On Tax Collectors and Notorious Sinners

“Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.” Luke 15:1 NLT

My pastor has often pointed out that tax collectors were so hated by society that they needed their own label because even the “notorious sinners” didn’t want to be associated with tax collectors. Of course this draws a laugh because every culture has its pariahs, and we all love to hate someone. This verse in Luke usually sets my mind to thinking about who was in the crowd whenever Jesus taught. We know that religious leaders came because their questions are often part of the story – sometimes because they were outraged, sometimes because they were genuinely confused, and sometimes to set a trap to catch Jesus in blasphemy.

We know that regular folks came to hear Jesus, too, and some of them brought their whole family. Several accounts of Jesus feeding a large crowd make mention that 5,000 men were fed, not counting women and children. We know that Jesus blessed children and chastised his disciples for keeping children away from him. It sounds like the crowds that came to hear Jesus teach were a mix of every socioeconomic group and every type of profession (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you may know that Jesus had a soft spot for cheesemakers, though…), so I love that Luke felt he needed to point out that “tax collectors and notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”

There are a lot of reasons I love this notation. I love that this bunch of people who were obviously not part of “respectable society” came to hear Jesus, and came often. Can you see the bunched up look on the prim and proper church lady’s face when “those people” showed up and sat down to listen? We all know someone who might fall into the “notorious sinner” category – today they would probably be unwed mothers, addicts, or divorcees; I imagine the categories were much the same in Jesus’s day. I love that these people didn’t give two hoots what polite society thought about their presence – they came to hear Jesus, maybe several times. They knew they needed hope of redemption from their situation – a source of rescue outside themselves. I love imagining what people thought of the notorious sinners and tax collectors coming to hear Jesus – “It’s about time that one got some religion…” or “How dare they show up to hear a man of God speak?” I wonder how many members of polite society were genuinely pleased and nonjudgmental about the notorious sinners’ presence.

I wonder how many of us are happy to welcome into our churches with equal joy the notorious sinners of our day. Can we really claim that the tax collectors and notorious sinners of our time come often to our churches? Or is it horribly uncomfortable for someone different to come in and then to come back? Do we share the love and healing of Jesus in a way tangible enough that notorious sinners are drawn to hear more, just like they were drawn to listen often to Jesus teaching? I love that one single sentence both comforts and challenges me because Jesus still offers hope and healing to everyone, and I need to be sure that I am not hindering anyone, notorious sinner or not, that is drawn to Jesus. I must admit that it is too easy to judge someone’s appearance or situation and assume that they will never change. And in the next breath I must admit that I must not really believe that God is all-powerful or the source of grace if I can so readily judge another human. I’m really no different from a notorious sinner because I am still a sinner. And maybe that’s what I love the most about this sentence in Luke: the irony that anyone who judged the tax collectors and notorious sinners who showed up to learn from Jesus is even more in need of that teaching and grace. Here’s to notorious sinners and tax collectors; may we be ever gracious to each other.

Eyes on the Prize

I may have written this blog before, so stop reading if you’ve heard this before. We are all works in progress, and some days we make more progress than others. But our failures don’t define us any more than our successes do. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn is that I am not the sum of what I do. It’s really easy to tell myself who I am based on what I do. For men, that tends to be based on your job. For women, that tends to be the roles we inhabit: wife, mother, friend, bookkeeper, housekeeper… I judge my progress on how much I check off my to-do list or how well I think I have done my assorted jobs instead of on how well I followed Christ with my whole life.

Sometimes I butt heads with Paul, but I love the imagery of Philippians 3 where he tells his readers to keep running, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3:12-14) We are all running a race; we aren’t all running the same race, but we are all looking forward to what lies ahead, and our habits today will determine what finish line we’re seeking.

If you follow Christ, then the ultimate finish line is the heavenly prize Jesus claimed for you when he redeemed you, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have earthly goals, too. Your earthly goals should honor Christ, but they may not be specifically spiritual in nature. I have set some fitness goals (which now need adjusting, as Engelberta decided she and I must compete on “American Ninja Warrior” when she gets “big” next week…), and they may seem silly to someone in good shape, but I am determined to do at least one pull-up before I die. The other goals are far more achievable, as I have done them all at least once in my life, but the pull-up has eluded me since the days of Presidential Fitness Testing in elementary school. But I am pressing on toward my goal. Some days I feel like I am never going to make it, and other days, like today, I realize that I am slowly getting stronger. My form is getting better, I can accomplish more challenging workouts, and one day soon that pull-up is going to happen – not immediately, and not if I don’t keep working towards it, but soon enough that I want it even more with each day of pressing on and looking towards the prize.

