I’ve never met an angel face to face, but if I did, we’d probably have a fight. I’m not proud of that admission, and have found myself somewhat envious of those who claim to have bumped into one of God’s winged warriors. While some of those stories may need to be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt, and filed away with the ‘I was abducted by aliens and had one of their children in a hospital on Jupiter’ ruses, nevertheless, it must be stunning to be on the receiving end of an angelic visit. Still, I reckon that my first reaction would be fear and then the wrestling match would begin. After all, fights of a sort usually break out when angels touch down on earth: perhaps that’s why they seem to begin most encounters with humans by saying ‘peace’: could it be they are hoping for an incident free and indeed quiet visit?
Fighting with angels
So why do I have this expectation of conflict in the event that I might bump into a passing seraphim? It’s based on the track record that I find in Scripture. When I study the biblical moments when angels appear, they seem to follow a consistent pattern that goes something like this:
An angel of the Lord appears. Some ignition of fear is noted in the heart of the human being visited, ranging from dumb struck awe to full blown terror.
The angel immediately begins to announce some good, or at very least, very unusual news (I qualify this as, for example, the announcement of pregnancy to a teenage virgin was indeed good news for humanity, but hardly easy news for her to take, living as she did in the culture where people who had slept together outside of marriage could risk starring at a stoning). When this good news begins to sink in, the fight then begins in earnest: mainly because the news is simply just too good for the tiny human heart and brain to take.
The hapless Old Testament judge Gideon argued with the idea that he could be Israel’s next leader, because he felt so insignificant and weak, and with good reason: the encounter with the angel took place when he was a fearful fugitive hiding in a winepress. Senior citizen Sarah just about fell over laughing at the thought of rekindled romance – and a child as a result, with her wizened old Abraham. The news was so outrageous, it was simply… laughable.
Zechariah was dumbstruck – quite literally – as a result of hearing that John the Baptist was on the way. In his little skirmish with Gabriel, he certainly came out the worst. This habit of wrestling with God, and struggling with his grace in particular, seems common in human dealings with him. The prodigal son wails, ‘I’m not worthy’ when his father decides to throw such a fabulous party: but the protest was apparently drowned as his face was buried in the arms in his father, so close and intense was the welcome home hug. Peter almost went on strike when Jesus insisted on washing his sweaty feet: and had to learn a vital lesson, which we’d do well to note ourselves.
When you’re around the Son of God, you have to allow the Son of God to do what he does best; namely, clean you up. This is non-negotiable: yet Peter struggled, at least for a while. And there was another little skirmish later on in Peter’s life. While he slept, he experienced a vision: a sheet loaded with very nasty unkosher animals was lowered before him, and he was commanded by God to get up and eat. To our gentile ears, this sounds like no big deal. We should remember that this action was the cultural equivalent of God lowering a fully stocked bar into a Salvation Army Hall on Sunday morning, with a voice from heaven saying, ‘tambourines and tubas down, please: everybody have a beer…’ How often are we like Peter, who had to be told not to ‘call unclean that which God called clean?’ So often we do the very same thing: except we are calling ourselves unclean when God has a different verdict about us because of what Jesus has done.
Fights are frequent in the Bible – particularly in response to outrageous grace. It seems that we humans are prone to reverse the prayer of Jacob, who wrestled with God and yelled, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me…’ We are more likely to pray, ‘I will not let you bless me, let me go.’ The issue is sharply focused when we consider God’s offer to forgive us. Simply put, we struggle and fight with his kindness; some us feeling unworthy of it (which is ironic – we are unworthy). For whatever reason, some of us seem to want to choose condemnation over freedom.
Freedom from slavery
Years after Abraham Lincoln had outlawed slavery in America, large members of the black population continued to live in slavery, either because they hadn’t heard about the legal freedom that was theirs – or because they either chose slavery or felt unable to break free from it. Even after the great emancipation act of the Cross, an area of continued slavery for many Christians is in the area of false guilt. Condemnation and shame all too often blight our lives and eclipse the light of grace.
Typically, shame overshadows us when:
- We have been raised on a constant emotional diet of being told that we are no good
- We are part of a local church that is more of a ‘guilt machine’ than a community of grace
- We have sinned in a specific area and have repented, but can’t forgive ourselves or accept that we have been forgiven
- We have a faith that is dominated by subjective feelings rather than trust in what God says to us about our being forgiven in Scripture.
Too many Christians live shame-driven lives - with devastating results. Moments of ‘spiritual high’ are blighted by mental ‘video replays’ of our embarrassing and shameful history. We begin to lose hope, because we are blinded to any of the steps of growth and change. Even the most proficient can be unaware of any giftedness or progress in their lives if they are preoccupied with shame.
Whatever the accomplishments, they remain on the treadmill of failure.
Why the big struggle? Perhaps the fights start because God, the grace of God, really is so amazing, and usually leaves us with open mouths as a result.
His generosity is staggering, and takes our breath away.
A number of episodes from the life of Jesus provide us with word-drawings that illustrate his superlative nature. When he provided breakfast for a team of worn out, frustrated fishermen, it’s noted that a whole net full of teeming, silvery fish are on the menu. John seems to take delight in giving us the news of the fish count: 153.
The five thousand are fed, but of course there’s more besides: 12 loaded baskets are left over after everyone had their fill. Look beyond the miracle, and marvel at the generosity of that moment. The Rabbis taught generosity of forgiveness, instructing the people to forgive one who offended them no less than three times. Jesus calls them to ‘70 times seven’ forgiveness.
