The root of Christianity is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved.
To live in our Adoption, to live as an Ambassador of the Kingdom of God, and to live an Abundant Life of listening to God’s Spirit, we must be grounded, at ever-deeper levels, in the love of God. But this presents a problem: we often don’t feel that love, and we have life experiences that might make us doubt the depth of that love.
My own story serves as an example. Growing up, I believed in Jesus and, in many ways, experienced his goodness. But within me, at the core of my being, there dwelled some different beliefs about who I was. I felt a lot of shame about my family and secrets that we kept. I felt in many ways like an imposture who might be exposed, found out, at any moment.
I was a skinny kid, too, and all too aware of it. In addition to my skinniness, I had a physical aberration called pectus excavatum, which is essentially a fancy way of saying that I have a big hole in the middle of my chest, between the ribs, above the sternum. Oh, how I hated that hole. I felt like something was terribly wrong with me, and taking off my shirt felt like shining a spotlight on everything I was sure would get me rejected.
In 7th grade, our gym class had a three week section of flag football. Anything was better than wrestling, so I was excited as our gym teacher got out the bag of balls and cones. But then I realized that he was going to divide us “shirts and skins.” Naturally, I got placed on skins, so I had to take off my shirt in front of all my peers. I felt like the chimp in Gary Larson’s Far Side strip who gazes at all the other chimps lamenting that they are already silverbacks. And I was sure every one would gawk and laugh at the hole in my chest.
I wasn’t much of an athlete, but I wasn’t a total slouch, either. Still, it was quite a surprise to me and I think to everyone else when I caught a short pass and took off down the sideline. Somehow, I evaded my nearest pursuers and actually found daylight towards the end zone. I was left with only one man to beat, a boy named Greg, quarterback of the football team and all-around junior high Adonis.
Somehow, I managed to beat Greg down the sideline. Perhaps he wasn’t really trying, perhaps my adrenaline gave me gazelle-like speed, but I just barely slipped past his grasping arms, claiming my share of middle school glory. I was elated. And then the balloon popped. To this day, I can still hear Greg breaking off his pursuit, turning away from me, and yelling to the rest of the class, “Well, I can’t catch that little runt!” Every one laughed. I think even our gym teacher laughed. I felt totally exposed. Humiliated. A shock of pain ripped through me. What I had feared had come about, and on a level beyond understanding or rational thought, the shame I felt about myself solidified into a reality.
I didn’t say anything. I’m sure I pretended I didn’t care. And life went on, I guess, pretty much as it had been going. Except something had happened. Some thing that I feared about myself—that I truly was and should be ashamed—had been confirmed.
Now, how does that belief, so strong in me, compete with the voice of Jesus saying, “You’re in, you’re beloved, you’re adopted?” This, you see, is the sort of thing that we are up against. Jesus must lead us out of every false narrative we have come to believe. Some of them, though we may hate them, we also cling to, for we all need something familiar in which to wrap ourselves. Furthermore, many of us become accustomed to drawing our identity--our sense of who we are--not from our adoption in Jesus but through some proxy means of earning approval: being nice, competent, successful, rich, or whatever other external thing we can succeed at. But our soul can never really thrive planted in those poor soils, and we have a hard time bearing fruit for others.
What is needed is an unlearning of our false identity—which is what any identity built on trying to be good or competent enough is, and coming fully into our adoption as chosen children of the Living God. And the only way this happens is through encounter. Jesus calls us out of mere mental belief which, while important, doesn’t have the power to transform us, and into a God encounter/God experience that re-makes us from within. Think of all the people in scripture who had to radically encounter God’s goodness before they could thrive following Him. Moses. Elijah. Paul. When we encounter the reality of Who God is as He really is and not how we have made up that He is, everything changes.
This is exactly why we need spiritual practices. We are transformed through encounter with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the practices create the space for such encounters. They come in all shapes and sizes. Reading scripture can be an exercise in gaining more information in the hope that it will lead to transformation, but encountering the Living God through scripture is something else all together. You can read where John says, “Behold what manner of love the Father has lavished on us…that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!” and form a theology of adoption. But it’s something else again to experience lavished love as a reality and not just an idea. In my life, as I persevered through trying times of darkness with that nagging voice of shame always pulling me down, engaging spiritual practices slowly turned the tide until what seems the greater reality to me is that not that I am “out,” but than I am “in,” faults and foibles and all, even the hole in my chest. It was God at work, pursing me, to make me whole, but it was the practices that created space for me to receive that pursuit and say “yes” to it.
What we seek then, are practices that lead to encounter with the goodness and nearness of Jesus so that we are transformed. The process will most likely look something like this: We become aware of the nearness and goodness of Jesus and we ask the question, “How can you be this good?!” which gets us off thinking about our self (thank God) and creates space, empowered by the grace of Jesus, to disassociate from negative thoughts and emotions that we have long over-identified with, such as the one from my story above, the belief that something within me was critically flawed and condemned to shame. The entire process gives us renewed energy to be with God with joy and, from that joy, to presence the love of God for others.
Spiritual practices can catalyze this entire process of encounter.
 New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton. Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc., 1961. P 75.
 I John 3:1