Here’s a point of tremendously sharp conflict. What do we do about this word “deserve”?
“You deserve to be happy / fulfilled / have meaning in your life / wake up every day excited…”
– every contemporary self-help / New Age guru
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace [that] you have been saved.”
– this Paul of Tarsus guy (Eph 2:1-5), and not the only time he said something like this
I realize I have bitten off a lot right there. All I want to do at the moment is try to sum up decades of thrashing around in inner turmoil.
I tried to live with the idea that I was unworthy, that that was my fundamental relationship to God, for a very long time. It was not mostly intentional. I can read, and the New Testament says an awful lot of things about God’s love and tender care for human beings and therefore for me specifically.
The problem is that I came to the Bible with even earlier experiences and filters. I use the word filter because it is widely used and recognized, but I actually don’t like the image of a filter; I don’t think it accurately describes the situation. A filter blocks some things and lets others pass. I don’t think I had a filter; I had a very warped lens that shrank some things down to very tiny importance and expanded others enormously.
Given my existing lens or filter, then, passages like this got very distorted. I have purposely given you a nice long pull to show you how it worked. The lens shrank down to unnoticeable dimensions the past tense in the first few sentences. I read this and thought, “I do deserve wrath, pain, punishment.” After all, I was very used to thinking that; in a horrible way, comfortable with it.
Then I went on to read the next sentence, and I could not really accept it. It seemed to contradict the thing I had just read, or really the conclusion I had just reinforced for myself. My place of rest for that sentence was more or less: “God is sort of offering mercy and forgiveness and happiness in heaven and whatnot, but He knows I don’t deserve it, and He’s making some sort of mistake, and He’ll take it back… probably already has.” The really insidious thing is that this was going on at the level of inarticulate emotion and gut reaction, and I could not see what I was doing to myself. I was always uncomfortable reading this passage and others like it; that was all I think I could have told you back then.