// thoughts from an average Christian (honesty)

Phew. Sorry about the delay on this one, but this has been an incredibly difficult chapter to write, and I’ve been through about eight or nine exhausting redrafts on it over the past month.

I’m still not quite sure that it works, and so feedback is appreciated as usual (thank you for all your comments so far – i’m taking them on board, and they are a great help), but please be gentle – like i say, this was not an easy one to write. Let me know on the usual topics – what works, what doesn’t, what is compelling and what seems self-obsessed, tone, pacing, typos etc…

* * *

// 3. honesty

And after the mountaintop, silence.

*

Have you ever sat across from a close friend to whom you have given an evasive answer and felt their eyes boring into you, even as you try to avoid meeting their gaze? The people who know you really well, well enough that they can tell something is up, they just keep staring. And they always get the answer out of you somehow.

The silence that followed me as I walked down from that hilltop was not the silence of absence, even though it felt like it at the time.

It was a waiting silence. The silence of a God who knew exactly what He was doing.

There is a moment in the life of Jesus where he and his disciples are on a boat, travelling across a lake, when a storm comes up. Jesus is asleep, in the midst of the turbulence, and his disciples are terrified, wondering why he doesn’t do something. And so they wake him up and he calms the storm with a word and then asks them, “why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”

There is a similar moment in the story of creation, where the world is described as being “wild and waste”, in a comparable state of turbulence and chaos, and God speaks to the chaos and brings order. He shapes it into days and creates patterns, ordering that which was previously disordered, and then creates life at the end of that. From chaos, there is stillness. From turbulence, peace.

It is that kind of chaos that God is in the business of resolving.

What the silence that followed me down from that hilltop revealed was my own unease and anxiety, the chaos that reigned within me. Next to that kind of impossible stillness, you cannot help but realise your own limitations. Everything seems to echo back on itself. You start to hear the control and manipulation that lies behind your conversations with your friends, the arrogance and self-centredness that punctuates your Bible studies, the cruelty of the humour with which you put down your colleagues, and suddenly you start to look that much less good.

And the silence followed me wherever I went. It was there when I walked down the hill, and there when I lay on my bed trying to work out what had happened that afternoon. It was there when I showered, there when I opened my Bible. It followed me as I caught the train in the mornings, riding alongside my co-workers, and it followed me as I sat in work, providing admin support to the organisation for which I worked. It followed me in my lunch breaks and in my evenings, too, as it turned out. It was eerie. I was sure that people would be able to tell just by looking at me.

Naturally, I started trying to hide from it. But how do you hide from something that is inside of you, anyway? Where do you start even trying to run?

*

When Adam and Eve sin for the first time in that garden all those years ago, their first thought is to hide themselves. They make clothes, and then they hide from the presence of God among the trees. It’s like the direct opposite of what God created them to do. God creates people for relationship with Him, each other and the world He has created – relationship in all its crazy, mysterious glory. People are made in the image of God, which means that they carry something of the glory and mystery of God within them in their very core, and the world is created to glorify God and to witness to Him, and God – well, He is God, and He’s pretty glorious, as it goes. And so, in and of itself, that process of relating is incredible, something jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring that was offered to us at the very start.

But, naturally, Adam and Eve start trying to hide instead.

God asks Adam where he is, because Adam is hiding (even though God, of course, knows where he is hiding). And Adam tells God that he was afraid, and so he hid. This is where alarm bells have to be ringing for Adam. He even starts trying to scrabble for excuses and blame it on his wife.

The original design for us was honesty with God – ‘being naked, and feeling no shame’. And yet pretty soon into our story as a species, we blow it, and so begins humanity’s ongoing story of trying to hide from God. It’s something that our parents did because they saw their parents doing it, and it’s something that, for the most part, humanity has been doing since that very first time…

We all hide. We hide in shells of who we’re supposed to be or how we’re supposed to act, and we do it at least in part because being totally known by somebody is scary. We put up these coverings and we put on stereotypes because that way it allows us to stand at a distance from ourselves, because if somebody knows who you really are, they can hurt you more deeply than anyone else. They have huge power over you, not least because they can call you up on all the moments when you’re not being who you were made to be.

We have been hiding since Adam and Eve. We do it because we are afraid of being known and manipulated. Because we are scared of the state of our hearts, and the mystery contained within, and the pain that they are capable of experiencing in this broken, fallen world. Something is rotten at our core, and we do not want anyone to see it. The Bible calls this sin. And it shows itself in self-control, the assertion that we can run our lives better than another, and that we do not need anyone else, least of all God.

