“A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, and must empty ourselves. Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in his love than in your weakness.” —Saint Teresa of Calcutta
After the tears finally stopped flowing, I scooped him up in my lap and looked him straight in the eyes. “You are wonderfully made,” I tell him. “You think Mommy loves you? God loves you so much more. You are His masterpiece.”
It was only a small incident at school that set off my son’s meltdown. He was having trouble with personal space, as active five-year-old boys tend to do. But when he saw me, he melted into the tears of one grieved by a great failure, insisting he was bad. My heart broke as I saw shame in those heavily lashed chestnut eyes.
We talked a few minutes and he accepted the consequence of no technology with a, “yep, I deserved that” nod. He turned to go but I returned his gaze to me and said, “Now what are you to God?” He fidgeted and squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable in my arms. “No, I’m not a masterpiece,” he insisted. Finally, he conceded, repeated what he knew he should have said and ran off to play.
Left alone in the silence, I felt raw and exposed. I want to shelter him from the years I have spent shrouded in guilt and doubt. I want him to be firmly established in who God is and who he is as His child. Only a few years old, the world is already teaching him the same lessons it taught me: You are too weak to be good; You’re not enough; You’re not worthy. Were these tears that stung my eyes for him—or for me?
I devour the stories I read with my kids about God’s “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love,” which are so different than the King James Bible I read as a child. I tell them about grace and love, trying to focus more on the motive than the behavior. But each time I tell them these things, I am telling myself. I have to preach grace to myself every day. Because my own weakness is all I have believed in for so very long.
I could blame it on the heavily rule-oriented purity culture of my youth or the stories that focused more on our own depravity than on God’s goodness. But, as I see in the eyes of my little boy, no matter how much God’s love is drilled into us, we so naturally believe in our inherent badness.
In college I wept the first time a small group leader told me that there is no condemnation for us in Jesus. I wept for the years I didn’t know this truth, for the pain of running I could have been spared if I really understood that He’d welcome me back home. If I am honest I first felt drawn to ministry because I wanted to gain God’s approval, so my service would earn me the gold stars that would add up to being good enough in the eyes of my Father.
When I used to read the stories of sacrifice, the people of faith we place on the pedestals of “worthy” and “usable,” I knew I could never measure up to that level of faith. I saw Abraham and Moses on par with Amy Carmichael, Mother Teresa and Jim Elliot. They must please God with their sacrifice because it is so great. Mine is so small and can’t possibly measure up, I thought.
I see it everywhere I look now—God accomplishing great things in people because they believe in His love, not because they are trying to earn it. It’s in the sister that pours out love on her foster daughter who has seen more trauma in her young life than any child should. She is frazzled and doesn’t know if anything she is doing matters in the midst of all the meltdowns, but she empties herself and loves anyway. It’s in the mother who doesn’t feel well herself, but spends her entire free evening driving to the hospital to pray for a friend who is sick, giving up her own needed rest to love another. It’s in the friend who gives because she loves even though her family has been without an income for months.
Sacrifice isn’t measured in size or distance. Sacrifice is measured in how much we take our eyes off of self, in letting ourselves see the need and not the reward. No matter how much I know this to be true, getting this truth to my heart and the way I live every day is a different matter. Believing in God’s love more than in my own weakness is a reprogramming of everything I have believed about myself for over three decades.
So I keep teaching the kids about who God is and what the Lord has done, keep showing them how they are part of the great story of redemption. I keep telling them how loved they are, that nothing they can do will earn the love of God and that they can never be too far away to come back home. I’ll keep telling them … until I believe it.