"Then you're criticizin' God. Right?" Woody Jolly asked.
His words shocked me so much I blurted out, "Maybe you heard something different from what I said."
He laughed and thumped me on the back. "Oh, no, I hear you just fine. For the past quarter hour you're been groanin' and moanin' about what a rotten Christian you are. Right?"
I nodded. Woody reached into his pocket and pulled out his New Testament. I stared at my friend, a soft-spoken man with limited formal education, but one of the most spiritually insightful people I've ever known.
"Just read this," he said, and thrust the New Testament at me.
"For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (Eph 2:10, NRSV). Some of the older translations refer to us as "his workmanship."
"When you get down hard on yourself and start thinkin' how bad you are, you're criticizin' God, you know." He wasn't joking. "You're a sinner, but you're still God's work of creation, see?"
"Yes, I see," I said. "It's just the spiritual uplift I need."
That happened fifteen years ago, but I've remembered the words of Ephesians from time to time when my thoughts focused on my failures and shortcomings, and especially after I've blown it in a situation.
Woody had hold of something that I grasped that day. I am the work of God.
Here's the context of that verse Woody showed me. The apostle Paul writes: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this in not your own doing; it is the gift of God-not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us" (Eph 2:8-10a, NRSV).
That's rather clear. Our relationship to God is an unearned gift. "When God started on me, he began with inferior material," I said once. Yet when I look at that passage objectively, my self-degradation doesn't hold up.
"What does it mean for me to be your work?" I asked.
As I prayed, I envisioned God as a master crafter. I used to observe African carvers take a block of wood, chip away with a sharp, but crude-looking tool, and within minutes, an elephant or a lion would come to life.
One time I watched a man for perhaps twenty minutes while I waited for friends. He'd finish a carving, pick up a fresh piece of wood, stare at it, and start chipping away. Although he specialized in elephants, he made a variety of wild animals.
"How do you know what animal to make?" I asked.
My question caught him by surprise. He stared at a new piece of wood and began to chip away. "Ah, yes, I know what you mean," he said at last. "You see, I look at this piece of wood. I feel its texture and study its size, and I ask myself, 'What animal is trapped inside this piece of wood that is trying to get outside?' When I know that, I let it out."
That's about as close as I can get to God working in human lives. God has a plan for the world, for all believers, and for us univocally. God knows who we are and by some plan unknown to us, the Master Crafter works with us to bring it out.
Some of us are elephants, others lions, gazelles, cheetahs, and there are even a few monkeys among us. My problem is that I don't understand Christian who are gazelles, because I'm an elephant. They don't behave the way I do or think the way I do. (Of course, it also works the other way!)
Ephesians 2:10 also reminds me that I'm only one creation of God. All around me are other examples of God's handiwork. And when I criticize them, I'm criticizing God.
I pondered Paul's strong words to the Romans: "Welcome all the LORD'S followers, even those whose faith is weak. Don't' criticize them for having beliefs that are different from yours.... What right do you have to criticize someone else's servants? Only their LORD can decide if they are doing right, and the LORD will make sure that they do right" (Rom 14:1-2, 4, CEV).
When I criticize a sister or brother, I'm criticizing God. That hurts. That doesn't settle all the problems of human relationships, but it reminds me of the basic fact that I'm a product of divine creation. So are others.
This week, I've been praying for God to help me accept myself as an example of divine crafting at its best. I don't want to complain because I'm not as perfect as I would like to be. I'm God's work. That's a powerful statement for me to make-powerful because it means that when I grumble about myself, I deserve a loving rebuke. I am what God has made me. I'm part of a divine product made by a divine crafter of human goods-an example of God's living work.
Today, I thought of several people that I don't agree with and have been critical of. As I prayed, I asked God to help me love the giraffes, monkeys, and cheetahs of my world. I want God to help me celebrate their uniqueness wrought at the hand of the Divine Crafter.
God is working in you to make you willing and able to obey him. --PHILIPPIANS 2:13, CEV
forgive me for seeing only imperfection in myself
And for seeing it in others.
Like them, I am your work-
divinely created by you.
Thank you, Great Crafter, and teach me to rejoice in
all your creation. Amen.
For more from Cec, please visit www.cecilmurphey.com.
Cecil Murphey has written more than one hundred books on a variety of topics with an emphasis on Spiritual Growth, Christian Living, Caregiving, and Heaven. He enjoys preaching in churches and speaking and teaching at conferences around the world. To book Cec for your next event, please contact Twila Belk at 563-332-1622.