From Condemnation to Curiosity

I write today because I am grateful.  I am grateful for a bit of what feels like transformation within my heart.  I will elaborate.

First, a question:  What would you say is the opposite of condemnation?  Think about your answer for a moment.  I just finished a lunch with an elder and friend from the church and we both spoke of how much fear drives who we are and what we do.  Fear of what?  Fear entered the equation at the fall.  I often wonder about the intensity of that initial fear but perhaps if we travel down a bit into our own souls we might know the answer.  What happened in Adam and Eve’s hearts once they disobeyed God by elevating themselves?  The Genesis order is this:  sinful choice, eyes opened, the realization of their nakedness, an attempt to cover up and hide out of fear.  I was afraid, Adam said to his God.  How sad.  So much was lost.  They hid from the God who had provided for them the wonderful surroundings in which they lived. They hid from the Source of life. They hid from the One who could even now provide their souls with what was needed.  One thing that changed, or at least got exposed, was their lack of understanding of their God, who He was and is. In other words, they didn’t know their God well enough.

My mind went to Hosea 2 where God speaks of a day when his people will have a change of perspective.  No longer will they call me “master” but rather “my husband/lover.”  God was planning a day when the relationship would move from dutiful servant, responding out of fear to that of a lover who recognizes the goodness of God and responds out of gratitude.  Remember in Exodus 21 how a servant, released in the 7th year, could, if he desired, return to his master?  His return would result in the piercing of his ear because he loved his master.

What causes us to have a wrong perspective about God?  Asked differently, what is behind our fear?  Fear of what?  I have heard it said that the great longing of the human heart is exposure without rejection.  The implication is that what we most fear is exposure that leads to rejection.  Perhaps Paul defined our fear for us as he battled his own flesh.  “I can’t seem to get this right” sums up Paul’s wrestling match with his flesh in Romans 7.  It leads him to despair:  wretched man that I am!  But then his expression of hope also identifies for us what the great fear is:  there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!  Condemnation haunts us.  

At least twice in Scripture we are privy to the central work of Satan.  In Zechariah 3, Satan stands in the presence of the angel of the Lord. There is 3rd party present and it is Joshua the priest.  It is a poignant scene, one I think we know all to well in our own souls.  Satan continues to haunt Joshua by hurling accusation after accusation at him.  Notice that Joshua is silent.  There is no defense.  Thankfully, the angel of Lord silences Satan by announcing the removal ofJoshua's filthy garments, clothing him instead in righteousness.

A similar scene in Revelation 12.  Again, we are told how Satan is the accuser of our brothers with nonstop accusations, day and night.  Are you ever haunted by certain realities about yourself or do we keep so busy in order to divert such experiences?  Condemnation haunts us in part because the accusations are true.  We often defend ourselves, try to minimize our guilt via explanation, or redirect our self-contempt toward another, but down deep we are, like the thief next to Jesus, aware that we are deserving of judgment.  Condemnation haunts us.

So, what is its opposite?  Here is my answer:  curiosity.  What if instead of condemning ourselves when we see something wrong, what if we would journey deeper into our souls as to what is transpiring because we know that we are at peace with God.  There is no condemnation, writes the free and happy apostle.  Instead, there could be a curiosity about ourselves because as John Calvin rightly observes at the outset of his Institutes, two things are necessary for spiritual formation:  knowledge of oneself and knowledge of God.  On the path marked “curiosity”, we might discover two things.  We might discover that the problem is far worse than we first imagined.  It is not simply a behavioral problem to be fixed with enough effort.  It is really a heart problem.  There are convictions and beliefs within me that fuel my wrong behavior, convictions that fly in the face of God.  But there is something even more true.  And its good news!  Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is a desire to actually love and obey God not out of duty but rather out of gratitude.  Curiosity opens the door for the Holy Spirit to take us deeper into the knowledge of who we are so we can discover even more of who God is.  Augustine prayed, “Lord, help me know myself; help me know you,” as if the two were inseparable.  Calvin suggested the same inseparability.  Perhaps its time to recapture a bit of balance in our faith, and the journey travels through the valley of curiosity rather than condemnation.  If we stop simply because we see something wrong, our tendency will be to try and fix it, to muster up enough energy to work hard at it and control the problem.  Curiosity has the potential to take us deeper where we are dependent upon the Spirt to expose the real inhibitors and to then release our truest life, God’s life.

