We love because He first loved us 1 John 4:19
Love your neighbor as yourself Matt 22:39
The other day I had one of those mornings where I woke up and the first thought that entered my mind was that everything was still the same and how was I going to get through another day with no answer to prayer in sight. I felt so discouraged and in essence I prayed ‘Lord where are you, why am I still waiting, why are you taking so long?’. I think that one of the hardest things in life as a Christian is unanswered prayer. How, when the days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months and the months turn into years and the years into decades, do we keep on hoping?
As the years and then decades piled up in my wait it became clear, however, that behind the questions of why is the Lord not answering my prayer and why I am still waiting were other more fundamental questions about my identity. Such as ‘Is there something wrong with me, am I uniquely flawed, am I lovable, what if nobody ever loves me?’. The waiting started to reveal my deepest fears and questions about who I really was and what I really felt about myself. It all became much clearer when I was out on a date and the guy, Mark (not his real name) said to me ‘I have finally gotten to the point in my life where I really like Mark, I think he is OK’. After he said this I started thinking, do I really like myself, can I look in the mirror and say I think you are great? The honest answer at this point in time was no, I could not. This was despite having counselling and reading about a million books related to my identity in Christ, self-esteem etc. All the therapy and reading and prayer had still not helped me to reach the point where I could look at the person in the mirror and say hey you are a wonderful person.
Jesus said that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and further John in 1 John 4:19 says that we love because HE (the Lord) first loved us. So it is the love of God that gives us a love for ourselves and from that we can have a genuine, natural and unforced love for others. For much of my life I understood that I should love God and I understood that I should love others but I didn’t understand how important it was to love myself. More importantly I didn’t know how vital it was that I experience (in my heart and mind) God’s amazing, unending love for me. As Christians we are told to be humble, to think of ourselves less, to put others first, but we are not often exhorted to think well of ourselves, let alone to really love ourselves. This stands in contrast to what is said in the Bible, where we are told that we are a masterpiece (Eph 2:10), chosen by God before the beginning of time (Eph 1:4), fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14), a child of God (2 Cor 6:18) and that our names are engraved on the palms of His hands (Isa 49:16). Sadly these biblical truths had not been able to move from my head to my heart and they seemed to be abstract concepts rather than actual identity statements that I believed and internalized. However I became convinced that the root of my fears was that I truly had not experienced or fully understood the depth and breadth and power of God’s love for me. I knew, much like the woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, that even just a partial revelation of God’s almighty love for me would change my life and how I saw myself and others forever.
This led me on a search to understand what it meant for God to love me. I began my search by buying every book I could on the topic of God’s love for me and listening to every sermon I could find that talked about the love of God. Of all the books I read by far the book that stands out and that I go back to time after time is Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. This book is perhaps the single most wonderful exposition of this parable and the love of God for His people and the calling that we have on our lives to love others in His name. If you only read one book on the topic of God’s love then read this one. While I am not a Catholic, (Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest) I have found that many priests (and yes there are still many good ones, despite recent horrifying reports) understand loneliness, solitude, community and the importance of a singular relationship with God in ways that I think many married ministers do not. As I read this book and saw myself first as the prodigal, then as the elder brother and finally as part of the royal priesthood called by our Heavenly Father to welcome others into the Kingdom of heaven I finally started to see in a small way how much God loves me. How desperate He is to have a relationship with me, how He waits and waits and waits for me to turn around and come home, how He never gives up on me or you. This book opened my eyes to the encompassing and sacrificial love of the Father and as I meditated on God’s love and what it meant for Him to be my Father this started to change how I saw myself.