We were created for honesty, but after a while spent hiding behind a mask it becomes disconcertingly easy to forget that we are even doing it.

I don’t think that, as Adam stood there blustering before God, God was standing there shaking his head angrily. Instead I think He stood there just watching, with tears in His eyes. Watching as the reality of what Adam and Eve had done sank into their heads and they started trying to comprehend the consequences. It had only looked like a piece of fruit.

That first step into honesty on that hilltop was a big step for me, and a dangerous one at that. It acknowledged before God that there was a division between outward and inward, that I was hiding, and once I did that I realised that He was not going to stop until He had the real me again, the way I was created to be. Not the fake me and his achievements, successes and skills, but the person that was there beneath all of that. He was going to get to him, irrespective of how many layers of junk He had to peel back or just how much trauma it cost in the process, because that is how good He is. For as long as we assert that we are okay, He will honour that, because that is what He does, but when we cry out for help, acknowledge that things are not the way they are supposed to be, He will run to us and fight for us, fight to bring us back.

God calls Himself a jealous God. He will not stop until He takes back what is His. And I had promised myself to Him without really knowing what I was letting myself in for. Now He was not going to let me go.

*

A man called Gregory Treverton has made a brilliant definition between the way in which humanity looks at problems as being either puzzles or mysteries. There are some things that can be solved by having the right piece of evidence; if the question is, say, how many missiles does an Iraqi regime have, or where is Osama Bin-Laden, then having more information will likely solve the problem, getting us closer to those answers piece by piece. That’s a puzzle. It has a definite solution, too, an endpoint. Mysteries, by definition, are different. In these cases, more evidence just complicates things, creates more noise. What is needed is the right way of looking at the given evidence, the right analyst, who is able to look at the mass of detail and draw conclusions from it. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it, “puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.”

Even since that day in the garden, humanity has tended to look at sin as a problem to be solved, which it is, but they have often tended to try and solve it by establishing systems that stop people from even getting close to sin, as though not sinning were the end goal. We know that there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament, for example, and we know that it’s important that we keep them because God is holy, and so in answer we put more commandments in place to keep us from even getting close to breaking the important commandments. We think that if we do enough of the good stuff then one day something will click into place in our heads and we’ll suddenly become the person we were originally supposed to be, although of course it doesn’t work that way in practice. That’s puzzle-based thinking, and it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because the problem is much more complicated; the problem is in the human heart, and that’s about as complex as they come. And to solve it, we don’t need more information about it, not really – that would just confuse things. What we need is the right way of looking at the information we already have in order to work it out. Jesus breaks those 613 commandments down to just two when he talks about it, to love God with all your heart, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. The issue is not how well you keep those 613 commandments, then, as though that’s what’s going to transform you; the issue is how (and by extension, who and what) you love, which is both much simpler and infinitely more complex at the same time. In short, the issue is one of the heart, and that is much more difficult to sort out than the mechanics.

One writer, a guy called Dallas Willard, has written about what he calls “gospels of sin management”, and about how these so-called gospels are simple, old-fashioned legalism. They suggest that following Jesus is just a case of not doing certain things, like having sex with people that you’re not married to or taking drugs or watching movies rated 18, and if you are not doing these things then you are not sinning, and therefore staying holy, and God is happy with you. It’s for that reason that sin always seemed like kind of an abstract notion to me. It was the thing that kept us from getting into heaven, so we had to not do it so that when we died, we’d get to go to heaven, where we could not sin forever. Or something. And then there was Jesus, who died so that we could have grace, which meant that our sins were forgiven, past present and future, only we still weren’t supposed to sin, because sin wasn’t good.

I had always figured that I was doing pretty well at avoiding the usual suspects – no murder, no theft, and so on – and so it seemed like I was okay. Sure, I had heard that people were instinctively sinful because of what Adam and Eve did in the garden, that all of humanity and creation was fallen from that point. But I couldn’t work out how, and it just sounded like sin was a disease that was communicated through the blood, to which Jesus was the ideal cure – the perfect solution to a logical equation that I seemed to have comparatively little part in.

I got that humanity as a species had done stuff wrong and needed to be put right. I just hadn’t made the connection to the fact that this meant Ineeded to be saved, too.

Jesus once talked about being among a people whose hearts had grown dull, whose ears could barely hear and whose eyes were closed. I had always been taught that this referred to the people outside the church, but I was wrong.

It referred to me.

