[[This essay was subsequently published as “Just in Time” by Christward Collective.]]
God is the greatest wordsmith, but he is also somewhat of a grand post-master for human language. He sends human language to the places and times he has set for it. While words might not find you when you want them to, they never fail to find you when you need them to. God always delivers.
Some months ago, my mother handed me two old yellow sheets of notebook paper—the kind with dull green lines for text and a red double-lined sidebar. This was always the kind of paper I considered most cheap: the last-resort paper. On the backside of the paper, I found my name penned in my father’s small-cap script: “Taylor.”
The letter was dated October 21st, 1993, the day before my father’s first brain surgery. He had written a letter for each of his four sons, should the worst happen. He did not know then that he would live another eleven years and work through two more surgeries before the cancer would take his life. Nor did he know that my mother would wait until 2017 to deliver that forgotten letter. Nor could anyone have imagined that a few old pieces of yellow scrap paper would survive the yearly cleanouts of clutter from his old office. But here we are.
The letter is what you might expect from a father who was seriously considering the imminence of his own death, leaving behind four children and a wife. I am not ashamed that the letter contained words such as “honey” and “sweetheart”—especially now that I have children of my own. For all the emotional language used in that letter, there were two sentences that tore me up quite a bit.
Taylor, you are so gifted and skilled, and bright. But you don’t always believe in yourself.
I was eight at the time he wrote this letter. Strange how little we change with age. As a writer, I always find myself pandering for someone’s praise, looking for a place to lift myself up, or an opportunity to have someone else do the lifting. I can honestly say that I do this not out of vein bravado (though I’m sure I have enough of that, too), but because I don’t believe in myself. Though I would eventually be an English major, I had to attend special reading classes as a child and always felt behind in school when it came to reading and writing. In high school, I discovered that I wanted to be a writer one day, but I did not believe I could be. My father, like many fathers, was keenly aware of his children’s character.
Now, let me just say that this concern from my father was not the sort of tripe that comes across in Hallmark cards or popular films. This was not the hollow “you’re worth it” that I hear all too often in the broader culture. Make no mistake, we are “worth” much, but not on our own. Scripture is replete with examples of how we have the greatest worth not because of what we have done but because of what we’ve been given: the image and Son of God. Instead, my father’s concern was about my view of God himself. The following lines in the letter make that clear.
Have confidence in how God has made you. Not pride, which says, “I don’t need God,” but confidence, which says, “With God’s help I will be all he has made me to be.”
I do not have that kind of confidence, a godly confidence. I more often have a worldly sort of confidence, which is telling in a number of ways. Perhaps the most obvious revelations are that (1) I doubt the power of God to do in me that which he wills, and (2) I often consider my own ego to be more precious than God’s holy name. That is, when I am confident, I am confident in and protective of myself, not God. These are horrible confessions—but they are just that. What’s more, I wonder how long it would have taken me to make them had I not received an old letter from my father, twenty-four years late.
As I was reflecting on this letter, I began to think of how, in many ways, I am still a spiritual eight-year-old. I’ve grown in some ways, but in many others I feel just as small, just as weak, just as vulnerable. I began to think, “Does God still see me as an eight-year-old?” After a moment’s thought, I realized that I am certainly not an eight-year-old in God’s eyes; I’m a infant. And so are you.
Now, this infancy is different from the sort that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 3. We are called to outgrow our infancy in Christ—to move from taking spiritual milk to taking solid food from the Word (Heb. 5:12). Certainly, in this sense, I hope I am not still an infant (perhaps a toddler or early adolescent).
But in another sense, I am an infant and always will be. I am infinitely younger than he is; he is infinitely older than I am. God, of course, transcends time, so this language does not really do full justice to the relationship. But it is at least clear that our human sense of age difference leads us to appreciate the great distance (an unimaginable distance) between our earthly years and God’s eternal existence.
We are not nearly as old as we think. We commonly hear people complain about feeling older than they are, but in spiritual terms, I rarely hear people complain about feeling younger than they are. But that is just the point for Christians who understand the greatness of God and smallness of their faith. Spiritually, we are infants in the care of our gracious heavenly Father.
In this sense, the language of the Old Testament that refers to Israel as a firstborn son (Exod. 4:22; cf. Jer. 31:19) seems especially appropriate. Such language has multiple layers of meaning. One of those layers, which I believe we can affirm theologically given other passages of Scripture that refer to us as “children” (Hos. 1:10; 4:1; Joel 2:23; Mark 10:24; John 1:12; Rom. 8:16; Eph. 5:1; Phil. 2:15; 1 John 3:1–2, 10; 4:4), regards our profound infancy in the presence of a timeless God.
This has a few implications for our day-to-day faith. First of all, it speaks to our fragility. Infants are incredibly fragile. As a new father, I was scared when I learned about the soft spot at the top of my firstborn’s head, where the pieces of his skull had not yet fused together. I was terrified that something would puncture him, or that he would be bumped or stepped on before his bone structure grew firmer. Such delicacy! Analogously, think of what this means for our spiritual nature as infants before the almighty God. A wicked thought or word is enough to puncture the soul and bring untold damage. The spiritual world in which we live is hostile towards God’s adopted children. There are threats everywhere. Parents usually make guests use sanitizer or wash their hands before they handle their precious little human. I wish there was a way to do that for the human soul.
But, of course, there is. God prescribes that we wash ourselves daily with the Word (Eph. 5:26). He calls us to do this, but God in the person of the Spirit is really responsible for it. God the Father washes us with his Word (a derivative of the Son, who is the eternal Word) in the power of his Spirit. Our souls are kept clean in a filthy world by hearing a holy word.
Second of all, it speaks to God’s great care and circumspection. With so many dangers around us, do we ever find a moment in the day to stop and thank God for keeping us alive—spiritually and physically? It takes great care to guard an infant from sharp-edged furniture and debris tangled into carpet fibers, let alone the plethora of germs and the ignorance of other human beings. But God does this to an extent and degree that is simply incomprehensible. He is faithful to his covenantal promises in guarding and keeping you until you are eternally safe from harm. That is just as true when you are a few months old as it is when you are eight or eighty. You are an infant in the care of an all-powerful and eternal God who knows your name.
In time, I hope I will be able to use this truth to grow out of my eight-year-old insecurities. I long to be confident in a godly way, and for the right reasons. As I work towards that end, I can be confident in the God whose providential care over my infant soul brought me an old letter twenty-four years late. The lateness of the world, I am convinced, is the providential exactitude of God our Father. He is always on time, and he always delivers.