I hate the title of this post. It feels like the weakest, least eye-catching title for one of the most important things I could possibly learn about God.
This week, our church hosted a seminar by a social worker discussing how to reach “difficult kids”. Youth leaders were amongst those encouraged to attend, so I went. The speaker had a winning, wonderfully self-deprecating way of presenting these oh-but-of-course truths about why kids pull away, why they shut down, why they act out against even the people who love them the most and are trying to help them. Her insights were sobering. Oh, the damage that abuse and neglect can wreak upon the human body and soul. I never experienced either, but by the end of the seminar, I still felt like I needed a therapist.
One of the recurring motifs of the evening was safety. This you probably all know: that in order to reach a child, they need to be placed in a physically and emotionally safe environment where trust can be built, and that can take years. Only then, once they’re convinced that they’re safe, will you finally meet the young person deep inside.
Common enough advice.
But it wasn’t until my prayer time that night that I realized something truly devastating.
I don’t feel safe around God.
I’ve known for a while, way back in the recesses of my brain like a mole you don’t really want to talk about, that there are certain human beings I’d rather be vulnerable with before I’m vulnerable with God. You know how it is. You go to your pastor or your parents before you bring something to God. You seek their counsel. It’s almost as if you’re using them as “prep time” before the “big exam”, that moment where you finally come to God hoping to be accepted and heard, hoping to “get it right”, because you’ll be in biiig trouble if you don’t.
How messed up is that?
How backwards and theologically screwy is it to view any human as more generous than God? To treat your pastors or loved ones as the sympathetic party in a cosmic good-cop-bad-God routine?
But I do. Whenever I approach God, I am immediately swamped with criticism and self-reproach. I’m constantly monitoring my words for exegetical correctness. I worry about every sin I’ve committed. I doubt my motives. Even when they’re good. I don’t imagine a welcoming environment; I imagine a skeptical and detached one, more like a loan officer or someone proctoring an ACT.
To an extent, these habits are good. I should use the Word correctly. I should confess my sins. After all, the Bible contains both welcome and warning – the kindness and sternness of God (Romans 11:22) – and part of the problem with to many of today’s churches is that there’s no warning in them.
But when I feel safer and more accepted with my friends than I do with the God whose Son died to make me holy, there’s a problem. I’m lacking the welcome.
It would be one thing if I weren’t a believer. I would then have good reason to fear the lightning. I’d get only rocks, flames, and a decidedly rejecting scene, fully deserved because of my sin:
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” (Hebrews 12:18-21)
But for those who do not refuse him who speaks (v. 25), the scene switches tones gloriously to an inviting scene:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (v. 22-24)
Joyful. Made perfect. Mediator. Far more open and inviting than anything in the previous passage.
Christians have their hearts sprinkled from a guilty conscience (10:22) and get to “draw near to God”. All that’s left is the temporary discipline that proves our sonship and acceptance (12:5-11). There is no human more gracious than God, who, by his own plan and the blood of his Son, has no more reason to condemn us (Romans 8:1).
May this become my reality. Our reality.
We can be ourselves with him. We can approach. We can turn to him for validation, love, mercy, and help. We are children, welcomed and accepted.