It has been a while (over two months, in fact) since I’ve shared a blog, and, trust me, that hasn’t been for lack of trying. I have spent the last two months daily trying to figure out what the heck to share with you all. I felt a responsibility to do a proper follow-up to my last post and keep supporting the black American community through helpful reflection. That post would have been looking at the qualities of a biblical hero and the qualities of a biblical ally through the book of Ruth and how that relates to racial reconciliation today (Spoiler alert: Ruth is the hero, Boaz is an ally, the analogy has its limitations, but please follow my line of reasoning to see how this applies to us).
But while I was trying to figure out the structure of that post, I was also experiencing significant personal upheaval. July was very much the month of God going down the list of things I care about and asking, “Are you willing to give that to me?” Some things I let go and he immediately gave them back, others not so much. I had an opportunity to get some extended time alone with God, and where I hoped for a time of spiritual refreshment, what I got was a crash course in holy grievance. I would be driving around, thinking to myself, “Yeah, this really sucks, but I shouldn’t complain because God is faithful,” and God was like, “Really? But it seems like you’re pretty sad. I think you should just be sad,” and then I would start retch-crying. Then I would arrive at this point of like, “Okay, I cried. Time to start moving on,” and God would be like, “Mmmmmm… Nope! Don’t move on – it still sucks! Let it suck!” So after that week I thought maybe I should do a post about mourning well. I would have shared about how things like Psalm 88 and the song “O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile” really encourage me because they tell me that God doesn’t want us to get over our pain so that we can come be with him, he wants us to include him in our pain as we feel it. God doesn’t set a standard for how long grief is appropriate; we get to sit in it as long as it takes. But once again, the post just didn’t fully form in my head.
But in the last week, I have shared the same quote by Julian of Norwich to three different people, and it destroyed each of them, so guys, we gotta talk about it.
Some helpful background: Julian of Norwich was an anchorite (someone who devotes their life to God through solitude, contemplation, and being “anchored” to a specific location, like permanent residence in a cell) in the 14th century, and her work Revelations of Divine Love is the first known book written by a female author in the English language. At some point in her life, Julian prayed to be brought so close to death that she would have no hope of recovery so she could better know the experience of Christ in the crucifixion. She also prayed that God would give her three “wounds”: contrition, compassion, and earnest longing for God. God answered her prayers when she was thirty, and Julian became very sick, even to the point where her mother thought she had died. In the time of her sickness, Julian received a series of visions where she saw Christ crucified, “heard” God’s explanations of his love, and felt various spiritual realities.
Julian recounted her experiences in two versions, a short text recorded soon after her experience in which she gives her initial interpretations, and a long text written after many years of reflection over the visions’ meanings. The quote I am going to reference comes from part 12 of the short text, which begins with Jesus asking Julian, “Are you well pleased that I suffered for you?”
This might be a strange question for some of us. I know it would have been for me as I was growing up. It would have seemed unfitting to me that we should rejoice in Christ dying a horrible death for us. I would have been coming from a place of primarily viewing Christ’s sacrifice as penal substitution, so it would have been horrible for me to rejoice in my sin earning Jesus’ punishment.
But Julian breaks out to praise when asked this. And Jesus, as though with a sweet smile on his face, says, “If you are pleased, I am pleased. It is a joy and a delight and an endless happiness to me that I ever endured suffering for you, for if I could suffer more, I would suffer.”
But that’s not the part that got me.
Julian then sees three heavens, each one revealing how each person of the Trinity delights in Christ’s crucifixion, and she perceives that Jesus wants us to participate in that same joy. She perceived this because of the question Jesus posed to her, “Are you well pleased?” and his response, “If you are pleased, I am pleased.”
Already, that was starting to hit a new place in my heart. For a moment, my mind caught an image of Jesus standing nearby, his hand extended to me, and saying, “Do I please you?” This is the positive re-wording of the admonition he gives John the Baptist in Matthew 11, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” But neither of these statements are needy for our approval. There is nothing petulant about them. It’s a voicing of the husband-love of God which I outlined in this post, the incredible vulnerability, humility, and love expressed by an Almighty Creator asking to be received by his creation.
But it was the next line that killed me. Julian hears Jesus’ words and perceives their meaning, as if Jesus said, “It is joy and delight enough for me, and I ask nothing more of you for my hardship but that I give you pleasure.”
My brain wanted to rephrase that last bit and have it say, “I ask nothing more of you but that you take pleasure in me.”
But that’s not what he said. He’s expressing this amazing, all-suffering love for us, and my brain wanted to assume that something was required of me in return for that love, that I needed to make Jesus my pleasure or the sacrifice wouldn’t apply to me. But that’s not what he said. The only thing he wants in return for his amazing, all-suffering love is to give us pleasure. There is nothing for us to do, only to continue to receive from the fullness of his joy and delight at being able to give himself for us.
It’s been less than a week since I first read that passage. I’ve already lost track of how many times I began to get mildly frustrated or anxious about something and then saw Jesus standing in front of me again, hand extended, asking, “Are you pleased with me?” How could I not be? Even in our most godly, spirit-filled moments, none of us can offer someone else all-suffering love. We can’t even come close. But Jesus says, “For you, if I could suffer more, I would suffer.”
Friends, I sincerely hope that each of you will take hold of this image of Jesus and consider his amazing, all-suffering love for you. Know that you are loved, and let him give you pleasure.