So much of the worth that we assign ourselves or is assigned to us comes from external sources and perhaps none is more emphasized by both society and the church than that of having a spouse and/or children. Sadly, the elevation of marriage and children by the church as the gold standard of Christian life sends one of the most damaging messages to single Christians about their inherent value. This coupled with an acute lack of singles in church or ministry leadership roles; sermons that draw largely upon a pastor’s role as father/mother or husband/wife for anecdotes and a lack of meaningful Christian community can lead to the single person feeling inferior, ashamed and often invisible. Especially if the person is both single and childless. Many single Christian women, myself included, grieve that they were unable to have children. But this is a silent grief, an unacknowledged grief and typically one that is not shared with others due to the feelings of shame associated with it. In the face of this grief, and other feelings of being less than, the church has an amazing opportunity to speak life, acceptance and love to single people of all ages. Jesus in Luke 4:18 (KJV) reading from the book of Isaiah says that He came to ‘preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised‘. So many brokenhearted and bruised people slip in and out of churches alone around the world, unnoticed and uncared for. This is a tragedy as a church should be the one place that tells them that YOU are important, YOU are loved, YOU are special and YOUR life has a purpose. Unfortunately people who come to church alone and who are not immediately recognized as youth, often do not experience a warm welcome or follow up. It would be so wonderful if churches communicated worth and value to all who walk in their doors, not just those whose lives have followed the conventional path of marriage, children, grandchildren, death, heaven. In doing so I believe that not only would churches grow rapidly in directions not previously foreseen but that they would become true communities for everyone, giving all people, both single and married and everyone in between a place to belong to.
In the absence of this though it becomes even more important that we know deep down that we are greatly loved by our Heavenly Father and as result we can love ourselves and look in that mirror and say ‘hello good looking, aren’t you a wonderful person’. Because as we do that we can leave self-consciousness behind and we can remind ourselves that we are not powerless, we are not victims. As I focused more on God’s love for me and who He says I am, I also prayed Lord help me to stop thinking about myself and being so self-conscious when I go to church (or anywhere for that matter) alone. Help me to be your hands and feet, help me to notice other people on their own and say hi to them and welcome them, even if it isn’t ‘my’ church and even if I feel awkward about doing this. The Lord was so generous (as always) and as I stepped out and started making my way to the person sitting or standing alone and greeting them, not only did I make a new friend and help someone else feel loved and welcomed and special I realized that I started to feel loved and welcomed and special too.
There is song by Hillsong Worship called So Will I (100 Billion X) and the final line of the song is ‘He’s the one who never leaves the one behind’. That in essence sums up our Father, our wonderful Heavenly Father, He will never leave you or me behind, He will never stop waiting for us, He will always greet us with the joy of the perfect Father whose love never changes and never ends no matter what we do or where we go. Because of the shedding of the precious blood of Jesus we have been adopted into His family and He will not abandon us. Even more than that though is that He has good plans for us, if we can just keep the faith and not give up. Through knowing and meditating on His love for us, He empowers us to stay hopeful in our waiting and to keep persevering. So while I may still wake up in the night from time to time wondering about what God is up to, the depression and hopelessness that used to accompany this have largely gone. If those thoughts spring up I remind myself of how much I am loved by my Father, I think of who He says I am and what He says He has planned for me. There is another wonderful song by Hillsong Worship called Who You Say I Am and if you are ever in need of some help meditating on who God says you are go have a listen and be encouraged!
As you go about your week this week, if you start to feel discouraged, tired of waiting, or wondering when this is ever going to end, start thinking about what are your deeper questions, what are your deeper fears? You may be like me, and deep inside the question of your worth and value is not yet settled. Maybe you, like me, do not really like yourself. Or maybe you feel OK about yourself but the wait still bothers you and unsettles you and leaves you doubting God’s love for you. If this is you then go on a search for God’s love. Ask Him to show you His love for you, to give you a revelation and thank Him that He will. As you read your Bible and seek Him I promise you that His love will unfold like a flower in your heart. At the same time look at yourself in the mirror every day and tell yourself “I am important, I am valuable, I am loved, I am chosen, I am a child of God, I am beautiful, I am handsome, I am intelligent, all thanks to my Heavenly Father”. It sounds silly but Proverbs 23:7 says ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” If you think you are nothing then you will be nothing, if you think you are not important then you will live that way. We need to change how we think about ourselves and that starts with what we say about ourselves. Proverbs 18:21 says that life and death are in the power of the tongue and as such we can choose speak words of life or death over ourselves. I implore you today to speak life to yourself. As your sense of God’s love for you grows and as you declare who you are in Christ, you will start to see that liking or even loving yourself is a natural response to the love He has shown you and in doing so you can pour out this love to others and be the answer to someone else’s prayer.
Today remember you are loved, you were planned by God and your life has purpose and significance! Don’t give up, see my last post on five tips to beat discouragement for some more practical ways to stay hopeful! God bless you xx