I grew up with a theology that said all children are children of God—that is, until they reach the age of accountability. I was also indoctrinated into a belief in total depravity: that we are all born sinners and inherit a sinful nature. Somehow we had to harmonize these two positions, and the way we did it was by postulating an age of accountability. It’s kind of ironic because we prided ourselves in being Bible believers, yet there are no biblical texts that mention an age of accountability.
We believed that a child was a child of God until that child reached a kind of semi-adulthood. When the child reached the age of accountability (and nobody really knowing when that was certainly made for a useful loophole), then he or she was no longer a child of God, and had to believe certain things and do certain things in order to become … well, a child of God. In other words, we believed that the child had to be “born again” in order to become a member of God’s family.
I have since evolved in my thinking about what it means to be a child of God, and what it means to be “born again.” I know many reading this post have as well.
The distinction I like to make at this point in my spiritual journey is that the distinction to be made here is between being and becoming. I’m convinced that we are all children of God all the time, and that there is nothing we can do, or believe, or fail to do or believe, that can change this fundamental truth about every single one of us.
Our worth, value, and sense of who we are is not to be found in what we have accomplished or achieved. It is not based on any kind of purity system, belief system, or worthiness system. There are no papers to sign, no doctrinal statements to agree to, no creeds to confess, no hoops to jump through. We are who we are by virtue of our humanity, by virtue of our existence in this world.
However, being a child of God and living like a child of God are two different things. We can be children of God and not reflect much of God’s goodness and grace. So how do we claim our identity? How do we become who we already are?
How we see and what we see have a lot to do with it. Our tendency is to see things as we are, not as they really are. There is much in us that clouds our sight, distorts our vision, and prevents us from becoming who we are.
Sometimes it’s bad theology. In John 9 the scripture says that as Jesus went along he saw a man blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That is terrible theology. They saw a sinner. They saw a man under the judgment of God. They saw his blindness as a punishment. They did not see a precious child of God. Their preconceptions were misconceptions which led them to diminish and devalue a person who by the unluckiness of the draw was born blind. The irony is that the disciples were the ones who were truly blind.
Bad theology, fear-driven images of God, and dualistic “us” versus “them” religion can keep us from seeing reality as it really is. Also, our prejudices and biases, as well as our fears, insecurities, and anxieties can keep us from claiming our identity and becoming who we are.
I believe that within all of us is a desire to love, to forgive, to pursue peace and communion with God and each other. If we nurture this desire, if we fan it into a flame, it can become greater than the desire to harbor grudges and resentment, and larger than our need to compete with and compare ourselves to others.
But how do we do that? How do we move past our fears, worries, and insecurities? How do we recognize the biases that bind us and keep us from becoming the kind of daughters and sons of God we were created to be?
It begins, I believe, with a leap of faith. We must make a leap of trust and accept that we are accepted. We must recognize that all those voices that keep whispering condemnations, telling us we are unworthy, or that God could not possibly love us, are lies and deceptions.
But where does this faith come from? I believe it is a gift from God. And while there is nothing we can do to earn it, we can ask for it. We can put ourselves in a context, in an environment, where the gift is likely to be received and nurtured. I believe a healthy, loving, accepting, affirming community of faith can go a long way toward nurturing this kind of trust.
Sometimes a loving community (or maybe just one other person) that loves us in spite of ourselves can help move us from a state of alienation and disintegration to a place of belonging and wholeness.
Most sin is a form of madness that acts against our own best interest. My hope is that all forms of madness can one day be healed; even the kind of madness that creates suicide bombers and sadistic killers. My hope is that all will be made well. I believe this to be the purifying hope of the gospel, that through the process of giving and receiving love anyone can be healed and redeemed, and we all can come to reflect something of the goodness of God and share in the likeness of Christ.
Through the acceptance and affirmation of another person or a loving community we can learn to not only receive love, but to give love as well. Love is not fully redemptive until it is returned upon the one or community that freely offers it.
There are some people who are still stuck inside their little selves (their ego selves) who want grace for themselves, but not for everyone else. They want to be winners among losers. They want to know and feel loved—but they don’t want God to love just anyone.
What can move one beyond this narrow, egocentric approach? Love. And this is where, I believe, some truly loving people within a community of faith can make a huge difference in people’s lives. The more we are able to receive and give love to others, the more we are changed.
I heard about a rough around-the-edges mountaineer who was known for his readiness to fight. There were burning embers of bitterness in his life and the tiniest spark could ignite his anger. Then one day he accompanied his nephew to a school party because his parents had other obligations. He met his nephew’s teacher and fell in love. It took him a long time to get up the nerve to even ask her out. How could such a woman love the likes of him? But love is a mysterious, wondrous thing and she returned his love. The day they were married someone who had noticed how he had changed asked him why he never seemed to get angry anymore. His response was, “I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.”
The receiving and giving of love can do that. It can change us. It’s the hope of the world. Ultimately, it is the only thing that can enable us to become who we already are.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward.