“My Father’s Shirt”

A Painful childhood memory becomes a door to faith and the knowledge of the healing love of God. (Written by a woman who attended World Harvest Mission’s Sonship Course.)[1]

The Holy Spirit really dealt with my husband and me at the Sonship Week conference in answer to many prayers. I’m seeing that as good as theology and teaching technique are, it is the Holy Spirit alone who goes down deep inside. He tears down the idols and pride and replants the simplicity of faith in Christ. I don’t know whether we really believed what God meant when He said when He made all His promises, but I am sure I still wouldn’t have begun to believe how near, willing, and able the Spirit is to meet us and transform us, if I hadn’t experienced His coming to me last week. I was so helpless to respond to what the teachers were saying. Really, I still am. But I’m beginning to understand our fellowship — our partnership with God through the Holy Spirit — that He wants to help me live for Him.[2] In fact to want to go it alone grieves Him and treats as insignificant the One who Jesus said He’d send so we would not be orphans [John 14:18]. I realized that my greatest sin was unbelief and so lightly esteeming all God has given me in Christ.

The Shirt

When I was very young my older sister was hanging up my father’s white business shirts on the clothesline to dry. I was suddenly filled with the urge to hang up one of my daddy’s white shirts. I’m not sure I can explain my motive. He was my daddy too, and I was his daughter. I loved him in my childlike way and wanted to express it. I couldn’t reach the clothesline – it was too high, but I saw a wheel barrow in the yard and its handles were just the right height for me. I didn’t notice how rusty it was and I rather joyfully clothes pinned the wet shirt to the handles. When my dad got home and saw the shirt on the wheel barrow he became very angry with me and punished me severely for ruining his shirt.

I hadn’t realized the impact that event and others like it had made on me. But as I was repeatedly convicted during the Sonship conference for not believing God concerning His delight in me and in the gracious nature of my relationship with Him now that He has put me into Christ, this memory returned to me. Now, you can’t get through 24 hours of a Sonship conference without realizing that your own heart [flesh] is as murderous as anyone else’s, so I wasn’t primarily focusing on only being the innocent victim of my father’s cruel anger.

Rust and the Blood

As I remembered these scenes from the past I saw that through the years I had not been believing that my Father in heaven was any different than my earthly father. I hadn’t been listening when He described Himself. In short, I hadn’t been believing the Gospel, that by faith in Christ and His perfect atoning sacrifice, now He loves me and is forever for me and delighted in me. [3] In Christ He has made me beautiful and pleasing to Him forever. So the next morning I told our counselor, Jeff, that I thought I was beginning to understand. I told him the memory and said that I guess if the Father saw me standing next to the wheel barrow with the ruined shirt on it, He would forget the shirt and hug me. “You still don’t understand fully,” he said. God would not overlook the shirt, but take it, put it on, and wear it to work. And when someone commented on the rust marks, He would say, ‘Let me tell you about my little girl and how much she loves me … ‘

I was overwhelmed with that realization. I am beginning to realize that my Christian life has been a continual effort to earn God’s pleasure by getting “the shirts hung up right.” God would answer if my prayer was “right.” God would smile upon me if my theology was correct. And since I knew how I had failed day by day in my works, I sort of snuck them up on the line and tried to be away when God got home, so to speak. Someone at the conference had said something that really seems to apply here. He said: “God will not despise the tainted love-gifts of the sinner who looks to Jesus.”[4]

My entire Christian life had been oppressive. I did not know how to live day by day without an overwhelming sense of failure to perform up to what I thought God demanded. With that came a sense of God being disappointed and even disgusted with me.

Overwhelming love!

How overpowering it is now to realize that because of Christ, I can experience a daily freedom to move out into people’s lives. I can love others, I can obey God with my heart because I don’t fear that He will be furious with me if I get the shirt “a bit rusty.” There is a freedom to love that I haven’t known since the moments before my father got home that day long ago.

I’ve been thinking of the “rusty shirt” and the parable of the talents. The two servants who loved their master and trusted in his good will served him energetically. They weren’t driven, but it seems the very fact that they believed him to be what he was (faithful and generous) moved them to use the talents to the best of their ability. It was the legalist (the one who viewed the master as a hard man) who hid his talent. My unbelief has led me to talent-burying. It’s the very fact that my Father delights even in rusty shirts that moves “this most flinty heart of mine” to really desire a life disciplined to seek Him and find Him and by His might at work in me, to live a life of faith expressing itself in love.

Update: five years later

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since my husband and I attended the Sonship conference. Before we attended, I had worn myself out with trying to be a “godly” Christian mother and wife. I always felt that I had to be a better person than I was in order for God to be pleased with me. I had this constant weight of trying to live up to what Christ had done for me — so the Father would not be sorry he’d saved me and made me His child. My husband and I tried hard to have a godly marriage and to be godly parents. In our minds, we had this ideal picture of what our family ought to look like. Reality was far different. Soon we were all becoming adversaries. My husband felt that my lack of respect and affection for him ruined his chances of achieving a godly marriage. I felt that if he loved me more and led our family better, then I would be able to do my part in respecting and affirming him. The kids seemed bent on destroying any resolve in us to be patient, kind instructors. We resented them for that.

So, how has the Sonship training made a lasting impact on our lives? It showed us clearly the gospel message — that Christ died for sinners — like me, my husband and our children. He paid the price to get eye level with us and embrace us where we are.

The pressure is off

The first immediate impact was to take the pressure off. My husband and I were able to repent and forgive each other for the critical attitudes we had and the demands we had placed on each other. We could see each other as fellow, forgiven sinners. We also began to learn to accept our children and show them Jesus as the only one who saves us from our sins. The long-term affect has been crucial to us, as we have had to deal with the special needs of our children-physical, mental and emotional.

Before Sonship, we thought we had to have our acts together. We had to know the right thing to do and be able to do it. What a relief to know that God meets us where we need Him. I don’t have to know, I can ask. I don’t have to pretend to be strong, I can be weak and come to Him. I can admit my weaknesses and my worst, cruel sins — and ask others to pray for me and our children.

It is here that we have seen numerous answers to specific prayers born out of our weakness… What a joy to know our needs are a window to God, not an obstacle that makes Him disgusted with us. We still have much to learn, particularly about God’s love for us in Jesus. We stumble instinctively. But we always know Who to return to. And that has been as significant a change in us as our initial salvation.·

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[1] This article is from a letter written by an attendee of the World Harvest Mission’s Sonship Conference. The Sonship course and W.H.M.’s new Gospel Transformations course can be ordered from their web site: http://www.whm.org.

[2] Due to our spiritual union with Christ, we do not exaggerate to say that Christ even lives His life in and through us! (Gal. 2:20).

[3] Cf. 1 John 3:1-3

[4] This course uses the term “sinner” for the believer. This is based upon these observations: the flesh has nothing good in it (Romans 7:18); the Christian still sometimes fails and commits sins (Rom 2:23; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8); and the physical body is especially susceptible to temptation in this fallen world (Rom 6:6,12). James once called wayward Christians “sinners” (James 4:8).

On the other hand, Exchanged Life teaching emphasizes that the believer’s essential nature is now holy (Rom. 7:22). The new birth sets us free from the authority of sin (Rom 6:6, 18), and our essential identity has changed. We are called “saints” — holy ones! (1 Cor. 1:2; Cf. 1 Peter 2:9). And we tend to live out of our perceived identity!

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