I didn’t know this theology was going to be so sad. When I had my first sip of unconditional love, I was totally convinced my life was going to be perpetually euphoric.
It hasn’t been. This is the part where most people say, “The point is: Christianity requires a ton of toughness and exertion, so buck up if you want to be a champion.” That isn’t what I’m going to say, because that is a lie.
The Gospel levels everything in your life. When God finally tracks you down and sets you free, you will spend the rest of your life picking up the pieces. This is true.
The biggest explosion in my life was the divorce of my emotions from God’s Promise over me. It sounds pleasant and like someone would welcome it, but I was offended. I trusted my emotions. When I did a crappy job, I felt like I was a logical enough being to understand how this must have made God feel. Glory be that God doesn’t follow human logic.
How you feel right now and how God feels about you are not even close to the same thing. I didn’t know this. When someone tried to convince me of this, I denied it vehemently. If I felt bad, then I assumed God was as frustrated with me as I was with my self. It stood to reason. If I was feeling good, then God felt good about me. There were lots of ups and downs. In control, but an emotional train-wreck.
I wonder if this explains a lot of sermons that are “feel-good.” A feel-good sermon usually works for the mission it set out on: to make you feel good. They feel good because life reform is equated to lasting hope. It gives us false hope that, if we can put our hand to the plow, then we can earn freedom by our own sweat. But when we have driven a divide between our feelings and God’s posture towards us in Christ, then we are less addicted to managing our emotions. We are less addicted to feel-good sermons.
This is where we stumble into the desolate valley of vexation. The Gospel frees you (sometimes against your will) from the pressure of being in absolute control of your emotions. When we call a thing what it is against the advice of a feel-good sermon – when we are honest about the depth of our suffering – then emotions arise that we didn’t even know about. Sometimes incredibly good emotions. Sometimes: soul-crushing. The Gospel is comfortable with this spectrum of emotions. It must be, otherwise it wouldn’t be good news (or news at all) for those who are enduring soul-crushing existential defeat. By calling suffering what it is, we can finally let the fleeting things die away so that we can find a remedy that will actually begin the healing process. The Gospel looks at a gaping wound and says, “A band-aid isn’t going to work on this one.”
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Are you expecting to find hope “under the sun” where chasing shiny metals (gold) and shiny medals (accomplishments) is our sole preoccupation? Your life won’t resurrect itself with your hard work, your positive attitude, your good-standing. You are a corpse in a morgue drawer. And even a renewed perspective won’t set you free. Your only hope is resurrection.
The problem is not that you want to change your behavior. That’s usually a good thing. It means your self-respect is in tact. The problem is that we always begin to think hope accompanies self-improvement. On the contrary, actually.
Celebrities prove this all the time. They are getting divorced. They are committing suicide. Lots of them are self-respecting. Lots of them have the time and resources to have a quiet reflection time each day. Lots of them are extremely self-disciplined. You don’t rise to the top of that industry if you are not pretty good at self-improvement. In other words, lots of them are “religiously observant” if we use a broad enough definition of religion. Therefore, religion is not your hope. Life reform is not your hope. You are not your hope. Welcome to vexation.
But with great vexation comes scandalous liberation.
At some point, if you stand in the firing line of unconditional love from God long enough, feel-good sermons won’t feel good anymore. Like Paul, you will nod at the elementary principles of the world, and point to a much bigger savior. Some days are vexing. But calling a thing what it is is the beginning of grasping the depth of God’s love for you.
God loves sinners, of which you are one. Be vexed. Be loved. Be free.