My theme for 2017 is “further up and further in.” I expect many aspects of this theme will emerge and teach me this year, but for now, I’m certain of this: “Further up and further in” means the pursuit of truth. The journey inward toward our true selves is also the journey deeper into who God is. I know God wants to show me in a deeper way who I truly am—the “me” I was created to be, and the deeper reality of who God is. My particular personality has a dark side that has been plaguing me in greater or lesser degrees my whole life, and it’s basically rooted in this belief: “I am loved ONLY for what I do, and the minute I stop performing successfully I will be cast aside by those I love.” I have, at different points in my life, extinguished the light of truth ignited by God in my soul with this very lie. I have listened to false gods, living the way of shame, striving, performing, instead of the Jesus Way.
The “Jesus Way” is a life lived completely at home and secure in one’s own identity as a child of God. The “Jesus Way” is being perfectly at peace in the albeit tumultuous world, knowing that one is loved absolutely and supremely, merely just for being oneself. I cannot do anything that will earn more love from God, and the “love” I seek by my constant performance is a false love, not love at all. Maybe it’s momentary approval, maybe it’s the ego-stroking experience of impressing someone, but it has nothing to do with love. Love can only be fully experienced, especially for someone like me, when I’ve done nothing to earn it and it’s given freely anyway.
I was standing in the hallway of my apartment. It was 2006, and like all sane, healthy humans, I catalogue my life in failures. So this was the great failure of 2006. (*Please note the sarcasm. Don’t be a nut job like me. Don’t catalogue your life in failures. Until recently, I thought everyone thought like me, keeping a log of failures and spending most of life trying to do penance or strive to outweigh them. You can imagine how happy and fulfilled a person I was. Mmmmhmmm.)
I had asked my boyfriend to come over, because there was something we gravely needed to talk about. I had to break the news that I was, indeed, a failure, and that he should feel free to go and find someone who was not so pathetic or despicable. I nobly intended to do this swiftly and honestly, so as not to waste his time, but not without the appropriate amount of groveling for what was undoubtedly an offense of catastrophic proportions.
By now, you’re probably thinking, “OMG. She cheated on him.” Actually, the conversation went something like this:
Me: “I have to tell you something.” I was already tearing up because obviously life was over.
Boyfriend: “Ok.” The concerned look on his face only served to give me more anxiety, and yet more certainty that our relationship would be over shortly.
Me: “I, well, I’ve been having some issues….long explanation….blah blah blah….sickness….too late to drop….blah blah blah….impossible advisor….blah blah…lots of tears and blubbering…blah blah…I misunderstood that paper….blah blah blah…. *SO MANY TEARS* ….I failed.”
BF: “Ok.” Where his look of concern had been, now there was only a blank stare. Picture it.
Me: “I failed two of my classes this semester.” My face was already the color of a tomato from all the ugly crying, so don’t picture that. It wasn’t pretty.
BF: “I’m sorry, babe.”
Me: “No, I’M sorry. I’m SO SORRY!” *SO MUCH UGLY CRYING*
BF: “Um, is that it?” And now his face was one of utter confusion.
Me: “Well. YEAH. I completely understand if you need to take some time to think, or if you’re having doubts about our relationship, or if you can’t be with me…” *again with the tears*
BF: *Silence* He’s now looking at me like I’m a cat wearing a speedo while playing an accordion, something that’s so insane it makes no sense.
Me: *Silence* I can’t bear to face him, so my eyes stay glued to our dirty, cream-turned-greyish carpet.
BF: “You failed two classes, right? Am I missing something?”
I finally met his eyes and had the shocking realization that he might not be through with me. In fact, he actually seemed to see no reason to leave.
It’s not until now, ten years later, that I recognize the weight and transformational power of that moment for me.
You see, from as early as I can remember, people have told me I was smart. (Ugh, the nerve, I know. Obviously I had a very difficult childhood. Maybe someday Oprah will give me a car.) I learned to read early, and from the moment I started school I enjoyed it and it was easy for me. Because it just happened to be what came natural to me, I won accolades from teachers without really trying. I was enrolled in the “gifted and talented” program and I won competitions on the “Academic Team.” My parents— being the emotionally abusive people they were, geez —told me they were proud of me when I got a great report card or won first place at a competition. Those jerks. My grandmother bragged to her friends and siblings about how intelligent I was and how I was headed for greatness.
Now, let me clear. In all seriousness, this is not a story of a kid being screwed up by her family, obviously. I just happened to be wired with an extreme predisposition to want to please the people I loved. And it seemed that the people around me liked it when I excelled academically, so I decided long ago that’s what I had to do continually to belong. To be accepted, loved, and be a successful human being, I needed to be to prove myself as being intellectually extraordinary.
Fast forward over many years of striving under increasing pressure and increasing academic competition (I started out as the proverbial somewhat bigger fish in the teeny tiny pond), and there I stood: in that dimly lit hallway, feeling as if I had fallen to the depths of human depravity, and that it would probably be better for everyone if I just didn’t exist.
But he surprised me. He stayed. In fact, he didn’t even glance toward the door. And I began, ever so slightly, to believe that it might be possible for someone to love me for who I was, rather than for what kind of grades I earned.
That boyfriend has stayed for over eleven years. No matter what my transcript looked like, no matter what I looked like (and let’s be honest, two babies later I look a lot different than I did at 19), no matter how angry or depressed or anxious I got…no. matter. what. He’s still here. Still surprising me with me with the gifts I would never dare to buy for myself, still barreling through the walls I put up, still slowing me down to dance with him in the kitchen. He’s never once glanced toward the door, even in my darkest, ugliest moments.
That boyfriend-turned-partner-for-life has been showing me for years what God is always trying to show us: We are loved. Period.
We are loved. We are loved. We are loved. We are loved. We are loved. We are loved.
We are not loved for what we do, but for who we are. God will NEVER leave us or forsake us, because we are God’s. God is freakin’ obsessed with us. He is overposting on social media about us. Because we’re God’s kids. We will never spend a millisecond of our lives not being loved, and it has nothing to do with anything except who we are. So rest in that today, friends.
Don’t be like me. Don’t live believing that you have to “do” to be loved. It’s simply not true.
What are some ways you’ve been trying to earn love? What do you need to lay down today to rest in God’s unconditional love for you?