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Pen Pal

PEN PAL
What kind of letter would Jesus write to you today?

Every year throws up new phrases by which we can remember it. 2016 was no exception and one contender for the best phrase is ‘fake news’. In a sense, there is nothing new about fake news, it’s just a media story that isn’t true and that happens a lot. But in the same way that post-truth said something deeper about lying – that it no longer matters that you’re lying, the only thing is getting away with it – so fake news conjured up a whole new genre – you can simply make up the news and if people swallow it, it becomes the truth. In Macedonia, some school friends created a series of fake news stories about the 2016 US election which were shared more widely on Facebook than true stories because they were more malicious, and we are prone to believing the worst, not the best of people.

 

Tests have been carried out to show that people find it difficult to distinguish real news from fake news, so we shouldn’t be too hard on others. We are also subject to wilful blindness, where we don’t see certain things in life because we don’t want to see them. At its worst, this can be a failure to accept we are slipping, say, into alcohol dependency or an affair, but it also functions in a more ordinary way, where we don’t see ourselves the way others see us. Self-awareness is a very modern term, but it suggests a long held need in people: to be able to see how they fit into a group because they have a good idea what other people think of them. It’s not exactly a fruit of the Spirit, but there are hints there of humility and self-control. We don’t want to boss the group or control it with our moods. Those who have good self-awareness are the better team players; those who don’t have self-awareness, by definition, don’t realise it, which is the whole problem.

 

It is said that we judge others by their actions but judge ourselves by our intentions. There is much wisdom in this. It explains why we are harder on other people than we are on ourselves, because we think we mean well but don’t always assume this of others. The apostle Paul said we ‘see through a glass darkly’ when we approach God, like trying to perceive something through frosted glass. At the end, he says, we will see face to face. ‘Now I know only in part’ he says, ‘then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’. We may lack self-awareness, but God knows us perfectly already, and he also wants to perfect us, to bring us to a point of readiness where we are finally made holy, as he is holy.

 

If God knows us inside out, then he more than anybody is the one we need to listen to, to gain understanding. There are no fake news stories with God, no wilful blindness. He is truth, not post-truth. So what might God want to say to us today? In Revelation, Jesus pens letters to the regional churches with remarkable specificity. But we also know he has loving care for each one of us – a desire to save, to mend, to restore us to being the person he has called us to be. So what if Jesus were to pen a letter to you personally today? What might it say? What do you need to hear?

 

I don’t think this is an easy thing to do, precisely because we lack full self-awareness and cannot not know ourselves properly until that day when we will fully know. There is always the risk in the journey of faith that we imagine we are listening to the voice of God when we are just speaking to ourselves. Training ourselves to distinguish the voice of God from the chatter in our brains is a lifelong commitment and few people think they have cracked it, but unless we make the effort, the danger is that we end up believing convenient things which suit us. At the other extreme, there is a risk of allowing our imperfect minds to be too harsh in their assumptions about what God might say. Many people suffer from a vision of God which is vindictive and judgmental, waiting to catch them out and condemn them for failing.

 

The kind of letter Jesus might write to us wouldn’t be an echo of our thinking and it wouldn’t be a sentence of judgment handed down. If there are two criteria I would attach to what we think he would write to us, it is these: it would be a letter of grace and challenge. God reaches out to us always in grace. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, so we must resist the sense that God judges us for the things we don’t like about ourselves. That is a monologue of the mind, not a conversation with the divine. Whatever we feel today, whatever we are face, God does not hand down a sentence on us. He wants to lift us up in grace and goodness, to give us a sense of how much he loves us. He does not look at the things we do and think they’re useless and unworthy, anymore than a parent being presented with a drawing by their child thinks it’s a waste of time and effort. Every parent responds in love, cherishes the person and the product, and spurs them lovingly on to more.

If we were to write the letter we think Jesus might write to us, we should not be hard on ourselves, but rest in the everlasting love with which he has loved us, and write from that perspective.

 

It is out of this profound sense of grace that we can also allow him to challenge us. The letters to the churches in Revelation also call the people to a deeper discipleship. God wants to perfect us, and so there is no room for complacency. An authentic encounter with God changes us for the better. This encounter will always be full of love, but it may also ask us some awkward questions too. As scripture says, the Lord disciplines those whom he loves. How could a disciple expect otherwise? Yet we try to wriggle out of these demands time and again, for it can be painful. There is no wriggle room on the cross, which is where we die to our selfish desires and find new life in Christ.

 

Grace, not judgment; challenge, not complacency. These are the contours of the letter Jesus might write to us. It is not something we should ever rush into, like the first question on an exam paper, but should spend time in quiet reflection over. We spend enough of our time in prayer telling God stuff he already knows. Perhaps now is the moment to spend some time listening to him tell us stuff we might not.

 

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