And the silence had to come to show me that the mechanics would never be enough, that the problem is me, it is all of us, buried so deep beneath our skin that no amount of scrubbing could ever clean it off. It is a sinful heart that is driving so-called Christians and Muslims in Nigeria to kill one another as I write this, to rape one another’s women and chop off each other’s limbs, and it is a sinful heart that is behind comparable atrocities in Rwanda, Zimbabwe and many, many others over the past few decades. It is a sinful heart that drives men to kidnap girls and install them in the growing number of brothels and lap-dancing clubs across Europe, and it is a sinful heart that drives married men from their wives to the arms of prostitutes. It is a sinful heart that is driving up knife crime in the estates across the United Kingdom, a sinful heart that drives us away from our lovers and neighbours and families and friends, and I get that this may sound very blunt and very brow-beating, but it is this simple: the problem is with our hearts, with your heart and mine. And if you believe that you are better than this, that you are more tolerant or respectful or dignified or self-controlled, then maybe you have not yet examined your heart, and maybe you are still hiding.

It is this that tears at us from inside. We are broken people, and no amount of trying to change ourselves is ever going to succeed. At our very core, something has gone wrong, something is out of whack, and the consequences are written large across our world as a result. Systems and institutions are not going to mend it, as the problem is not a problem that can be fixed. The problem is a mystery that we know all too well, for it dwells on the inside of us.

And its solution, of course, lies in God.

*

I spent a lot of time staring at the wall over the next few months, wondering what I was going to do next. The best option seemed to be to just sit it out. When I got back to the UK I was headed to Oxford, to a whole new setting where I could start again. I had blown it here, or at least that was what it felt like, and starting again wasn’t an ideal solution, but it was the best that I could come up with. I sat on my bed in the silence waiting for God to speak and becoming less and less sure that He ever would.

A couple of weeks after the silence first began, they were talking about baptism at my church. One of the coolest things about attending a church that was by the coast and that was attended by a lot of young professionals and musicians was that in the summer they used to baptise people outside in the sea, which is an awesome thing to do. The guy up the front, Sydney, who was the assistant pastor and had a soul patch on his chin (we had bonded over our shared love of facial hair) was talking about baptism as being a kind of death. You go down beneath that water and something of you dies, like you leave the old you in the water, and then you come up a new man, with a new way of life. The way Sydney described it, it was like you were some kind of reanimated corpse. You died in the water and then you stayed dead, and it was only Jesus living in you, empowering you for this life, which kept you walking on at all.

I had been baptised already, baptised andconfirmed in fact, because I went to an Anglican church where they expected you to have been baptised at birth and then you resolved to follow Jesus when you were old enough. I was never baptised at birth, so they baptised me quickly, and I confirmed it about a minute later. It had never sounded like it did when Sydney talked about it back when I got baptised, though. Death had never sounded like it was on the cards. It was all about deciding that you were going to live the way you were supposed to live.

Since the silence had begun, I had become pretty despondent. When you realise that your efforts are no longer enough, what do you do then? You know that something is wrong but you also know that there is nothing that you can do about it, that you can’t fix it on your own, and so you’re stuck, and all of a sudden life starts to feel kind of purposeless. So when Sydney started talking about baptism as a kind of death, my ears pricked up. As he did, a montage of the past four or five years of getting it wrong over and over started to play through my head – all those attempts to look good, all the manipulation and control and rage and bitterness and arrogance and cruelty – and with it a rush of revulsion deep within, like nausea in my gut. It wasn’t guilt so much as a sense of wanting nothing at all to do with that stuff ever again. Wanting out.

But I had been baptised already, and this stuff had been dealt with, I figured, and so all that remained was to try and live differently in the aftermath, to try and change something now. What was done was done, and so I sat in my seat, staring straight ahead, and letting the words wash over me.

And as I did, a voice broke into my reverie. The same still, small voice that had haunted my dreams.

You should do it.

I ignored it and kept staring at the chair in front of me.

You should get baptised.

Clearly my mind was playing tricks on me.

Seriously, you should go and talk to them.

I sighed and let my mind go with it. “But I’ll look like an idiot,” I said inwardly. “Plus, I don’t need to. Plus, isn’t it heretical to get baptised twice?”

Are you embarrassed?

“Not… embarrassed, exactly, just… confused.”

Confused is okay. Now go.

“But…”

Go.

So after the service I went up to Sydney and asked him about getting baptised. He looked shocked.

“Dude, you’ve not been baptised?”

“Uh… well, sort of.” Oh, this was going to be awkward.

“Serious?”

“Yep.”

“Really?”

I no longer had any idea what I was being asked. “Mm-hmm,” I said, non-commitally.

“No!”

