We want to be perfect now? Why? Because we want to be able to experience God fully now in these moments, because we want to be used by God somehow?
Or because it sucks to be you right now? Because today you are acutely aware of who you are not and how far you are from who you want to be? And it feels horrible.
Grace is difficult to offer other people sometimes. But not nearly as hard as it is to offer ourselves. We constantly point to our sin rather than to the freedom that is already ours. You wouldn’t even imagine doing this to someone else (or maybe you would) but yet it’s so easy to beat ourselves up.
Why is this? Why do we choose to live this way?
Lots of reasons.
Others who make us feel guilty, the voice inside that never quietens telling you, that you aren’t up to scratch as a person. Our past. The addictions and thoughts we can’t shake off.
We’re not called to that type of life though. What if we let go of those thoughts about ourselves? I’m not saying they will disappear immediately or ever fully, but what if we looked them right in the eye and made sure they knew that they weren’t everything that is true?
What if we stopped pretending Grace means having to have all our crap together and rather means we are accepted in spite of it? What if we stopped listening to those, often in the church, who teach us that God hates us?
A father who died for you even before you were born. Before you even could make one mistake. A father who died for you even after you made a million.
So often many of us in the church try and control Grace and distort it into something it’s not. We’re scared of people using it as an excuse to do whatever they like so we gradually and subtly add in clauses.
Or we’re scared of forgiving others in case that means the very real hurt we felt is shunted aside.
Really though, it’s only when we forgive others that we can fully know our past. It’s only then that we can remove the power it has to taint how we view ourselves and other people. It’s only then that we can fully discover our future.
Which brings us onto forgiving others.
Growing up in Northern Ireland I know about this all too well. There are politicians who were only kids when peace arrived who still carry around the contempt for the “other” side because that is what their parents taught them. There are whole communities who have their identities based on things that happened hundreds of years ago but which are allowed to fester and seep into their everyday attitudes to ‘themuns’.
Which begs the question, what do we place our identity in? Is it in a tradition falsely propped up by ‘religion’? Is it in who our parents tell us we can trust? Is it in celebrating battles won that never really won anyone anything? Is it in a flag?
There are those who never want change in Northern Ireland. They like to have contempt too much. It’s almost as if their identity is somehow placed in the fact that they have to oppose the other side. They feed off the dangerously false idea that their identity is being threatened. That ‘they’ are trying to destroy our community. If you can wake up in the morning and go to work and feed yourself and your children and worship where you like or shop without the fear of being harassed then you are not being threatened.
But our identity is so wrapped up in the past that it’s difficult to let go.
So we try and protect and preserve the status quo. Hatred, distrust, a fear of vulnerability. Then perhaps most of all, a fear of admitting we were wrong. After all if we can’t muster up the courage to allow ourselves to be forgiven and stop placing our identity in religion, how on Earth can be free enough to forgive others?
When our identity as Christians is fully in Christ and not in ourselves we are truly free. And we have the unique gift to offer that freedom to others. That is why I believe that the church has to be at the forefront of real change in Northern Ireland’s communities.
We should be the ones who understand more than anyone that we are undeserving of love, yet have it. Like CS Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory,
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Add in our denominations, doctrines and traditions to that list and it seems we put our desire for joy in things that are far too fragile. Our mud pies are the bricks we throw at the other side every summer. Our slums are the ones that we have built, preventing others looking in at the plentiful feast Jesus offers everyone.
But, despite the politicians who want to live in the past or the people who won’t open their fists long enough to shake a hand there are beautiful and exciting signs of change.
From a former terrorist sharing platforms with the daughter of one of his victims. To the former IRA leader Martin McGuinness, sharing a meal with the head of state that he once sought to destroy. To Protestant church leaders welcoming the potential arrival of the Pope.
It is through leadership like this that we can move forward. It is from the church standing up and saying our identity is in the love of Jesus, not in tradition. Like all fear when we let our guard down and face it we quickly discover there was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.
We can move forward and forgive and start to love.
And just maybe, that starts with freeing ourselves.