We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.Traditional Lutheran Liturgy
I could not know it at the time, but this adventure in my Pops’ Workshop was about to take a dramatic shift from invitation to healing. It is worth spending a moment to look back over the road I had traveled so far. I had met my Pops and experienced his love for me. I had encountered Jesus with his invitation to somehow help with his slow and gentle work of perfecting what he loves. I had begun to wrestle with questions of my worth and identity. Both Jesus and my Pops had invited me to help make him known and to bring words of peace, somehow, to untold numbers of people. I seen the mysterious inner work of the Holy Spirit and learned that, as improbable as it seemed, facilitating Holy Spirit’s work was also part of the invitation. Finally, I had been promised both peace for my soul and attacks by the enemy, with the assurance that any hurts would be put right.
All of this happened over a short period of time. My lunch with Danny, Mike, and Graeme was on February twentieth. I was first in Pops’ workshop ten days later, on March second. The Easter announcement that my peace is coming was only five weeks later, on April fifth. From my first time meeting my Pops to the warning about the enemy striking me was only sixty-two days. A lot had happened in a very short period of time. I am certain this timing was not happenstance.
Understanding is not always helpful
The Lord knows that I am a thinker and an analyzer, often to the point of obsession. That tenacity can be a good thing, but often it is less helpful. A passionate desire to dig into something and to thoroughly understand it can run off the rails when it comes up against mystery and beauty. For example, if was were to discover a rare and beautiful flower, something completely unlike anything in my experience, my instinct would be to uproot the plant so I could examine it fully, compare it to other flowers, ask experts about it, and learn everything I could about. It would be hard for me to simply be grateful for the grace and beauty and enjoy a rare and beautiful thing. If I gave my nature free rein, I would, in all likelihood, destroy it in my attempt to understand it.
So it could have been with my time in Pops’ Workshop. By God’s grace, I was receiving a gift of exceeding beauty, power, and value. My Pops knew that, given the opportunity, I would have over-thought, over-reasoned, and over-analyzed what he was showing me. If the events so far had unfolded more slowly, giving me the luxury of time to really analyze them, I would likely have destroyed the experience.
I could easily have written the whole thing off as, at best wishful imagining and, at worst, a psychotic episode. I knew of no one who had experienced God in such a direct and personal way. I could have decided what I had seen and heard and felt was a fantasy, concocted by my subconscious as a balm to a hurting soul and a needy ego. There were times when I doubted my sanity, wondering if what was happening to me would be better addressed by a psychiatrist instead of a spiritual director. I could have set it aside and walked away.
Or, if I did believe the reality of what I was experiencing, it was so far beyond my understanding that my drive to understand it could have ended it in frustration. My pride was such that if I couldn’t understand something, at least well enough to explain it to myself, I would have rejected it as something false or something not worth pursuing. If I couldn’t make sense of something, surely must be a flaw in the thing I was analyzing!
If I had somehow surmounted those temptations to reject what God was doing, given time to think it over, I would almost certainly have disqualified myself. I would likely have decided that God’s idea of what I could do was intriguing and flattering, but clearly, he had the wrong guy: I was the bull in the china shop. I would not be able to patiently and lovingly sand anything to perfect it. I would grab a chisel or maybe even a chainsaw and “fix” what I thought needed fixing. Given enough time to really dig into what was happening, I would decide that I was not up to the job at hand.
That disqualification is a place where so many of us get stuck. We either set aside the idea that we can really be better and have the kind of life Jesus promises or we decide that we have to fix ourselves before God can use us. We have some ill-defined notion of the level of “goodness” God requires in us before he can complete the job. Believing that we launch ourselves on a doomed-to-failure plan of self-improvement. We try in vain to make ourselves good enough for God to love, forgive, and make new.
Trying to Fix Ourselves
Many of us believe that we really do need to get our act together and get our house in some semblance of order before we can approach God and before God will accept us. We have a very hard time believing that God loves and takes us as we are. Most of us have heard the message as expressed in Romans:
“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.Romans 5:6-8 (NLT)
Yet we act as if somehow, now God expects us to make ourselves righteous. We believe and affirm that Christ died for us while were still sinners and, almost in the same breath, doubt that we can have a real relationship with the divine until we tackle our sin and brokenness on our own. Accepting the reality of God’s love and acceptance of us as we are is vital. In his book Interior Freedom, Jacques Philippe puts it this way:
The person God loves with the tenderness of a Father, the person he wants to touch and to transform with his love, is not the person we’d have liked to be or ought to be. It’s the person we are. God doesn’t love “ideal persons” or “virtual beings.” He loves actual, real people.Philippe, Kindle loc 324
Our unwillingness to believe that we are not good enough for God to begin his work in us will always block our progress. But there is a way through:
The secret actually is very simple. It is to understand that we can only transform reality fruitfully if we accept it first. This also means having the humility to recognize that we cannot change ourselves by our own efforts, but that all progress in the spiritual life, every victory over ourselves, is a gift of God’s grace. We will not receive the grace to change unless we desire to; but to receive the grace that will transform us, we must “receive” ourselves—to accept ourselves as we really are.Philippe, Kindle loc 338
My repeating pattern of sin and repentance I was lamenting on that Easter Sunday was not caused by any lack of sincerity or good intentions. Each time I realized my sin, my heartfelt vow was to reform myself, with perhaps a passing nod to God’s help. I desperately wanted to fix myself, to make myself worthy of God’s love. I did not, as Philippe says, “receive” myself. I was striving to change myself, to manage my own transformation. The peace I had been promised would come as I learned to accept myself as I am and receive God’s transforming grace.
My transformation would be a long process, one that is not yet concluded. It requires that I not dwell on my unworthiness and not give into my need to fix myself. Instead, I must dwell on God’s goodness and the beauty and mystery of his grace. Instead of trying to fix myself I must put myself in the hands of the one actually can mend what is broken in me. I must accept and embrace my identity as a beloved son of the Father. Author and psychologist David Benner sums up the dynamic of the journey this way:
Coming to know and trust God’s love is a lifelong process. Making this knowledge the foundation of our identity—or better, allowing our identity to be re-formed around this most basic fact of our existence—will also never happen instantly. Both lie at the core of the spiritual transformation that is the intended outcome of Christ-following.Benner, (p. 49).
Every time I dare to meet God in the vulnerability of my sin and shame, this knowing is strengthened. Every time I fall back into a self-improvement mode and try to bring God my best self, it is weakened. I only know Divine unconditional, radical and reckless love for me when I dare to approach God just as I am.
My peace was coming and the Lord was not about to let me over-think that promise or what I was experiencing in Pops’ Workshop. I needed to be open to the inner work God was about to walk me through. I will indeed be struck by the enemy, but I know where to go for healing. God, in his goodness and steadfast love, gives me the tools and the strength I need for where he is taking me which, it turned out, was down a hole.
My tendency to yield to a need to understand and know was much stronger when I entered my Pops’ Workshop. To be sure, it is still with me but is now tempered with a desire and ability to simply “be” in beauty and mystery.
Philippe, Jacques. Interior Freedom . Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Benner, David G.. The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (The Spiritual Journey). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
When I first wrote this paragraph some five years ago, it was in the past tense. I wrote as if I thought that my transformational journey was nearing an end. I could not have been more wrong, the journey continues; not always with the same intensity and rapidity, but it continues, pain and confusion included. I often need to be reminded of God’s goodness, acceptance, and strength.