“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” Romans 1:16
I first saw those words on a t-shirt at Spring Harvest when I was about 14. The guy wearing it was loud, proud and completely uncool, and it terrified me.
Because I knew – right there and then – that I would never be unconcerned enough about what other people thought of me to wear a t-shirt like that. And in that moment, I wondered if I was really a Christian at all. Whether I would ever make the grade. And the lie was born.
So here’s today’s confession: Hi, my name is Emma, and despite having known Jesus for 20 years now, I am still scared witless by what other people think of me.
Despite having seen God powerfully use people that wouldn’t have made the grade for me in amazing ways.
Despite reading all the stories in the Bible that clearly show us God using the weak, the outcast, the unexpected. Every. Single. Time.
Despite knowing (and telling my children repeatedly) that God does not look at the outward appearance like we do, but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
What do you do when you’re driving your car one morning, like everything is normal, and God just pulls the rug right clean out from under you? You’ve no idea that anything is wrong – how do we do this to ourselves???? – and then BAM! It all comes crashing down.
All this wall.Built so strong and high and safe round our hearts for so many years. And it goes up brick by tiny brick, so we hardly notice it creeping upwards, holding us in and blocking out the light. So gentle, casting it’s shadow slow over our lives. I didn’t even know it had gotten so tall.
And he whispers truth: “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9) as if I needed reminding. How did I end up back here?
So here’s my truth. I met God when I was 12 years old. He rescued me as my family literally fell apart. He put me in the only place that could have looked after me through that time, and eventually he completely miraculously saved my family too. Physically and spiritually. But I will tell that story another time.
As I got older, I drifted away from church. Not in my heart, but other pulls were stronger for a while – boys, partying…. well, those two mainly. I guess I kept a foot in both camps. And I thought that was a good thing. I wasn’t extreme. People liked me (mainly). I was good fun. I got my belly button pierced. I went travelling, I had a tattoo.
As I got older, left university and started work, my faith began to creep back to the surface a little again. But I carried this seed of a lie in my heart even then. They’ll only like you if you fit in. Don’t be too extreme. Too much. Don’t alienate people.
I drank. Lots. I had my tongue pierced (yeah, really. I lost a bet).
I was somewhere – really deep down and really really hidden away – just a tiny bit terrified of people’s perceptions of Christians. That they might not like me if I put it on display too much, if I lived in the fullness of what God had for me. Anyone relate?
So I buried it. And built a wall around it. I didn’t so much hide my light under a bushel as dig a great big hole in the middle of the forest. Not that I am convinced that anyone who knows me would agree with that statement. They’d say that most people knew about my faith – at uni, at work. Yeah, they knew. But that’s not what I am talking about.
It’s not about people knowing or not knowing that you’re a Christian. And it’s not about us justifying our existence to ourselves. It’s about being all that God made you to be. And we can only be all that God made us to be when he is the most important thing in our lives, and when we fully trust him to hold us no matter what.
No matter what people think of us.
No matter what our friends think of us.
No matter what the people we love and care about most in the world think of us.
Do I trust God enough to trust him with that?
I’d never verbalised it before that moment there in my car – never been brave enough to face the full-on truth of my cold, hard heart and the lie that had slipped in so quietly – but the truth is this: I didn’t want to be defined by my faith. And I didn’t trust God enough to keep me safe if I really surrendered it all.
Crikey. Did I even just think that? I don’t want to be defined by my faith? Do I really carry that dirty little secret around in my heart? Oh yes, I think I do. Oh boy.
Paul opens the book of Romans with a statement that challenges me to the core of who I am:
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1)
We are called to be.
And set apart for.
My faith shouldn’t be ancillary. Second. It should define me. Unashamedly.
I have looked for so many other ways to be accepted over the years, not noticing that in doing so I was accepting the lie that God wouldn’t, couldn’t keep me safe if I really trusted him, really put it all out there. They weren’t massive, big things – mostly little subtle ones. Please don’t get the wrong idea about me, anyone who knows me will tell you I was no rebel particularly. But I am coming to realise that over the years, I have consistently offset my faith. People will accept that I am a Christian as long as they like me. As long as I am fun and because I don’t conform to their stereotype of what ‘A Christian’ should be. And I fed myself half-truths and let half-lies creep in; that it was OK to care more about what they thought than about what God wanted me to be.
And the scary thing? Some of those half-lies and sometimes-truths came from others around me in the church.
It’s good to have lots of friends that don’t believe what you believe, otherwise you just get insular and who are you getting to talk to about the gospel if everyone you know already believes it? Yeah, but what about when they start impacting your lifestyle rather then you impacting theirs, and what marks you out as different gets harder and harder to discern?
It’s OK, because God is a God of grace, and he forgives us when we mess up and he always loves us anyway. Of course! Thank goodness, or I would really be up the creek without a paddle.
But we don’t do ourselves – or each other – any favours when we offer cheap grace when God wants us to be more. When the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit is asking questions of our soul and we confide in another, and rather than challenge, they soothe – and inadvertently give us permission to stay right where we are.
Sometimes it’s easier to do, because the alternative is owning up to the fact that we’re all probably a little too comfortable somewhere, that those truths that person is battling with could also be our own, and God would probably love to see all of us stirred up, messed up and fully living more in some area of our lives.
And when it all comes crashing down? Yeah, it can be dangerous, and you don’t want to get caught by the falling debris. But when the dust settles and that wall is no longer there? Then the light can shine in. Illuminating the dark places of your soul. Letting us fully live in truth, in grace and in love.
Who doesn’t want that?