Two years ago, I was finishing up my undergraduate thesis. My advisor was a suave Ivy League production, and his affirmation meant more to me than…almost everything. When he treated me as though I were his equal and took my ideas seriously, it made me feel as though I were jumping into another world that was exciting and new, where I was useful and had a place.
As the project drew to a close, one of my final questions was about the standard capitalization for the word god.
“If it’s just a general god,” my advisor explained, “then it’s lower case. But if it’s used as a name, then it’s capitalized. Like…” his voice trailed off as he tried to think of an example.
“Like Yaweh, or whatever,” I said, shrugging.
As if God’s name was a whatever.
I fell under conviction only after the words escaped my unguarded lips. Stultified into silence, I stared at the coffee-stained carpet. I had traded reverence for God for an opportunity to appeal to my professor’s disbelief in him.
For a long time, the shame I’d relive every time I remembered my words made it too painful for me to unearth what had led up to that moment.Even the dictionary convicted me:
whatever: used to indicate indifference to a state of affairs, situation, previous statement, etc.
Indifference about the name of my God. I pretended to be indifferent about Jesus Christ because I wanted someone with a doctorate to think well of me.
Julian of Norwich
Even now, almost exactly two years later, my careless words still break me. I know I’m forgiven and am grateful for that, but, at the same time, I am wounded by what I said.
The idea of being wounded by sin makes me think back to Julian of Norwich, who, in 1373, had 16 visions while she was deathly ill. After her surprising recovery, the anchoress recorded what she had seen in the now-classic The Revelation of Love.
In the book, she writes about how early in her life, she asked God to give her three wounds. She felt as though they would help her live a life focused on God. She writes in Middle English,
…[B]y the grace of God and teachyng of Holy Church, I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds in my life; that is to sey, the wound of very contrition, the wound of kinde compassion, and the wound of willfull longing to God. And all this last petition I asked without any condition.
How she describes these as wounds caught my attention — she wants contrition, compassion, and a longing for God to be so paramount in her life that they cause her pain. It was the idea of contrition that most struck me and I looked the word up.
Contrition: sorrow for and detestation of sin with a true purpose of amendment, arising from a love of God for His own perfections
Contrition involves sorrow, which does lead to a wound — we’re stunned by our humanity that turns against God for something incomparably less valuable.
Peter and King David
We see the idea of being wounded by sin in scripture. For example, all of the Gospels record Peter’s denial of his association with Jesus Christ on the night of the crucifixion, and all of the Synoptics emphasize his grief, mentioning that he wept when he realized what he had done.
And after an interval of about an hour, still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.Luke 22:59-62, ESV
Once Peter realized what he had done, his grief was overwhelming. The Koine Greek adverb originally used in the gospels for bitterly is πικρός (pikros) and is used metaphorically to indicate something sharp or acute. The pain of sin was sharp, like a knife, wounding him.
Another powerful example of a soul grieved by sin is in Psalm 51, which King David wrote after the prophet Nathan came to convict him of murdering Uriah, Bathsheba’s wife. David writes:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;Psalm 51:7-12
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
His bones are broken in light of his sin. David feels the guilt and shame with his whole body — his entire being is hurt by his sin. He asks God to “restore” joy to him, revealing that the effects of sin have taken it away.
My sin, my wound
Yahweh, or whatever.
Those words were audible sin, but there was much more happening underneath; the reason for my shame wasn’t the words themselves, but what they represented. They were the fruition of a more deeply-rooted sin that was pulling me away from God, who had so much more to offer me than my professor’s affirmation ever would.
So why did I say what I did? To show that I could be serious about believing in God, but I was still able to detach myself? To be intellectual, whatever that means? To seem cool?¹
I shouldn’t have been carrying around the emptiness that precedes being captivated by lesser things, but, for a myriad of reasons, In college, I was. When I felt that gap closing when my professors praised my writing, I felt like I had finally become valuable — forgetting that God already has made clear that I am. I had let myself be blinded by the glamour of the intelligentsia because they gave me a place.
But what kind of place was it, if I found myself naming God and then calling him whatever to gain their approval? Why would I want the approval of someone to whom blasphemy might appeal? I was actively trading out reverence for God for the careless words of praise from a person who didn’t even know God.
As I stared at the coffee-stained carpet of my professor’s office, I realized that the words were the product of many unchecked thoughts, a poorly directed inward striving for something to fill a gap that only God can. This wounded me because I saw my own disregard for who God is, my own disbelief that he loves me and cares for me and has a plan, purpose, and place for me too.
