So my dad’s a pastor. Anybody who has ever had a pastor daddy knows the special pressure we all feel as PKs – the “you-better-act-perfect-because-if-not-your-dad-will-lose-his-job-because-1-Timothy-3:4-says-so” pressure. I got it extra double amounts because I’m the oldest and a girl. I actually remember someone in our church family once sitting me down and explaining to me that my behavior could directly affect whether my dad kept his job or not because he couldn’t be an overseer in the church if his children didn’t obey him. I also was a normal Sunday school kid, so I learned all the rules of Christianity, like be good and be nice to people and obey and follow the rules. I was a textbook oldest child: perfectionist, over-achiever, bossy, rule-following, judgmental, etc. I found no trouble in being perfectly obedient and always doing the right thing. I didn’t really rebel, although there was that time freshman year I snuck out to go on a date even though the rule was that I had to be 16 to date and I was only 14 and got epically grounded for a full 3 months. No outside of the house time, no cordless phone, no aol instant messenger, nothing! It was horrible – obey your parents! Seriously though.
I guess the point of all this is that I felt the pressure to be good from a young age, and I knew that I wasn’t good. But I felt like if I was good more often than I was bad, or if I was only bad about small little things, then it would balance out and God would be proud of me. Since my parents are wonderful humans, I at least had a good understanding of unconditional love – I totally got the whole “we love you anyway even if you do the wrong thing” thing, but I really thought that the amount God was proud of me that day was based on how I was acting.
I even really knew we were saved by grace. I knew we weren’t possibly ever going to be good enough to get into heaven on our own. Like let’s say somebody said for us to jump to the moon. We all try to jump to the moon, and I’m wearing my air Jordans so I jump the very highest. Did I actually make it to the moon? Of course not. The goal isn’t to get the closest to the moon; the goal is to jump to the moon. I’m doomed from the start – I can’t possibly jump that high. So it really doesn’t matter if I get the closest, because it’s not like closest counts. It’s either that I met the goal or I didn’t. And that’s a goal I can’t possibly meet. I understood that I was saved by grace – God just threw the rules out the window. He just went and got the moon and put it directly in our hands – there’s no contest or even effort. He just did it for us. But the thing was, I was still trying to jump to the moon everyday. I was working super hard for something that I already had. I was wearing myself out trying to reach an impossible goal, and I was forgetting that I already had it.
The problem for me came when I was about 12. I was a bright, inquisitive, nerdy tomboy who also happened to like frilly things. I had a vivid imagination, and I liked to be silly. I was very outgoing, and I loved attention. I read books like there would be no tomorrow. I still played with my American Girl doll or Barbies almost every day. I spent a lot of time pretending/playing that I was an American transfer student to Hogwarts who Ron Weasley fell in love with (mind you, only 3 Harry Potter books and zero movies were out at this time, so I had no idea the direction that was going to go). I was still a child, but my peers were moving into adulthood. The fact that I didn’t care to style my hair or wear makeup began to play into my social status. I still remember with pain in my heart my 7th hour science class in 7th grade. I was in a group of 4 with these two really popular girls and this one really popular boy, and they were so mean to me. Looking back as an adult, it’s almost hilarious, but it hurt so bad back then. They would call my hair a dirty rat’s nest and tell me how ugly my handwriting was. They would tease me that my khaki pants and polo shirts were Walmart brand (we wore uniforms) and that my tennis shoes were out of style. I distinctly remember saying I was going to go to the dance, and them saying that I probably couldn’t dance at all, and I responded that of course I could, because I had been in dance for years, and they rolled their eyes at me and said I was so stupid because this was not like ballet. All of that stuff seems so superficial and dumb to me as an adult, like I want to go back in time and smack myself for caring at all about these people’s opinion of me. But as a 12-year-old, I was crushed. And I would do absolutely anything to have those people like me. Of course, overachiever I was, it wouldn’t suffice to have them simply leave me alone. No, I had to be one of them. I must be a beloved member of their group. So the conclusion I came to was to change literally everything about myself that made them find me repulsive so that they would be my friends.
