“These street kids are everywhere these days, it is like an infestation.”
Those were the words that left my lips last Saturday at our weekly community group meeting. A few gasps followed the sentence, and then nervous laughter. Someone volunteered an explanation: “we have a doctor in the room, and the word ‘infestation’ carries a lot of weight in the medical world.”
Perhaps “infestation” was a strong word, especially since I was using it to describe human beings. I was talking about the surge of street kids in Nairobi and how they seem to have filled every nook and cranny of our city and the government is not doing much to control them. I was complaining about how most of these street families have been found to be nothing but con-artists feigning poverty to enrich themselves by manipulating the compassion and generosity of unsuspecting Kenyans. Honestly, I have grown to feel towards them the way I would feel towards pests and parasites, hence my choice of words above.
“What matters is that you are sincere” sounds like good advise, and it is, as we shall see in a moment. But it can also be the worst advise to give anyone. God does, indeed, want us to be sincere about what we do. A common dictionary definition of sincere is “free from pretense or deceit; proceeding from genuine feelings”. It is wrong to be pretentious and deceitful. We must always strive to be genuine, honest, in other words, sincere. Integrity.
But what if being true to who we are involves doing something that is hurtful and unkind and unloving? What if I genuinely don’t care about the homeless and the sick? Should I be sincere even then? Would it be pretentious to “do” caring things to such people because that is “the right thing to do”? Such questions lead us to something that often goes un-examined when we talk about “being sincere”: It matters what we are being sincere about. In other words, our personal feelings are not the ultimate standard of what is right or wrong. We are not automatically doing right just because we are doing what we feel like doing. There seems to be a standard of right or wrong, outside of our feelings.
Guilt. It is a joy sapping, energy draining and hope crushing feeling. Guilt can imprison you in the past and make you unable to move forward. It will make you doubt yourself and even write yourself off. I know this because I have been guilty. Or rather, I have felt guilty. To BE guilty is a statement of fact. One can be guilty without even knowing it, let alone feeling it. On the other hand, one can FEEL guilty without actually being guilty. But today, I am talking about the feeling of guilt that is rooted in actual guilt.
You lied, cheated, stole something. You ignored a friend in need, spread false rumors about a colleague, and now you are feeling guilty. You should feel guilty. We all need a healthy dose of guilt. Guilt helps us to confront the monster inside us for who he or she really is. Guilt helps us acknowledge our inadequacies at pursuing perfection. Guilt is good, but guilt can also be bad.
You see, if you know Jesus, if you believe in and follow Jesus, then guilt should only be a stop-over in your journey. It should not be a destination. Even worse, it should not be your home, because Jesus came to save us from the sins we committed, the wrongs we did which left us feeling guilty. Like a guilty criminal in court, Jesus came and offered to bail us out. But some of us refuse to acknowledge this bailout. Many of us plead guilty and choose the prison of self-condemnation.
Jesus comes and tells you “Hey, you are free. I am not asking you to pretend that you didn’t do wrong. You did wrong. I am asking you to accept that, while you did wrong, I made it right. I paid the price.”
Self-condemning guilt reveals a failure to appreciate what Jesus did for you. He died for this. For what you are beating yourself about. He died to tell you, yes, I know what you did. I understand the gravity of your failure. In fact, it is worse than you think, and I love you anyway. I am merciful, I choose to forgive you. I paid the price, will you give me your guilt and accept my forgiveness?
Jesus asks us to learn from our guilt and then run from it. He asks us to face our guilt and then see through it to the mercy he offers us. To wallow in guilt and self-condemnation is to slap away the hand of God. It is to look at the cross and walk away unchanged. To live in guilt is to tell God “I know you have forgiven me and paid for my sins, but I am much better feeling bad about what I did. Let me wallow in self-pity and self-condemnation for a little while. I deserve this”
Oftentimes, when we have done wrong and are feeling guilty and beating ourselves up about it, a well meaning friend might approach us and say something like: “You need to forgive yourself.”
This is often after you have sought forgiveness from the person you wronged, but you are still finding it hard to move on. It is after the victim of your sin has told you “I forgive you, go and sin no more,” but you still insist on sulking and mopping and feeling really sorry for yourself. You need to forgive yourself.
