“Show me your muscles!” I say.
My boys shrivel up their faces with a scowl, strike a pose, and conjure up their pre-hormone physiques. The experience is similar to that of a Jedi warrior invoking the force.
“Look at those strong boys!” I say as I examine their arms.
Every time, my young men smile back. They usually bounce away with their chests a little higher and hearts fuller. I am too proud for words—with or without notable muscles. They are mine. My sons.
I turned thirty-six last year, and I can subtly sense the creeping shadow of a mid-life crisis looming over me. It’s probably much more about longing to see Jesus face to face than sports cars and cheap thrills. Those things never satisfy middle-aged people anyway, and I’m not interested in that kind of emptiness. Whatever the shadow is, it won’t find me waiting on a couch of discontent. I’m after something deeper.
I’m still asking the question: is the Lord really proud of me?
I’ve read dozens of books on God the Father’s approval and love of his children. Some of them more than once. I’ve taught from the pulpit about his loving-kindness. That’s not to mention that the Bible has much to say on the topic. The strange thing is, I still wonder, “God? Abba, are you there? Are you really proud of me?”
Is it that we’re on stage hoping he will hear us? Are we waiting for his clap and holler? Are we waiting for a warm embrace, for encouragement that goes beyond a thank you note or a text? Men want to know they’re significant and strong; women need to know their desirable and beautiful. No amount of earthly attention, salary, position, or praise quite scratches that deep soul-itch.
Most of us work hard. We make an honest living somewhere, somehow. We get out of bed in the morning—no easy feat—and we go to school or a job. For those who are parents, we wrangle our kids all day, dragging them to games, rehearsals, and birthday parties. We feed them good food, mostly. We hope they don’t scratch their faces and end up hideously scarred. Maybe they will grow up to be normal, courteous adults someday. God, do you see our effort?
We all strain to earn God’s praise sometimes. We might not realize it, but we try to get his attention with our accomplishments or with volunteering. My temptations as a pastor at times were to perform and to think performer’s thoughts. Surely I need to start a thousand churches and lead a million souls to the Lord. Surely, if I sing the right songs in church, watch only G-rated movies, and if I never cuss, never get depressed, and never flip anyone off, then God will be proud. Surely, if I’m always at church on time—even arriving early to set up—and I’m praying every single second, and if I’m never lazy. Surely. Surely if I’m perfect, then he will be proud, right?
One day when I wasn’t straining so hard, I felt like God told me, “I was proud of you before you started ministry.”
What? Seriously, God?
I know about his grace intellectually. But apparently there’s still part of my heart that wants to earn it. If I have to be perfect for God to be proud—what an exhausting, Gospel-less life. I am finding that my spiritual maturity has less to do with flexing my muscles and more to do with admitting my weakness. The fragile, human parts of me that I give to him in faith are also the places I find his smile. The work of the cross reminds me there is more to life than good credit, gold stars, graduate degrees, jobs, and fashion. As Tim Keller once said in a sermon, “Maybe our spiritual maturity is not measured in our knowledge and strength. Maybe it is more accurately measured in our weakness.”
Offering our intellects, talents, and natural gifts is good, yet there is a simpler invitation from the Father: will those who limp ask for help? That is where our humility and God’s grace meet. My kids are by no means perfect. They yell, scratch, scream, fart, and leave daily crumbs in the T.V. room.
Yet, when I look at my sons around the dinner table, I often think of Psalm 139. David’s words pierce me with God’s approval. “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous.” To my young men, who have yet to even shave—I was proud of you before you started breathing.