Q & A: Week Three – Remembering What Comes First

Welcome to Q & A, a weekly series of ‘living the questions,’  questions that we often struggle with as people of faith. You are invited to read along, to comment with as many words as you like (just keep them in a conversational tone, without sharp edges, please), and/or to write a reflection of your own and link it back to this conversation. Each week the linky will be open from midnight Thursday/Friday until 4:00 p.m. on Monday (PST), allowing time for weekend wondering and writing. Then, each Tuesday, I’ll attempt a wrap-up post, with links, to help us begin to ‘live into the answers.’

This week’s question: “What’s with all this talk about ‘sin?'”

Next week, we’ll wrestle with this one: “Is there room for my tears here?”

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Interesting surfing weather this week. I took another trip out to Coal Oil Point and discovered that the entire coast — and at least 200 feet inland — were shrouded in fog. The sun shone through it, which actually made it more difficult to orient myself, as the light bounced around the thick air. As I walked that gravel path, I thought to myself that the entire experience was akin to trying to write the essay for this week. SIN is a huge topic. An important one, and for most of us, absolutely central to our understanding of who we are, who God is, why Jesus came to earth, and what the cross means. So wading out into this particular topic is a whole lot like wading out into the fog. It’s harder to see what’s coming at you, it’s tough to find your fellow travelers, and it feels decidedly more scary than the exact same water does on a sunny day.

In my introductory post for this series, I featured photos taken at the exact same spots along the path that you’ll see here. They look decidedly different today. This weather feels slightly threatening, even a bit frightening and pretty much mirrors my feelings as we delve into a discussion about sin this week.

So . . . here we go.

Remembering back to my earliest years in Sunday School, at about age 4 or 5, I can see a little booklet. It had no words, just different colored pages, and the teacher used it to tell the gospel story. I don’t remember all of the pages and their contribution to the overall narrative, but I do remember these: a deep black double page to represent the state of my small, 4-year old heart, completely darkened by something the teacher called ‘sin,’ then a bright red page which represented the spilt blood of our Savior, then a white page, to indicate my now-clean heart if I said ‘yes’ to Jesus, followed by a shiny gold spread, which assured me of my eternal destination.

Oh, I loved that book! And I loved that story. And I wanted that white heart, yes I did. And I definitely wanted that shiny gold future. This little tool was meant to be a good, simple means for helping children begin to understand some of the truths of the Christian faith. I’m not sure, however, that those truths actually sank into my little heart as intended.

And here’s why:

Children that age are just beginning to understand about good and bad behavior; they have no real concept of ‘sin.’ I think I internalized the message this way: Jesus wants me to stop doing bad things; if I don’t stop doing bad things, I am a bad person and I cannot get to heaven. So, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I worked very, very hard for a very, very long time to be a very, very good girl. 

And I began to believe that my sinful self was the most important thing about me. Otherwise, why did Jesus come? Why did Jesus die? 

Because I am a sinner. Everybody is a sinner. And that’s all that matters about us: we are sinners.

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I had a sense of diligence, of always working hard to be better, of trudging through life, walking the straight and narrow  I was a church girl — and I loved church, don’t get me wrong. I was a church girl in conservative southern California (and no, that is not an oxymoron. . . there was a lot of fundamentalism in CA in the mid 20th century). And every single invitational sermon I ever heard in the first twelve years of my life was centered around how sinful I was and how much I needed to be assured of a place in heaven someday. So by cracky, I’d better raise my hand, walk down that aisle and say ‘yes.’

I overstate. A little. But I think you catch my drift, right?

Then we moved and began attending a different church, one where I came to know Jesus in a much different way. The central truths were the same; it was the presentation that differed. More layers were added and the story of salvation took on deeper, richer hues. There began to grow in me the sense that maybe there was something more to be found in Jesus than forgiveness.

Forgiveness is powerful, wonderful stuff – and it is so very important. BUT. There is also Restoration. Empowerment. Redemption. Transformation. And I was deeply moved by the stories of Jesus I read in the gospels, the way he moved to the edges, called out the best in people — even people the rest of society had already written off, like Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well, Zacchaeus.

Jesus saw something else in them that no one else seemed to see: he saw something worth his time, worth his goodness, worth his invitation. He saw them.

