A testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit in my own life, and a promise to all who have been judged and found wanting. (Listen.)
I grew up in a hypercritical atmosphere. I know my mother loved me deeply; nevertheless, I was told every day that nothing I did was good enough. I’d wipe the kitchen bench, and be screamed at for holding the sponge carelessly or for knocking a few crumbs on the floor. I’d sweep, and she’d shout that I was doing it all wrong; when I changed how I held the broom, things only got worse. Once, I dropped a drinking glass; amid sobs and shrieks I was accused of destroying something precious and irreplaceable. Of course, I became a timid, anxious, furtive kind of child; and a cripplingly self-conscious adolescent who was so defensive and so filled with rage that there were times when I could barely breathe.
Looking back, I can see now that my mother had issues which, for whatever reason, she was not able to address; but at the time, all I knew is that I was hopeless and worthless, and just plain wrong.
Many of us know this feeling of being judged, and of being found wanting. Perhaps we, too, have an unwell or hypercritical parent or partner, who flings accusations at us like poison darts. Perhaps we have experienced mistreatment, even abuse, by another powerful adult in our lives. Perhaps we have a suppressed immune system or chronic illness, and have had to hear a hundred times that, in a global pandemic, ‘only’ vulnerable people are at risk, as if we do not matter. Or perhaps we are gay or trans or somewhere else on the glorious spectrum of human diversity, and have been told every day in almost every possible way that we are not normal, that we will never belong, and, in some contexts, that we are sinful and face punishment.
Endless criticism, endless condemnation, endless judgement: they can diminish and destroy a person, which is exactly what the devil wants. For the devil is the enemy, the accuser; and the devil will use all sorts of honeyed means to convince people to speak with his voice. Whether the Bible, or nature, or justice, or economics, or an idea of truth or something else: the devil will offer justification for each and every person to speak words of criticism, condemnation, and judgement.
And so stifling, destructive, even vicious words pour through the lips of ordinary people. Like my mother, and politicians, and well-meaning Christians, and the church, and, at times, every one of us.
Perhaps we speak our accusations aloud, criticising others for things we do not approve of or understand; quoting the Bible without context or kindness; or putting others down in a futile attempt to convince ourselves of our own worthiness. Or perhaps we say things to ourselves about ourselves, rehearsing those voices which tell us we are never good enough, not worthy of being loved, and deeply, fundamentally wrong.
But let us be clear: Even when quoting the Bible, these voices are not the voice of our Lord, Jesus Christ. For he came not to condemn, but to save; not to run down, but to build up; not to destroy, but to bring life and joy into the world. He loves us, and he came to advocate for us, and those who dwell in him and in whom he dwells do not speak with the voice of accusation and judgement. Instead, they heed and speak only words of love.
They can do this because they are filled with his spirit: the advocate who, like Jesus, speaks up for victims, the persecuted, the vulnerable, and acts as intercessor, mediator, friend. Not accuser, not judge, not executioner: instead, the advocate is the sort of friend who is so constant and loving and gracious and encouraging and forgiving and kind that you yourself are transformed; you, too, become an agent of expansive and self-giving love.
I think those of you who know me would agree: I am no longer a cripplingly timid, self-conscious and shrivelled old prune; nor am I still infinitely defensive or consumed daily by rage. I believe this is because I am being slowly healed and transformed by the advocacy and friendship of the Holy Spirit, which is so generously poured into me through the agency of friends, family, church, Scripture and a whole lotta prayer.
The voice of accusation has not gone away. It still snarls within me, and flashes out from me from time to time. But with the Holy Spirit on my side and working on my behalf, it no longer controls my every move. Through my teens and early twenties, I felt dead inside; I felt like there was a large cold stone where my heart should be; I was harsh, judgmental, cruel, unkind. These days, just as promised through the prophet Ezekiel, I feel like my heart is good warm flesh; I feel deeply alive and well.
I tell you these things about myself to give you hope: the hope which I have found to be true. And when you are being attacked by the voice which diminishes, deadens and destroys; which says that you are not worthy; which snarls that you will never belong; which whispers that God cannot love the person you have been made to be, then I hope and pray that you can remember this: These are the devil’s lies, and you have an advocate in the Holy Spirit who seeks only to befriend you, and love you, and intercede on your behalf.
So take heart, and seek out those people and communities where the Holy Spirit freely flows: the places where you encounter love, not fear; acceptance, not condemnation; freedom, not entrapment; generosity, not meanness; truthfulness, not secrecy and lies.
And learn also to distinguish the voices. Reject any voice which drives you down ever narrowing paths, which corrodes and condemns you, which diminishes and denies your deepest truth. Instead, follow the gentle voice which invites you into spaciousness, that beautiful place of being completely known, completely accepted, completely loved, and utterly transformed by the experience.
And if someone is on your heart today, this now is your charge: Pick up the phone and make a call, send a text, write an email, or message that someone, and share a word of friendship, generosity, encouragement, and love. For as a witness to the good news, and as someone dwelling in Jesus Christ and animated by his spirit, you, too, are invited to be an agent not of accusation, but of grace. So go to it. Amen. Ω
A reflection on John 14:15-21 given to Sanctuary on IDAHOBIT, 17 May 2020 (Easter 6A) © Alison Sampson, 2020. We also prayed this prayer for the church. Image credit: Ryan McGuire, gratisography.com. Used with permission.
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