My grandson and I cuddled on the couch watching his favourite video. I listened to the theme of Thomas the Train and watched his train friends’ adventures for what seemed like the fiftieth time. Maybe it took that many views for me to notice how many times the word “useful” was used to describe the little engines’ motivation for his adventures. He wanted to be a really useful little engine.
I remembered another conversation on the couch, with a friend this time. Her daughter, and the entire family, was suffering terribly. The girl had not told them, until her methods of coping landed her in a psychiatric hospital, that for some time she had been molested by a trusted member of their church. Like so many other victims she blamed herself and was drowning in shame.
“I try to tell her it will be okay, “ her mother whispered. “God can still use her. But that just seems to make her shut off even more.”
“Maybe ‘God can still use her’ is not the best choice of words,” I tried to explain gently. “She has already been ‘used’ and it has not turned out well.”
“I never thought of it that way,” she said. “Anyway, she knows God still loves her.”
“Does she? Right now she feels such shame she can’t even look her earthly Dad in the face. Her ability to trust authority figures has been thoroughly shaken. It’s going to take a while for her to sort out who God is and especially who God is not. We need to demonstrate to her the same kind of grace and love God does. She needs to know that she does not have to do anything to receive your love. Love and accept her just as she is, with all her dysfunction. She does not need to be an honour student, or a perfect weight, or a junior missionary with a “testimony of victory.”
As I recalled this conversation I had to ask myself, “Who is God for me now? Do I still carry vestiges of the message that I am more acceptable if I am useful?
I have never made friends easily. Acquaintances, yes. Close friends I felt safe with and in whom I could confide, not so much. There have been a few who have been tremendous blessings, but even though much improved, I still have trust issues myself. My pattern over the years was to keep friends by making myself really useful like the little train. It’s been hard to believe I could be loved otherwise. Usefulness was my insurance against rejection.
I’ve been going through a time when the Lord has asked me to set “workin’ fo’ da kingdom” aside to learn, on a deeper level, that I don’t have to earn his approval. This goes deep. It’s not about the importance of engaging in activities like teaching, or providing music, feeding the poor, or even meeting with friends to pray for various excellent ministries. It’s about motivation. Can I admit this is tough? I question this action all the time. What will people think? What is the measure of my faithfulness now?
When the son who demanded his inheritance early – and blew it all – returned to the Father, it was with a sense of shame. He thought if he made himself useful, like the other servants, he could earn a place in the household. The Father not only accepted him back without asking first for any pledge of behaving better in future, he honoured him as a son, in the stinky pig state he was in, without a two-year disciplinary period to prove he was worthy of acceptance. The son’s shame was met with unexpected honour.
That’s grace. Amazing, shocking grace. Hard to believe, hard to receive, but that is the fine robe God wraps us in when we turn to him, empty-handed.
The elder son didn’t believe it. He took off in a huff. The Father went out to him and assured him that he had access to everything in the house, but jealousy kept him from sharing the Father’s joy. The eldest demanded to know how anyone who was not useful could be a part of this family.
When people first come into the household of faith they come as orphans, grateful for food and shelter. They long for, but don’t really expect – or know how to handle – the Father’s affection. They focus on learning the rules in the orphanage, lest they do something to offend and face rejection.
Some people, longing for friendship with God, move on to become voluntary servants, hoping to secure a place by becoming essential workers and ingratiating themselves with the Father’s favour. One of the signs that they see themselves as servants and not sons is competition and flare-ups of jealousy toward others.
A son, however, knows he is held in the Father’s embrace by nothing more than the Father’s love. He learns, just by remaining there, that bond of love is so strong he can feel the Father’s heartbeat. Not until a sense of shame and unworthiness is washed away by a flood of grace upon grace can he afford to extend that same love to others.
We can try to use God to supply our wants. We can try to earn his approval by being used by God. But we don’t realize that we are sons of God until we come humbly as orphans and bond servants and discover, much to our surprise, that He simply loves us because He loves us, because He loves us, because He loves us…
Then we find joy and fulfillment in being who he made us to be – His workmanship, created for great things, partners in the Father’s plan.
For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. (John 1:16 ESV)