He also, of course, saw their sin. And he did not ignore it — he exorcised, he healed, he questioned, he called for newness. But here’s what I began to understand during my adolescent years and then reflected on more and more in my 20s and 30s:

Jesus saw beneath their behavior, beneath the swirling demons, beneath their bad reputations. He saw something else, something real and true and more important, even than their sin: he saw God’s image in them, and God’s design.  And then he reached right in and pulled that beauty out so that others could see it, too!

Take a look at these two photographs for a minute.

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When I put my camera up to take this shot, I saw only water with my naked eye. My camera, however, showed me — ever so dimly — that there were surfers out there! At least four of them! And then, I hit the ‘enhance’ button in iPhoto and voila! There they were, in sharper contrast and detail — four strong surfers, doing their thing, despite the messy day.

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God can see us, my friend. He can see us beneath all the fog of sin and brokenness.
Not only that, God LOVES what he sees, desperately, passionately, eternally. God hates sin, that is true. God hates anything that cuts us off from relationship, from ‘walking in the garden’ together. That for me is the clearest, simplest and best definition of the word — ‘sin’ is anything that separates us from God.

But God loves us. And that means that sin is NOT the most important thing about us. Our created humanity is. That’s what needs rescuing, that what’s needs saving, that’s what needs restoration, that’s what needs transformation. 

And that’s why Jesus came as one of us: to show us what it means to live a fully human life, with all of its ups/downs/struggles/joys/questions/answers. And to show us that neither sin, brokenness nor death has the last word. The cross followed by the empty tomb become the place where heaven and earth meet, where God shows us what it means to be a ‘king,’ where power and authority (and forgiveness and redemption) are redefined forever.

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I’m not sure how or why the dominant picture of the atonement — what happened in the incarnation/death/resurrection — became sin-centric in the last few hundred years. It has not always been so. Scripture teaches us that many things happened with the Great Event of Jesus.

Indeed, we do need to grapple with, understand and relinquish our inner ‘bentness,’ our direction-toward-sin, and we need to do that each and every day. Confession is good for the soul, and by that I mean it is good for the soul. It reminds us that God is God and we are not.

But. BUT. When we focus so much of our attention, our study, our prayers, our worship, our conversation on what a mess we are (even though we are, indeed, very messy people!), we take the focus off of God’s ongoing work of redemption and transformation within us. We lose sight of our utter loveliness to God, despite the messes we make, despite our proclivity for willfulness and idolatry. 

LOVE COMES FIRST. And if we can allow ourselves to be loved, without apology or hesitation — well, the earth moves,  you know? Read the story of the Forgiving Father in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel. Read it through carefully and prayerfully. The father loves that boy long before he sees him coming down the road. Long before the boy repents of his sin. Long before anything.

Love comes first.

 “To God be the glory, great things God has done!” 

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I look forward to your comments and any reflections/responses you’d like to link up to this week. Even through the fog, there are great rides to be had! I am grateful for all the ways you are choosing to ‘live the questions,’ and then ‘live into the answers.’

Next week, we’ll wrestle with this question: “Is there room for my tears here?”

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Comments

  1. Gwen Acres says:

    My church of origin mirrors yours Diana. My heart pounded at the end of each service, when the “invitation” to come forward to receive Christ or recommit my life to Him, was given. We were told that for sure that was a sign God was calling us to get out of our seat or raise our hand. I would ask Jesus into my black heart over and over, just to make sure. But I remember as clearly the first time I “got grace”. I was in Malibu, BC, at theYoung Life resort there. There I took my first deep breath of grace. I am still breathing grace and always in need of more. Thank you Diana for being part of “the more”.

    • Yeah, Young Life does grace well! And this? “There I took my first deep breath of grace. I am still breathing grace and always in need of more.” YES, this is the heart of it, isn’t it. Thanks for your faithful reading and commenting, Gwen.

  2. I am smitted with your surfing pictures through the fog. And even more taken by your illustration of how God parts the mist of sin to see who we really are. There is too much preaching of the good news today without an honest recollection of the bad news — that we were once distant and separated. How can we appreciate the light if we dont realize just how dark it is without. Loved the flow and logic of this …blessings sister!

