To what degree do we contribute to our own redemption?
Now don’t get your panties all in a bunch. I’m not talking about “salvation” per se. That’s by grace through faith and all that jazz. Got that.
I’m talking about transformation. Looking like Christ. I’ve been looking at narratives lately; life narratives. We all have one, a story that arcs over our life. These stories have themes; consistent patterns and ideas that keep popping up. For me, it’s things like God’s ability to take care of my needs even when I don’t have the means to, and our continual conversations about why He does things the way he does, even though I usually think He’s wrong. God’s faithfulness and our dynamic, heated, messy, wonderful conversations. A third might be my continual search for something real. Something alive, raw, honest, transparent. Something I can sink my teeth into and show my friends. I like the themes of my life. I can see God working and improving me through my narrative. I can see him making me more and more full of life and joy, which is what He says it’s all about anyway.
But, then I look at some of the narratives of people close to me. Many look like mine, but it’s the few that trouble me. There’s this one in particular. I’ve known this man for awhile, and I keep watching his life get worse. It’s like the universe is out to destroy him, like it gets some sort of pleasure from slowly ripping everything away from him. I really don’t get it. He keeps working as hard as he can, working himself to death, and things keep getting worse. Over the time that I’ve known him I’ve watched him seem to lose everything. Home, job, car, wife, kids, dog… it’s like watching a country song in real life. Like any good country song, he’s in his room prayin’ every day for things to change; but they don’t. His narrative keeps getting worse. I mean even Joseph got a few upswings in his story between prisons, so what’s up with this guy? How can someone who loves God so much and claims to hear him so much keep being let down by him? Why doesn’t his narrative look more like mine?
Then I thought about it a bit longer. I thought about all the times he’s chosen not to change, and all the times that he did, but thought that moment of change was equal to years of transformation. God has done a lot of softening and even a lot of healing. God just hasn’t trumped his will yet. Sometimes, I think he sees God like heroin, offering him that fix that will keep him going, that in the moment promises to be enough– then I watch him crash. I’m not even saying what he experiences isn’t God. I think I’m saying that in his world, God is only allowed to answer him in certain ways; only allowed to do certain things. God isn’t allowed to be gray. God has to be this or that, he can’t be both. When we decide what God is allowed to be, God often seems limited by the very parameters we give him. We all limit God, and those limits determine our reality.
My friend has decided that God works in absolutes, making everything absolutely okay immediately or not touching it at all. His inability to see the process, or to partner with God in a process, has inhibited his transformation. He can’t grow like he needs to, because he would have to admit that he isn’t ok, that he is broken, and no magic prayer time or supernatural vision is going to instantly change that. He would have to admit that he’s way more messed up than he thinks, and that he may never be totally whole on this side of heaven. That he really could get better if he wanted to, but it would be a slow process of progress over many years. He’d have to be vulnerable and let go of his closed theological systems with no room for the unexplainable and accept that he is often wrong. He might even have to let people in for real, asking them where he is in his journey instead of assuming that the voice in his head that he calls God is all he needs to listen to. There are so many things he would have to learn….
But he doesn’t want that. He is too afraid to choose to let those walls down and face how things really are. He has dammed the rivers of life in his world, so his redemption is slow. We don’t earn our salvation. I don’t think we earn anything in our relationship with God. Yet, maybe there is more to it then pray and wait. Maybe the reason my narrative and my friend’s look so different is because with most of myself, I choose to remain open to whatever God has(C’mon, be honest. Do any of us really give all of ourselves to anything?). I choose not to limit as many of the possibilities of what redemption could look like, or what theology could look like. I hold on to this connection to my friend Jesus, and stay flexible. Paul says we are co-laborers with the Holy Spirit. I wonder what happens when we choose not to labor with him. Maybe we tie his hands. Maybe we limit our redemption, and we shape our narrative in a way that breaks His heart.
Submission is letting go, but letting go is a choice.
His yoke is easy and His burden is light, but
it only feels light when we choose his burden instead of our own.
All this to say that i don’t know what the answer is here. I don’t understand why some stories are so heartbreaking, but I am open to conversation. I’m questioning, like I always do, because God made me this way. When I see one of God’s own with such a painful story, my first instinct is to blame God, and to ask Him what the hell He’s doing up there. It’s great, because He’s so obliged to meet me here and show me things. So even something as small as seeing that maybe our redemption– our transformation and the measure of life we experience in Christ right now– is limited by our choices, is freeing. It helps me trust that once again, my God is good. I don’t like to think that good people can remain broken because of their own fear of growth, I don’t like that a Christian who genuinely knows God can have such as sad story, and I don’t like blaming people for their own suffering. I know that some who hear this idea will instantly judge me as a jerk for even suggesting such a thing, but I think this concept is part of it. In this little puzzle piece of how the world works (albeit a dark puzzle piece) I find a little hope. The world becomes a little more concrete, and I trust my friend Jesus and my Father God just a little bit more.
Like I said, this is a conversation. I want to hear your feedback. Have you ever seen God’s hands tied in a situation because of a person’s choices? How did you feel about that? Is it even fair to suggest that God could be limited in the life of a Christian, or is his redemption too big to be slowed by our choices? Bad things happen to good people, we all know that, but what about bad stories? Should a person who is living in the new life of Christ be continually experiencing less and less hope, seeing more and more relationships fall apart, and feel more and more alone, even as they try to follow Christ with their whole heart? What do we do if we try to point those choices out and they still don’t change?
Feel free to answer all or none of these questions. but if you read this, please join the conversation. After all, if you don’t offer your experience to the conversation, aren’t you limiting both of our transformations?
For more on How God frees us from our limited perspectives even while working within them, see: Why Wrong Theology Works