Today’s Lent Project devotional is by Ryan Stuart. Ryan and his wife, Jenny, are members of our Leadership Team.
My wife, Jenny, and I have been blessed with three wonderful people to raise, all currently under the age of five. Our home is a busy, beautiful place, full of all kinds of expression. Singing, plays, orations — there’s always something fun going on and always someone trying to win the audience.
The other day, I was watching a common scenario play out in our living room. Oscar, our three-year-old, engrossed in the drama of his internal world, assumed his older brother wanted to participate in whatever was going on in that little head of his. (I believe it was reenacting a scene from Disney’s Frozen.) In the meantime, Ollie was finishing up an art project and concentrating really hard. He didn’t want to be bothered by Oscar, and acted as if he should have known better than to distract him. While lots of kids may have just moved on, Oscar is a bit more sensitive than that. His big brother’s reaction to his beckoning felt like rejection, and the tears followed.
And then came six hours later. This time it was our youngest, Sylvie, vying for attention. Sylvie is six months old, and the smiles and efforts to make conversation are in full bloom. She had shimmied her way over to Oscar on the living room rug, and was trying desperately to play and talk to him in her own way. Oscar’s reaction? Well, he was too busy trying fixing the velcro on the cape he was wearing to give her any attention at all. Oscar was now the one with better things to do, and on the giving end of the rejection.
Jenny noticed and took the opportunity to point this out to him. “Oscar, look! Sylvie is trying to play with you! Remember how you were trying to play with Oliver?” No guilt, no judgment, no disciplinary tone — just an observation and a question. It may be a little while before Oscar connects the dots, but a teaching moment like this is good practice for him and for us.
It’s so interesting to me. You’d think it would be easy for us humans to learn from our experiences how to, and how not to, treat others. You’d think that, “Treat others the way you want to be treated” would be a naturally occurring, adaptive kind of trait. But is that how it works? — not by a long shot. And we see it as early in life as anything else. What’s most natural for us is to hurt others in the same ways that we’ve been hurt, whether by ignorance or intention.
To love and be loved may be the thing we all want most deeply, but it’s also what takes the most training and work. We are better enemies than we are lovers. Our desires fight hard against our tendencies. Our state is one of war – with ourselves, with others and with our Creator. We are born into enmity in every possible way.
It’s no secret, and it’s all around, but still I am amazed. I can’t believe what a strange fight this is. As evil as evil is, it’s not an external enemy that I fear most. It’s the enemy within my own heart — the one that seeks my own defeat — the one that, with the awareness of my true desires and needs, sabotages any effort to run in that direction – the one that’s always distracting me from what satisfies and tempting me with the next best thing. My internal enemy, teaming up with whatever external evil may exist, is too much to bear. It requires a strength that I don’t have. It requires rescue.
The readings for today hit on the theme of God’s own people acting as His enemies (Lamentations 2, Mark 14:10), just as we see in our own lives sometimes. The incredible news we celebrate at Easter is that rescue is here. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, every enemy of God is defeated, even the enemy that lurks within the human heart. We have been made free from our own inner destruction through the cross and the empty tomb. And while that victory has been forever won, we still struggle with an old reality; the one that tries hard to obscure our freedom. There will come a day when we no longer think and act as enemies of God, ourselves and others; but for now, we are in a difficult middle-place and God is at work. Little by little we are being changed in real-time. God is making our lives reflect what He has already made true about us.
What I find in Mark 14:1-11 is encouraging in this middle-place. There are two main, contrasting characters here. We have a woman who has come to worship Jesus in a most extravagant way, and then we have one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas — one whom Jesus had poured into and loved — plotting to deliver him to the chief priests to be tried, and soon put to death. One worshipper, and one betrayer in this story. A friend and an enemy. The dichotomy here is amazing. It’s the same kind of thing that makes up the whole of our struggle. We are people who love God with intensity, yet people who find ourselves thinking and acting as His enemies.
Judas is one of the most mysterious and unloved characters in the whole of Christian scripture, I would argue. The number of parents who name their sons “Judas” is probably about the number of parents who name their sons “Adolf”. Not a popular guy. We don’t like to hear or read about Judas, and there’s good reason. It’s not comfortable to look at a character that so closely mirrors us in our own struggle as natural-born enemies of God.
But here’s the thing, and here’s why I am encouraged. As much as Judas acted as an enemy of God, his betrayal was used in God’s own plan of redemption. Did it have to happen? Only God knows. But was their purpose in it? Absolutely. There is purpose in everything, even the darkest, most frustrating circumstances — even our most shameful struggles and tendencies — the stuff we hesitate to even write in a journal for fear that someone might see. In the process of God’s redemptive work in our lives — the process by which we are being made like him — nothing is wasted. Everything is used. Everything is a tool. Even our deep and personal darkness.
This idea does not celebrate darkness, but rather, the brightness of God’s light. The darkness cannot stand it. How great is the mercy of God, that even our fallenness, our enmity itself would be used to draw us near. That perhaps God isn’t just making us new; perhaps he’s making us better than new. Perhaps the end of this story – a story that involves our fall from perfection – will be even better than if we had never fallen in the first place. Perhaps the mercy of God is that big.
“First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”
— St. Julian of Norwich