    • I was actually really please to see that fog, because I knew it would help me write this piece! Thanks for linking your own piece up here today, Dave. I’m delighted to see you!

  3. Diana, I am relishing and devouring your words! So much speaks to my heart. These lines especially, “He (Jesus) saw something else, something real and true and more important, even than their sin; he saw God’s image in them, and God’s design. And then he reached right in and pulled that beauty out so that others could see it too!” Oh yes!
    I struggled such a lot with this question and ended up writing two posts, only one of which got published and is posted here. In the former I described the nature of sin (btw, I love how you explain it as “anything that separates us from God” ~ succinct essence of truth) and wrote a poem depicting is affects on us. My main way of narrowing it down was to call sin: ‘Seeking Independence Now’.
    Then I had a re-think. Maybe I could write about my dreadful ignorance and battle with it instead? Add a ‘Prayer Whisper’ insight too. So I chose the latter. And two posts on the same theme would have been serious overload!
    Your emphasis on “Love comes first” also finds an echo in my soul. It definitely came first in my experience and is always the draw back to the Father’s heart. When we value our relationship with Him above all else, then we are unwilling to go down paths that sully it and lead to estrangement. Love is the key to accepting grace and forgiveness and the lock to hold us tight against the fray.
    In the end, “our sin is not the most important thing about us. Our created humanity is. That’s what needs saving, that’s what needs restoration, that’s what needs transformation”. Yes, indeed. Amen! Thank you 🙂 x

    • Thanks for your faithful reading and writing, Joy. I’ve already ready and commented on your fine link! Love DOES come first and that’s what we need to hang onto. Not in order to downplay our own sinfulness, but to keep in the right order. We are loved and even forgiven before we repent. That’s the miracle of grace. That’s the beauty of Jesus, who came to show us the Father’s heart.

  4. Keep talking, Diana. 🙂 Keep thinking and talking and asking questions.

  5. The fog pictures are so compelling! Thank you for expressing this subject clearly and thoughtfully. The wordless book narrative, while true, doesn’t give us the whole deep, high picture, does it? I’m trying to figure out how not to dismiss a valuable truth when I discover it’s been represented to me (or perceived by me) in a distorted way. The temptation is to ditch the whole thing! So I very much appreciate being able to tag along with your thoughtful handling of these subjects. Thanks!

    • Elena, I am so grateful you are coming on this journey with us! I always enjoy reading your thoughts and appreciate your encouragement very much. Thank you.

  6. oh to have His eyes
    that cut through fog
    to see the heart of us, the heart of all
    and with a breath of His Spirit
    He brings clarity we can’t find in our own power

    pondering long before I blog…

    • Amen, amen. “To have his eyes. . .” That’s part of the process of conversion/transformation, isn’t it? Thanks, Karin, for you usual lovely insight.

  7. I’m thinking this is my favorite post of yours ever…of course, that is until I read another one that’s my most favorite ever. I think we grew up much the same from what I read here.

    • Gwen Acres says:

      I feel the same way Elizabeth . I used to print them off but now I know more will come ! 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth. This was an essay that I almost dreaded writing, but by the end of it, I found myself in tears, struck again at the fathomless depth of God’s love for us.

  8. He saw something else, something real and true and more important, even than their sin: he saw God’s image in them, and God’s design. And then he reached right in and pulled that beauty out so that others could see it, too!

    It seems to me we often forget that in the very first place God created us all. Deliberately. Desiring us. Loving us. Sin is what gets in the way of our loving relationship. It is not the ESSENCE of our very selves as you so clearly point out.

    Have to say I’m loving this series. It’s making me think and introducing me to some great writers.

  9. For me, the problem isn’t sin–it’s all the suffering that is not sin.

    • I hear you, Megan. And you’ve gotta know we’re going to be spending lots of time over the next few weeks talking about suffering. Talk about a complicated topic! Thanks for reading, my friend. And thanks for leaving words behind.