I started caring a lot about my appearance. I’d get up every morning really early to get all primped and pretty. I begged and cried and whined until I got more acceptable brands of clothing and shoes. I started copying this one popular girl’s handwriting so they’d compliment mine. So it worked! They became my friends, or at least I was getting invited to be around them and I wasn’t getting teased anymore, but was part of their conversations.
The tradeoff was that I forfeited myself to do this. I got rid of everything about myself that made me interesting. I wasn’t silly or childish anymore. I only wanted to blend into the crowd and do what everyone else wanted. Being liked was more important than anything else. I became a shell of myself, blending and twisting to fit perfectly into whatever place I was stuck in. Just as I felt like I was getting my bearings, my dad got a new job and my family moved. Yay for starting high school in a new town! It is literally the worst. I basically just started over with the whole “trying super hard to fit in” and totally changing myself thing, and it really didn’t work that time. I think people have an innate sense when someone is trying too hard to fit in, and that person becomes unlikeable, even if the other people can’t quite pinpoint why they don’t like the person. That was definitely the case for me freshman and sophomore year of high school. I could tell that nobody in particular truly liked me. Instead of resigning to just be my natural self, I sunk deeper into myself and became an even worse shell of nothingness and despair. Anger replaced my innate silliness. My go-to was emptiness and anger and jealousy and resentment. And somehow I kept that self-righteous, I-always-do-the-right-thing attitude, which made me seem bossy and judgmental and even more unlikeable. The sad truth – my number one goal was to be liked, and I was very not liked. I fought with God so much during this time – I begged him to take away the things about my personality that made me difficult. I twisted his words, praying that he would make me more like Him, but really meaning that I wanted to not be the way he made me anymore. My family moved again between sophomore and junior year of high school, and I got another chance to start over. I did just as badly this time, and was very relieved to escape to college. Everywhere I went, I brought my anger at never fitting in, never having a place, always feeling like I needed to change myself for whoever I was around to become likable. It was just exhausting and frustrating and seemed so hopeless.
Bottom line: I spent the years from age 12 to about age 22 hating myself. I hated my strong personality, my bossiness, my need to be the center of attention because it made me seem arrogant and conceited, that I had to soften everything I said so that it wouldn’t come across too mean. I hated that I needed people to feel energized, but people made me feel terrible about myself. I hated that the Church claimed to love one another when really they only loved those who were lovable. And of course I hated the way I looked – what I would have traded for stick straight hair and skinnier legs and blue eyes and straight teeth! And that self-obsession, being totally turned in on myself, filtering everything through the self-deprecation lens, always worrying about whether people wanted me around, seeing that they didn’t but having to be around them anyway, it stopped me from ever even considering that maybe some other people might feel just like I did. I was trying so hard to be good, to be just right, to deny myself, but for all the wrong reasons. And it had the opposite result of what I hoped: I was less liked because of it, and I wasn’t serving the kingdom of God at all by denying what made me “me.” The lack of being able to make a difference in God’s kingdom caused me to fall even deeper into myself. Everything I did – it all stemmed from obligation and guilt and turned me into an even more selfish person.
Sometime in early adulthood, someone talked to me about justice, mercy, and grace. They explained it so well: justice is getting what you deserve. Let’s say you kill someone. Justice would be either the death penalty or a life sentence – getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. So you killed someone. Mercy is that you are pronounced guilty but you don’t have to go to jail for life or have the death penalty. Mercy is unfair. But then there’s grace. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. It’s going one step further. So you kill someone. Grace is that person’s family comes to you and gives you all of the person you murdered’s inheritance and legally adopts you as a member of their family. It is crazy. It’s a totally illogical and completely unfair reaction. You guys, this is what God did for us.