Let me illustrate all this that leads to my reason for gratitude.  A couple of months ago, Karla was rightfully upset with me.  In tears, she exposed a pattern in me that discouraged her heart when it came to others.  I didn’t resist.  I saw it.  I felt bad about it.  My first instinct was to do what we all do:  "I got to stop doing that.  At least, I need to stop doing it in her presence."  As you might be able to discern, that direction is not very conducive to meaningful change.  But that is where I was left, encumbered with condemnation for myself and the need to try harder.

If you read my last entry, I went to Ohio a couple of weeks back and it was provocative.  One of the realizations leaving my hometown was how alone I had been as a kid.  Without going into too much detail, the result of my upbringing was a deep sense of un-enjoyment, the expectation that I was not liked, always doing something wrong and expecting judgment.  Lack of tenderness and critical eyes toward me might be another way to describe it. Curious, certain pieces began to fall into place as I pondered and sat silent before God.  I began to discover that I look at others with adversarial eyes.  Here is where my sin comes into play because that approach to others is self-protective. I find fault with you so that I don’t have to feel so bad about myself.  Most of this happens internally until those few times it slips out in a conversation as it had with Karla and with a few good friends who were present that evening.

This got driven home even more while officiating a high school basketball game one Friday night.  One coach was behaving badly.  I was tired of him.  And then I realized that I was going to have him again four days later for a contest at his place.  I grumbled and complained about it to my partner/brother.  I was not looking forward to Tuesday.  He was now my enemy, making me feel small with his anger and arguments, although that part was unbeknownst to me at the time.  I was thinking about this while driving home and I said to my brother, “I wish that when a coach challenged me, I could, out of solidness of soul, respond to him/her with these words: ‘what did you see?’ rather than feeling the need to defend, ignore or even lie.  

 When Tuesday arrived with the anticipation of the dreaded game, I felt a nudge, perhaps a conviction about my approach toward this man I really didn’t know.  So, I researched him on the school website.  I read about his family and a few other details that were available for anyone to read.  And that night, I looked for a way to break down this impersonal and adversarial wall.  It so happened that I was alone with him for a couple of minutes (seldom happens) before the game and I asked him about his family.  It was two-minute interaction.  And then during the game, I found myself noticing how he coached, seeing his hard work and care for the girls in what was a frustrating game for him and his team.  But he kept at it, kept exhorting the girls without berating them.  It was beautiful.  The next day I sent him an email, telling him what I saw and what I respected, also telling him that our brief conversation was a breath of fresh air. It felt different, the adversarial energy gone.  I felt joy in writing to him.  He surprised me by responding with a lengthy email of four paragraphs.  He thanked me.  And then to my utter amazement, without solicitation in any way, offered an apology for his actions at the Friday night game.  That had never entered our conversation at any point, whether in person or via email.

That same day another thing happened that reinforced what God was doing in me.  An out-of-state friend sent me a text about a book he had received from the gentleman who led our doctoral program some years back.  He was encouraged by what he saw as a possible shift in this man’s thinking.  I wanted the name of the book to check it out.  My friend texted that I would no doubt be receiving a copy.  I typed out a response that was adversarial:  I highly doubt I will be getting a copy  because while not unfriendly, we had never been on the same page during the program.  Immediately, I felt another twinge in me.  I didn’t like my words.  I erased them and wrote, I hope so.  Those words felt clean, empty of some self-protective energy.  I felt grateful for the shift.

I am grateful for those two examples of the work God is doing in me.  I cannot embody peace, incarnate love and reconciliation when the energy of my heart toward others is adversarial. I am anti-God and anti-gospel when I relate by viewing others as my enemy, expecting condemnation from them and needing to condemn them first in order to protect myself.  Ugly stuff that is.  And it is inconsistent with the deeper life in me.

And by traveling down into my heart and recognizing this pattern in me, curious about its presence, I was led to the discovery of a not-so-pretty part of my heart, led to brokenness, and then ultimately, to the release of something even deeper and better that I didn’t have to work to make happen.  I am grateful.  And I long to sit down in the deep love of God that has no hint of condemnation so that in turn, I can offer the same to others who are equally haunted by the terror of rejection and judgment. I think I will make that my desire during the season of Lent, to consider what it means to shift from condemnation to curiosity.  May it be so.

Grace upon grace to you,

Kent