So now my challenge is to chase after each of my goals, especially the ultimate goal of seeing my faith perfected through Jesus, as hard as I chase after my pull-up. It’s harder to measure spiritual growth, but those moments of reflection when you realize that you are stronger than you were before, you react differently than you used to, or you more often than not see people as who God created them to be make me want that prize all the more.

Forgiveness – Part 4 – Be Forgiven

I touched on this in the Forgiveness – Part 1 post, and this “study” of forgiveness would be incomplete without this final part. Forgiveness in our lives is all modeled on the forgiveness of Jesus in the form of his death as a sacrifice for all of our sins (our less-than-perfect moments). Even in the Torah and books of the prophets in what Christians call the Old Testament, a blood sacrifice was required to cover sins and make people righteous in God’s eyes. The very first sin of Adam and Eve required a blood sacrifice that God himself prepared for Adam and Eve by killing animals and using their skins to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness when they left the Garden of Eden. Other religions view less-than-perfection differently, but almost all see good and evil like a balance scale where enough good to outweigh the bad makes things right.

This is a noble way to see good and evil, but it leaves a lot of gaps for me intellectually and spiritually. How much good is enough to make up for the bad in my life? Is there a ratio of good:bad that will ensure that I will be a good person or go to heaven? Is 2:1 enough, or should it be more like 10:1? What is the standard for my good acts – are small acts of kindness like compliments enough to make up for losing my temper? What if I do something worse, like kill someone – what can possibly make up for that on the scale? If enough people put good mojo out into the world, will it ever be enough to keep horrible things from happening? If everyone on the planet could pay it forward for a day or a week, could we keep earthquakes at bay or stop mass shootings? How much good karma would it take to prevent bad karma from happening at all? If I can repeat my life through multiple reincarnations, could I ever be good enough to make it heaven, or will I be stuck in an endless loop of repeating my less-than-perfection?

The problem with all of these beliefs for me is that the focus is always on self – what can you do to earn a place in heaven? Any system based solely on your actions is a meritocracy, and you must work your way into heaven. The worst part of this for me is that there are no clear guidelines for just how good you have to be, and there are no real explanations for why evil exists or why bad things happen to good people. As badly as Christians often explain it, God does provide a foundation for all of these questions I have about a meritocratic heaven.

Heaven isn’t a meritocracy; there’s nothing you can do to earn it because grace is a gift of God given with no strings attached except to follow Jesus. There is a clear standard for perfection and sin, and there is a clear consequence for sin. Sin is anything less than perfection in our thoughts and actions, and the consequence of sin is death (separation from God forever). The only way to regain our connection to the Creator of our souls is to accept the sacrifice of Jesus and allow him to lead us through life on earth. In exchange, our relationship with God is restored, and we will live forever with our Creator in heaven when our bodies pass away. No earning our way to perfection; no earning a place in heaven because it is a gift of God. Our good works are the result of following Jesus.

Because sin entered our world, our world is broken as well; things will never be perfect here like they were in the Garden of Eden until God makes the whole world new. Until that happens, bad things will happen no matter how good we are or how well we imitate Jesus. Evil is loose in our world, and we can’t do enough good deeds to wipe it out. Only Jesus can eradicate evil. I touched on this in the Forgiveness – Part 3 post. God’s grace saves us from condemnation, but it doesn’t exempt us from experiencing evil here on earth.

Here are some passages of the Bible that I think tie up the old system of animal sacrifice for sin with the new promise made through Jesus’s sacrifice of his life for ours.

“In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. That is why the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals. For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again, like the high priest here on earth who enters th3e Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice.” Hebrews 9:22-26 NLT

“When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died – from the time of Adam to the time of Moses – even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins.” Romans 5:12-16

This sounds like a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo, and I guess maybe it is. The bottom line for me is that I don’t want to be my own standard bearer; if I am a standard for goodness, I am a miserable example, and there is no hope for humanity. I have looked long and hard into my own soul, and I know what darkness lives there. I think I’m a pretty good person, so if I can see such darkness in me, I have no hope of doing enough good deeds to earn a place in heaven. Jesus for me means freedom from myself and my darkness. He told us, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yolk upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Jesus offers release from the relentless burden of myself and my less-than-perfections. He offers me rest for my soul, and I desperately want and need that respite.