  10. LOVE LOVE LOVE this Diana… well done. So good.

  11. Diana! Thank you for this! It is the redemptive power of Jesus Christ that has set us free from sin – and continues to work in us to the glory of God! EVERYONE is invited by God to receive this gift. Like you, I was raised in a church where I knew that Jesus died for our sins, but I didn’t really understand that it was a free gift of salvation and that I could be changed by the power of Christ IN me. So, what did I do? I gave up even trying. I thought I would never be “good enough” for such a sinless God. It was at age 40 that I entered a church that taught the word of God, verse by verse, and I came to see and know the Jesus of Redemption! And I have never been the same since.

    I must confess that it did take me admitting that I am a sinner in need of a savior. But, there is no good dwelling in my sinfulness, rather, dwelling in Jesus who is able to do what I cannot, to refine the impurities that lie within me. And he is worthy of all praise! Let us praise him, for he is good. Even when we are not. And let us not allow our sin to become our “god,” Just as you say so well here.

    This then is why there is hope for every one – and why we must see every one as God sees them – created in his image, loved and desired. So that we they will see the glory of God in us, we must love them as we have been loved, with an everlasting love. All of the people. everywhere.

    Thank you for these well-written thought provoking invitations.

    Hugs for afar,
    Kelly

    • Yes, admitting that we are sinners is an important part of the conversion process. But as you have said so well, there’s no point in ‘dwelling in our sinfulness.” But learning to dwell in Jesus? Yes, yes. So glad you joined in this week. Thank you.

  12. Diana,
    Love the fog images and metaphor in this! Love the work you’re doing here. I hope you’re thinking about a book!

    As someone who was “saved” more times than I can remember as a child, I related to this post. I think many of us (particularly women or girls) heard very damaging messages of “being no good” in those simplistic explanations of why Jesus came. Obviously we know there is sin and evil in the world. But I’m not sure that the Augustinian “original sin” idea is the only way to account for it. You know the Celtic church was less influenced by Rome and therefore by Augustine, and they believe that one is born in holiness and returns to holiness at death. Now a lot happens in between, but I like the sense of the holiness of our life, derived from the fact that we bear God’s image and are born in his holiness. I think this speaks to our value, to our ability to choose to follow Jesus, and to have the offering of our life in discipleship to be a process of continual transformation. Which doesn’t mean that forgiveness and grace is not needed, but is more part of the process than the main thing.

    I have never put that in writing before! You are provoking much thought!

    • Thanks so much, Nancy! I appreciate your encouragement and I love this contribution to the conversation. Yup, it’s that old Augustinian stuff that kinda puts the emphasis in the wrong place, I think. I love the use of the word holiness in this context and its connection to our intrinsic value. Beautiful couple of sentences there – thank you. I’d love to try for a book – but beyond collecting these essays in a few weeks into an ebook of some sort, I haven’t a CLUE how to go about such a thing!

  13. Beautiful post. Love your images…
    May we lavishly display the power of grace in our lives as victors celebrating the redemption of Jesus!

  14. Dear Diana, I’m shaking my head in astonishment at this gift of communicating you have, to put into words such hard subjects…
    these lines blew me away and had me saying, ‘amen!’
    “But God loves us. And that means that sin is NOT the most important thing about us. Our created humanity is. That’s what needs rescuing, that what’s needs saving, that’s what needs restoration, that’s what needs transformation.”

    I can see why God called you to be a pastor–well, retired now, lucky us!
    Some day I hope to sit and hear your story in person………our So Cal roots may have criss crossed (or come close) back in the day.
    Thank you for this, friend.

    • Such kind and generous words, Jody! Thank you. And you’re probably right! We may well have crossed paths years ago, who knows? My family used to go to Balboa/Newport Beach when I was a teenager. We’d go with my cousins’ family and rent beat-up houses near the sand along the peninsula and stay in the water all day long. LOVED that area. And then my parents retired to Mission Viejo, so I was down there a lot AND we owned a small condo in San Clemente for about 10 years in the 90s, which we loved. You were an OC girl, right?

  15. Ro elliott says:

    A little late to the conversation …great post Diane…the words and pictures tell a beautiful story…such truth…and yes Loves comes first…doesn’t it break a heart wide open when we see a place of blindness in our lives…places we have walked in ignorance …and He love opens our eyes…and we see through the lens of His love how wrong we have been…and the waves of grace come over us…He saw it all the time…and His love never stopped…His love patiently and continually called to us…called us out of the fog into the light…and for me…these moments are so valuable…these moments drives home the truth…therefore…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…along with the story of the woman caught in adultery … These moments open my heart wider to receive God’s grace and mercy…and now…how can I not extend to others what I have been so lavishly been given.

