Some friends and I are working through Cloud and Townsend's book, How People Grow. This book written from a Biblical standpoint helps me understand the process of spiritual growth. As a new believer I was often frustrated because I thought when I got saved I was instantly going to be changed into the person God had created me to be, but it didn't happen. I still struggled with sin, with negative thoughts and emotions, and with maladaptive ways of dealing with hurtful memories and hurtful relationships. This caused me, a perfectionist, to struggle with a lack of assurance of my salvation. My imperfections, the ugly and hate-filled thoughts that sometimes passed through my head made the person I longed to be seem out of reach. We eventually landed in a great Bible teaching church and fellowshipped with loving, godly believers several times a week. These transparent people talked often about how to rightly handle the word of God and how to apply it to our lives. I grew in my relationship with God, my assurance of salvation, and in my relationships as I began to understand the process of sanctification. When we began working through the book, I was struck by how much the doctrine of reconciliation plays out in the gospel and in our growth as believers. I was also struck by the fact that through the gospel we are not only reconciled to God, but to others and to ourselves as well.
To understand reconciliation, we need to remember God created us to be relational with Him and with each other. In the Garden Adam and Eve enjoyed a pure, unadulterated relationship with God and with each other--a relationship that was open, vulnerable, and without any shame. When they sinned, their relationship with God became fractured and they became alienated from God. Colossians tells us bluntly that we, too, became enemies of God as demonstrated by our thought life and by our evil behaviors. By their choices, Adam and Eve also fractured their relationship as was shown by their feelings of shame and the desire to cover their nakedness. As Cloud and Townsend put it, their vulnerability and intimacy was replaced by alienation, unfairness, adversity, and a whole lot of dishonesty. We don't have to read very far into Genesis to see the truth of that. And in their attempt to become like God they became fractured people who were actually less of themselves.
As believers, we know we are reconciled with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul in his letter to the Philippians tells us we are to work out our salvation. When I read the words "work out" I was so relieved because I realized this thing called Christian growth isn't an instantaneous thing, it is a process that takes time and energy. It is what I call practical reconciliation with God, with ourselves, and with each other.
Practical reconciliation with God occurs as we read His word and interact with Him over it. Sometimes it is reading narratives of how God and His Son related to people and looking for His interaction in our own lives. Sometimes it is meditating on passages of Scripture and asking Him questions about them and waiting for the Holy Spirit to teach us the deeper things we miss on our own. Sometimes it is praising Him for His attributes and for being a God who actively and passionately pursues broken people. Sometimes it means being radically honest with Him when we are struggling to trust Him or when we are struggling with issues of sin and find ourselves wanting to hide from Him or cast blame on others as Adam and Eve did. It is being radically honest about the feelings we experience, both positive and negative, and reframing our circumstances and suffering through the lens of His truth and His loving, compassion.
Reconciliation with others begins to occur when we are in a right relationship with God. It living out the "one another" verses contained in the Scripture--love one another, live in harmony with one another, do not judge one another, forgive one another, instruct one another, greet one another, do not deprive one another, submit to one another, and comfort one another. And, these one another's are just the beginning, there are many others contained in the Word. Practical reconciliation can also mean choosing to stay present and involved when relationships becomes difficult. It can mean separating from some people, leaving the possibility for relationship open once sin and hurtful behaviors are acknowledged and changed. Practical reconciliation lived out well is important, because iron sharpens iron and if we hide and run from the hard of relationships we won't grow. It is also important because the world is watching the church and if we can't love one another and work through the hard, why would they want what we have?
Reconciliation with ourselves is a new idea to me. The Scriptures instructs us to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. Over the years I have heard pastors say we all love ourselves and I remember thinking, "If I loved my children the way I love myself, I would be sitting in a jail cell right now." I have come to believe our ability to love ourselves was as fractured by the Fall as our ability to love God and others was. For me, practical reconciliation with myself included things like learning about my identity in Christ and replacing my identity as a victim of trauma with that. It included learning about the depth of God's love and trusting it even in the face of the hard, the aftermath of sin and shame, and the midst of prayers that seemed to be unanswered. It included spending time with Christian therapists who did not judge me, but gave me a safe place to share the shameful parts of my story, my life, and myself. It also meant learning how trauma had impacted my views, thoughts, choices, reactions, and actions so I could choose to move out of victimhood, learn to love my enemies, and refuse to let Satan use my suffering to keep me from experiencing God and His joy. It meant leaning in to the very things Satan had used to try to destroy me so God could display His glory and healing power in my life. That was what helped God's love become a driving force in my life instead of past trauma. The doctrine of reconciliation is an interesting doctrine as it helps us understand more about God's infinite love and grace.
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