If you have seen Christians behaving badly or judging the world, I’m sorry; we all mess up, and we all need forgiveness. None of us speaks for Christ – God doesn’t need us to explain him or to judge the world, because he explains himself, and he is the judge. If you have read this and think I am judging you for believing something different – see that last sentence. I have great respect for any person who has explored their faith and determined their own beliefs, especially if you act on those beliefs. This is merely an explanation of my basis for forgiveness. It is not my job to judge you, it is only my job to follow Jesus, and I have felt from the beginning of this topic that I should write this. If you believe something different than me and would like to discuss anything I have written here further, please contact me. If I have written anything that sounds like something you want to learn more about, please contact me. You can send me a message on FB if we’re FB friends, or you can e-mail me at mabbatblog@gmail.com.

Forgiveness – Part 3 – Forgive God

This will sound sacrilegious to some, but I will venture ahead anyway. I experienced loss for which no one was to blame. I had ten miscarriages, and no cause was discovered for most of them – no disease, no external cause – nothing. I had no place to direct blame; there was no discernable cause for my loss – not cancer, not addiction, not car wrecks, not old age… Only God – who could have stopped it, who could have stopped every single miscarriage from happening. I watched other women experience scares in their pregnancies, but each one of them ended in a miraculous save by God. Where was my miracle? Why wasn’t I loved enough by God for him to at least answer my prayer to leave me barren if I was destined to lose every baby that attached itself to my uterus? How could a God who let me lose ten babies be good and loving? He was anything but kind to me. Maybe he didn’t directly cause my miscarriages, but he could have stopped them, and that’s almost the same thing as causing them if God is omnipotent, right?

I thought all of those things. I thought my faith must not be strong enough because my prayers were going unanswered while I saw miracles happen around me. I hated God. I was so angry I couldn’t talk to him, I couldn’t read the Bible, and I couldn’t sing in church if I even went at all. We church people say a lot of stupid things when we try to comfort people who have suffered traumatic loss: “It’s all part of God’s plan,” “It was just God’s timing,” and my favorite, “It will all work out when he wants it to.” So, he didn’t want ten of my pregnancies to work out?!? God PLANNED for me to suffer like this?!? No, thanks. I’m going to rethink everything I know about God while you spout churchy words at me because that does NOT sound like a merciful God to me.

I had no idea what to do with the anger I felt for God, so I turned to a Bible study book about dealing with pregnancy and infant loss. I only got more frustrated when the author said in one chapter that it’s okay to be mad at God and then said that being angry at God is a sin in the next chapter. I may have burned that book… The thing is, the author wasn’t all wrong. Being angry at God isn’t a sin, but what you do with that anger might be. I love reading the Psalms because they are written by people who poured out their whole hearts to God. There’s plenty of anger and plenty of blaming God, but there’s also the realization that God is unshakeable, unchanging, and undeniable. It is okay to be angry at God and to tell him you are angry; it is not okay to live in that anger and act on it.

The Bible has pretty simple guidelines for anger: “And ‘don’t sin by letting anger control you.’ Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil.” Ephesians 4:26-27 NLT We do stupid stuff when we’re angry – well, I do; you are probably more mature than I am and can hold your temper. When anger controls you, you will act more rashly and more harshly than you should, and you will do something you’ll regret once you calm down. Those angry actions and words are what’s sinful – not the anger itself. So be angry at God if you need to, but then you have to dump it all out and tell him everything and forgive him – let it go. Because the truth is we do not deserve anything but judgment from God’s hand. I am a sinner (I am not perfect like God is perfect), and the consequence of my sin is God’s judgment and death. We live in a world full of sin where horrible things happen because of our sin, and while God intervenes sometimes, we are not owed any miracles. While we live on this earth, we will suffer because the world is broken and in desperate need of a savior to make it whole and perfect again. But God is still God; he is always good and just and merciful. He is still in control, and he still loves you.

