I have a friend who is an avid reader who often mentions books that she has read and by which she has been impacted. She recently told me about a book called, Grace for the Good Girl, by Emily P. Freeman. I started reading it on vacation and realized that the book has brought me back to my roots. By roots I don't mean my family of origin, I mean church roots--the church I first felt like I became a part of a spiritual family. This church also happened to be the first church I attended that used expository teaching. The pastor taught through whole books of the Bible. Yet, when he would get to a passage on a topic like marriage he was so thorough in handling the topic I learned more about the topic than most people do whose pastors teach only topical sermons. It was a great place for a young believer who had a lot of questions about the Bible to be. As I have been reading through Freeman's book on grace, it surprisingly echoes the teachings that came out of the pulpit in my church thirty years ago. It also echoed some of the things the pastor said to us conversationally.
I must say that I was in my baby making years during the time we were at that church. I had a handful of babies and toddlers and was learning so much at the time that I didn't have a chance to reflect on all that I was learning and how it was supposed to impact my life and my thinking. I guess it would be accurate to say that at the time we left there I had a headful of great Bible knowledge and was trying really hard to be good, to earn love from God and man, and to live a life that pleased God.
During our stay there, we had a guy break into our home during one of my pregnancies and I didn't sleep the last half of the pregnancy. This set me up for a good case of post partum depression. My answer to the ambivalence and sadness that filled my soul was to work harder at church and home, to compulsively serve, to read more of my Bible, and to listen to as many tapes of great Bible teachers as I could get my hands son. The extra activity helped for awhile, getting me through some tough days and sleepless nights. However, now that I look back on it, I realize I was wearing a "good girl" mask that was hiding the real me--the scared wounded child living inside who felt invisible, the young wife plagued with a mountain-sized insecurity, the young mom who was struggling with a deep sea of inadequacy, the woman with a core of shame that came from a past of abuse, and an eating disorder that had at its core control that was so out of control that it scares me to even think about it now.
Long after I left that church I still carried my work-hard mentality with me. If I had a conflict with someone at church, I worked extra hard to overcome it and win the person over. When some one seemed displeased with a job I did, I took the person's opinion as gospel and worked even harder to rectify it even when I didn't know what it was I was to rectify. When guilt followed my sinful actions, I confessed it over and over and over and then white knuckled it so that I didn't mess up again, which only seemed to lead to more failure. When the monster called shame grew so big it took a hold of my heart in a vice grip, I worked harder to live down the shame of being too much and not enough at the same time. On days I didn't feel pretty enough or thought I ate a bite too much, I wrote out another diet plan and set a longer course to run the next morn. On the days I felt overlooked and ignored, I tried harder, cleaned more, smiled bigger, all in attempt to get someone to notice I existed. To be honest, completely honest, I was totally physically and spiritually exhausted. I was too tired to feel and became emotionally numb. It was like being a walking dead person.
All the while the sermons and advice of our former pastor rolled around in my head never landing in my heart. Especially the verses from Colossians 2:6-7, "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving."
During the time I spent in counseling I was also taught the art of becoming more self aware, which I found to be the way out of the self-centeredness that I hated so much. And as I read the Word I began to not only asked the "who, what, where, how, and why" questions of the Word, I also began to ask them of myself in regard to what I read. I began to notice my thoughts and my emotional reactions to what I read. If I wanted to race by a passage, I became curious about why I was avoiding it. If my heart quickened, I would pause and take note of why I felt excited about it. If I felt shame I took time to discern why and if I was looking at it as a Pharisee or a graced believer. If I felt convicted by something I read, I examined my life and my heart and put into place a plan to overcome revealed sin. I found that when I felt convicted, I felt a sense of being deeply loved and I knew that conviction was from God, not the condemnation of the enemy. When I felt pervading toxic shame, old tapes were playing in my head that were based on human words, lies, or distorted teachings of the Word. If I had a negative thought ("That might be true for others, but not for me") or a disbelieving thought ("Like that will ever happen!") run through my head, I paid attention to it to try to understand why I didn't believe what I read that day. It gave me the chance to identify areas of unbelief and the unresolved pain underneath. I guess in essence, I no longer wanted a shallow belief, I wanted the Word to permeate into the deepest parts of my heart where real transformation takes place.
I also began to notice what I felt when I read. That felt risky because many of the messages I had gotten in church about feelings were that they could not be trusted and should be ignored. Yet, when I listened to the messages of the feelings as I read the Word, I gained so much more. For example, when I read about the woman at the well, I noticed I felt judgmental because I figured she was either a runner or just didn't try hard enough. I confessed it and then I sat in the story for awhile. As I sat in the story, I researched the culture that she lived in and I grew sad. She had gone through five very public divorces, experiencing powerlessness of being in a culture that did not value its women. She got water at a time of day that indicated an avoidance of others so she was alone and lonely. At first glance I was confused by the Lord's questions, and the enemy whispered in my ear, "See how He toys with her?" But as I meditated on the passage it became obvious that Jesus cared less about her divorces than He did her unhealed heartache and her unsatisfied thirst for love. That was something I could relate to. As I read through story after story slowly I began to see just how gently and lovingly God dealt with sinners like me and how He dealt with people in pain. Sometimes stories would trigger some hurt in me that was similar to theirs and I would allow it to surface and found the Lord faithful to heal it. As I read about attitudes of those who followed, I found if I took the time to process it was often like looking in a mirror. In my self awareness I could identify with their impulsive actions, their insecurities, their sinfulness, and their clamoring for love, acceptance, and power. I began to recognize the "good-girl" mask as being a fleshly bondage that needed to go. It kept me from seeing the truth about myself and sometimes the truth about others and about God. It kept me from acknowledging internal sins and the idols of my heart. It kept me from accepting my humanness, kept me from fully adoring my God, and kept me from resting fully in His grace.
So, for the many years I have been away from my "home church" I have slowly and surly been learning to apply what I was originally taught. Ironically, I am finding that so many of the answers to life's problems and painful emotions were taught faithfully to me long ago. But until I was invited to remove the good girl mask in the counseling office, I said I believed one way, but lived another out of fear and misunderstanding.
I really wish I could have one more conversation with the pastor who told me, "Just as you received Jesus, you live in HIM--by faith." I would love for him to see the joy and the freedom I have found in giving up working for God's love and acceptance--two things that I already possessed. I would love for him to see the woman who has become more comfortable outside of the mask, living more honestly and truthfully. I would love for him to see me resting in grace, not groveling in shame. I wish he could see me living free. He would be thrilled to know I finally get that the Christian life isn't working towards perfection, it is trusting God to be who He says He is, and that I am who He says I am in relationship to Him. It isn't about a pulling myself up by the boot straps and trying harder and harder and harder, it is about resting in Him, receiving His grace, and allowing His presence and His goodness to fill this God-thirsty heart with His love and His acceptance. It's about resting in His presence and letting Him transform my selfish heart into a loving heart that beats in tune with His--there I feel fully alive, I more easily trust Him, and my desires, decisions, reactions, and actions all fall into place. Those things flowing out of my relationship with Him promote life, give me health, foster love, and fill me with an abundance of joy--joy that flows naturally into an attitude of thanksgiving that attracts others to Him. I would love to tell him how good it feels to be walking by faith and no longer walking dead. I bet He's probably telling Jesus, "It's about time she got it! We told her that for years!"