And the greatest shock of all comes as we consider the cross. The sight of Christ hanging there is a scandal indeed, because it renders us helpless. If we could save ourselves, he would obviously not have trod that green hill far away. There God whips the mat of self sufficiency from beneath our feet, leaving only one place to stand – on grace ground.
Perhaps we struggle with grace because we have been taught to be uncomfortable with giving that we can’t reciprocate. Adulthood has robbed us of the ability to receive. I think that children are usually more human than adults. They haven’t been layered with societal add-ons like propriety and subtlety and tact and the tyranny of efficiency. We adults are so often uptight, emotionally constipated, and repressed: give a child a gift, and they receive it gladly. Indeed it has become vital that we educate our children not to ‘take sweets from strangers’ so trusting are they, and so willing to receive without protest or struggle. Give an adult a gift when there’s no reasonable excuse – like a birthday or Christmas – and watch the fight begin. The same wrestling can so easily take place in our relationship with God. We have been taught not to receive. Developing suspicion is a sad part of our maturing.
Darkness is also at the heart of the struggle
The Bible makes clear the reality of a personal foe towards all Christians, in the person of Satan. The biblical description of Satan’s character shows us that the favoured weapon in his arsenal is accusation – the relentless use of false guilt; he is even named in honour of the tactic – the word Satan means ‘accuser’. Old Testament writers occasionally refer to their human enemies and accusers as ‘satans’. The Psalmist refers five times to the human ‘satans’ that oppose him. Ever since his meteoric fall, Satan has ‘sataned’ – accused. Even God himself comes under attack from this relentless prosecutor. In the Eden dialogue, Satan accused God of being unreliable, and of having false, selfish motives. The deception was remarkably effective: remember, Eve had taken late afternoon walks in the garden with God. But still she was convinced by the smooth talking prosecutor who is also the father of lies. The one-woman jury believed the persuasive speech. She ate, and snacked with Adam. Eyes opened, case closed, paradise lost.
Satan would like to recreate his courtroom triumph in Eden – in our minds. Even though Scripture shouts about God’s amazing grace, endless mists of doubt still swirl around our subconscious. Like Eve, if we lose sight of the goodness of God, we will quickly lose the motivation to obey him. Satan is history’s most prolific and gifted prosecutor. He has handled cases against Job, Joshua, and David. In the wilderness he came against the Lord Jesus. Through the wagging tongues of the Pharisees, he accused and blasphemed the Holy Spirit. If the Satanic attorney points the finger at everyone – even the great Judge himself – don’t you think that he’ll try to pull the same stunt on us?
Your conscience is not infallible
One of the particular challenges that we face as Christians dealing with a sense of shame is that it is difficult to clarify what we are really feeling – and we do live in a Christian world that is very driven by the subjective. We are high on ‘sensing’ and ‘feeling’ things – sometimes to our cost. Navigating our way through our inner landscape can be a daunting prospect: it’s been said that ‘feelings are mushy, difficult, nonpalpable, slippery things…they are difficult to quantify, difficult to communicate, difficult even to distinguish within ourselves one from the other.’ Intimidated, we do not even begin to sort out the tangle within – we just continue to ‘feel’ bad. The sense of conviction that comes from the Holy Spirit is such a grace gift that leads us to change and growth: but condemnation and shame are confusing imitators of that gift.
Some Christians seem to treat their conscience as infallible: if we feel bad, then we must be bad. But this fails to recognise that the conscience can be damaged, seared, and falsely programmed. Culture and propaganda can even reprogramme our conscience to make good feel like evil. The exhortation that we should ‘always let our conscience be our guide’ is not a biblical injunction – it comes from the lips of Pinocchio’s friend, Jiminy Cricket.
Our conscience is a gift from God; but it needs careful tending and nurture to make sure that it doesn’t excuse or cripple us.
Choosing freedom from false guilt
There are some for whom the issue of unresolved shame has brought them to a place where they need professional help and counselling. The following is not intended in any way as a simplistic solution to what can be deep psychological scars; but these steps are offered to help us to begin our exodus from shame.
- Realise that there is a strategy to rob you of grace: you are not abnormal or alone in these struggles – they are very common. We must not be ignorant about the tactics and schemes of the enemy (Ephesians 6:11), as well as the general struggles that human beings have with grace and free gifts.
- Be clear about the issue – if you feel guilt because of current sin, then deal with that – do not try to reject genuine conviction by calling it shame.
- Recognise that our feelings are not the final arbiter of truth. Scripture is – and God’s word about his willingness graciously to forgive is our final authority (1 John 1:9). As Christians, we say that we believe in the inspiration of Scripture – why not accept and believe what God has to say about grace and forgiveness?
- Refuse to argue with God’s verdict – when he pronounces us clean, then we must choose to rest in that decision.
Great sinners, greater Saviour
John Newton, who penned the hymn Amazing Grace, left school at the age of 11 to begin a life of debauchery and oppressing others as a mariner. Eventually he built a business as a slave trader, capturing West Africans and selling them as slaves to markets around the world. After becoming a Christian, he surely had plenty of shadows from his past that could have debilitated him completely, and left him overwhelmed by condemnation: but he chose to accept God’s truly amazing pardon. Until the time of his death at the age of 82, John Newton never ceased to marvel at the grace of God that transformed him so completely.
Newton preached with loud enthusiasm shortly before his death ‘My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour!’ He surely speaks for us all.
Adapted from ‘Grace Choices - Walking in step with the God of grace’ by Jeff Lucas, published by Authentic ISBN 1 85078 554 6, £7.99