I didn’t grow up with Saturday morning cartoons, amusement parks, or the demands of the American culture. I grew up riding the train every summer to build white sandcastles on the shores of Mombassa. I learned to speak Swahili in first grade. I witnessed breathtaking wildlife roam free, without bars. I grew up eating ugali and sukuma wiki. I watched my parents love people who were different from us. They moved right out of their comfort zone, across an ocean, and into a totally different lifestyle with three small children in tow.
All because of the love of Jesus.
When I was six years old, I met my best friend, Joanne. I lived in Nairobi, Kenya. I went to a small private school about an hour away from our home. I met Jesus that year, too. I learned that He loved me so much that He gave His life so that I could be forgiven and called God’s daughter.
All throughout elementary school, I wore a heart shaped charm on a silver chain. Three simple words in cursive letters were tucked inside the outline of the heart: Jesus Loves You. I don’t remember who gave it to me or when I received it. All I remember is that I wore it every day and that I loved Jesus very much.
The summer I turned ten, we moved back to the States. Everything was different. Faster. Overwhelming. New Kids on the Block were really cool back then. I was a new kid, but somehow I missed “cool” entirely. Guess jeans and a JanSport backpack meant you fit in. I had neither. During PE class one day, my gym partner scrunched up her face as she read the message that hung around my neck. I didn’t realize until later that she was making fun of me. I took off my necklace that year and buried it in the bottom of my jewelry box. I quit telling people that I grew up in Africa, and I quit telling people about Jesus.
That necklace wasn’t the only thing I hid away; the part of my heart that believed Jesus loved me was covered up and forgotten as well.
This summer I started searching for the necklace I wore all those years ago. It turns out that my jewelry box was sold in a garage sale. The necklace is gone. I’ve grieved over this necklace, not so much because it was such a valuable piece of jewelry, because it wasn’t. It’s not about the necklace; it’s about what happened in those years when I tucked away God’s love just so that I would fit in and be accepted. I’ve wondered what I’ve missed out on because of that decision, or more importantly, how it has grieved the heart of God. Because I chose fitting in over being set apart, I’ve wondered if it’s just too late. But Jesus never stopped loving me.
It wasn’t ever about how much I loved Him; it was, and still is, solely based on how much He loves me.
The reality is that I was accepted then, and I am accepted now. Jesus pursued me even as I rejected Him. God has done this with His people all throughout Scripture. Joel 2:13 says this:
Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
God is literally saying, “Tear your heart to pieces, and then return to me and let me restore it.” Maybe you’ve lost something you are certain you can never get back. Or maybe you’ve thrown something away only to realize its incredible worth. Let these words rekindle hope in your heart:
I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten. Joel 2:25
Charles Spurgeon explains it like this:
"It will strike you at once that the locusts did not eat the years: the locusts ate the fruits of the years' labor, the harvests of the fields; so that the meaning of the restoration of the years must be the restoration of those fruits and of those harvests which the locusts consumed. You cannot have back your time; but there is a strange and wonderful way in which God can give back to you the wasted blessings, the unripened fruits of years over which you mourned. The fruits of wasted years may yet be yours."
Wasted blessings, wasted dreams… there is nothing God can’t restore. Nothing.
This month I turned thirty-five. Two and a half decades have passed since I chose the crowd over the cross. For my birthday my husband bought me this necklace. Gold and delicate, engraved with these words: Jesus loves you.
I’m not worthy of these words across my heart. I’m aware of what I discarded in the name of popularity. The girl who made fun of me in the gym that day needed to understand that Jesus loved her just like I needed to understand His love for me. I don’t deserve Jesus’ love. I don’t deserve anything He’s given me. But this is the beauty of grace.
We can never understand the grace of God without first acknowledging the love of God.
The more I understand Jesus’ love for me, the less I want to hide His love in a box. I’ve failed. Fallen short. I’ve messed up. Yet His love for me has remained unchanged. It’s strong and real and true. It’s unending. It holds the power to raise dead things to life. It stretches wide; it reaches deep. It will never, ever fail.
The realization that I don’t deserve this Love compels me to cling all the more tightly to Jesus.
Rest in the truth that Jesus couldn’t possibly love you more than He loves you this very minute. He’s crazy about you. Your love for Him has nothing to do with it. It’s a one-way love. It makes no sense, no sense at all, but there are some love stories that cannot be explained, some that hold no room for reason. They’re beautiful just because of the unlikeliness. They make our hearts race just to consider the possibility. This is that love story. And it’s true… about you.