    • Always glad to see you, Ro, and it’s not late – never too late, that’s for sure. (just a tiny note here – my name has an ‘a’ on the end of it. . . it’s DianA not DianE) Yes, God calls us ‘out of the fog into the light’ – amen! And I love that Romans 8 verse. Thanks for tying it in here.

  16. “Jesus saw beneath their behavior, beneath the swirling demons, beneath their bad reputations. He saw something else, something real and true and more important, even than their sin: he saw God’s image in them, and God’s design. And then he reached right in and pulled that beauty out so that others could see it, too!”
    That is my story. I was always told how bad I was, what a problem I was, how much stress I caused… and it was all true. I DID behave badly, and cause problems and stress. But nobody seemed to be able to see anything more than that – that underneath all those problems was a little girl, scared, alone and desperate for someone to love her. So when I was told that God couldn’t bear to look at me because of my sinfulness, and that He only wanted to look at Jesus, it made perfect sense! Of course God would feel that way, just like it seemed everybody else did.
    It took leaving everyone and everything I knew and creating a completely new life (which also involved a new church) before I started to believe any differently. I had always known that God loved me, as long as ‘me’ was submerged and invisible in Jesus, but ever so slowly I started to learn and believe that I was of value to God. Not just as a container for Jesus, but as me. That God loved my strong will, and had intentionally given it to me (it wasn’t a design flaw after all!), that He loved my sense of humour, and that He actually liked me! Gasp! This was a completely earth-shattering revelation. God cared for me so tenderly and kindly in those first few years of transition that I started to be able to trust Him, instead of only fearing Him.
    I am still – alas! – a sinner. And I am still often overwhelmed by how very far I am, from even my own standards, let alone God’s. The difference now is that I am getting better at knowing that God loves me, and that I give Him joy… even in my sinful state, He SEES me. The real me, the one He made and loves. It’s the difference between thinking that God looks past my pitiful attempts at goodness, sees my great sinfulness, and says “I knew it, you’re just a fraud!” and thinking that God looks past my sinfulness, sees my heart, the daughter He loves, and says “Come back to me, I miss you!”

    • So happy to see you, Donna – I always appreciate your thoughtful contributions to this discussion. That phrase right there – ‘God couldn’t bear to look at me’ – well, that just breaks my heart. And it’s that kind of phrase that leads us to believe that we must become invisible (like we talked about last week). And if there’s a spark of psychological health in us, we naturally recoil at these ideas. And I don’t mean ‘naturally’ in the sense of our ‘flesh’ or our ‘sinful self,’ either. I believe that recoil is God-sent, to help us wrestle our way out of the lie that God hates looking at us. Yes, God hates sin. But God can always see the sinner first, the person underneath who longs for love and wholeness. And sometimes, we have to leave those places of unhealth in order for our own healthiness to flourish, you know? Of course, we are also sinners – this is true. But in Jesus, we are forgiven sinners, we are always in the process of becoming more healthy, more whole. LOVE that last line, Donna: “God looks past my sinfulness, sees my heart, the daughter He loves, and says, “Come back to me, I miss you!” YES. Thanks so much.

  17. Diana, I have given a lot of thought to your post. I remember the same things you remember…like after I asked Jesus into my heart at age 5, i was sure i would always be good. My parents smiled and i think assured me of a more realisitc outcome. I went through a time in 6th grade where it became more real to me. I wasn’t afraid of “losing my salvation”, so i didn’t keep responding to that invitation, but for me, the thing that brought me the most angst was the retreats, camps and conferences, oh, and revivals, where we were urged to dedicate our lives to God..you know, go where ever, do what ever he wanted us to, which probably was not what we would want to do. It was so dang confusing to me….the invitations were presented in such a way that even if you were being this “good church girl”, which I was,(and I really did love Jesus) if you didn’t stand, then everyonewould think you had some issue and weren’t committed…so i would dread the “invitation”…..wait awhile and inevitably stand. It didnt’ seem to matter if I had just attended another “rally” a week before, where I did the same thing. Had to do it over and over again. I sure didnt’ want people to think i was rebelling against God. It feels like such a manipulation. I was so worried about what other people might thing about me.