I am grateful to God that whatever is not the end of my story, or Peter’s, or King David’s. What Julian² grasped is that while sinlessness is an impossibility, contrition for sin draws us closer to God. By asking for the wound of contrition, she is taking what is inevitable (sin) and transforming it into something that will draw her nearer to God.
Again, we see this with Peter. After the resurrection, Jesus appears to several disciples after they’ve been unsuccessfully fishing throughout the night. They miraculously catch fish and Jesus eats breakfast with them on the beach. After the meal, he talks with Peter.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”John 21:15-19
Peter had previously denied Jesus three times. But now, three times he affirms his love for him. Jesus’ response is simple: follow me. Peter had sinned against God, but the invitation for Peter to follow him remained.
Indeed, it’s not sinlessness that’s distinctive of a Christian, but contrition. It’s that woundedness that comes from sin that reveals to us that we care about honoring God; it’s the evidence that the Holy Spirit lives within us and is speaking to us today.
We can have hope and comfort that despite all of our weaknesses, our careless words, and misguided passions, we have a God who is willing to let us be wounded that we might know him more. David sums it up well in the conclusion of the 51st Psalm:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.Psalm 51:17
Jesus didn’t despise Peter. Instead, he said follow me. Peter didn’t lose the privilege of walking with Jesus or being the Πέτρος — the rock — that founded the Church. No, instead, the wound was the symptom of sin and a believer’s heart who recognizes its gravity and the grace of God.
And while the hurt of my sin remains with me, and even though I cringed every time I wrote whatever, my wound, while profound and painful, reminds me of the gravity of sin and the grace of an almighty, capital-G God, my Yahweh, my salvation, without whom I am utterly impotent, like chaff blowing in the wind — and with whom, I have a place and am loved.
- Swaying on your core convictions, whatever they are, is the opposite of cool.
- We don’t know her real name; it’s taken from St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, where she lived.
© Olivia Davis 2019, all rights reserved
Tony Mercurio (@tonymercurio3) says
I didn’t quite complete my last thought. Thanks for picking up where I left off and running with it! I’m not exactly sure why I conflated love and trust, but you were right to question it.
I agree with you that trust and agape are not codependent. Love in its purest form is unconditional. The Lord Jesus died for all. He gave the highest, sacrificial love for us, that we might choose to receive it, and only then would we establish a relationship and reciprocate his love. So, while agape is unconditional, relationship by definition must be conditional.
I’ve heard Ravi say of love (meaning relationships) that “the conditions are built in.” A certain degree of mutual commitment and trust is implied in any relationship. My boss trusts me with confidential information; your pastor trusts you with the well-being of children (or something I’m sure!) … and so on.
I think the trouble for me has been, as you suggested, disappointment in relationships. I often expect to be able to trust others more than I ought. As a leader I see it as my moral imperative to serve those under me and never abandon them. So, when I perceive that a leader has abandoned me, for example, I am both frustrated and perplexed.
It’s disappointing to trust people only to eventually get let down. But, I know walking around with trust issues is no way to live. So, while I actually place a very high value on real, loving and trusting relationships, I think I need to accept the reality of “lesser value” relationships in my life. Make sense? And by the way, I’ve certainly also been on the wrong end of these things and haven’t given as much as I’ve taken from people in some instances.
To imitate Christ’s love, I’m well aware I need to work more on giving love, and focus less on receiving it. I’ve been convicted much by Luke 6:32: “If you [only] love those who love you, what credit is that to you? …”
Your exhortations here are appreciated, and your speech is well-seasoned with grace. Thanks for navigating with me on this one.
Tony Mercurio (@tonymercurio3) says
Olivia, thanks for your feedback! I intended to reply sooner but you know how life goes. On the topic of relational freedom – I’ve only just realized how little tolerance I seem to have for unbalanced relationships. This has gotten me into so much trouble with those I’m around the most – family, church leaders, boss. I demand a lot of people, but I think it’s only because I want the same that I’m willing to give.
I know in my mind that ἀγάπη cannot be offered with expectations of reciprocity, and yet, how can we trust people who aren’t as committed to us as we are them? On the other hand, if we are to always die to self, should we then place a lesser value on trust? I often come back to this Ravi quote:
“Where there is the possibility of love, there has to be the reality of freedom, & therefore the possibility of pain.”
