Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. *
This Thanksgiving break, I read a book about relationships. It came out of the author learning how to create and maintain healthy ones, whether that was in terms of friendships, dating, or marriage. Near the beginning of the book, he describes breaking off an engagement, and the feeling of intense numbness and isolation that came as a result. That pain caused him to see the unhealthy habits he had in terms of relationships, and exactly how they had caused his last relationship to fall apart.
He realized that he saw himself as fundamentally unloveable. As a child, he created an outer shell designed to impress all those around him while hiding his true self. It’s like the persona that a comedian puts on for the stage. In relationships, he would use this outer shell to reel girls in and get them to like him, and then feed on their affection for him to try and disprove the lie that he couldn’t be loved. Eventually that satisfaction would go away, he would get bored of the relationship and leave it. After the months it took him to see this, the numbness from ending the engagement started to fade. As he started to open himself up to people again, he began to fall into the same old habits.
I read that passage, and instantly knew that’s where I was. Last spring, I got out of a relationship that followed some of the same patterns as Don’s. I got it in my head that if I’m not perfect, I can’t be loved. I was constantly searching for flaws in myself, and when I found them, I instantly tucked away those broken parts from the light of day. I felt the need to curate a perfect picture of myself to show to people while I fixed those broken pieces. I wanted to be fully “on” with people, and I wanted to fix myself. I saw both of those as coming from self knowledge, spiritual disciplines and reading. I poured myself into those things, which naturally pulled me away from others. These things aren’t necessarily bad when coming from the right heart, but I just had a bad mindset with it.
When God made the world, He didn’t make it perfect. We often refer to the Garden of Eden that way, but the label God gave His creation was good. The problem with perfection is that it requires stagnation. Any change from perfect would have to be negative. If you look at the commandments God gave Adam and Eve, the world was good with the intention of spiraling ever upwards into greater intimacy with God. Genuine connection is built not in perfection, but in growth.
That connection has to start with an acknowledgement of imperfection, and the knowledge that goodness and imperfection are not mutually exclusive. The most endearing story a person can tell often starts with the messiest parts of their lives. We may be drawn to people because they’re impressive, but relationships are built around love and grace, and grace only sticks to a person’s flaws. If we hide the side of ourselves that needs the grace, our relationships suffer.**
The picture I create is often an impressive one, but it’s an impenetrable outer shell that doesn’t allow anyone to truly get close. Sure, I’ll get a lot of likes on Instagram, and I’ll know a lot of people on campus. That stuff is good, but it’s not great, and it has little value if it’s not supported by a foundation of deep relationships, and even before that, a solid relationship with God. I’m realizing I’ve tried to do the same thing with Him that I do with people. I isolate my flaws, and only show Him perfectly pious prayers.
I’ve turned my relationship with God into a performance, just as I’ve done the same with people. What He’s been showing me is that I never need to show off for Him. When He offered His love and grace to me, it wasn’t because I had done anything to earn it. It wasn’t because I raised my hands in worship last Sunday, it wasn’t because I read my Bible, and it wasn’t because I grew up going to church. He chooses to love me and forgive me even and especially at my worst because He wants to, and because that’s who He is.***
My self worth is not based on my performance for Him or anybody else, but rather on His love for me. He’s called me His son in spite of everything I ever done. I can’t do anything to change that, and I never will. By no means does that mean He wants me to stay the same for the rest of my life, but any personal growth I experience has to be done on the foundation of my relationship with Him. Ultimately, I have to acknowledge that any positive change in myself comes directly from His grace and love at work in my life. In short, I’m learning to trust the reality of His acceptance of me.
No matter how much I strive, I can’t earn the title of “perfect,” but I don’t think I’d even want it. At the end of the day, I just want to be called “very good,” and yet God said that about me before I was even born. The question then becomes where do I go from here, and the answer is not an easy one. I have to trust that God isn’t kidding when He says He loves me. That sounds stupid, but I’ve been living life as a performance. It’s practically ingrained in my head that love will only come to me when I show my perfect side, and to let it down is to trust that the person on the other end won’t hate me.
That quote at the very top of this is from a book called The Alchemist. The whole book is beautiful, but that quote is one of the more valuable lessons you’ll find in it. I could live my whole life without risk, and do everything in my power to hide my heart behind a shell of impressive accomplishments. If I did, my heart would never get hurt, but I wouldn’t be able to connect with God or with anyone else. It’s terrifying to open up the possibility of giving love without getting it back, but living in light of that fear would be far worse than any pain a person could inflict on me.
At the end of the day, I have faith that I won’t need this trust forever. Nothing that I do on earth can be perfect, and most of it isn’t even good. That’s hard to deal with, and honestly it can be discouraging. In the midst of it all though, I find hope and comfort in the words of Paul when he said,
“We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
*From The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. This book is similar to trying to describe the color red in words. It’s something that has to be experienced, not explained. The plot follows a shepherd boy from Spain on a journey to the Pyramids at Giza, but the book is about so, so, so much more than that. It will literally change your life, so just do both of us a favor and read it.
**This entire paragraph is a paraphrase of Scary Close, and I’m gonna use this as an opportunity to say I cannot recommend that book highly enough. My copy is currently on loan, but if you want to borrow it at some point after this winter break (and I could reasonably get the book to you) please let me know.
***This paragraph is largely lifted from The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. Again, incredible book. Again, my copy is out on loan right now, but again, if you want to borrow it after winter break and I can reasonably get it to you, let me know.
Originally published at theforlornemoose.wordpress.com on December 15, 2016.