When “good girl” isn’t enough

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I recently had to clear up a misunderstanding with someone, and it was hard. I discovered all over again that I have a very strong good-girl in me who has a big fear of even getting close to the edge of rules. That makes me a great law-abiding citizen, but it is a problem when many of my unspoken rules can be summed up by this one: Good girls don’t rock the boat. Which means they don’t get angry. They don’t bother anyone. They care only about others, so they don’t ask for what they need, and definitely not for anything extra. And if someone unknowingly hurts them, they certainly don’t let that person know.

This good girl broke all those rules in one conversation—and when she felt the fear, she realized why she doesn’t break those rules very often.

BUT, even if it was a bit messy, that conversation opened up the possibility for that relationship to continue and flourish, as sisters now, equal adults both free to love and grow.

AND, it opened up the possibility for me to know more of the true God rather than the god I’ve made in my own image—an insecure god who cares more about nit-picky rules than he does about love . . . or about me.

It’s intriguing how these outgrown (but not entirely gone) beliefs about God surface from time to time. Whenever they do, it’s a gift, because there’s new freedom just around the corner.

Seeing the false belief about God is a big step toward healing, but it isn’t an automatic cure, so I’ve been hanging around with the Real God, enfleshed in Jesus, watching as he interacts with a woman making the transition from “good girl” to “equal (and loved) adult.”

She has been sick for twelve years, and has done everything she could think to try to fix herself. She has spent all her money, been to all the doctors, followed all the rules. Nothing has worked.

Her bleeding—the very thing that makes her so desperate for Jesus’ help—is a barrier to receiving that help. As a bleeding woman, if she touches a man, she will, according to ritual laws, contaminate him.

But she’s desperate. And too ashamed to ask for what she needs. So she takes a deep breath and breaks the rules and touches the clothes of this rabbi.

And Jesus stops. Something about this is important enough to interrupt his life-and-death errand to heal a little girl who is dying.

He looks around and asks, “Who touched me?”

The woman’s heart is pounding and she wishes she could melt into the stony street.

Jesus is still waiting, looking for the perpetrator.

She falls at his feet and, in front of everyone, confesses her desperation and her rule-breaking and the knowledge that she has been healed.

And Jesus? He calls her “daughter.” It’s the only recorded time he does this, and he does it not in a moment when she keeps the rules perfectly, but in the moment she breaks the rules and reaches out to ask (through her actions, because she can’t find her voice) for what she needs.

He calls her daughter in the moment she throws aside the rules and all her own efforts to make herself acceptable and stakes everything on grace.

He names her as family, tying her to himself, in the moment when she risks it all and feels most vulnerable and afraid of rejection.

In her longing for healing, she breaks the rules, and, instead of condemning, Jesus commends her for her faith—because she has trusted him, trusted his character, enough to step through the rules that blocked her access to him.

The rules that were intended to keep God’s people close to him had become a means of keeping her away. And in helping her find her voice, in freeing her not only from her body’s bleeding but also from the bleeding of her heart, in declaring, through naming her daughter, that she is accepted and loved, that she matters and she belongs, Jesus puts rules in their proper place again: it’s the heart of God behind the rules that is central—the heart of love that always wants us close.

When you have nothing to give

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As I bring my gift, shame sometimes still creeps in, taunting me with its jabs, “It’s such a poor gift. Can’t you find anything better than this to offer a King?”

I ignore the voice and offer my gift anyway, the gift that in this moment is all I have to give: all of my longing, my emptiness, my helplessness.

The Gracious One reminds me of another woman who gave him all of her nothingness, her entire poverty. He received it as a gift of everything.

In this upside-down kingdom, it is not fullness, independence, sufficiency which the King seeks, but emptiness. Acceptance of our own inability.

“Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.” (Simone Weil)

It is grace itself which makes this void.

It is grace that lets us feel the truth of our smallness.

“Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

It is grace that fills our smallness with his greatness.

“My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

And it is grace that reminds us again and again that our emptiness is not a shameful gift, not a last resort because we have nothing “better” to offer, but the very thing God most wants—because he who delights to bless in the most extravagant ways wants to fill us with himself.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit (or as I’ve often heard Darrell Johnson paraphrase, “Blessed are those who know they do not have what it takes”) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

 

An edited repost from the archives

One thing you can know for sure about God

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“What do you know about God that you didn’t know a year ago?”