What does that mean? “You need to forgive yourself” What do our friends mean when they tell us that? What do we mean when we tell others that? Some of us mean, “you need to let it go”. Other mean, “you need to move on from this because it is doing nothing but holding you back.” But I doubt there is any person, when they tell you “forgive yourself” actually mean, “You are God. You have the supreme power to forgive your sins. So go ahead and do it and redeem yourself from this bondage of guilt.” I doubt anyone actually means that when they say “forgive yourself”.
Of course there are some who come from the worldview that teaches “you are your own master and nothing but what you allow will control you.” Such people, when they tell you to forgive yourself, often mean “will yourself into joy,” “think positively”. They often offer advise that is not rooted in anything solid. But sometimes it is our fellow followers of Christ, sincere seekers of holiness, who tell us to “forgive ourselves.” I submit that some of these people do not fully understand what they mean by those words. They have simply blindly played into the prevailing “positive” thinking rhetoric of the day.
But the reality is that to live in guilt is to live in pride. It is to write off what you didn’t contribute in creating – YOU. To live in guilt over forgiven sin is to say God was a fool to forgive you. It is to say Jesus wasted his life dying for you. To continue in guilt after repenting and after forgiveness has been extended is to say you are master of your life, and you don’t need any help beating yourself up.
So, yes, you need to “forgive yourself”. But, in the “biblically correct” view of things, what you need to do is REALISE that you have already been forgiven, Jesus has already given his life for your sin, you ARE no longer guilty. It is to believe that you are worthy of God’s mercy and grace.
To TRULY forgive yourself is to live forgiven. And while you’re at it, you need to repent of your failure to acknowledge God’s forgiveness.
FOLLOW ME. Two words that sound so simple yet are so radical. Actually, they sound foolish. If someone came to me and asked me to leave my job and family and “follow me”, I would first like to know what he is offering and whether it, not he, is worth following.
The sages of history gave us philosophies and principles and life tips. They acknowledged that they were mere men and the best they could do its point us to the truth that even they could not attain. None of them ever said “follow me.” Maybe “obey me”, and sometimes “trust me”, but never “follow me”. The great teachers knew that even they could not perfectly live up to the utopian truths they preached.
They tried, but their flawed humanity got in the way. They failed so miserably that the wisest of them opted to be only pointers to the way, not pioneers. They knew they would fail us miserably if they asked us to watch them as models and judge their words by their actions. Furthermore, only a fool would think his or her role model is perfect. We follow people for a particular aspect of their life, not every aspect.
I follow Max Lucado for his writing prowess, not necessarily for his theology (which I also have no major qualms about). I follow John Piper for his theology, not his sense of humor.
Even on Twitter, we have very narrow and specific reasons for following someone. I follow Maria Popova for updates on the latest posts on her awesome website Brain Pickings. I could care less what she had for dinner or where she will be going for holiday. I follow some people for their humor, some for their opinion on politics, and others for their satire. I never follow anyone for everything about them.
In leadership classes, one of the great lessons is that a good leader is one who follows, one who admits his inadequacies and is not afraid to help. A good leader “leads from behind.”
But then Jesus comes and says “follow me.” The audacity! But the call gets even more radical when we see what Jesus is asking us to follow him into: pain, suffering, alienation, tears… and some mysterious victory that seems to always “feel” out of reach.
Jesus stands apart from the rest of the world changers and thought leaders. Jesus does not point us to higher truth or philosophy and say “follow that”. He does not tell us to rely on the principles he preaches. On the contrary, he tells us that all the tips, the proverbs and all the philosophies he teaches are nothing without him. To benefit from his wisdom, we must first follow his person.
He calls us to follow Him, not just his teachings and his philosophies and his great words of wisdom.
He calls us to follow Him, not just his kind acts and his great missionary works and his altruistic actions.
He calls us to follow Him, not just on Twitter but in our homes and our workplaces and in our sufferings.
He calls us to follow Him, not just on Sundays or on Easter or in the half an hour morning devotion slots.
FOLLOW ME. Sounds radical? It is. Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is both too good and too true, no wonder very few people do.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
It is an assumption we always make when we read bible passages about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek and blessing those who persecute us. We assume that we are always the victims. When we read such passages, we tend to see ourselves as the innocent target to the slap or the accusation or the insult.
But the truth is that more often than not, we deserve it. At least I know I do. For instance, not so long ago I lied to a friend, and through that lie, made her an enemy. She “found me out” and I paid the price by not only losing her trust, but also her friendship.
