I feel like the past few weeks have been a rediscovery for me of the first half of this statement. I have a tendency to be too hard on myself. A desire for self-improvement, for purpose, to achieve something meaningful with the life that I have been given. I am frustrated when I do, say, think things that are unnecessary, that feel like they should be incompatible with following Jesus, and the transforming work of His Spirit at work within me to re-make me into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 3:10) This frustration often leads to a place of something quite close to self-loathing. Quickly followed by the resolution to try harder. Get up earlier. Pray longer. Be better.
God wants me to grow. This is true. He longs for me to be freed up from the residual sins that cling (Hebrews 12:1) and the remnants of the old self that refuse to shift; and it is true that I have a role to play in actively resisting temptation (1 Peter 5:9), in putting off the old self (Colossians 3:5, 8, 9) and choosing to replace old habits and practices with a new way of life that is in keeping with following Christ (Colossians 3:12-14) but – and it is this but that has been troubling me – it is also true that God loves me now in my all my unfinished, unperfected-ness. He loves me now, this moment. Understanding that fact is prerequisite to my growth. I cannot grow if I do not know that I am loved.
I know this in relation to others. I know, for example, that my daughter, Sarah, needs certain things if she is to grow. Just as a seed needs the right environment if it is to grow, so Sarah needs her environment to be a certain way if she is to flourish into the beautiful human being she was made to be. She needs to know that she is loved. She needs to know that she is secure. She needs to be free to make mistakes, to be allowed to fail and encouraged to get up again. As I prayed yesterday, God showed me a picture of a child struggling to do a new skill. Time and time again the child tried and failed to do what it wanted to do but the child was able to repeatedly make the same mistake because it was safe within a culture of love. When Sarah is at her happiest (a rare moment when she has had just the right amount of sleep, food, stimulation) she is secure enough to risk failure. When she isn’t, she has a strop. She, like me, has a little mini meltdown when she is frustrated by her inability to do something. But when I watch her make a mistake, my reaction is never to condemn. I do not join her in the 9 month old equivalent of self-flagellation (rolling on the floor, tiny fists clenched up in frustration, hot angry tears); I help her up, wrap my arms around her and tell her, gently, to try again.
God is more like this than I think. The analogy isn’t a perfect one: longing to stop sinning isn’t the same as longing to crawl; frustration with myself for thinking something utterly horrid about Hamish when he really annoys me isn’t the same as Sarah’s frustration when her limbs won’t do what she wants them to. But there is some gleam of truth here about the way in which God would have us grow, the way in which he responds to us when we mess up in our feeble attempts to change. He wants us to grow in a context of love and acceptance, safe in the knowledge that we are known and loved and forgiven, rather than striving to be any of those things.
In speaking about the culture of growth necessary if a community is to flourish, Jean Vanier speaks first about the way in which we treat ourselves, the necessity of being kind to ourselves, of being realistic about our weaknesses but not so hung up on them that we become stagnant:
“It is a long haul to transform our emotional make-up…we have to be patient with our feelings and fears; we have to be merciful to ourselves…we must start simply by recognising our own blocks, jealousies, ways of comparing ourselves to others, prejudices and hatreds. We have to recognise that we are poor creatures, that we are what we are…we shouldn’t get worried about our bad feelings. Still less should we feel guilty. We should ask God for forgiveness, like little children and keep on walking. We shouldn’t get discouraged if the road is long. One of the roles of community life is precisely to keep us walking in hope, to help us accept ourselves as we are and others as they are…the hope of community is founded on the acceptance and love of ourselves and others as we really are, and on the patience and trust which are essential to growth.” (Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, pp.38-40)
God is more patient with me than I am. He is more merciful towards me than I am towards myself. Understanding this is the starting point for growth. God’s longing for me to flourish is deeper and stronger than my own longing. He is determined. But He will do it in his way, in his timing, and under his conditions; and his condition is that, first and foremost, I know that I am loved. Then, and only then, is true growth possible.