The Gospel has become a great mystery to me. One with which I’ve become obsessed. The kind of obsession that becomes my mind’s only companion on the nights where sleep is nowhere to be found.
The past six months have been an interesting journey. It feels like I’ve sort of disassembled the Gospel, with parts and pieces strewn all across the floor. I’ve enjoyed picking up the pieces and examining them. Exploring what each component is made of and how it fits together. Discovering elements I didn’t know were there. And I’m in no rush to reassemble it.
Psalm 32 is quite easily one of my favorites. It’s one of two psalms that David wrote after his kingly affair with Bathsheba. He writes:
“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me
my strength was dried up as the summer heat.
I acknowledged my sin to you
and I did not cover my iniquity,
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
It’s as if there is a poison inside of David, and he fears to let it out for fear of what God might do to him upon its revelation. So it erodes his soul from the inside out, festering inside of him. And God begins to press. Like the summer heat. And he presses and presses and presses until finally David surrenders, pours out his poison before God, closes his eyes, and waits for the fiery judgment of God to consume him.
This may or may not be exactly how I felt as I sat on the couch in my counselor’s office. He asked me a simple question.
“Do you believe that God loves you?”
Listen, mister. I have twenty eight years of Sunday school under my belt. What the hell kind of question is that?
“I know God loves me.”
He didn’t buy my answer. I insisted that I know God loves me. But he pressed me again and again and again until finally my poison exploded, “NO! Okay? I DON’T. If the God I imagine in my head was sitting across from me and He told me He loved me, I wouldn’t believe Him. And I know the cross is supposed to be some grand gesture of Love, but I don’t see it. I don’t know how to see it.” I then went on to use a colorful assortment of expletives. Twenty eight years of Sunday school down the toilet.
I had been so scared to say this. To admit this. Because how on earth could I tell the God of the Universe to His face that I don’t believe Him? How could He not take it personally? The Being that exudes kindness and goodness and steadfast love crossed mountains and valleys to find me, adopted me, made me His own, gave me more love than I could ever ask for, and I know I’m supposed to be so moved that I’m a heaping mess on the floor. But if I’m really honest, I couldn’t care less. How on earth could I say that out loud and expect to live to tell the tale?
I felt like David. Eyes pinched shut, waiting for God’s fiery judgment to consume me. But it was as though in that moment, He grabbed my face in His hands and whispered, “I know you don’t trust me. And it’s okay. I’m not going anywhere.”
I was completely bamboozled by His kindness. It haunted me for days and days and days.
One ordinary afternoon, during a very ordinary moment, Jesus told me something extraordinary that I hope I never forget. He said, “Hope, I am willing to wait as long as it takes for you to believe me. I will suffer your unbelief. I’m not going anywhere”
That word sank straight to my depths like a rock in the river. Suffer. Hm. Suffer. It is suffering for him to keep his heart open to me, who feels that his love is so wildly disappointing. And he is willing. To suffer my unbelief. Endure it. Bear it. He is willing to suffer my misunderstanding of him, my fear, my pride, and all of the choices that I make because of it. The words of Much Afraid from the classic novel Hinds’ Feet On High Places echoed through every distant chamber of my heart. “It is suffering to love. But it is lovely to love.” But it was as though the words were pouring out of Jesus’s very own mouth and over my soul, melting away all of the misunderstanding and fear and pride I had used to crucify him.
My unbelief leaves Jesus with two options. If he punishes me, I suffer. If he forgives me, he suffers. He suffers me as I hide from him over and over again because I can’t find a way to trust him, though he has never wronged me. And knowing his options, he actually chooses to forgive. To endure. To bear. This is seen most clearly on his road to Calvary.
Jesus didn’t retaliate man’s misunderstanding of who he was. He suffered it. Pierced were his hands as our pride and fury nailed him to a tree. And pierced were the hearts of all who heard his words, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
His own murder isn’t just what he is willing to suffer to be in relationship with us. The cross is what he is willing to suffer and stay in relationship with us. He refuses to disconnect from us to soften the blow of ultimate rejection by the ones he loves.
I am absolutely undone by this Gospel. We cannot escape His love. There is nothing we can do to Him that He isn’t willing to suffer in order to stay. If we go to the depths of Sheol, He is there. If we fly on the wings of the dawn, He is there. Where can we go from His presence? We cannot escape His love.
And then Jesus says things like, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And, “As I have loved you, so love one another.” And I am Kevin on Home Alone during the Aftershave Incident.
I used to think that love was how much I enjoyed someone. I’m learning that love is what I am willing to suffer, to bear, to endure, and still keep my heart open to someone. And I am devastated that I cannot love like that. I’ve tried. But my heart is like a buoy lost in an endless sea of fear. I’m too scared of being rejected, abandoned, and misunderstood to keep my heart open. I’m too afraid of the suffering that is required from a love like that.
But Jesus promised that His love is stronger, wider, more expansive, and all-consuming, and His perfect love will melt away all of my fear. And as I let Him love me with the kind of love that suffers my fear, His love actually frees me from my fear, and in the very same breath I will be freed to love.
And a starry twinkle of hope peppers a dark blanket of sky. And that is a heaven that I never dared to imagine was possible on earth.