Now, of course I asked for her forgiveness and repented of my sin before God. Ideally, that would be the end of that. But reconciliation is much more complicated, and much less Utopian.
Chesterton once said that “we choose our friends and we make our enemies”. While it is easy to see how this happens, there is something we deliberately make ourselves blind to — the fact that having an enemy does not always mean we are the innocent party. This victim mentality is a product of our sinful, self-preserving tendencies.
I was 17, she was 16, and her smile drove me crazy. Every moment spent with her was magical, even the mundane was memorable. She meant the world to me. We delighted in the most insignificant things; a replied letter; a wink across the classroom; even an insult was considered a tease – romantic.
She was an angel, and I would find myself floating on cloud nine just thinking about her. I knew she was the girl of my dreams because she was the girl I always dreamt about.
She was the girl he dreamed about too. He was 21 and in college. He had money and I didn’t even own a wallet. But it wasn’t his money, but his charm, that made her stop replying my letters. It was his stubble-stained chin that made her start shunning my once cherished embrace.
I cried unashamedly when she told me we could no longer be. That she no longer felt the same. That the dream was over and it was time to wake up.
“I just can’t go on being with you. I am sorry,” she told me with the casualness of someone who has just stepped on a friend’s toe. It wasn’t me, it was her.
She left me a casualty. I could no longer see her, and that blow sent me to love’s ICU. She had trampled on my heart left it cynical. What happened to the promises we made? The names we carved on the bark of that tree by the river? What happened to forever?
That fateful night, I fell asleep on a tear-soaked pillow, to the background tune of Toni Braxton’s “How Could an Angel Break My Heart?”
Ten years down the calendar, I have had my share of broken hearts; some of them my own; most of them casualties of my callous and careless heart. I have learnt that there is no such thing as an angel. That, as C.S. Lewis once put it, “to love at all is to be vulnerable.” I have learned that a broken heart is not a risk to take but a guarantee.
I have learnt that forever is a choice made, not after finding the perfect lover, but through loving the imperfect one. Love is a choice with consequences, painful ones. I have learnt that trust is a gamble, and that while we always expect the best of others, we should not be too blind that we don’t prepare for the worst. This is not cynicism, it is realism. A realism tempered by a truth that transcends all age and culture: that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All have sinned and fallen short of our fanciful expectations.
How could an angel break my heart? Because I believed there was such a thing as an angel. How do I know this? Because I have been an angel, countless times, all along knowing that the person looking back at me in the mirror is no angel. I don’t believe in angels, maybe fallen angels. Angels like me; born blind, faltering and damaged. Angels like me; trust-breaking, broken-winged and diseased.
But broken wings lead to broken hearts.
I don’t believe in angels. But I believe in the one who makes angels. I believe in the one who takes my broken wings and patches me up again to fly another day. I believe in the one who has promised me that one day I will fly without faltering. One day I will be like Him, because I shall see Him as he is — my perfect reflection.
I can’t help but think that the people in the Old Testament had it easy when it came to hearing from God. At least then, God would speak directly and audibly through the prophets. Hebrews 1:1 confirms it;
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,”
But today, at least for me, it seems not so easy to know God’s will on the non-moral choices in life. It is not so straightforward. Of course there are those who claim to have heard God speak to them audibly. I don’t mean through someone else’s words or a message on radio or television, I mean an actual voice from nowhere. I have never had such an experience. When [most] Christians today speak about hearing from God, apart from the Bible, they are mainly referring to “impressions” on their hearts and minds, “thoughts and ideas”, hindsight and maybe the words of another human being.
The next time someone tells you “God told me…” or “God led me to…”, do not always assume God spoke to them audibly as He did to Elijah. Prod that statement. Seek clarification before condemning it with Bible passages suggesting cessationism. More often than not, you will realize that God speaking is not the same as Mike speaking. But God does indeed speak to us today, apart from His word. While most of the messages we get from God cannot be ascertained perfectly at the moment of our hearing, we do acknowledge that they were from God in hindsight.
At least Benjamin Wambugu does. He recalls how he thought God was leading Him into pastoral ministry by providing for Him through His undergraduate theological education. Everyone thought he was going to be a pastor. “Through His servants, [God] spoke to me clearly, that He needed me to go to Bible school,” says Benjamin. Continue reading Where Is the Lord Leading You? (Sunday@MHC)