Sometime ago a part of me starting curling into itself self-protectively. Soft at first, like a snail separated from its shell. But after a few good hits from life , it hardened itself into a balled fist.
Once in a while, I use this fist to shake at my circumstances or other people who I feel have done me or others I care about some injustice. Maybe even sometimes at God. Most often, I use it to beat myself up.
See, you’ve proven again you don’t deserve any better.
You’ll never get anywhere good until you break that bad habit.
That’s what you get for making that wrong decision.
A couple of weeks ago reading John, I got to Chapter 3. Maybe I had missed the clear truth of it before, sitting in the shadow of John 3:16 (the verse it seems the whole world knows). But this time John 3:17 gleamed on the page:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
And almost immediately, that fist in my chest started to loosen.
Whenever I’ve read this verse in the past, I’ve thought mostly of condemnation in the sense of heaven vs. hell. I know that through Jesus’ death, I am no longer sentenced to an eternity separated from God. But I don’t think I’ve fully realized how He might also save me from all the other ways that we feel condemned along the way.
When we talk of a condemned man, we mean one that has been sentenced to death. But there are lots of ways a person can lose a life before they actually die. Though I know the truth of His perfect love, clenched in that fist is a dose of venomous doubt. I find myself assuming that if I’d just done something a little differently…if I had loved God better or more purely… maybe things would have been better. If life is an investigation to find what we’re made of, maybe He’s found me unworthy. What if God has been taking first this thing and then another thing away, even cutting off whole parts of who I am, all because He never really liked me much to begin with? What if all He has in store for me is more and more death?
I love the story of the woman who was set to be stoned because of her adultery until Jesus says famously, “Let the one who has no sin cast the first stone.”
Her accusers leave one by one until only Jesus and the woman are left. And so He asks her, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
I’d always just assumed this question was hypothetical since it’s obvious that not one remains of those who had sought to end her life. But I wonder if maybe He’s asking the question because He knows that deep down inside, this woman might be standing there hearing one more voice of condemnation shouting at her: Her own. I imagine her trembling, waiting to hear the same echoed from Jesus.
But maybe just being in His presence, she’s understands the truth of who He is and who she is because of Him. Maybe He knows she must speak that truth to her own soul. She answers him, “No one, Lord.”
“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Though He doesn’t say it in these exact words, I think His word tells those who believe in Him this: “See, they can’t condemn you. I won’t condemn you. Neither should you condemn yourself.”
John 15 is about the vine and the branches. And it’s there that he distinguishes between pruning and condemnation. Though both appear as a cutting away, pruning is done so that we can come into the fullness and fruitfulness of who we were created to be. Condemnation is the end of something, pruning is the beginning. Condemnation results in death, pruning results in an even more abundant life.
The voice telling any of us that we’re never going to be ___________ enough? That we’ll always fall short of God’s favor? That we’ll never experience God’s goodness or blessing until _________? That voice is condemnation and there is no condemnation for those in Christ. We had God’s love even when we were enemies to Him and through Christ we have His favor, goodness and grace in measure beyond what we can even fully understand.
His goodness and mercy are not just the rewards we receive when we finally get to heaven. They don’t just follow our good days, our good choices and our good behavior. Goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life.
I’ll be the first one to admit that it doesn’t always feel that way. Especially in those times, I’m trying to open that clenched fist and take in the truth, the anti-venom, that He (the one who identifies Himself as the resurrection and the life) has given to those who receive Him: God’s purpose in coming to earth wasn’t to bring us to death, it is to bring us to life.