I struggled to answer Rob DesCotes’ question in the New Year’s edition of the Imago Dei newsletter. That saddened me. Since then, longing to know God better, I’ve been asking each week, “What do I know about God now that I didn’t know last week?” Sometimes the answer surprises me. More often it is a deepening of something I thought I knew but now I’m sure I know, or something my head knew but now my heart knows. As in a marriage of many years, the new things you learn about your spouse are subtle. But I still want to know them.

This week? It was the simple insight that came as I sat with a friend who helps me listen. I was wondering how to move ahead in a difficult situation, and I said, “I want to do it as long as I’m sure God is leading me into it. It’s too big for me to handle on my own.”

She looked me in the eye and spoke with the clarity and simple confidence that I’ve learned means, “You can count on this”: “Jesus will be with you in it whether he has led you into it or not.”

Ahhh. Yes. Here I can rest.

I still want to know whether Jesus is leading me into something or not. But now my heart knows this: I can step out of his will. I can’t step out of his presence.

No matter how I’ve gotten myself into something, or why, he will be with me in it, ready to love me in whatever way I can receive.

When you wonder if you can do it

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In those moments when you think you’re almost done and then you have to rewrite whole chapters and time is running out and you wonder if you really can do this after all

(Or the lines of patients seem never ending,

Or the kids are sick again,

Or back pain lays you low):

1. Take a deep breath. Remember that every breath is a love-gift, a reminder that you are held in existence by the One who delights in you. And He will not let go.

2. Lay out all your fears before Jesus. Name them. Then, with all those fears on the table, ask Jesus how he wants to be with you in them. (I saw him gently pick up each fear, one at a time, as though it was precious, and hold it in his two hands, look lovingly at me and ask, “Will you trust me with this?”)

3. Just fill the jars. It’s his job to make wine from the water you bring.

Freely God’s

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Am I giving myself to others for the sake of God, or am I giving myself to God for the sake of others? I’m only just recognizing the difference in those terms, and it’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

I didn’t go home for Christmas this year. Every time I considered it, it felt too tight and pressured, and after a busy term I was so hungry for time alone with God. God gave many special gifts, including a few times with other people, loving and being loved in practical ways, but perhaps the biggest gift came when I realized that for the first time in three months, I felt like myself, and then, a few days later, realized that I could have equally well described what I meant by “I felt like myself” in a different way: “I felt freely God’s.” That is exactly where I want to live all the time—as God’s, fully and freely—and I was getting to taste what it felt like! And in that moment when “being myself” equated to “being freely His,” the question (which has been a huge struggle for me all my life) of whether it is selfish to make the choices that let me be me disappeared. What is less selfish than doing what enables me to be freely God’s?

It was soon after that that I began, slowly, to see the difference between giving myself to others for the sake of God and giving myself to God for the sake of others.

When I give myself to others first, even if I think I’m doing so for God’s sake, I put others on the throne. I surrender my God-given stewardship over my own life to the wishes of others. Or I put myself on the throne. I decide who to give to, and when and how. When I give myself first to others, I’m either clinging to control, or I’m inappropriately surrendering control to others, or both.

But when I give myself to God for the sake of others, the One who knows and loves me best (and knows and loves others best) gets to guide. He who is gracious and generous and infinitely creative in his solutions may ask me to help meet the need of one person while asking me to trust his goodness enough not to have to be the one to help with something else. When I give myself first to God, I’m surrendering to the only One who can rightly handle that control. I’m surrendering to love. This is the way of trust. And of freedom and peace and the burden that is light.

Jesus lived this second way, giving himself to his Father for our sake: “I’m consecrating myself”—setting myself apart for God—”for their sakes . . .” (John 17:19) His eyes were always on his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19; 8:28), his will neither his own, nor surrendered to us, but surrendered to his Father (Luke 22:42, John 5:30; 6:38).

I’ve tried to live the first because I thought it was the way of love, the way to please God. It turned out that I can’t love that way. I too quickly slip into fatigue, and from there into resentment and crankiness.

I’m just starting to learn how to live the second. It’s a daily challenge, and a bit messy. (One poor person got three emails from me as I was trying to get the courage to step out of a commitment: 1) I need to leave. 2) No, wait, am I hearing right? Maybe I should keep praying about it. 3) Umm. . . yes, God has added several more layers of confirmation to the already high pile. I really do need to leave.) It makes me wonder: Was I really living the first way only because I thought it was the way of love? Or was I living it because I felt insecure without the affirmation of others?

It’s a challenge to switch my gaze from the faces of others to the face of Jesus, but it’s also freedom and joy and true, unshakeable security. However hard the switch may be, and however long it takes, I know I don’t want to go back.