“…even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
— Ephesians 2:5-7, NASB
As I head into my 19th year as a missionary, I’ve purposely reflected on some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way. I’ve shed an ocean of tears, I’ve laughed until my stomach ached and my mouth went numb! I’ve experienced fear in the midst of what could have been a life-threatening situation (inadvertently driving through a military coup protest while on my way to the market), and I’ve experienced the sheer joy of seeing fruit being multiplied before my eyes. I’ve felt shame and remorse over sin, I’ve felt peace in the midst of the storms, I’ve known true friendship and betrayal. I’ve felt embraced and I’ve felt forgotten. In other words, I’ve lived life! Through it all, however, one thing stands out to me: the importance of my perspective on who I am and why I do what I do.
What I’m about to share comes from years of sermons, devotionals, life lessons and simply growing in the faith. I wish I could remember everyone whose words have spoken life into my spirit, but that would take a miracle—I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast some days. Here are bits and pieces from many life lessons that brought meaning to me.
I celebrated my 66th birthday this year. It was a hoot! I like the fact that I am now closer to 70 that I am to 60. I like it that people are beginning to do things for me they didn’t do before (such as carry my groceries, for example). I don’t have the heart to tell them that I could actually do it by myself—I’m enjoying the added attention!
But I’ve come to realize that for the majority of my 66 years of life, I’ve been sitting in Chair #2 when I could have been sitting in Chair #1! Allow me to explain. (The concept of Chair #1 and Chair #2 are taken from a message by Leif Hetland, a Norwegian pastor). While I was sitting in chair #2, I built up a reputation of being a responsible person, one you could count on to get the extra jobs done. I worked hard. I was focused on ministry and on being dependable. I did the best I could, no matter the task at hand — and I felt quite proud of that!
Ministry/Works + Identity as a Good Missionary = Acceptance
For 15 years, I taught and led TESOL seminars (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) for Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and I was known as a good instructor. I also ran a small English School here in Thailand and I poured myself into preparing creative lessons for my students, focusing on speaking and pronunciation. At the same time, I did daily discipleship with those around me. I did a good job!
Out of my performance came my identity as a good worker and a good missionary—and out of my identity as a good worker came my acceptance as a person. However, if I messed up, didn’t complete a task on time or (heaven forbid) was unable to complete the task at all, I would sink into a hole of rejection and despair. Guess who dug the hole? I did. Guess who felt like a failure? I did. And guess whose identity would shatter? Mine. Let me clarify: Out of my ministry came my identity as a good missionary, and flowing out from works and being a good missionary came my feelings of acceptance. Ministry/works + identity as a good missionary = Acceptance. Chair #2.
Then, I had what I would call an Epiphany, a revelation. A direct message from God’s heart to my spirit. That message tipped me upside down and completely changed my perspective. The Lord brought me to Matthew’s record of the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17). Yes, I knew Jesus was immersed in water signifying the death of the old man and the birth of the new man. Yes, I knew the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove. But I completely missed the significance of the next part. In verse 17 we read: “…and behold, a voice out of the heavens saying, ‘This is My Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.'”
In whom I am well-pleased. It hit me like a thunderbolt. Jesus had not raised the dead nor had He healed the sick. He hadn’t walked on the water nor had He calmed the stormy seas. He hadn’t fed the 5,000 and hadn’t changed water into wine. He had done NO public ministry. None. Nada. And yet God said He was well pleased with Jesus. How could that be?
In my world up until then, God was pleased because of the work I was doing. God was pleased if I didn’t screw up. Never in a million years would I have thought that on the day of my baptism, God would say, “This is my beloved daughter in whom I am well-pleased.” Never.
But God, in His compassion and love for me, brought me back to what I now call the innocence of Bethlehem. He reminded me that the moment of my rebirth—the very second it happened, I was totally accepted by my God. With love and pleasure in His eyes, He spoke over me, “Julie, I’m well-pleased.” WOW! Before ministry or personality or friendships, God accepts me? Before I could make a list of all the good things I’ve done, God actually unconditionally and totally accepted me? Could that really be true? And, I could be identified in Christ Jesus? WHAT? My identity and acceptance could come from Him? No strings attached? Freely given?
I could feel the very foundations of my life begin to shake. I dared not even think that I would reject God’s truth about me. And I realized that because God accepts me and because my identity is in Christ, ministry will flow out from the overflow of that acceptance and identity. Ministry doesn’t define them. A failed ministry does not shake them. Ministry flows out of my knowledge, acceptance and assurance of God’s amazing Grace and the power of His love. Chair #1. Acceptance by God + identity in Christ = ministry/works. What a relief! What a release from the pressure to perform! What freedom from the fear of man (humankind). What absolute joy and security!
We are seated with Christ in heavenly places – in chair #1.
Acceptance by God + Identity in Christ = Ministry/Works
This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Connections magazine. Reprinted by permission from author.