“Sydney, I’m… I’m confused. About – well, quite a lot of things. But, uh. Well. I have been baptised. Sort of.”

He looked quizzical. “Sort of.”

“Mm-hmm.” I was staring at my shoes.

“Like, they just put water on your forehead?”

I gritted my teeth. “Well, uh, yeah – but that, at least, is okay. Theologically, I mean. But I mean more like, uh, I didn’t mean it first time round.”

“So you want to get baptised again.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You want to get washed clean of all your sins once and for all… twice.”

I gave a wild, slightly panicked grin. “Yep!” I chuckled nervously. “First time only my head got washed clean, so now let’s do the whole thing, eh?”

Sydney looked unconvinced, clearly thinking to himself that all English people must be idiots, and then he shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, sweet,” he said. “Let’s do it!”

“Sweet.”

We high-fived, and then I walked away, muttering to God about how nothing was ever easy these days.

*

Later that afternoon I told the fellowship, too, over lunch.

“You’ve not been baptised?”

“Well, uh, sort of…”

“Sort of.”

“I’m kind of getting baptised… again.”

Again?”

Oh, this was not going to be a fun day.

*

Things happened pretty fast after that, and they lined up a baptism for a Sunday about a fortnight later. The night I got baptised, it rained. It rained a lot, in fact. A proper Cape Town storm, with sheeting rain and forked lightning, and so rather than get baptised in the sea the church sensibly opted to do it in a hot tub instead. About an hour and a half before it was supposed to go ahead I got a phone call telling me that Ash had been driven to hospital with suspected appendicitis, and part of me thought about backing out of the whole thing at that point. I could chalk this up to being a crazy gap year idea, on a par with getting a tattoo or something, and claim that I had seen the light at the last minute (after all, I had already grown a beard).

This was supposed to be a public declaration of faith, a solemn covenant that this time I was going to go for it, witnessed by my brothers and sisters, right? Without them here, the magnitude of what I was about to do had finally sunk in, and I was scared.

People talk about being ‘born again’, but birth hurts.

But as I thought it, that voice broke the silence and whispered me, you’re going to do it, you know. And before my mind could even form the word “why?” the answer came.

Because it’s not about you. It’s about me.

There were two of us getting baptised that night, me and another girl, and she had about thirty friends with her, where I had about five. When she came up from the water it was to a chorus of cheers. And then it was my turn, and suddenly this all seemed terribly unimpressive, and I looked around at all the guys gathered there and my heart kind of sank. Maybe all of this stuff was just hype after all, and transformation didn’t really happen in this world, there were just lots of people who really, really wanted it to work out and so convinced themselves of the reality of it all…

And then Sydney looked me in the eye and asked me, “are you ready?” I swallowed hard and nodded.

He grinned and lowered me back into the water, and as I went down beneath the surface all that panic and doubt simply… fell off, and stayed there. The sheer wave of joy that swept over me was so irrational and so unexpected that there aren’t really any words for it. Paul talks to the Philippians about their “glorious and inexpressible joy”, and I couldn’t put it any better than that. I had thought that the silence was absence, but the silence was revelation, and behind it all it was now possible to discern the presence of God, standing, watching and waiting, knowing exactly what He was doing. It was learning to hear His voice again, that voice that humanity had been hiding from or blocking out ever since that day in the garden all those years ago. As I stood up in that pool in the pouring rain, feeling for all the world like a man who had just been reborn, shiny and wholly new and real for what seemed like the first time in my life, under my breath I whispered the word, “thanks”.

And, from somewhere, a voice replied, you’re welcome.

*

See, I don’t think that God wants to make us unrecognisable, just new. He bought us back at a price because we are valuable, because we were created for good, way before we picked up those bulky coverings and layers of baggage.

At some point, all of us are going to have to take ownership of our sin. Whether that occurs in this life or when we are called to account in the next, one way or another it is going to be a deeply, deeply unpleasant experience. But sin does not only have consequences for eternity, it has consequences for now, too. People say that God cannot draw near to us because He is holy, and we are sinful, and His holiness cannot tolerate any sin at all. That is true, and it is vital to remember that. It is also true that God cannot draw near to us when we are sinful because we are still hiding parts of ourselves from Him, still refusing to stand openly and honestly before Him in acknowledgement of who we truly are. That is the beginning of honesty, and the beginning of transformation.

God is interested in our hearts, not just the outward appearance. Who we are when the silence falls. And standing in that hot tub in the pouring rain, it really felt like I was finally beginning to figure that out.

The problem, however, was far more complex than it seemed at the time.

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