpetuated or that I've made up in my own mind. Pleasing God and being a "good Christian girl" may look similar on the outside, but they are completely different heart attitudes. In one, God is my source of truth, the love of my heart, and the desire of my spirit. He guides and directs and enables. In the other, I am deciding what is right and wrong and granting myself love only when I adhere to my standards. One is liberating and secure. The other is enslaving and insecure.
As to self-sufficiency, it is not so much a decide-who-you-are-and-just-be-that as it is an active seeking out of God and obedience to Him. It's asking God who He made me to be and choosing to trust Him and live that way. Rather than doing life on my own, it is being an active participant in my life with God's power. We do still need the help of other people. I am not meant to "be who I am" in defiance of others, but for their benefit. I can and should own the things God has instilled in me. He makes us each uniquely (Psalm 139). And His works are "wonderful" (Psalm 139:14). He has prepared works for us to do (Psalm 139:16; Ephesians 2:10). God actually likes us the way He made us and has a reason for making us the way we are. Certainly sin can get in the way and sanctification is necessary. But we are not fundamentally flawed and without hope. God has saved us from sin. And the things He has placed in us in terms of personality and gifting are things He intends to use to carry out His will (Matthew 25:14–30; Ephesians 1:3–14; 1 Corinthians 12:4–7, 12–31; 2 Peter 1:3–11). We may be quite different from those around us, or quite similar to those around us. No matter, we are each created the way we are for a reason. God knew in advance and has good plans for us. He loves us completely — not just the "lovable" parts, but the weird things, too. He has a plan for us. He is made strong in our weakness and glorified most when we function the way He designed us to. The issue is whether we will accept it and choose to live it out.
I started out asking about unconditional love. This is what God has for us. To be honest, it can be frightening. I don't always like the weird things about myself. To not only accept that God placed those in me, but that He loves me fully in that, is pretty astounding. Yes, God has growth work for me to do. But it is so different from the self-help things society markets. God doesn't want to alter my personality; He wants to fully use it for His glory. He doesn't want to change His design of me; He wants to liberate it and restore me to what He originally intended. It's not about me trying to fit some mold that is a bit tight around the edges, but about Him completing the masterpiece that He is making in me (Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 1:6). Because God loves me, I can love myself. Because God loves me, I can accept myself. Because God loves me, I can feel secure. I am never alone. I am never deemed unacceptable. I am a child of the King, a participant in His work. When I fully accept God's love — in all those cavernous places — fear can be cast aside (1 John 4:18) and I can boldly walk with Him in the adventure He has planned.
I love John 13:3–5:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Jesus had a solid grasp of His identity and the Father's love. This enabled Him not only to serve His disciples but to sacrifice His life on our behalf. You see, Jesus has already paid the price for my sin. I don't need to live in shame about the things I don't like about myself. The ones that are sinful have been cleansed and taken care of. The ones that I just don't like because of some cultural expectation or standard I've made up in my own mind are inconsequential. Those things aren't Truth. God is. When I understand God's great love — so viscerally demonstrated by Jesus — and truly accept it, in the depths of my being, then I can accept myself. And when I do that, I can surrender fully to Him, find joy in being transformed into His image (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18), and begin to truly live.
I pray that you, too, will know the depth of God's love, accept who He created you to be, and to be that person. God intends for you to live. So live! Do so knowing you are loved, that you have purpose, and that peace and joy can be yours in Christ.