Living in anger “gives a foothold to the devil” by allowing you to think that God owes you something or that your suffering has earned you the right to demand things from God. Don’t let anger narrow your focus to the one thing you didn’t get from God. Look around you at what he has provided and be grateful you haven’t gotten the punishment you truly deserve. Once I stopped being angry and forgave God, I regained the relationship with him I’d been missing. I realized that I didn’t have the babies I so desperately wanted, but he had provided for all of my physical needs; he gave me a kind and wonderful husband; he gave me nurturing family and friends; and he gave me purpose. Forgiving God wasn’t about God at all, but it was all about my relationship with him and how I viewed myself in light of his forgiveness of my sins.

If you’re feeling angry at God, you’re not going to hell for feeling angry. You’re actually in good company since David, who wrote a lot of the Psalms, was called a man after God’s own heart. But stay in that company and follow David’s example: lay it all out before God, and then realize that he is God, and he’s got this. He’s got you. Don’t miss out on a relationship with your creator because you’re mad.

Forgiveness – Part 2 – Forgive Others

Part 1 was about forgiving ourselves. Part 2 is no less easy: forgive others. Grief, loss, and depression feel largely self-centered once you finally begin to gain perspective and see past the fog of those emotions, but the pain of loss can also focus heavily on what others say and do to us. Very often, we feel that people say things intentionally to hurt us, or we perceive their actions (or inactions) to be a direct threat or insult. When I am hurting, I see everything that happens to me as piling on – my husband didn’t like what I cooked for dinner, so I must be a horrible cook and a terrible person (even though he just doesn’t like turkey meatballs…); no one asked for my input about a project at work, so they must think I an inept or too far behind to be of any help (even though I really needed the space to catch up and didn’t really need to be part of the discussion…); some idiot at the grocery store asked me when we’re going to have another baby (even though I don’t know this person, so their opinion is completely irrelevant to my life…). Most of the time, my grievances have nothing to do with the person who “wronged” me and everything to do with my emotional state. Occasionally, I have reason to take offense, but then I must follow up on that in a way that honors Christ.

In the instances when I am offended, but there is no reason for the other person to apologize (who can blame my husband for disliking turkey meatballs??), I still have to forgive them in order to let go of the anger their “offense” caused in my heart. I have to let go of that so that I can let go of any grudge I am tempted to hold onto and nurse because it makes me feel better to be righteously indignant. When every perceived slight you experience causes you deep emotional pain, you need to evaluate what the source of that pain really is and let go of the hurt and anger you’re feeling that is misdirected. You can walk around being offended by everyone and everything, but you’ll be an angry, bitter person who begins to alienate people when what you need most is to be comforted by people. Start with the small things and make a habit of mentally forgiving the offense and immediately dropping it. This takes practice because, if you’re anything like me, the offensive thing will keep popping into your head. Each time, I have to remind myself that it is forgiven, and I have to let it go. (Please feel free to sing this the rest of the day. I will…)

I have a few rules that I apply to whether I address a grievance or not. The first rule is whether or not the person who aggrieved me matters to me. Rude cashier who can’t help but comment on every single purchase I make? Doesn’t matter. Forgive and don’t waste breath trying to explain how she offended me. A friend or family member I have a real relationship with and would like to have a deeper relationship with? Worth the conversation every time, but I have to approach the topic when I am no longer angry and can explain why I was hurt. Most of the time, that person didn’t even realize that what they said or did was offensive to me. Most of the time a good conversation without anger leads to a healed relationship and a deeper bond of trust. And then you have to forgive and move on. (Let it go.)

The second rule is one I learned in puppy training school: addressing a problem too long after the fact doesn’t do any good. This one is twofold for me; if after some time has passed, I’m not still angry, then I never address it and just let it go; if I waited for a long time after an offense and never addressed it, then I have lost the right to bring it up again – so let it go. I am pretty terrible at this rule when it comes to arguing or being angry at someone I have a long history with, but I did at least learn in marriage counseling that this is a terribly unfair way to fight and is pretty much toxic for everyone involved. I practice really hard at letting go of things and only addressing the issue at hand.

