How do you finish this sentence: “You are so …”
I mean that. Pause for a moment and sit with the question.
What word or words come to mind? Is there one that resonates with more weight?
Whose voice do you hear saying it? Is it your own, or is it a voice that echos from your past and into this moment?
What weight does it carry as you step into your everyday?
If you are like me, then the road to reconstruction, the path towards living by love, begins when you hear the divine voice finish that sentence with the simple word, “Beloved.”
“You are so beloved.”
For most of my life, I could not imagine that sentence ending with beloved. The church offered some key descriptors like depraved and broken. Other voices, mostly those from peers, sometimes resulted in me finishing the sentence with variations of unwanted. But even those were different expressions of the word that most dominated my sense of self-understanding.
“You are so worthless!”
While others offered different endings like intelligent or talented or a leader, the dominant ending of worthless twisted their encouragement into signs of unrealized potential. I was all kinds of possibilities, but that energy was worthless because I never flipped the switch from potential to kinetic.
All that changed through two events one week in October of 2015. The first came while researching the parables of Luke as part of my dissertation. The second, through a sermon by Michael Hidalgo at Denver Community Church.
The Prodigal Father
The parable commonly titled after one or both sons is really about a prodigal father. How is the father reckless and extravagant? With declarations that his sons are beloved.
The parable begins with the younger of two sons doing the unthinkable: he wishes his father dead so he can receive his inheritance. To make matters worse, he culturally shames himself by selling his newly acquired land. As he does this, the older brother, who should stand loyally by his father, allows everything to happen. The younger son takes his father’s money and runs to a far-off land where he lives extravagantly until he finds himself out of funds. This is why he is typically deemed the prodigal.
Failing to recognize the fullness of his offense, the young man decides to return to his father and work as a hired hand. This allows him to live in the village as his father’s social equal. Moreover, if he does well, it positions him to someday make financial reparations with his father. It even keeps him out of his brother’s house and therefore not consuming resources that, after the division of the inheritance, are rightfully his brother’s. The plan is perfect as it avoids the humility necessary to receive grace. For many, this mirrors the performance-rooted repentance a faith-based on power teaches.
Reckless with Grace
Given that farmers in First Century Israel lived in the village and not on their land when the son returns he must go through the village. This would be no small task. After all, he shamed himself and the community by insulting his father and then selling the land. At best, crowds would likely follow the boy, mocking him as he made his way to his father’s home. Even if his plan worked, for years to come the village mocking would continue.
But his father has other plans. As the boy is spotted in the distance and word of the son’s return spreads like wildfire through the village, the father denies the community an opportunity to shame the boy. Instead, he socially humiliates himself by doing the undignified thing and running through the village so he is the first to encounter his son. Then, before an amassing throng can act or the boy has an opportunity to speak, the father announces restoration of his child’s sonship. On the surface, this is inconceivable. It is also problematic for the son.
Receiving grace reinstates his father’s authority and makes him dependent on his brother. It strips him of the opportunity to actively resolve the inheritance issue. Accepting his father’s act demands he let go of his pride and receive grace; grace that comes with a robe, a ring, and a feast, all of which tell the community that the young man’s sin is not to be held against him.
Even More Reckless
Once again the older brother stands by and watches. But this time, from outside the home. Much like his brother, he dishonors his father and shames himself. As he did with the younger son, rather than leaving his older boy in a place of shame, the father humiliates himself by going to him and offering grace. Unlike his younger brother, the older son denounces such a gift, refusing to receive the father and his sonship on the father’s terms.
As someone who spent years desperately seeking to create a sense of worthiness, this lavish divine love cut through my desire to create my significance. Could it be that, even if I was worthless, I am still beloved? Yet this idea stood in stark contrast with my understanding of how God relates to people. Which is why I needed the sermon.
Wrathful But Beloved
It is never wise to allow select texts to define your theology. Yet for decades I allowed Ephesians 2 and the words declaring humanity “by nature children of wrath” (ESV) to do just that. Why, despite the prodigal love of God that appears throughout the pages of Scripture, could I not embrace that love for me? Because I saw myself as deserving of divine wrath. Those worthy of wrath cannot, by definition, be beloved.
So what changed that Sunday morning? An invitation to take a fresh look at the Greek text and the equally valid translation, “wrathful children.” Suddenly, everything made sense. God is not the one who is angry and vengeful, I was. Anybody who operates in a spirit of power is a wrathful child, even when it looks neither angry nor wrathful.
Read that way, Paul is telling the Ephesians that they were wrathful children who operated according to the way of this world (power) but, having encountered the prodigal love of God who declares them beloved, they are now living the way of love.
My last defense broke down, tears began to flow and I finally hear those words spoken to me, “Joe, you are so beloved.”
You are so beloved.
That is where reconstruction begins.
Book: The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out by Brennan Manning
A meditation on grace from an alcoholic priest trying to make sense of the relentless love of God. It’s a great read for anyone who struggles to look in the mirror and tell the person they see, “You are so beloved!”
Book: No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex, and Life by Robert Glover
If you find the subtitle of this book is jarring, you’re not alone. But this book is one of the best I know when it comes to exploring power that looks neither wrathful nor angry. Glover unpacks two kinds of “nice guys,” revealing how neither is nice because they operate from power. Instead, he invites men to be good so they are actually free to love. When a man wants to begin working on himself, this is typically where I start.
Go back to the opening question and how you finished the sentence, “You are so …” and identify how the answer shaped your behavior in a specific incident recently. Maybe that answer prompted you to drink more than you should. Or maybe you did not speak up for yourself. Perhaps you turned to victimhood or even meritocracy. Ask yourself how things would look different if you knew you are beloved.
How do we make sense of our past lives as wrathful children?
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