I had a friend recently text me in the middle of a very difficult day. I think her text came in response to my post about our family going bowling. What she said really touched me. And at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous braggart, I thought I would share what she said. "You are inspirational. God does a mighty work through you!! I have had friends where I would have thought about how I needed to be more like them. You, my dear friend, make me want to be more like me. It's the best! Thank you!!"
Again, it's kind of silly to publish a compliment. But I thought what she said was so poignant. I know I spent YEARS of my life in the former category, the type of person who was so fed by accolades that I lived in a way so people elevated me as an example of what to be. I wanted that. I wanted to be the best leader, the holiest Christian, the most responsible and caring mother, the untouchable perfect person. Only then would I be safe. And I think that gaping need for perfection came from a place of unworthiness and a need for control. When your filter is low, whatever feedback you get from others might as well be truth. There's no room for someone to assess you and be wrong in their perception. So if I was perceived as less than the best I could be, failing to perform to the highest standard or hinting in any way a lack of integrity or faith, I scrambled to patch the hole in my persona. Because if that was true, I had nothing.
There are so many problems with this. Primarily, this makes people feel like shit. By living your life to an impossible standard and promoting that in others, you make people feel like shit. Every day. Whenever they interact with you, see your perfect posts on social media or have a moment where their humanity takes center stage in their life you are heaping shame on them for not measuring up. I guarantee you, if you have someone like this in your life, it's actually because they feel like shit about themselves. They may not know it (I didn't). But they are projecting their un-fillable hole onto you to make you feel bad. If everyone doesn't play this game, the perpetrator is losing in a different way. She doesn't feel she can opt out, so neither can you.
Sometimes this comes out in church (my hotbed for performance and shame). We act like everyone should be a leader and being a leader means providing a good example. It's why shame-based "sins" like pornography thrive in evangelicalism. No one can keep up with the perfection so they choose something super-shameful (which fuels the addiction because it creates a shame spiral) and keep it hidden as best they can. Because it's not based on actually being a good person. It's based on appearing to be a good person.
So the problem isn't the shameful behavior. The problem is someone discovering the shameful behavior. This is why we punish girls for getting pregnant but have no words for the boy who impregnated her. She's the one who appears sinful. So she's the problem. Though if she "solves" the problem with an abortion, then she's a way worse person. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Jesus responded to this repeatedly, having mercy. This is why men like Josh Duggar get a pass and his wife gets to share the responsibility for his pornography addiction, molestation of under-aged girls (including his own flesh and blood) and repeated infidelities. He'd been doing this for YEARS and his family knew about it, at least the early stuff. The problem became a real problem when it became public. Nevermind that he came home to his pure, modestly dressed wife of five children in as many years having spent himself on another woman. You are unable to take personal responsibility for your choices when you're living in the land of appearances. The shame is up for grabs and can be conveniently placed on another person. If someone in your life never owns their shit and is always blaming others, this dynamic is probably at play. Because owning your shit means you're a piece of shit. It's a lie.
And you may hear ideology at church about how we're all pieces of shit but for the grace of God. So there's this self-hating, God-loving premise that fuels a lack of self-care, grace for self and others, and a genuine self-hatred as a form of worship. DO NOT BELIEVE THIS. Why would God call us his masterpiece, send his Son to die a painful death to save us, make us in his image because he thinks we're pieces of shit and are so lucky to be here at all? HE LOVES US. Not because he's so great and we're so unlovable. Yes he's great. But we're his. Which means we're great too. He created us because he wants relationship WITH US. Not in spite of us. Not because we screwed it up and he had to scramble for a Plan B. I believe God made us human ON PURPOSE. That means that he's not surprised by our frailty, our humanity. He. Made. It. He finds beauty in us, a reflection of his creator self. And again, not because he has super God goggles and we're really just pieces of shit. What if we're actually great? Have you ever thought about that? Yes, we are happier and healthier humans when we embrace each other and forsake greed, violence and hatred. Yes. But those moments when we don't measure up? He knew that was going to happen. And IT'S O.K.
There's one other way I see this happening. It seems really sweet and "safe" but it's started to really bother me. I'm describing when someone literally has no concept of self outside of God. We've told Christians that they're good BECAUSE God says they're good. They're okay BECAUSE God says they're ok. I get it. When you believe everything begins and ends with what God says, this makes sense. But it's saying that self-love only comes as a response to God saying we're worthy. That implies that if he said we weren't, then we really would be pieces of shit. And I know many people can't go here with me. But what I believe is that even if God changed his mind and decided we were pieces of shit, I don't believe we are. What this has done is affirmed my faith in God but also in myself apart from God. I think it's dangerous to base our entire self-concept on what God says about us because our interpretations of God vary, even if he doesn't change. Is that not just the more spiritual version of what I described above? That I was okay because others were impressed by me. Can we be okay regardless of anyone's opinion, even God's? I know it's a stretch for some. But if we can sever this final cord, what happens is we have a less conditional relationship with God. We can stand on our own feet and interact with him. Obviously not as equals, but as dual participants in relationship. What if we are inherently lovable? Even when we "sin"? Not because God forgives us but because our humanity is not a problem to be solved but intentional? It also frees me from the constant analysis of my behavior and what categorizes as sinful or acceptable. If we're safe forever, can we release the list of do's and don't's and just be loved and loving? I feel like I finally understand that verse "there is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear." I never, ever could allow that verse to sink into my bones. Maybe this is what it meant?
What kind of posture would you have in the world when you believed, deep in that un-fillable hole that you are great? As is. Just inherently great. Full stop. How would you treat others? How would you speak to yourself? Would you project your perfect image into the world to reflect your own glory? Or would you feel a quiet confidence, a willingness to be vulnerable, a deliberate embrace of yourself as human, not perfect? I am not an example. I am a human. And I am wonderful. When those things become real to you, you no longer feel the need to convince others of that truth. Or if you do, (in my case right now) it's to free them from themselves not to secure faith in yourself.
I would like to make one final point about all this self-love and awesomeness. This applies to all mankind, not just people who look like you or believe like you do. I believe that God loves every human, made every human in his image and thinks every human is beautiful. Not every human behavior. Every human. And so please don't take my special words and apply them to special groups. I used to feel threatened by God's lack of special favors. I wanted to be set apart, better, safe, special. I didn't want everyone to be equal. How would I win if everyone gets a participation trophy? There are so many examples of this exceptionalism in the New Testament. I understand it. But let me be clear - that is UGLY SHIT. Do not elevate yourself. God loves Muslims. God loves refugees. God loves poor people, yes even the ones on social programs. God loves Republicans (ouch). God loves Democrats too (yea!) Do not take the beauty inside yourself and draw lines around it. Share the love in your heart indiscriminately. And if you need a reason outside yourself, remember, this is what God does.
You do you. Love yourself. Believe in your goodness. Give yourself a fucking break. Honor the pain you feel, the journey you're taking, the growth you've experienced. See yourself as someone worthy of compassion, validation and acceptance. As is. Don't set deadlines for your own mercy (I'll like myself when...). Stop pushing yourself now. Accept yourself and figure out who you really want to be. Then pursue it in freedom and love full of grace for the process and for the beautiful person courageous enough to speak her dreams and reach for them.