There’s a young professional at work. She’s finally earned her first job, out on her own, making good money, and she’s working like crazy—getting to the office early, leaving long past her peers. But her boss demands more and more. The more she works, the more he wants. She’s losing the little sleep she has. Her weekends are eaten away by work demands. She’s having less fun. She took this job because it was on the way to her dream job. She felt called to it. She has been good for so long. But goodness demands so much.
And her relationship with God is beginning to feel the same. She tries so hard to be good—to read her Bible and go to church and stay in community, but none of these things are easy like they once were. Everything feels like work, and she’s exhausted. Is God like a demanding boss? God seems so absent to her—like a repeated refrain that says, “You’re inadequate!” Sure God loves people in general—she can believe that—but does God like her? Does God like anyone?
There’s a man who keeps to himself. He’s around, but no one really knows him. He seems content and happy enough. He never asks for anything, because, well, he’s a man, and men don’t ask for help. His dad was the stoic, silent type, so that’s all he knows how to be. But he has this lingering sin issue. He hates it, and it makes him despise himself. He puts on a smile when he comes to church, but he thinks if you really knew him, you would be ashamed to be in the same building as him. He’s tried everything to stop, but he can’t. He hides this sin that is killing him. He doesn’t want it; he wants to change, but he’s helpless and hopeless. If he hates it surely God hates him. He knows God is just waiting to crush him. Like God is a predator patiently waiting for the moment to pounce and destroy. And if he’s honest, he’s sick of trying. He’s tried so hard and it seems so useless. What’s the point? God is just waiting to quench him.
A faintly burning wick.
There’s a mom with more kids than she can handle (which could be mean one child or ten—any seems like too many). She desperately wants to be a good mom and show everyone she has it together. But she’s overwhelmed. No matter how hard she tries or what discipline methods she attempts, these kids won’t listen. She reads the best books, gets on the best blogs. She’s even written a few to appear as if she knows what she’s doing. But deeper down, she feels like she’s failing. She feels like an imposter. She looks around and sees these perfect, put-together families, with kids who listen at least some of the time, and she’s hanging by a thread. If people heard how she talked to her kids or what she just did, they’d think differently of her. She knows it. So she hides her struggle. She feels alone. In her heart, she is screaming, “I can’t do it anymore! I’m done! It’s too much.” It feels like God is a freshman-level biology teacher weeding out the uncommitted pre-meds. It feels like God is trying to break her.
A bruised reed.
We have lots of images of God, and I think they often revolve around paradigms like this: God is a zealous judge waiting to serve us our papers. Or a demanding boss who’s never quite satisfied, because there’s always something more we can do, something we could stop, or something we could do better. Or a professor eager to usher us toward failure. So we work and work and try and try, but it still seems like God is hovering over us waiting for the time to expose and condemn us.
I don’t know if this reality exists for you, but sometimes I think God is trying to punish me in certain periods of my life—whether that be a wayward child, or a hard patch in marriage, or just marriage in general, or persistent singleness. I can often think, “God, what did I do to deserve this? It’s not fair. I’m out.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could know what God thinks of us?
In Jesus’s baptism, we get a pulse on the heart of God. When John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, he comes out of the water, the heavens are torn open, a dove descends, and then these words echo out: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Here’s the beauty of your baptism: Jesus identifies with us in his baptism. Just as the judgement of water fell on the Egyptians as Israel passed through the Red Sea out of captivity, so Jesus takes on the judgment of water in his baptism. Just as Israel passed through the same Jordan River that Jesus was baptized in on the way to the Promised Land, so Jesus identifies with God’s people to say: “I am Israel now. I take on the expectations and the promises.”
And if Jesus identifies with us in his baptism, then we identify with him in our baptism. When we are baptized, the same thing said about Jesus is said about us: “This is my beloved son or daughter with whom I am well pleased.” Before Jesus did anything in his ministry, the affirmation of God rang in his ears: Son. Chosen. Pleased. And so as we begin our Christian life, the same thing is said over us: Son. Daughter. Chosen. My delight.
And if that’s true—that our Christian life starts with pleasure before we do anything good or bad—then we move from affirmation rather than to earn or seek affirmation. We don’t do good things to get God to like us. God does like us; he is pleased with us, delighted with us, and with the Father’s affirmation, we are sent to bear witness to the love of God to a broken and exhausted world.
With the certainty of the water that washed over your head or that you were emerged under, we can be sure: God is not looking to snuff us out. He’s not looking to break you. He’s not out to smother the little fire that you have left. God wants to mend you and heal you. More than that, he wants to make you new. He wants to fan the embers. He is gentle and patient. He’s delighted with you. It’s as real and tangible as the water that washed you, the bread you eat, and the wine you drink. Beloved.
Cover image by Camilo Jimenez.