Recently, I spent an evening with girlfriends from my college days whom I’d gotten to know through volunteering as a youth leader at my church. Some had been in college with me at the time, and others were high school students. I am the oldest of the group and had felt that acutely then, but you know how that goes as time goes by. A ten-year span doesn’t mean anything when you’re middle-aged, but that ten-year gap was critical then and it helped maintain a wall of appearances. The more remote I was, courtesy of different experiences, the easier it was to keep up the façade.
The person who met with them those many years ago as a youth leader, a mentor, a “big sister”, a Bible study leader . . . was actually a completely different person—unregenerate, seeking approval and love, falling into dangerous patterns of behavior that included heavy drinking and becoming a regular in places where she shouldn’t.
Once I moved away, I gave up all pretense of the false life of being a good Christian girl and eked an existence out of the emptiness of my heart. But that’s another story.
Christ did eventually save me, undeserved as I was and am. He gave me hope and a new heart and an eternal place in his family.
And, in time, I crafted and designed the perfect life . . . again.
I had a compelling and dynamic conversion story through which I was gifted with a sweet baby, and as a wordsmith, I knew how to give the account with an eye toward garnering followers—long before the days of social media. In time, I was writing for influential political and Christian organizations and speaking at churches, for women’s groups, even before state legislatures.
I read the right books and impressed the right people, which secured for me the right jobs and the right connections. I had a storybook courtship and married a man with a godly reputation, and we had beautiful, talented, well-behaved children—whom I homeschooled, of course. (You can just hear those points ringing up, can’t you?)
My counsel was sought as a mother of perfect children. I served on the board of a study center because I had such great ideas, and I was on the top of everybody’s lists for tutoring writing and grammar—and just about anything else—as well as for leadership in the church: elder’s wife, VBS director, Sunday School Coordinator, Women’s Leadership Team.
If this litany sounds familiar, you might think it echoes something the apostle Paul wrote in Philippians:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4b-6)
But just as we know that that was not sufficient for Paul, I knew that it wasn’t for me either.
However, I wasn’t sure how to live any differently. I believed then and believe now that the Lord desires us to live obediently, and we are encouraged to remember that our lives are a reflection of him. There are many warnings in the scriptures about duplicity—saying one thing and actions saying another. But I felt as though I was merely keeping up appearances, striving so as not to crumble in the face of struggles or trials, patching myself up when things were broken. I couldn’t figure out how to do both, to be obedient and not a fake at the same time.
Thankfully—and I say that with a sincere heart—the Lord used affliction and trials to remind me of where my security lay.
A day in February three years ago, the Lord gave me the eyes to see my idol for what it was.
My son was a freshman at Grove City College, which was just one facet of his perfection. In high school, he had been a star athlete, took the lead role in plays, and effortlessly produced outstanding grades every year. He was the regular pianist for a nearby church’s evening service and the editor of the yearbook at a classical study center. He was the beloved “adopted” son of many of my friends and the hoped-for son-in-law of many others. He had already made a mark for himself at Grove City—performing in the fall musical, singing at coffeehouses, playing on IM teams, being sought after for high profile committees on campus.
Like Paul’s litany, this rehearsed recitation was on a loop when I conversed with other moms, with family, even with myself, all the while patting myself on the back for how well I managed to get him (as well as his sisters) to fit into my preconceived notions of what a perfect family is supposed to look like.
Then in February, at the insistence of friends, he met with his dad and, in that conversation, opened our lives to the last trial we’d ever thought we’d have to deal with: his struggle with same sex attraction.
Suddenly, I saw the façade of my world crumbling. The prototype perfect child was revealed to be a figment of my imagination, suspended in a surreal flip of reality, like walking on the wrong side of the stairs. Every aspect of my security and self-assurance was so closely tied to the image I’d created in my mind that I felt I’d been stripped of my identity. I knew it was the Lord cracking the mask of what I believed my perfect life just had to look like . . . starting with my perfect, beautiful son.
Later that year, my married daughter met me for lunch, and the Lord shifted the spiritual lenses a bit to augment and expose another facet of my idol. She told me she and her husband were not able to have children.
My first thought? But we’ve already picked out grandparent nicknames. Clever, literary ones, too!
It was not by accident that several months before both events, I read The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, by Rosaria Butterfield, an English professor at Syracuse University as well as an instructor in Queer Theory. Rosaria identified as a lesbian, was deeply entrenched in and committed to that community, and was moderately active in the social politics of the lifestyle. Then she met and became unlikely friends with a mild-mannered pastor and his wife, and the Lord drew her to Himself in trust and faith.
Christ redeems. Even our struggles, our failures, and our suffering are redemptive in Christ. But there is blood involved. There is a cutting off and a cutting away that redemption demands. Stepping into God’s story means abandoning a deeply held desire to make meaning of our own lives on our own terms based on the preciousness of our own feelings.
What I have learned over the past couple of years about “cutting off and cutting away” comes down to this truth:
The more fragile I acknowledge myself to be, the more content I am in Christ.
1. Trials and affliction are the way the Lord brought me—brings me daily—to the realization that I am fragile—as fragile as an earthen vessel—and that that is okay. It is good, it is his plan, it is his purpose. And it is to his glory because, when I embrace being shatterable, he demonstrates for me what he loves to do more than anything else—deliver me.
Trials provide the necessary crushing to restore joy and expose the message of the gospel.
By these trials, God carved away the preciousness of my deeply held desires.
I went through all kinds of gymnastics to create what I thought Jesus would want: a perfect family, best parenting and educational choices, service and ministry to others, and so on. Even how I responded to earlier trials, such as my husband’s heart attack and cancer, became an idol that I put on display to call attention to my worthiness, to prove that I am a beautiful vessel of God’s favor.
But what God wanted was a vessel that is pleased with being crushable.
I didn’t realize I was trapped in idolatry until God freed me to see in his skilled mending a much more exquisite display of his glory than any pretense I could come up with.
Being crushable and fragile and vulnerable settled me into union with Christ, with his suffering, and with his resurrection into eternal joy.
2. Freedom comes with spiritual vision. With new eyes I was able to see what the Lord was doing.
In 1 Peter 1, we learn:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3–9)
God was doing something in our family’s lives long before February of 2015. I just wandered into it according to his providence. He wasn’t surprised by the revelation Tom made, or the doctor’s reports to Hannah and Shaun. He had this planned all along according to the work he desired to do to emancipate us from our idolatrous little lives.
Despite the crushing pain and confidence-shattering confusion brought by these trials, I could freely convert it all into joy. I can thank God for living out in me the gospel work of the Holy Spirit, like the gospel on loop in my daily walk, opportunity by opportunity showing me the cycle of death to life to gratitude and joy, death to life to gratitude and joy, over and over with each new trial, each new challenge.
3. Jesus determines that his glory will be greatest when our weak, fragile, crushable and vulnerable spirit says, Help me, Jesus.
Think of it! This picture is what is most irresistible to the not-yet-but-being-called who are around us. Just image how this plays out to someone who is laboring to keep the mask in place, imprisoned by the facades they’ve built up around them. Interestingly, among the friends I met with that night, this was a shared revelation. There had been a lot of striving for perfection and learning to groan through the trials that had happened over the years. In the raw and vulnerable conversation of that night, we rejoiced in the gospel fragrances rising out of the ashes.
This is the pattern God uses over and over. Throughout the scriptures and church history, and even in the recent narratives of Corrie ten Boom and Joni Eareckson Tada, and I bet through the lives of women you know, whose names may not be emblazoned across the covers of books or conference flyers, but who quietly find sweet comfort in seeing the gospel on loop in their lives every day.
God lives big in our little lives. God shines big in our little crushable lives.
The rest of Paul’s words in the Philippians passage go like this:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.