THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 19
Just as I am
I was thinking the other day about Luther standing at the entrance to his Church at Wittenberg on 31st October 1517 and nailing his theses onto the door. It was a courageous act for he was confronting not only the powerful church authorities in Rome, but also staking his all on his own beliefs and ideas. He said ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’. In effect he was saying, ‘‘You will have to accept me just as I am – I cannot be any different. Here I must stand.”
His words reminded me of that lovely little verse (1 Corinthians 15:10) where Paul says ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’. He was taking the same sort of stand – he felt that he was what he was and he accepted himself as he was, whatever other people thought of him, knowing that God accepted him just as he was. That particular verse had an enormous influence on me in the years when I was struggling with my sexual identity. The words steadied me and recalled me to the basic fact that I am me, and God accepts me just as I am. Of course I am in the process of changing to be more as God wants me to be, but through it all I am me and I accept myself fully.
This is really the meaning behind that incredibly popular hymn ‘Just as I am without one plea’. Countless Christians down the decades have been helped by that hymn. It has been played at thousands of evangelistic rallies - there must be millions who have walked forward to express their acceptance of Christ’s Lordship while that hymn was being played and sung. They knew it expressed what they really felt – that it was no use pretending any more, or trying to plead that they were acceptable in some way to God – their only course, if they were to preserve their integrity, was to accept themselves as they were and throw themselves on God’s mercy. To say, ‘Lord here I am, I can be no other than I am. I give my all to you. Please accept me’.
The truth of the gospel is that God accepts us just as we are. With all our failures. Our mixed motives. Our self deception. Our failed promises. Our times of despair. And the wonder of his love is that he does not accept us on condition that we change. Nor on condition that we promise something – to be better – to not fail – to be good. His love flows around us and we sense – if we really are turning to him in our need – his total forgiveness, acceptance and affirmation.
His affirmation of us is perhaps the most important thing that can happen. When we have reached the position that we can do no more – that, in effect, we give up and cast ourselves on God’s mercy – then at that point God shows us one way or another that we are of inestimable value to him. While we are still trying to justify ourselves, or trying to be ‘good’, or trying to prove what loveable people we are at heart, or promising this that or the other, then God can do little for us or with us.
But how can this be, we ask? How can God just accept us without our having reformed, at least a little? Or at least decided to reform, to be different. We have not changed yet. We have not proved ourselves, nor done anything commendable. We feel somehow that perhaps we have got it wrong - that perhaps we are misunderstanding what the gospel really says. Surely, we think, I need to have a period of probation? A time when God can test me and see whether I am really sincere? Perhaps I am just saying that God accepts me simply because I feel the need to be accepted?
But no! God is infinitely bigger and greater than we are! He is eternal but we are finite. He is our maker and we are his creatures. So when we focus on ourselves and what we can do for God, our future prospects are extremely limited. We are made in his image, not the other way around. And the wonderful truth is that God our creator wraps us around with his free and ample love. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. No conditions! No promises needed! No resolves to do better! Just free grace and love.
Ah! you say - but surely I cannot just go on as before, can I? I have to change - I cannot have my cake and eat it can I? Surely I have to promise something – nobody gets anything for nothing – there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Yet really God lays down absolutely no conditions, not even that we decide to change. Only that we want to come to him, to ask for help. Only that we really turn to him. Why is that? Because if we had to qualify for this gift of his love, none of us would ever get there. Because when we discover that we are truly wrapped around with God’s love then our change has already begun. Already we are turning a little away from the direction we were going in and moving towards the path God has marked out for us. He is trusting that his love is sufficient. He believes that his love will do the trick. Not our promises – just his love.
And God is doing it! It is not we who have changed ourselves. It is God who, by means of his encircling love, has created a different environment for us to live in. He has started the process of changing us. And the process is going to take some time. More than a week or two! In fact it is going to take the rest of our lives. When we turn to God we start on this pilgrimage and, despite numerous detours and cul-de-sacs, we are on the road for life.
The road for life – yes that is where we are bound – the road to abundant life. As we travel we become more and more alive in that part of us that can enjoy God. Our bodies will deteriorate; our minds may slide into forgetfulness or even incoherence. But our spirit is enmeshed with God’s Spirit and we truly live in him. And He in us.
You sometimes see Christians with the T-shirt on with the words ‘..don’t despair, God hasn’t finished with me yet’. That’s it. God is still working on us and the many blemishes, sins, failures and stupidity are still there, but they are being overcome by this central part of me that is linked to God and which is growing in importance in my life day by day.
It is said that it is no use trying to change the other person – you can only change yourself. And it is true. But it is also true that our part in changing ourselves is not making huge promises and demonstrating a grinding determination to change. Instead it is the opening of ourselves to God so that His Spirit can come into our heart and do the changing.
If truth were told, our own view of ourselves is woefully inadequate. By that I mean that we do not see ourselves as we really are. Good, I hear you say! It is as well, for we are often ruled by motives that we know nothing about consciously – or at best are aware of only dimly. The child is father of the man, and the more you dig into your childhood the more you will come up with! There are some murky things down there!
We all wear masks. Some of them we know about and put on and off as we think desirable. Others we have no idea are even in place. But God sees behind all the masks. Those we put on and those that have been there from childhood, hiding the real person. God sees the real person – the real you and the real me. And, incredibly, he loves the person we are, deep down. How could he, you think ruefully? The chap writing this doesn’t know what I am really like. He doesn’t know how I cheat and choose the soft option. He doesn’t know about x and y and z.
But God knows and he has shown us that he loves us. All of us. All the time. Without ceasing. Can you dare to believe it? That is the gospel. That is the good news of Jesus Christ. If you open the door of your life to him as Lord and tell him that you really would like him to come in to you, with all your fears and hates, with all your gay feelings and desires, with all your history of trying things (and people) out - whether you are in the closet, half in the closet, mostly out of the closet or an openly gay person – he will come in and sup with you. And your whole world will begin to change by his presence.
Thank goodness that our sexuality is just like other parts of us – built into our makeup. Your blue eyes and your curly hair are just like your sexuality. Accept yourself as you are. Let your whole life glorify God! Be just the person you are. Stand where you are, as you are, who you are. You – you – YOU are bought with a price. God wants you, just as you are. Don’t try to be someone or something else.
Just as I am without one plea
Save that thy blood was shed for me.
And that Thou bid’st me come to thee
O Lamb of God I come