There’s something about walking with Jesus that causes endless amounts of discomfort.
It wasn’t always this way for me. Growing up in the Bible belt, where one had to answer more questions if she didn’t go to church than if she did, I was surrounded by a culture completely familiar, and comfortable, with religion. With moralism. With rule-keeping. Easter Sunday was an extravaganza: there was a musical leading up to it, new dresses bought for it, and a knock-your-socks-off post-sermon performance during the worship service, replete with costumed actors and a faux tomb and stone. Jesus’ robe was especially white, and his hair full of volume. I found it energizing and inspiring, this pristine celebration and reenactment of Resurrection Sunday.
I found my walk of faith to be the same: predictable, ordered, and clean. The premise, to me, was simple: do the right thing, enjoy God’s blessings. It wasn’t until this equation failed me–or rather, I failed–that the whole enterprise fell apart. Only recently did I realize I had formulated a scenario in which God owed me; he was in my debt. The ultimate entitlement mentality.
I don’t know for sure which happened first: did I screw up royally, or did God disappoint my idea of how our relationship should work? The answer, ultimately, doesn’t matter, but my own behavior once it fell short of “perfect” and God’s failure to meet my desires felt pretty synchronized. Thus began a personal shame spiral that led me to New York, where things actually got a bit harder for awhile–but the background narrative was totally changing, and that meant everything.
Hearing about grace–really hearing it, at a time when I was down and out enough to listen–hit me right where it hurt. And right where I needed it. I’d been a slave to approval my whole life, following rules out of fear and knowing little about God’s love other than as an abstract idea. Not until I reached a sort of rock-bottom when it came to my own sufficiency did I truly begin to believe that it wasn’t my record that mattered, not my performance that changed everything. The equation from which I’d operated was demolished: I was the debtor now, and I could never hope to repay what I owed. And this was the beginning of freedom–because I didn’t have to.
I was reading a commentary on Hebrews recently and ran across the most beautiful truth. The sacrifices of the Old Testament had to be burned outside the camp where the Israelites lived, as they were considered unclean, and those burning the sacrifices had to ritually purify themselves before being permitted to re-enter the camp. So the whole thing was a pretty big deal, with the emphasis on unclean. What follows is the good part:
“So when Jesus suffered outside the city gate of Jerusalem, his offering was unclean and unholy according to those traditions! Yet, paradoxically, it is his sacrifice that makes the people holy under the new covenant…The death of Jesus marks the end of a whole way of thinking about religion and worship. Christians who have been cleansed and consecrated to God by the sacrifice of Christ must no longer take refuge in holy places and ritual activities but must go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”
Jesus left the city–left the place that was considered clean and holy and respectable–in every way possible, for me. He was cosmically and literally disconnected from any source of holiness outside of what the Father could give, and he did this to show me that I need no holiness, no accolades, no praise or approval, that he does not provide out of his own love and sacrifice. It is so finished.
How much more beautiful the cross is to me now, considering its location! Considering the darkness and mess and disgrace he took on for me! This is not a whitewashed musical or a perfectly dry-cleaned Easter dress–this is gritty and real, scarred and grimy, sacred and true. Full of discomfort. Like the trough in which he first appeared, Jesus keeps reminding me that there is no darkness he won’t penetrate, no mess in which he will not show up, no discomfort he won’t endure–or walk through with me–to come after me and bring me home. Praise God.