I suppose this is exactly how God acts toward us. I’m wondering now how Jesus felt having Judas with him for those three years. I could probably continue on this train of thought… but perhaps another time. I wouldn’t want to wear out my welcome :O
I had to think a while about the idea of trusting people who aren’t as committed to us as we are to them. I really appreciate the Ravi quote, which I haven’t heard before. Thanks for sharing! I feel myself agreeing with everything you’ve written, and I’m very interested in thinking about how Jesus felt with Judas hanging around for three years…what a keen question. Thank you.
I’ll take a stab at your ideas. I agree that ἀγάπη can’t be conditional. However, I’m also feeling like trust isn’t essential for ἀγάπη — I sort of doubt that Jesus, knowing Judas would betray him, ever really trusted him. At the same time, I don’t struggle to believe that Jesus did love him in an agape-way. So, my first line of instinct is to separate agape from the idea of trust — I don’t think they’re the same thing or necessarily codependent (not that you were suggesting they were, just trying to flesh out my own thoughts too!).
Indeed, there are people in my life whom I love and value, but whom I don’t trust — as in, I don’t expect any reciprocity in my relationship with them. It’s kind of sad I suppose, but at the same time, I’m convinced that I’ve also done the flipside with other people — not reciprocated for some reason, non-malicious as it was.
I think disappointment in relationships is an inevitability because, as you said similarly, the possibility of rejection is essential for the possibility of love. At the same time, the emotional pain of rejection and zero-reciprocity is very real and powerful and deep. In times like those — when feelings seem to be going all over the place — theology (facts, not feelings!) becomes very important. I can look to God and take comfort in the fact that even though he knew that Christ’s crucifixion would be necessary for him to have a relationship with us, he created us anyway. That’s the kind of love I want to show other people — and the kind of love I want to remember that God has for me…and, let’s be honest, the kind of love that I have to remind myself of, almost every hour (minute?), because I so frequently forget how God has already proven his love for me.
Tony Mercurio (@tonymercurio3) says
We all want to feel like we matter, right? It’s curious that only in the past few years have I heard much talk about ideas like “affirmation” and “validation.” Appropriating self-worth externally seems to be a dominating impetus in the new American culture.
I get it. To love and be loved is the essence of human desire. But, our volitional imperative is only to love, excluding our natural inclination to take what does not belong to us – chiefly, the free-will offering of someone else’s love.
When reading of Julian’s three wounds I am reminded deeply of my inadequacy as a disciple of the Lord Jesus. Why do I not long for God as we see in the psalms how David did? Why do I struggle with kindness toward those who are different than me?
I recently heard Os Guinness indicate that he has not experienced joy in life as C.S. Lewis would characterized joy. Christians speak of loving God as if it were a feeling. I wonder. I don’t often have that experience. I desire God, and I even spontaneously worship in thanksgiving, on occasion.
After reading your piece here, I’m left to wonder if you’ve found a path forward. I’m certain you’ll be much more careful about how you use the term “whatever” in the future. But what about the other two wounds? Do you find them challenging? Do these wounds present a common plight among intellectuals?
Can I love God the way King David did? My greatest fear is of spiritual blindness. I know that each of us cannot be all things, all parts of the body, but I shudder at the idea of using that as an excuse to not grow in love. Maybe I’ll never be a David, but I guess we have to keep trying!
1Co 11:1 – Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.
2Pe 3:18 – but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.
Thanks, Tony, for such a profound comment. Much appreciated!
I agree that the emphasis on self-worth and its outward derivation, rather than the worth that Christ gives us, is a concerning trend in contemporary American culture. The idea that we’re demanding to be loved by other people, who love volitionally, is really interesting. I’ve never heard it put that way, but it rings true. And how sweet that Christianity provides the ethic of love that we want so much of each other!
As for a path forward — I think so. This incident made me aware more deeply of my tendency to fall back into the please-affirm-my-value-trap in a new way. I am so thankful that after this, I didn’t compromise my words again to be affirmed intellectually in similar situations. There are persisting thought habits that are still slowly being smoothed out; however, this memory frequently stops me from voicing them.
Regarding the three wounds — I mainly focused on the eponymous one, but I think that kind compassion and willful longing are also so important. I think if we meditate on God’s love, those also come, but a deliberate focus on them also seems valuable.
I’m right with you — let’s keep trying to grow in our love for God! What a joy knowing that God is right with us, helping us grow in our love for him every day! And that mercy is his response to our failings.
Thanks again for your comment and for making me think about this from some new angles 🙂