Constrained By…?

I went to a prayer meeting last Monday afternoon at Plaistow Church at which I was given an experience that I’m really grateful for. These meetings are held every Monday and there has never been a time that I’ve visited and received no blessing. These people seriously believe in prayer; they treat it like medicine and if anyone steps through the doors in dire need of help, they prescribe the dosage with a faith that I really admire. Last Monday was the first time that I’d left the meeting with a page of notes; of thoughts, that I wanted to share on the blog and expand upon in my diary. We discussed a reading from Ephesians 3 from which Paul tells the church of Ephesus to not be discouraged over any trials that may come his way but to look to God instead. The discussion on this text eventually led onto the topic of God’s love and mercy.

Paul was an interesting person and he’s probably the best subject matter after my previous post. After years of torturing, killing and imprisoning countless Christians, he became one of the most well known Bible writers and an advocate of love and truth. There are times in the New Testament that you can see his patience has been tested by the churches, or times when his faith has taken a nosedive straight into the darkest depths of his mind—a friend once told me that he displays signs of depression in the book of Timothy; as he tells his fellow disciple about struggles he’s faced but the hope he still has in God. Because of these experiences Paul encountered, he more than anyone could testify about forgiveness, mercy and love—he wrote one of my favourite passages in the Bible, the ‘love chapter’, 1 Corinthians 13. He tells us that love is patient and kind; selfless and longsuffering. This is true love and it comes from God. Probably one of his greatest gifts to a fallen race.

But with true love comes false love. Infatuation; lust; exaggeration. People who were madly in love with each other on their wedding day are praying for the other’s death or downfall a few years’ later. Someone who spent decades with their spouse, producing an army of children and good memories, can engage in an extramarital affair with alarming ease. On the news recently the case of Jeremy Forrest has returned: a 30-year-old school teacher who fell in love with one of his students. She was 14 at the time their relationship started and he was married to a woman his own age. Despite being madly in love with his student (and she with him), he failed to see that a man with such responsibility should respect a girl enough to not accept her virginity when she is underage; his deep love for her was shallow enough that he could not patiently wait until she left school as a legal adult—even more, his love and his own heart was just so consumed with passion that he was unable to see that eloping with a now 15 year old girl to France would not end well, and that she would be missed by her family and would not be able to attend school. Love should be rational, surely? Which is why I don’t like the term ‘fall in love’. Falling isn’t a good thing; it denotes something that happened suddenly and unexpectedly; a fleeting feeling or passionate emotion. You fall and you hurt yourself; you could also say ‘plummeting in love’.

Christ’s love is supposed to ‘constrain us’. Not in a controlling way or forceful bondage, but to restrain the negative nature of ourselves: his love and sacrifice show us how to live for others, live for our faith and live selflessly. His love alone provides a blueprint of how to go about things. False love is a delusion. It comes from the enemy and can be hard to detect. Since my last post about love, I’ve really been meditating on it and thinking more about how I should act if I say I love someone. Well, for one, I wouldn’t be thinking about my own lusts and selfish desires, but about how the other person would feel—also a Christian and also in the same line of guilt. I would want to preserve their dignity and body, respect them as a fellow child of God and give them the boundaries they deserve. I would be patient and understanding towards them; mindful of their feelings. I would try to adopt the Christ-like character, rather than ‘my heart’.

If the love of Christ constrains me, I don’t want to be chained down to anything less.

Sinning so much that God Rejects You

It’s a strange concept to think about, but one that is dangerously common amongst Christians…

It’s easy to place Christianity on a spectrum of beliefs. There is always one extreme or the other: the Christians who are so ambivalent towards Christianity that the Bible for them is mostly a fictional account; allegories, stories, examples, parables—and nothing that we should take too seriously. Jesus was a guy who only spoke about love; the Old Testament is virtually irrelevant to life. On the other end are those who take everything militantly literal. Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed because of gay people—and not sin (which is what the Bible actually says); you have to do-do-do. It’s all about what you’ve done for God: how many tracts you’ve handed out; how many people you’ve made feel uncomfortable at your rambling criticisms of their fornicating ways… all of that stuff.

In my opinion, both of those attitudes are wrong. Together, they portray a warped view of God and of Christianity. They also distort the issue of ‘sin’.

One can talk for years about sin. It’s created all the problems in the world; we’re all sinners; we sin naturally because of our fallen nature, yadda yadda. But what does sin mean to you as a person? What does it mean to me?

For a little while, in my effort to understand it, I broke away from the militant crowd and started believing in the other extreme—after all, militancy usually makes me feel wretched about my state as a person. I believed that everything was about ‘love’ and I barely needed to ask for forgiveness because sin would sort itself out somewhere. This was years ago, but it did nothing to really console me. If it had I wouldn’t be agonising over it now.

I always pray for the forgiveness of my sins and I always believe that I’ve been forgiven, but some sins are culturally seen as more sinful than others, which eventually leads to a feeling verging on despair once they’ve been committed. I’m obviously talking about sexual sins: masturbation, pornography, pre-marital sex; lust. A lot of the time they’re hidden secrets, like sewage pipes beneath the city. People know they’re there and that many people in their congregation struggle, but it’s so shameful that no one listens—especially if it’s a woman who is going through these things. For women, we’re lucky if we can find a trustworthy friend to confide in.

Recently, my problems with lust made me feel very low. I’m eternally thankful that God has given me the power to not have sex outside of marriage, but at the same time I know that if I continue to entertain thoughts and be suggestive in my actions it will only be my fault if it actually does happen. A few weeks ago this problem really manifested itself and I didn’t want to pray about it. That militancy that had surrounded me after years in the church came back: that God is quick to anger and you mustn’t sin otherwise he’ll wipe your name out of the Book right away. I kept picturing Him just staring at me in admonition and I almost couldn’t open my mouth. How many times would I come to him with the same problem? How presumptuous can I be, to put myself in the same risk and then ask for forgiveness afterwards? How can that possibly work?

And that’s when I finally understood what sin does to the Christian—what it does to me. Sin separates us from God in all ways. For one, God is sinless and I am not. That gap in status is enough, but on a personal level, one that is based on a relationship with Him, it makes me ashamed of myself. It means that I think of myself as ‘too sinful’ for God to listen to; I’ve done too much. He’ll reject me.

What folly.

A belief like that is an indirect rejection of the Cross: Jesus’ sacrifice was made to free me from sin and give me the freedom to ask for forgiveness and the power to overcome it. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies…

I’m glad for these experiences, though. Sometimes you have to get knee-deep in your Christianity, with all its mud, sand and dirt, to find the little treasure shells beneath. It’s then that you grow to love God for who he is.