This post is one of a series looking at four Scriptural truths about God’s nature. You can read an introduction to the series here.
Back in Genesis 3, when man and woman sin against God, their first response is to sew clothes for themselves because they realise they are naked. In a suddenly-fallen world, they fear exposure. The same is often true of us: we are afraid of what people would think if they knew us as we really are.
This can lead to all kinds of dysfunction in our lives. From the beginning, God created us to live in community, and the distance that comes from living fearfully threatens this communal life. James writes that we should confess our sins to one another1James 5:16, and John writes that if we “walk in the light” (rather than pretending we are sinless) not only will we be forgiven, but we will also have fellowship with one another21 John 1:7.
The picture on the right is a fridge magnet that can be found on my mother-in-law’s fridge. While it’s intended as a joke, it hides a deep truth: our friends are those who really know us – not just our wonderful sense of humour or our secret talent for painting watercolour; but all the folly, the pettiness, the failures, the disappointments, the ongoing frustrations, the poor choices and the wrong mindsets.
Those friendships are deep because of the level of trust that is built, but also because we can be friends with no pretence, and no hiding away. You see, with most people, we suspect that the level of our relationship with them is dependent on how we “perform” – whether we produce good work, whether we are fun to be around, whether we post beautiful selfies on social media, whether we are successful, whether we are hard-working. Our identity flows from their perception of how we deliver on all these criteria – so we develop ways of living that are focused on a fearful service of others’ opinions.
God’s glory is not like that. When He reveals His glory to Moses, God proclaims His name – the essence of His being. That’s his glory! And it is entirely based on truth, not on others’ perceptions. He is “the Lord, the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin – yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished.”3Exodus 34:6-7. None of that depends on others’ opinions of Him. Is God’s love misunderstood? Frequently – but that doesn’t diminish His glory. Do people refuse His forgiveness, or reject His right to judge? All the time! But He’s the glorious and forgiving Judge of the world anyway.
How would it change our lives if we let go of others’ perceptions of ourselves, and set all of our identity in God’s glory being revealed in us? This is the mentality of Paul, who describes us as having “treasure in jars of clay”:
- If what I value is God’s glory in me, I can do the right thing, even if it is misunderstood.
- If what I value is God’s glory in me, I won’t shape my behaviour around the brokenness of colleagues or relatives.
- If what I value is God’s glory in me, I can be honest about my failings and seek help for areas of sin and weakness.
- If what I value is God’s glory in me, I don’t have to present the “successful me” all the time.
- If what I value is God’s glory in me, nothing will keep me quiet when I have an opportunity to share it with someone else.
- If what I value is God’s glory in me, being a child of God and a bearer of His image will be something I default to, not something I have to remind myself of.
The truth we want to internalise is this:
It is safer and easier to talk abstractly about “ways in which we might be living fearfully” – but let’s make it real and talk about ways in which I do this. I hope that my vulnerability in offering this up will allow you to look honestly at your own lives, and to be open about your own shortcomings too, so that we can all live better in the light of God’s truth.
The drive to be appear accomplished
There are some good motivations for doing all the various aspects of my job, and some pretty poor ones too. The original intention of writing these blogs every week is to provide a further resource for our community to explore discipleship and devotion, to offer encouragement into our weariness and provocation to any complacency. However, more than once – including yesterday – I’ve sat down to spend time with the Lord, and instead found myself twitching to write this blog, produce a video, or prepare a sermon. Honestly, what’s going on in those moments is not the standard pressure of a to-do list, but a desire for people to think, “he’s a good pastor – he’s always got something positive to share from the Scriptures” – or perhaps, “he must be working hard”. You see, occasionally I get fearful that people will think I’m lazy because I’m not out visiting people at the moment – a fear that’s compounded if (God forbid!) somebody sees me taking some rest. There are times when those things don’t bother me in the slightest, and it’s no surprise that those times are the periods when I’m most consumed with God’s glory, and what He’s up to.
The temptation to rewrite history
I had a fantastic, wide-ranging conversation with a friend yesterday, and he mentioned the temptation to tell a story about ourselves in such a way that it demonstrates a point we want to make, or shows us to have a particular characteristic – sometimes at the cost of being truthful. Valid points can be made from fictional stories (Jesus did it quite a lot) – that’s not the issue. But if the sum of what I share with someone is a series of anecdotes that have been “upcycled” to display truths about God or noble parts of my character, have I really opened up my life to them? And how will the real me be open to challenge and correction if the real messiness of those anecdotes is edited out?
OK, this is one that I’ve mostly grown out of, but it’s definitely a past failing and an area where I occasionally still have to actively correct myself. To my mind, there are two very common ways of disagreeing with other people – withdrawing and allowing our disagreement and frustration to accumulate in dislike; and arguing defensively or even aggressively. Both avoid the risk of having to understand the other person’s point of view, and maybe even change our own viewpoint. Neither draws us closer to each other or to the truth.
When this happens in a church fellowship, it’s particularly destructive. It’s possible for a group of people to have a veneer of unity when the truth is that they’ve buried their disagreements in a box marked “resentment”. I’ve also been involved in situations where two or more people in a church simply won’t give each other a hearing, and are openly hostile. The second is rarer in the UK because of “Britishness”, but that’s no comfort if it simply pushes us the other way – into resentment. A friend from a church in France, quoting Ephesians 4:15, was known to say quite frequently, “I know we French struggle to speak the truth in love sometimes, but you British struggle to speak the truth!”
Negotiators often talk of reaching “accurate empathy” – the point where we can understand the other person’s viewpoint fully even if we disagree. If our hope is in God’s glory and not our own, that place of humility is easier – if we’re wrong, it doesn’t take away from our value or our identity.
What about you? Can you see ways that you act out of fear of others? Who are you honest with about your failings? What Scripture could you memorise and meditate on, to remind yourself to find your identity in God’s glory and not your own?
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.Romans 12:2