God had this plan that we would be his kids. We were like, “no thanks God, we’d rather do things our way.” This is the ultimate crime: creation rebelling against its Creator, thinking that it has a better idea of what it should be than He does. I should have known: my constant practice of hating myself, of thinking that I knew better than God what kind of person I should be – that’s a perfect example of sin. Our punishment was separation from the Creator, our Dad. Dad loves us, and he can’t stand the idea of being separated from us forever even though we really screwed things up. Instead of forcing our separation, or causing us to be forced to jump to the moon, which he knew we couldn’t do, he brought the moon down to us. He brought himself to us. He put on our messed up skin and walked with our messed up selves and taught us how to love each other the way he loved us. Then we killed him. But he beat death, and then he was like “it’s cool, no worries that you killed me, come be my kids and have my inheritance and be with me forever.” It’s this crazy amazing story because it has nothing to do with us and everything to do with us. It has nothing to do with us because we didn’t do anything to be heroes in the story. We are the bad guys, like the whole way through.
So that’s grace, guys. We get everything, and we deserve the worst. But God doesn’t just stop with grace. He extends a challenge. I love this, because it is all over Scripture. Every time Jesus forgives somebody who doesn’t deserve it, there’s a challenge with it. The challenge isn’t “be good, then I’ll forgive you.” It’s “I forgive you, now walk with me and learn how to be good.” It’s not “look what you did,” but “look what I did.” I always think of John 8: A woman was caught in the act of adultery, which was punishable by death. The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, so they brought the woman before him. This is the passage where he says that famous line “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and none of them can throw a stone because they know they are all sinners. We like to leave the story there – Jesus doesn’t want us to condemn one another because we are just as guilty as each other – but there’s more to the story. Jesus asked the woman where everybody went, and she said that no one remained to condemn her. So Jesus says, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” He has grace for her – he gives her another chance at life, but he balances it with a challenge – go and leave your life of sin.
To sum it all up, what I wish I’d known is grace. If I had been able to understand the magnitude of God’s grace (and I still can’t understand this fully), it would have resulted in one big change: I would have turned outside of myself. Instead of literally spending 24/7 trying to change myself so that other people would like me, I would have been spending 24/7 trying to like them. It’s a totally different mindset – how can I love people today? vs how can I make sure other people like me today? When I shifted my mindset and started trying to live by extending to others the grace that God had already extended to me, my entire life changed. People can sense when you truly care about them, and they like you much better for it. It turns out that most people feel the same way I felt – awkward and uncomfortable in their own skin, feeling a great dislike for core things about themselves. When they are extended grace, when we love them unconditionally the way Jesus loved us, we’re like magnets to them. There is an aura about us in those moments that can’t come from anywhere but the Holy Spirit, and people are drawn to Him. I have been able to have meaningful relationships with so many people – people I wouldn’t have even noticed if I’d been trying to spend all my time getting noticed – because of this mind shift. Think of light onto a prism or diamond – light coming in to one place is multiplied and beautifully reflected in many different directions. It’s like the miracle of the loaves and the fish – it looks like there’s only so much to start with, but God can multiply even the smallest things to make plenty for everyone. When we accept God’s grace and extend it to others, there is always going to be plenty to go around.
Here’s the ending to my story: remember how I hate that I’m passionate, and bossy, and I have a vivid imagination, and I love attention? Those exact qualities, when developed and sculpted and pruned and filtered through the Jesus-lens, become some of the greatest strengths I have, particularly when I’m teaching. My passion keeps me interested in doing the same things, day after day. My bossiness keeps my students in line. My vivid imagination keeps my students interested in what we are learning and helps me to be creative with how I teach. My love of attention means that I don’t mind in the slightest when I have to get up and talk to 500 parents at performances. God gave me these qualities on purpose, and he has blessed me so much when I’ve surrendered them to him instead of trying to get rid of them.
Here’s my hope for you: I hope that you will see the incredible grace that God has extended to you, and that you’ll accept it. I pray that you’ll be that diamond or prism, reflecting that incredible grace to as many people as you meet. And I pray that you’ll surrender your own self, both the things you like about yourself and that you don’t like about yourself, and you’ll allow God to use those things in his miracle way to bring glory to Himself to the edify His kingdom on earth. You won’t believe how full your life will get.