Honestly, I now find fewer things that I have the energy or desire to pursue later. Almost every time I find myself offended, a little bit of time and space lets me see that I was really worked up over nothing. That hasn’t always been the case, and I carried a lot of anger directed at everyone for a long time. I was angry at my doctors for not finding a problem or not testing for enough things. I was angry at anyone who said something stupid in an effort to be comforting. I was angry at anyone who called me on mistakes and turned it into an issue about them and not me. I was angry at women who were walking through the grocery store for being pregnant or for carrying babies. I wanted someone to blame for my misery, so I blamed everyone. The reality is, God never promised any of us an easy time on earth, and some of you have experienced more pain and more junk than I can even begin to comprehend. I don’t know why. I do know that God is still bigger than all of our messes and all of our circumstances, and he forgives us. And he calls us to forgive others whether they ask for our forgiveness or not. He’s pretty persistent about this point. Here are just a few things Jesus said about forgiving others, one while he was dying on a cross:

“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15 NLT

“Then Peter came to him and asked, ‘Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?’ ‘No, not seven times,’ Jesus replied, ‘but seventy times seven!’” Matthew 18:21-22 NLT

“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’” Luke 23:34a NLT

Still not convinced? Here is advice Paul gave to the early church about how to treat each other:

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT

“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” Colossians 3:13 NLT

I love this last verse because it reminds me that forgiveness isn’t about the person who offended you; it’s about your relationship with God. Jesus forgave me, so I must forgive. I wish I had an easy way to forgive and forget, but alas I am human. My best advice is to redirect your thought process when you remember an offense or are tempted to hold a grudge. If you have forgiven the person, change the conversation in your head about that person or event: “It’s forgiven, so I choose to think about her smile instead.” Eventually the thing will pop into your mind less frequently, and you will be able to think of something positive instead of how you were hurt. For the record, this takes great effort, and I still stink at this a lot, but every time I put into the perspective of God’s forgiveness, I realize I am wrong to carry around such hurt and anger. Also for the record, I have some beautiful friendships that would not exist if I had walked away just because I got my feelings hurt. I’m so grateful that my family and friends choose to forgive me, too. Relationships are worth the effort, and a relationship with Christ is worth the act of forgiving others.

Forgiveness – Part 1 – Forgive Yourself

This is a special request blog topic. An aspect of depression and grief that we may tend to overlook or gloss over is forgiveness. There can be a lot of guilt in loss – you blame yourself, you blame someone else for causing your loss, you blame God for allowing the loss to happen, and then you feel guilty for all the finger-pointing you’re doing or the anger you’re feeling. We say silly things like, “You have to forgive yourself,” but how do you really do that? What if you really have done horrible things because you were acting on your emotions? What if you really have damaged other people or relationships because of your words or actions (or lack thereof) when you were depressed? See? Lots of guilt. Not lots of grace.

All of the things we do that are less than perfect are sin. Sin is anything – behavior or attitude or belief – that is unequal to God’s standard, which is perfection. The only human who has ever lived without sin is Jesus. You are not Jesus. I am not Jesus. We have all sinned. That’s the bad news; the good news is that God is always faithful to forgive us when we ask. And when we ask for his forgiveness, he wipes our slate clean – that sin is gone forever, removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalms 103:12). You may feel like the idea of forgiving yourself is completely unlike the forgiveness of sins, but I think we need to see it in the same light.

Read Psalms 32. The first five verses in the NLT are: “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

I love reading this psalm because of the physical imagery of a body wasting away and groaning all day long. The image is visceral and heavy and painful to imagine, and I have felt that way over unconfessed sin. I have felt that way in depression over every single mistake I made in a given day; I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep because I replayed every word, every step, and judged whether I should have said or done something differently. Whether or not God’s hand of discipline was heavy, mine certainly was. All the time. I’ve described a little bit of my inner voice and how horrible it could be. I judged pretty much everything I said or did to be the wrong thing, and I hated pretty much everything about me all the time – too fat, too out of shape, too angry, too lazy, too loud, too short, too inefficient, too busy, too far behind to ever catch up, bad at mothering, horrible at wifing, ridiculously awful at housekeeping… I couldn’t forgive myself for anything because everything was all my fault.

