A good friend once asked me, “Heidi, who is God to you?” At the time, the question was born out of a growing realisation that, as someone who worked for a Christian organization, God was in danger of becoming her “boss.” He was the person who issued the next list of targets. The name that was stamped on each project and signed at the bottom of each evaluation sheet.
Over the past few months I have been studying the letters to the churches in Revelation with some friends. In this season of my life God’s words to Ephesus, Sardis and Laodicea, in particular, have made for uncomfortable reading. With razor sharp accuracy, God pierces through every façade and lays bear the carefully concealed truth, in essence forcing each church to answer the question, “Who is God to you?”
As I have tripped and stumbled through the letters, that question has been a constant and often unwelcome presence, gently nudging at my soul and stubbornly demanding that I search my heart for a response. Afraid of the answer, I have been trying in vain to avoid God’s gaze as He whispers again and again, “Who am I to you?”
The church in Ephesus had an impressive spiritual pedigree. Having lived amongst them for some time, the apostle Paul had become a father figure: loving them, mentoring them and spurring them on with his unique blend of contagious excitement and unapologetic frankness. The believers in Ephesus had experienced God’s presence in remarkable ways. They understood the power of community within the Kingdom and they had watched as lives were dramatically changed. Their theology was in order. They were working hard, persevering in the face of difficulty and testing those who sought to teach them. Yet, cloaked behind this veil of virtuous activity, there was a spreading darkness that threatened to swallow them up.
Somehow, in the midst of all the good activity, the doing had become divorced from the being. They had forgotten their first love. Despite their rich experience of God’s grace, the church in Ephesus had lost sight of the fact that God was more interested in their hearts than their credentials. As frantic service took the place of intimacy and rest they drifted further and further from the life of communion that God had called them to.
It wasn’t that God wanted them to stop serving Him. In his own letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminded the church that God had great plans for them. They were, “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we could walk in them.” (Eph 2 v 10) A large chunk of the same letter is dedicated to unpacking the details of the Kingdom work that God not only calls his people to but also equips them for.
The problem, a few decades later, was that their motivation had changed. When flawed and broken people are involved there is always a danger that God’s gracious invitation to be part of the building and extending of his kingdom will become an opportunity to try and prove our worth.
It appears that, when it comes to my relationship with God, I am a slow learner. No sooner does a truth threaten to take root than I have forgotten it again. Thankfully God is patient. If the challenge of the letter to the Ephesians didn’t sink in, it came again through Sardis.
Wealthy and comfortable, the Christians in Sardis were confident in their reputation as a thriving church. Once again, God sees beyond the impressive resume. His judgement is crushing, “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” They knew how to play the part but they were running on empty. When everyone else saw a church at their peak, God saw that they were clinging to the dying embers of faith.
To my shame, I have spent much more of my life agonizing over what God wants me to do than I have over who he wants me to be. Worn down by God’s judgement on these apparently thriving churches, I finally surrendered to the question as it came again.
“Who is God to you?”
Through my weakened defenses came a new and unwelcome answer. “He is the thing you are good at.”
I did not see that coming. There are no words to shield me from the arrogance of it. No way to spin it into something beautiful. Faced with a lie that had slipped unnoticed into the secret places of my soul, the final letter to the church in Laodicea pressed in to find its mark. “So, you think you are wealthy and have need of nothing? The truth is, without me you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”
When God shines a light on things we would rather not know about ourselves it is uncomfortable and humbling and often deeply painful but it is also good. It is good because it is proof of His love. Even as He rebukes the church in Laodicea, He reminds them of the reason. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” (Rev 3 v 19). This is not a final condemnation but a call to recognize the seriousness of their sin and return to the God who continues to pursue them in their wandering.
Confronted by the coldness of their hearts, the challenge for the Ephesians was to turn back and remember the things they had once known. To go back over old ground, allowing God to rekindle the fire that once fuelled all they did for him.
Even as the light within the church at Sardis flickered and threatened to die, it was not too late. There was still time to wake up. The God whose heart had always been for them was longing to welcome them back into the intimacy that would give them life.
Spiritually bankrupt, the Laodiceans were invited to come to God for all that they lacked. Salve for their blindness, clothes to cover their nakedness and riches beyond their wildest imagination. If they chose to listen and obey, God’s promise to them was as beautiful as it was underserved. “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3 v 20)
That kind of extravagant grace has a way of changing your perspective. Who is God to me? He is the one who sees my misplaced pride in all its ugliness and then, with gentleness, welcomes me back to His table. Intimacy restored, pride forgiven and hope reborn, I am reminded once again that my value is not in what I bring to the Kingdom but in my relationship with Him.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.