    I remember taking my kids to hear a really well known speaker. it went really well and darn it, if they didn’t give this same invitation. I was so mad about that. I wonder now if I talked to my kids about it. I dont’ remember.

    anyway, thank you for your posts.

    • You know, I think there are times and places that are appropriate for altar calls. I do. But sometimes they are just plain overdone! Camps and rallies are notorious for them and in some situations, they are good and helpful. Billy Graham wouldn’t be Billy Graham without an altar call. But you know that going in! Some places, it feels decidedly unnatural, even invasive and most definitely manipulative. I think it’s good to learn to relax in such situation, actually. To pray with the speaker that if anyone needs a moment to meet Jesus, that they’ll take advantage of this opportunity. But to not feel compelled to respond ourselves. Thanks for reading and commenting today, Carol. Always glad to see you.

      • the interesting thing to me is that years later i asked a friend who was in the same culture and meetings as me if he felt this way. he looked at me like “uh.no…..” I do realize that i had an inbuilt radar for “what did people think” and I probably learned it well….there is a value is caring for others, but what was modeled to me went beyond that to having it rule more than was healthy.

  18. We’re experiencing morning fog here in the Tampa area, too. Sometimes it’s so thick, I think the whole day will be shrouded in a thick blanket. Slowly but surely, however, the sun does its evaporative work, and by mid-morning, the day sparkles with light.

    Sin has shrouded my life in a thick blanket of shortcomings and bad choices. (Though I, too, am one of those who accepted Jesus as Savior during early childhood.) But over time, the Light of Jesus–his love and grace, his guidance and goodness–is slowly but surely burning away the fog of sin so I am able to increasingly reflect his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). Praise God he has never given up on me and considers me worth the effort of transformation!

    • I, too, am thankful that God never give up on us – even when we give up on ourselves. Thanks for joining the conversation this week, Nancy! (Glad to know you Floridians get fog from time to time, too. I’ve often wondered about that.)

  19. Wow – it seems like we were riding the same wave (Ha!) this week in regards to how Jesus sees us. It was transformational for me to read about Nathanael and how Jesus greeted Him. It blew my mind how Nathanael had just dissed Jesus’ hometown and yet, that is not what Jesus chose to focus on. It just brings me this huge sense of relief that He sees all of me, much like your camera saw the surfers. What an incredible tangible example!

    • Yes, I think we ARE on the same wave this week, Jen! How sweet. I love when the Spirit weaves together words all across the web. And it is a relief – we are loved, just as we are. And then we’re welcomed into transformation. So cool.

  20. Gwen Acres says:

    Having a sensitive nature and wanting to please God as well as people I have always been disappointed in myself. Sin is such a mystery. There is original sin, which just does not seem fair. Because of it we are all tainted before we start.Then there is ” the world, the flesh and the devil ” and how they inter-relate keeping us in bondage. But after we are “saved” and have the indwelling Holy Spirit we are to walk in the spirit and thus keep from actively sinning. I have always wanted to be a “good girl” and have done a pretty good job of that as far as being kind, nice, compassionate, and merciful. But my seventy years have not always been pristine, at least by the Christian standard. This has left me sad with myself and fearful of God. Afterall, I was a Christian since a very small child, thus all my sinning has been as a Christian. So for a long time I was tormented by this. Even kept me from sharing my faith, because I was a failure. Then came Grace and the knowledge that forgiveness is for the past, present and future of our lives. Grace has been my life saver. Now I am free to be me ( although I secretly wish I could have been a perfect good girl Christian) I am open to share my faith with Christians or non Christians. I am real!! Having shared all that I must admit I am a bit scared to see it in print and be open to judgement. But I must let go and move on in my real ness!! Diana said this was a safe place!!

    • There will always be space in the midst of grace for godly sorrow, Gwen. None of us lives this following life perfectly – it’s not possible to do so. So both things can be true – we can be sorry for the ways in which we fall short of the mark. And we can find relief and gratitude when we absorb the truth that God loves us anyway, that God forgives us, even before we ask for it. Glad you’re here – and yes, this is a safe place.

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