Now I can see how self-centered that is and how unrealistically hard I was on myself. It only got better with forgiveness and medication. The medicine knocked the edge off the irritability I felt enough to allow me to view my circumstances with less anger and bigger perspective. I can see past myself enough to see God and others more clearly. So I confessed my sins to God, and he forgave me. Then I admitted all of my real shortcomings (I say real to emphasize that some of the things I felt guilty about in depressive episodes were imagined flaws.) to myself, and I decided that if God can clear my record of guilt I must clear myself of guilt. After all, I am not Jesus, and if Jesus decides to forgive me, do I really think I know better than him? Not forgiving myself was an act of rebellion because it was a way of putting myself before God.

It’s not always that simple in practice, but my inner critic is much quieter these days. I try to be nicer to myself and realize that I will never be perfect on earth, but I can always count on God to forgive me. I try not to be so hard on myself and to focus more on what I got right each day than what I got wrong. I don’t let myself off the hook without some examination because I do need to find the roots of my sin and work to bring them in line with the perfection of Christ, but I do admit now that I am human. When I find my self-talk shifting back into guilt mode, I make an effort to stop that train of thought and say something nice to myself instead. And do you know what? I am strong, I am smart, I am kind, I am beautiful, and (most importantly) I am a loved child of God. I feel a hundred pounds lighter knowing that I am forgiven, not because I earned it, but only because God loves me. “Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (Psalms 32:11, NLT)

How about you? What do you need to talk to God about and then let go of to forgive yourself? What guilt do you dwell on? What does your inner critic sound like? Aren’t you ready to shout for joy?

A Reflection on Psalmists

We are all psalmists. We may not all pray in rhyming verse or elegant phrases, but anyone who speaks honestly with God is a psalmist. If you are speaking your heart song, whatever that may be at the moment, you are a poet in the highest sense of the word. I love reading in the book of Psalms every day because it reminds me to be honest with God. The introduction to Psalm 102 in the New Living Translation reads, “A prayer of one overwhelmed with trouble, pouring out problems before the Lord.”

How many times have I been there, pouring out my troubles to God? And the overwhelmed author of Psalm 102 lays it all out: “For my days disappear like smoke, and my bones burn like red-hot coals. My heart is sick, withered like grass, and I have lost my appetite.” Yes! (Except for the appetite part – I’m a stress eater, but I talk to God about that, too.) God, listen to me and how horrible I feel right now.   These are my problems, and I want you to do something about them now! Quite a few psalms go this way; David was very emphatic about what he wanted God to do about his enemies. It obviously doesn’t hurt to be very specific with God.

But psalms almost never end with just problem dumping and to-do lists for God. Even Psalm 102, which purports to be “a prayer of one overwhelmed with trouble, pouring out problems before the Lord,” doesn’t end with merely pouring out problems. Less than half-way through the dump session, the focus shifts from problems to perfection, “But you, O Lord, will sit on your throne forever. Your fame will endure to every generation,” and ends with, “But you are always the same; you will live forever. The children of your people will live in security. Their children’s children will thrive in your presence.”

Wait… What? What happened to all the troubles? You know they didn’t just vanish, but they certainly disappeared from view when compared to God. That’s the thing I miss sometimes in my moments of being real with God. I tell him my problems, and I tell him what I want him to do about them, but I don’t always stop and reflect on who God is. I don’t always look at look at his creation and marvel at his omnipotence. I don’t always stop and drink in his grace or swim in the depths of his mercy. I don’t always praise his permanence and immovability. My psalms are often incomplete.

My psalms are anemic and self-centered, and so they really aren’t songs of praise worthy of God; they aren’t psalms at all. I must praise God if I am ever to complete my songs. Some days this feels impossible. I have to admit that when I am cleaning up cat hairballs and the never-ending pile of dishes in the sink while a toddler screams at me because she is mad that it’s Tuesday, I am almost never thinking of how great God is. And when I am overwhelmed with stress from work and home and just trying to get through the day, I don’t usually shout about the amazing work of God around me. I am too focused on shouting down the craziness or shoving chocolate down my throat in a misguided attempt to cope.

But when I get it right, when I sing a whole song to God and really spend time meditating on him, my psalms start to sing praise and joy. The troubles aren’t gone, but they seem infinitely smaller compared to infinite glory and goodness. When I focus on God and his grace, I quit focusing on me, and I am more eager to serve and be kind to people around me. I can see past the pain and frustration at hand and look at the bigger picture and know that God is always and unchanging even when my circumstances are difficult. My psalms are complete in those moments. My soul can sing even when my eyes are full of tears.