Before he began his current career in national politics, most if not all of us know, Al Franken had a career in comedy. One of his best known characters originated in a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live, Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley. Stuart’s character, as described in the voice-over introduction of his mock TV show, “is a caring nurture, but not a licensed therapist.” Each episode of his show begins and ends with Stuart looking into a mirror and affirming himself, most famously with these words (feel free to join me if you know them), “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
Affirmations are a funny sort of thing. They are a popular and effective tool in therapy and counseling. Positive affirmations can give us the self-confidence to continue in tough times. They can give us the change of attitude we need to look at difficult situations in a new way, to believe in ourselves and work with the strengths and gifts we have been given.
But they can also walk a little on the dangerous side. During the introduction for one of Stuart’s fictitious TV shows, he once prepped himself with this affirmation, “I deserve good things. I am entitled to my share of happiness. I refuse to beat myself up.” Really? “Deserve?” “Entitled?” Are these helpful affirmations?
Of course, this is a skit, a television show for entertainment, but I’m not so sure that affirmation is too far off what the culture around us tries to tell us all the time. It’s a message we hear in commercials and read in advertisements. “You deserve a break today… a luxurious car… an indulgent vacation. You are entitled to your share (and another’s) of the pie. You’re entitled to feel cheated and victimized. And your entitlement gives you good reason to ignore the rest of the world.” These are the messages we hear over and over again until we somehow, in some way find ourselves looking into a mirror, affirming ourselves with them. That’s when the power of affirmation becomes dangerous.
We’re asking ourselves this year in Advent, “What do we want for Christmas?” This tendency toward affirmations and growing senses of entitlement leads me to one answer to that question, one gift on our spiritual list for God. We want affirmation from God that the way we are right now, right this minute is “good enough.” We want to be able to look in the mirror and not only say for ourselves, but hear the voice of God confirm what we believe, “My life is OK. It’s on track. It’s exactly what God is looking for.” What do we want from God for Christmas? We want to be affirmed in everything we’re doing.
Malachi’s ministry takes place about 450 years before Jesus was born. The Israelites had returned to their and a period of great exuberance and joy as they rebuilt their homeland and temple has sort of worn off. A feeling of ambivalence has settled in. There is a diminishing regard for the law, a sense that they can go it alone, without the guidance and direction of the Lord. Even the priests in the temple have become corrupt in their religious practices. God prepares and sends Malachi to deliver a message of warning, a message of changes that need to be made.
It probably isn’t the message the people were looking for. That kind of message rarely is. They, like us, were looking not for correction, but for affirmation. Encouragement that what we’re doing is alright, good enough, smart enough, and doggone, just what God wants from us. Change? Preparation for a completely new way? That’s not really at the top of our Christmas lists most years.
But it’s what the prophets promise that God will bring. It’s what the prophets promise is part of the coming of Jesus to the world – dramatic change. Malachi’s image of God’s gift is frightening if we take it literally – a fire that burns to remove impurities, a soap so strong it bleaches dirty wool white. John the Baptist’s isn’t too much more comforting. The geography of the world will be turned upside down. They aren’t comforting, anyway, for people who like their comfort, for people who are looking for God’s divine pat on the back.
These images of preparing for Jesus in our lives aren’t images that affirm our hope for carte blanche authority. They aren’t images that give us permission to continue on familiar and possibly destructive paths. They tell us the exact opposite, actually. What you’re doing right now, in Malachi’s case corrupt and heartless worship, in John’s case set deeply and deliberately in the context of the oppressive Roman occupation, ignoring and harming the lives of others, what you’re doing right now is not OK.
What would that be for us? For what do we seek affirmation that God instead asks for us to change? It’s going to be different for each of us, so I hesitate to guess for us all, but what I am sure of is that there is something. There is something in each our lives and in our life together that just isn’t OK, that God just won’t affirm; that God wants to refine, to purify, to make straight. It’s why we begin our worship each week with prayers of confession; it’s an acknowledgement that each and every time we gather (and more often!) we need to make a turn back to God’s way, and be affirmed not in our misguided intentions, but of God’s faithfulness and forgiveness in Christ.
God loves us too much to just affirm without question or correction all aspects of our lives. God loves us too much to let our destructive habits continue unchecked. God loves us too much to just pat us on the back and say, “Keep up the…work.” God loves us too much to just sit back and watch as we continue to walk further and further away from the kind of relationships intended at our creation. God loves us too much!
In fact, God loves so much that God calls us to change, because love is not equal to uncritical affirmation. Love is not equal to co-dependency. Love is not equal to enabling. The love of God for the world, the love of a parent for a child is tough love. It’s love that seeks to correct mistakes, to improve what is struggling, even perfect what is already good, so that the beloved children can grow into all they have been created to bed.
Tough love means that God calls us out of our disobedience, our self-centeredness, our greed, our violence, our acts and decisions of injustice toward others, the environment, and ourselves. God of love isn’t going to repeat back to us the same lies we tell ourselves in the mirror – “Hurting others to save myself is understandable. Really, it’s OK.” “I deserve this more than they do.” “I can make it on my own.” “I am in control.” God doesn’t let us get away everything we want. God doesn’t just affirm us in everything we think and call that love.
Real love, God’s love, it’s TOUGH love. It is about calling us to repentance, refinement, a better and purer life according to God’s will. And tough love is God’s gift in Jesus at Christmas, because in Jesus we are called to make changes, DRASTIC changes in our lives. God’s gift of tough love in Jesus will completely disrupt our lives. It will change the very landscape of our being. The crooked paths will be made straight. The valleys will be filled. The mountains will be made low. The rough ways will be smoothed. In Jesus our sinfulness will not be affirmed. LOVINGLY, but not without disruption it will be confronted, refined, purified, and we shall see the salvation of God.
In the classic C. S Lewis book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe four children make their way through a wardrobe into the magical and mystical land of Narnia. When the children arrive, Narnia is stuck in the middle of an endless winter, gripped tightly by the spells of the evil White Witch. However, the children learn of prophecies about Aslan, the great king, a lion, who will defeat the witch and free Narnia from her power. The children learn from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver of THEIR part in the prophecy, the battle they must fight with Aslan. Susan and Lucy the second oldest and youngest, respectively, worry about fighting a battle in general and alongside such a ferocious creature as a lion specifically.
Susan asks their hosts,
“Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
God’s love is most certainly good, but it isn’t necessarily safe. It asks us to change our behavior, our attitudes, our priorities. It asks us to turn away, to repent, from the harmful paths we’re on. It asks us to turn away from the habits that hurt ourselves, hurt others, hurt God most of all. It asks us to turn back to God who is coming to us in love, not to affirm all our behaviors, but to forgive us, and mold us and shape us into who we have been created to be – loving and righteous children of God.
God’s love is most certainly good, but it isn’t necessarily safe. It asks us to prepare a way in the wilderness of our lives so the Lord, so Jesus can come right in and dwell within us, dwell among us, showing us and the world the salvation of God. And with great love, with tough love, and mercy and grace, the refiner works with those who offer themselves, the refiner works even with us, until we present the offering of our lives in righteousness.
May we prepare the way of the Lord, and may God’s refining and purifying love be the gift we receive this year.
Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Collier Books: 1970, p. 75.