It’s easy to imagine how my ideas of love were distorted from a very early age because my first sexual encounter was that of man who at the time was my step-father. I do know, however, that the idea of love being something that has to be worked for, rather than something to be freely given with no expectations in return, is actually a very common mindset, even if not to the extent that a sexual abuse victim might take it.
Many religious belief systems include the idea of doing good deeds as way to gain the love of God. But having grown up in an evangelical Christian church, I knew that my God did not require anything of me. He loved me just because He made me. If, however, I did decide serve Him in some way, it was my way of trying to imitate God in His humility and my way of giving back to God an offering. I knew this in my head, but it hadn’t yet permeated my soul.
So, with this context, picture a young woman in her early 20’s just married to a youth pastor, only six or seven years removed from such a devastating event in her life, trying to figure out what on earth she was here for.
I was filled with gratitude for the new life God had placed before me. In no way did I feel worthy of the gifts my Father was bestowing on me and still felt guilty for “dirtiness” of my youth. Knowing God had a plan for my story, I would share it here and there and God would boldly speak through it. But, I still shared for all the wrong reasons.
I wanted so badly for God to take all the pain I had been through and make it worth something. It was as if the driving force at the time for sharing my story was to give God an opportunity to use it, and in doing so, I was “sharing His love.” Looking back, I was still sharing my pain rather than His love, but in His grace, He still used it.
We served for two years in our first church before resigning. The events of that resignation left me feeling betrayed by some of my closest friends and questioning God’s plan in it all. During this transition, I went into preterm labor with my first and was put on bed rest. So, instead of teaching that fall, I was at home packing a house to sell and move from. We moved to Bakersfield, had our first child, then moved back down south on Valentine’s day, so that I could finish my teaching contract. During that time, God led us to another church in Chula Vista. We were there only weeks before it was evident that this was not a good fit for us, and my husband began looking for another church.
It was in October, after only having arrived in July of the same year that my husband was called into that Pastor’s office and told these very words, “I see God calling you to be a senior pastor…so much so, that I am asking for your resignation.”
Wow! Are you kidding me God? I remember running into our master bedroom and cool blue walls that had been done in Trading Spaces fashion no longer soothed me, all I felt was the whitewash of the lines in between them holding me in. Laying face down on my bed, the tears began to flow. Soon the tears of sadness and brokenness transformed to wails of desperation and then to fits of anger.
I was screaming at God, “How could you! How could you! How could you do this to us? We have given everything we have to follow you. I gave up a teaching job and followed my husband here so we could serve you. We give and give and give and this is how you repay us? Are you even real? Are you? Then how could you do this to us?”
I can’t imagine saying these things to him now. The accumulation of painful event after painful event starting with my parents’ divorce as child, moving through the sexual abuse, continuing with years of being unable to face myself in the mirror because of things I had done with boyfriends, to finally marrying a pastor and getting on with serving God, then to have Him take that all away, twice! What the heck? I thought I was a strong person, until I broke. And, while it seemed like this was going to be the ending of a chapter in my life, God was holding the pen, not me.
This fit sparked something in me. I don’t know why but for some reason I started keeping a prayer journal after that and did so for years. Not knowing at the time, it was God’s way of drawing me back and “proving” Himself to me; it would also connect some more powerful dots for me later on in my life.
But really, the reason I came to the place I did, was because my sacrifices for God were not truly a response of His love for me. They were rather an attempt to earn God’s love. That was not my heart or mindset at the time, but I had myself fooled.
If my acts of service for the Lord had come from a part of my soul crying out in thanksgiving to my Savior, then I would not have had the reaction I did. I would not have tried to earn God’s love with a life of full time ministry, only to be devastated when my offering of love went unreciprocated by the one for whom I had sacrificed so much.
Sounds a lot like the way sexual abuse victims approach love doesn’t it. The scary thing is, I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with it. In fact, I know it didn’t because the Bible lays it out pretty clearly with our good old friends the Israelites. They had themselves fooled many times too.
Just before God leaves them to a four hundred year span of silence, He sent one last messenger to His people through Malachi. In chapter one Malachi starts with a rebuke of the Israelites for doubting God’s love for them.
“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?”
In so many ways this is the exact same place I was on the bed that night. There I was questioning if God was real, and if he loved me how could he have let all of this happen.
It was a real case of the “What have you done for me lately-s” and probably the reason the Israelites hadn’t been offering God their best as was clearly spelled out for them in Levitical Law.
For the rest of the chapter Malachi speaks to both the people and the priests, and he is letting them know that their offerings have been anything but holy.
“6 ‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ 7 You are presenting defiled food upon My altar. But you say, ‘How have we defiled You?’ In that you say, ‘The table of the Lord is to be despised.’ 8 But when you present the blind for sacrifice is it not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not evil?”
Although it is different for us today, in that we don’t make sacrifices to atone for our sin because Christ’s death on the cross was the final sacrifice for sin, God is still asking us to make sacrifices in different ways. Today, He may ask us to sacrifice our money to get a hungry person a meal or He may ask us to sacrifice our time by investing it in someone else.
Just like the Israelites we have a choice. We can defile the name of the Lord by offering him our leftovers, “sacrificing” what is convenient, or even bringing Him our service as an attempt to earn His love as I had obviously done without realizing it.
Or, we can make God’s name “great among the nations” by offering Him the best of what we have or by giving a sacrifice that actually “hurts” whether the pocket book or our pride.
See, God created me to love me, not use me. And, He doesn’t need me to fulfill His purposes.
So, when are my sacrifices and worship synonymous?
When the simple yet profound fact that my God loves me compels me to respond, to do something to say thank you.
This is such a big deal to God that Malachi says “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the gates.” God would rather have nothing from us, than to have a sacrifice or offering that is unholy.
So, God shut the gates on me. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would make the connection, and be able to see how in His closing the gates on that chapter on my life, He was revealing his love for me.
It was the end of unholy sacrifice.
God was going to reveal Himself to me in new ways and as our relationship grew, my sacrifices and offerings came from a realization of a love I had known of and believed in but not yet experienced.
God has always been more concerned with our hearts, our intentions, and our motivations more than anything else. What a slap in His face it is when we come before Him with anything less than holy.
And, when we do, the world see’s our second best offerings and His name becomes despised or hated to the people we are here to share His great name with.
Romans 12:1 “Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, offer yourselves a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true act of worship.”
So, if I love God, I will worship Him from a heart overflowing in His love. I will view life through the lenses of His mercy, mercy I do not deserve but am so thankful for. I will sacrifice nothing less than the best of what I have, all of what I have, including me, and serve others as a response of my love for them, praying that they too may know this love that compels me to such a place of worship.
Anything less than holy is…well…unacceptable.
How often do we fall into the trap of serving for God’s love instead of because of God’s love?