I stood nervously at the bar waiting for Andy, contemplating the ridiculous number of craft beers on tap. We were college roommates over thirty years ago but had not connected since. He recently called, saying I had been on his mind. I was nervous because I knew he had earned a doctorate in linguistics and traveled the world with his family. I felt rather unaccomplished by comparison. Actually, I was more than unaccomplished. I was a failure. And I knew I needed to reveal that and resist the temptation to impress him.
Andy approached my table, and my spirit warmed when his eyes locked with mine. We hugged and ordered beers. When we sat down, I looked him over. He had aged some but was vibrant. He had gained no weight since college. His voice was higher-pitched than I remembered it, and I wondered if all men’s voices evolve this way. Has mine?
Stories flowed back and forth about the course of our lives, many of which were sweet. But some tensed my body to tell. I narrated a chain of upheavals that had sifted me, like emptying a satchel of traumas. I told Andy about being overwhelmed by my role as a pastor in Cincinnati and moving back to Columbus fifteen years ago. I told him about my recent bankruptcy and the years of spending and avoidance that led to it. And telling my kids their dad couldn’t manage his money. My eyes watered, and my voice dried out as I tried to describe the realization that I had lived dishonestly to avoid dishonor. I was a hider who had been exposed. I told him further of my decision to leave the church I been with for over thirty years. I told him I felt cursed by God. I feared thinking for myself. I was in agony inwardly, but I could not lament openly to Andy for fear of radiating self-pity.
After patiently listening and treating me with dignity, Andy said he saw strength in the choices I recently made, and remarked, “God has been so faithful to us over the years.” The comment jarred me. Was he spouting a cliché? Was he even listening? I felt I was on my own, dangling in the wind. Shame was chasing me. Anxious fears of the future were rolling over me like waves. Would I fail again financially? Could I build new friendships? Would I ever be useful to people? Would I be able to handle aging? Inside I was thinking, “Yea, Andy, God has been faithful to you! But I’ve blown it.” My reaction surprised me because I had not admitted my cynicism to myself. I had theoretical faith and practical atheism.
It dawned on me that Andy did hear me. But he didn’t assign the failure to my life that I did. I had a distorted narrative, in which my sense of identity was shaped by, “I have succeeded at this,” or “I have failed at that.” I was stuck in a story about my faithfulness (or lack thereof) to God. I vacillated between pride and despair. My pride made me susceptible to shame. I lusted to be honored as heroic. But I was mostly unaware of the story I had constructed of my life. I effortlessly interpreted the failures and setbacks as confirmation that I was being punished.
Andy’s comment was a seed that, in the months that followed, sprouted, budded, and burgeoned into a new and animating interpretation of my life. I see God’s faithful love as his active pursuit, not an abstract concept like “acceptance.” He is for me and wants me.
But sometimes, like a winter morning, my mind goes dark. The distorted narrative comes back to accuse. I begin to feel abandoned and that my life is pointless. Looking at my life through the lens of God’s faithfulness has been great, but sometimes I look away and have to wrestle back to faith. It’s like wrestling with a menacing voice.
I hear the voice often as I wake up. Sometimes in my sleep. He has been with me as long as I can remember. His indictments are often without specificity. He usually lurks over my shoulder rather than speaking face to face. Though he tends to mutter or speak in a whisper, his accusing barnacles accumulate. Even if I don’t hear his words, I know the demoralizing tone—like a damp and cloudy week. He is a relentless dripping faucet.
He blows smoke rings like,
“You don’t have talent.”
“If you can’t do something great, you should quit.”
“Why are you so fearful? Why are you self-absorbed?”
“You are a narcissist.”
These charges reverberate, echoing in the chambers of my heart. It’s like playing racquetball in my mind. He is like an exacting schoolmaster. He screeches a high-pitched “Wrong!”
“Work harder,” then “You are obsessed and driven to be admired.”
“You better edit and revise that again. Spend more time on it.”
“You are a shitty perfectionist.”
I realize I am listening passively. I must speak back to the voice. “Oh, heart of mine, you are quite absorbed with me! I have dutifully listened long enough!” Now, hear my retort:
Oh, my perfectionist self, I see your self-justifying scheme to perfect in order to protect. You want me to bury my flaws under an outer skin of competence. You try to avoid the biting cold of humiliation. But this defensive din deafens me to my acquittal, my advocate’s voice of pardon drowned out.
Oh, my accuser, your stature is diminishing. I will meet your doubt with doubt and folded arms. Only the verdict from the One who made me matters! My worth stands under no human court. I am not in your jurisdiction.
Hey, you, my soul, my perfectionist soul, I will not defend myself! Self-justification is no balm. My blight runs deeper than you think! You are right. Some of what you see makes me weep.
But I will not fall into defensiveness. I confess with confidence because my shame has been covered with new garments sewn by my Maker. I plead not my moral record. I have no resume.
My perfectionist soul, my faith in you is failing. I will talk back! I laugh! I cry! I sing!
The encounter with Andy became a narrative shift. It helps me talk back to the voice and be defiant against despair. Gradually, I am coming to see that my life’s real and comprehensive story is not about heroically pursuing God. Nor is it about being a failure in his sight. My story is that God passionately pursues me in the midst of my shame. I call it a beautiful intrusion because it disrupts my schemes for arrogant self-glory and opens my eyes to the lovely calligraphy of a story written by God’s hand.
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