I will inaccurately quote him. Maybe because I really didn’t grasp the gravity of what he was saying until after he walked away. But I do think I can pretty accurately convey his sadness.
He waited in the background. Until the students hanging around after chapel had dispersed. A handsome, bright, thoughtful, Midwestern college sophomore. He walked up to me, looked into my eyes and said something like this: “When I first came to believe in Jesus a few years ago, it all was so powerfully alive and real. I couldn’t believe I was given this incredible new life. Everything seemed vital. I felt great about me and was stunned at the love and wonder of God. I knew He was really there and that He really liked me. Life was suddenly very important and people deeply worth caring about. I wanted everything this new world was about.” He then paused before saying, “What happened?” Before I could answer, he answered himself.
“Looking back, it seems like the very pursuit of trying to get closer to Him has made Him seem further away. I’ve been pretty miserable for quite awhile now. I beat myself up for doing it wrong. I beat myself up for not doing enough. I beat myself up for not being able to figure it out. I beat myself up that He wouldn’t want to be close to me. I have no idea what happened. The worst part is that it feels like He’s grown weary and disappointed with me.”
This is not an over-sensitive student with an over-active conscience. He’s a really well-adjusted young man, who feels betrayed. He knows its nonsensical to blame God, but he’s tired of blaming himself for not knowing what he’s done wrong.
He represents the oft-unexpressed experience of millions. Our very pursuit of trying to get closer to God has made many of us feel further away. And now we are religiously uptight, second guessing our motives, and looking for some religious experience to make it all real again. He doesn’t doubt God is real, he just doubts that he’ll ever be able to figure out where it went-that unforced, beauty of sacred awe and wonder and playful joy.
Please don’t smugly dismiss his state as a young believer pining for that magical first season of experiencing God. He’s not describing infatuation. He’s describing a real, living, breathing relationship of worship, love and adoration. He’s describing the experience of loving and being loved. He’s describing a relationship he had every reason to believe would continue in its richness and unfettered delight.
So, what happened?
We’ve been trying to learn helpful and liberating words to his question for decades. The sad truth is that probably he unwittingly did it to himself. Like Peter on the water, he was walking by faith, overwhelmed that this kid in middle America could be so deeply and intentionally loved by the very God of the universe. And then something crept in. Shame maybe. A season of dryness or less dramatic day-to-day. And he wasn’t prepared for it, this tempo-changing, rhythm of God’s wooing and love. From the loud tapes of his existing insecurity still playing in the background, it would cause him to think he’d again done something to mess up the relationship. This might cause him to doubt if he’d ever been worth being loved like this in the first place. In that moment, instead of resting in the peace of undeserved love, he changes the terms of the relationship and sets out to prove to God that he’s worthy of His love. But how can anyone be worthy of the love of Jesus? So, he must never let himself rest, be content or at peace. He must become more consecrated, more diligent, always pushing to feel something approaching enjoyment and acceptance from God again. There was always more to do, more to prove, more to maintain, appearances to keep. Soon he would find himself drawn to teachers, mentors and books who would unwittingly dangle that carrot of what he could do to get back into God’s favor. And each time the effort would feel right for awhile…but always, invariably, each time, it would send him deeper into hidden disillusionment, feeling like there was something particularly wrong with him. He would live daily with the picture of God on the other side of his failures-justifiably impatient, frustrated and growingly disdainful of such slow growth.
This scenario is played out tens of millions of times each day all over the world. It is what happens when we try to make ourselves worthy of Christ’s love. It is what happens when we lose confidence in the righteousness we’ve been given and set out to manufacture one of our own. It is what happens when we try to employ old methods of trying to will and change myself into something else instead of trusting that who I now am is completely and already completely changed.
Many of us, we’ve been hoodwinked.
Love, lived out from a completely new nature is still hard work. But it’s the right work. The hard work that tries to prove you’re someone you’ve lost confidence you ever were, is wasted work. It is crippling, anesthetizing work.
…And this is why you and I get up each morning and keep risking this trust in what Christ has done in us, instead of trying to learn to run even faster and harder. Because we must model it and offer it to this next generation, many of whom have already taken the bait…