At an early age I knew that I was a screw up. Don’t get me wrong, no one ever told me I was a screw-up. I grew up in a nice family with a roof over my head and parents who provided for me and my brothers and who loved us very much. Our family wasn’t perfect – there were problems just like any family living on this earth – but I knew I was loved by them. The perception that I was a screw-up was somehow deeply ingrained in me. I was making mistakes all the time. I couldn’t live up to the rules of behavior I was learning about at church. The guilt and shame were intense. I was sleep-walking, I was anxious, I was shy, and I often wanted to run away from the world. I did my best to get good grades and stay on the straight and narrow, but I always had the feeling that I wasn’t “making the grade” with God, at least not the God I learned about in church.
I encountered a different God in church than the God who would meet me in the dark of the night and comfort me from my fear of the shadows on the walls and anxieties about death. The God that I learned about at church was what I perceived to be an angry mob boss. I couldn’t talk to him. If I wanted to really communicate with him, it had to be done through mediators. I wasn’t taught to have a relationship with him. I was taught the rules of behavior. I perceived that when I was succeeding at following those rules my name was at the top of his list. When I made mistakes, he scratched me off his list and hell was in my future. I also didn’t see Jesus as being resurrected. I was reminded of his death every week and knew that I had put him on that cross. I never really understood why he volunteered to go to the cross. My perception was that he went to the cross to show me that I was bad.
In high school, my life of rebellion was born and continued well into adulthood. After an out-of-wedlock pregnancy (that I now realize was God’s saving mercy), my dad’s death, and some other crises, I looked at the total train wreck that was my life. I was raising my sweet daughter alone. I had just gotten out of a complicated relationship. My finances were a mess. I made a huge, albeit unintentional, mistake at my new job. I was lonely. My hope was very dim.
I walked into the mega-church that Sunday morning, not because I loved God, but in all honesty, to get my act together. I was greeted at the door with big smiles, friendly hellos, people that looked clean and nearly perfect, and the thought that these people really have it together…maybe this place can really help me. The worship music was electrifying, the sermon was beautiful, the people were all so happy (or so it seemed). It was so different from the atmosphere of the faith in which I grew up, where most everyone looked quite somber and didn’t look at all like they really wanted to be there.
I signed up for the new member class right away. I was ecstatic that soon I would be clean, shiny, and nearly perfect too. I was sure God was proud of me after years of staying away from church. Surely he was proud that I was finally going to get it together. I was finally going to start “making the grade”.
I was handed a set of rules in the class, a covenant with God and the church, per se. A little twinge of anxiety caught me off guard when I was handed the notebook, and in the back of my mind I wondered if I would be able to keep up with this covenant. The covenant addressed behavior, holiness, tithing, church attendance, service etc. That day I added a new mask to my collection. I was going to live up to what the covenant instructed, or by golly, I was going to pretend till my dying day.
So, I started trying to present an image of myself to my church family and the world that was a far cry from the person I was behind closed doors. I started doling out the “necessities” of the Christian faith to the single moms in the support group I was in. I started trying to listen to only Christian radio…and if I listened to classic rock (my favorite) or another genre, the guilt trip would ensue. I distanced myself from friends who weren’t living the faith. I started looking down on “those” people. I started presenting the “rules” to my daughter and handed her a shiny set of masks. At work I would try to stay away from the “worldly” conversations that had nothing to do with faith. I filled up my schedule with churchy things sure that I would balance out the scales to please God and win the approval of my church.
My friends and I would have conversations about what behaviors were acceptable and unacceptable. The list seemed to grow with each conversation…and I had to add a few more embellishments to my mask. Something inside me wondered if we were complicating this faith thing. Those few hours I spent at church on Sunday and Wednesday started to become really lonely. Yes, I had lots of friends, and I was grateful, but none of those friends knew the “real” me. I wanted to confess so many things to them. I wanted them to love me like the God who kept visiting me in the dark of the night loved me. I wanted to tell my friends that I thought we were missing the point – Jesus. Yes, Jesus was a part of conversations…but our behavior, our performance, the ways we were serving him, the amount time we were spending in prayer and quiet time, the big things we were going to do for him, not his sacrifice, became the meat of our conversations.
Behind closed doors, I was falling apart. I knew I was a total phony. I knew I wasn’t living up to the requirements. The guilt and shame were debilitating. My perception, though, was that if I didn’t present a certain image to the world that I would “ruin my witness”, cause others to stumble, my daughter and I would get kicked out of the place that was going to make me better if I could just try harder, and that eventually I would lose all the friends I made there.
“You can’t keep your true self hidden forever; before long you’ll be exposed. You can’t hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later the mask will slip and your true face will be known.” Luke 12:2 MSG
But God, in his grace and mercy, started pulling the masks off. It may seem cruel to those who haven’t experienced it, but I see it as the greatest gift – God handed me a special mirror. He showed me that what I believed about myself as a little girl was true – I wasn’t “making the grade”. I mess up every day in a thousand different ways. I hurt people. I lie. I cheat. I don’t love like I should. I don’t work as if God is my boss. Not a single day on this earth have I lived up to the covenant. My sin did make Jesus volunteer to go to the cross. Yes, it was excruciatingly painful to see my heart through that special mirror, but absolutely essential.
The God who used to meet me in the dark of the night as a little girl got me all alone in my dark night of the soul. He shut out all the other voices. He coaxed me into his lap. He told me the truth about the cross. The cross is his love letter to me. He’s not the angry mob boss. He is a loving Father. I am his beloved daughter. He lovingly showed me that I have been adding exhausting burdens to his finished work (Matthew 11:28). He reminded me that Jesus rose again. He is ALIVE!! Death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). IT IS FINISHED!!! (John 19:30) He has set this captive free (Luke 4:18).
I’m back to listening to classic rock without the guilt trip and associate with “those” people, fellow grace addicts, all the time.
For more of my story, click here: LIBERATE-My Liberating Journey Out of Darkness