It’s time for some topical whiplash. I’ve been asking you for the last week to look at new products and buy things, so it seems supremely weird to me to go from that to sharing deep heart-stories. But that’s about the full range of this blog: from marketing to mysteries. From the sublime to the mundane, indeed. I suppose it’s healthy not to dichotomize one’s worlds.
A few weeks ago, it was mid-jan-terms, I was at D&D and supremely tired. So tired. I went home early, thinking I would just go to bed. But bed wasn’t what I needed – it turned out I needed to shout my testimony at the couch for half an hour. Several times during Jan terms, the subject of witness and testimony came up, and it made me squirm. I believed in the concept of testimony, but not my own. Not even a moron would want my life; how on earth could it be an advertisement for Jesus? So you can imagine my surprise when, at the end of that half hour, I found out that my testimony had an altar call at the end of it. So as a spiritual discipline, I’m writing it down. Because that’s a sensible thing to do. Testimonies are meant to be public, so I’m posting it here – besides, I’ve already posted the grisley backstory out of which this testimony comes, so I might as well write about the hope that got spewed out on the other side. I said I would do something like this during Epiphany, didn’t I? Well, perhaps you’re getting more than I bargained for.
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For most of my life, I’ve had a sort of condition that many melancholic personalities report: deep down inside, below whatever you see, below even what I feel on an everyday basis, I despise myself. Lots of people feel this way (definitely not everyone); it’s a function of personality and environment and loads of other things, but it’s real. It’s not just depression; it can lead to depression, but it can exist quietly under the psyche of an otherwise very sane person. I wouldn’t call myself a tortured soul, because I bury mine pretty deep, but it’s the same sort of thing that tortured-soul-types have.
I’m not sharing this with you for pity; most people walk around with more pain than even they know about, let alone what they let show. This is just the particular brand that I’ve had to deal with.
That basic self-hatred has been a driving force in my life. I’ve always been performance/task-oriented, a bit of a perfectionist, and mostly I still am. Blended with my particular cocktail of natural inclinations, I’ve been able to harness it for good. (This is a prime example of grace; I could just as easily harnessed it to destruction of self and others, and there’s no reason in myself that I didn’t.) But despite the good that came out of it, the motivation behind it was pretty nuts. Not like psychosis nuts, but your every-day, high-functioning, messed-up-human nuts.
An aside: I’ve had actual psychoses. I don’t need to tell you about those today, but suffice it to say that God spent the first twenty-three years of my life dealing with my medical-level craziness. Here’s the good news: after he’d finished with that, he decided to deal with the normal-human-nuttiness as well. Because guess what: he wants us to have abundant life. He wants to make us whole, the sort of humans we were meant to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s lots of ugly first.
My every-day, high-functioning, normal-human nuttiness mostly consists of anxiety. Anxiety, of course, mostly consists of fear. I get terrified of letting people down, and am paralyzed by the idea that there’s someone out there who’s upset at me because I messed something up. This means I am pretty fantastic at customer service. (“Of course I’ll bend over backwards to make you happy!”) It also means that I’m highly-motivated to be on top of things like school work. I’m not really that much of a people-pleaser, though, so I run out of juice pretty quickly and just end up angry. This means that while I’m mostly reliable, like all perfectionists, I have a crash point, and mine’s pretty early. So I become angry, but the anger is usually just covering up deep disappointment in myself. Because I knew all along that I was like this, didn’t I?
This was my life, and I didn’t mind it. I dealt with depression, and these ups and downs didn’t lead any more to full-on hopelessness. I had a decent number of migraines and sleepless nights because I operated at a very high level of stress. But I coped, and I was more or less happy.
Then this summer happened. Miscarriage #3. After the first and second I was pretty unhappy, but I was dealing (or at least stably not-dealing). When #3 happened, my spiritual world just sort of stopped. I wrote about it here. What I said then was more or less accurate: I was so angry at God that I completely gave up trying to do anything to make him happy with me. I gave up quiet times; I stopped editing my language unless I was around sensitive types; I wasn’t nice to anyone unless I felt like it; I knit in church; I kept at my schoolwork just because it made me feel good to accomplish things. I didn’t lose my faith, but my Christianese vocabulary evaporated.
I kept waiting for something to happen. I don’t know what I thought would happen; I didn’t really think God was going to smack me down. Actually, I felt like I had distinct permission from the Holy Spirit to “take a break.” I was wrong about God, but he understood. I was waiting for something dramatic, but what happened was just that understanding: I kept the faith, but I dropped the obligations, and I slowly came to realize that God was really okay with that.
After a while, I decided I didn’t want to be angry at God. Not because I didn’t feel like it sometimes, but because despite how I felt, I knew I was probably wrong, and I was ready to start asking what was true. This did not mean a change in my behavior, but just the tiniest shift in my inward orientation.
That was when I noticed that it was gone. That deep self-hatred I was talking about? That spite toward self beneath everything? It was gone. Dead. Really. I sat there and looked for it, and it wasn’t there. Holy [stuff], I said. This is amazing.
For the first time in my life, I actually believed in the unconditional love of God.
See, as much as I could, I already believed God loved me, and I would have said so with full conviction. But when I stopped to think about it, I was honestly unsure what difference it made. Everything I did, deep down, was motivated by the fact that I thought I had to earn God’s good graces. There was nothing I could have done about it; it was just how I was wired. I knew that God loved me, but I did not actually have the category of unconditional love in my psyche to accept it. The closest thing I had was that I would always get another chance, that every morning is a new day on which I can try again to be good enough to give myself permission to accept myself. Functionally, despite knowing right doctrine, my religion was one of earthly obedience in exchange for an earthly reward: good feelings of acceptance.**
Really, the only thing that I wanted more deeply than self-acceptance was a child. (For many women, I think, the unconditional love of a child is a path to self-acceptance. I’m sure God uses that gift to teach many about himself; for me the gift was to take it away.) When God took away my child, took him right out of my body, he took away my desire to get anything from him. If he wasn’t going to give me that, there was nothing he could give me that was worth earning. So [screw] it. I wasn’t going to try to please him anymore, because there was nothing else on earth that I wanted.
And God said: Yes!
Do you get it? This is what Jesus died to cure me of, to free me from. I never had to earn anything; I never had to win my way to him. He was always willing to die for me, while I was yet in sin, before I was even born. I always believed it; now I have a new category in which to apprehend it.
The idea that we can earn our way to God is the great fiction of human existence. I would have denied it up and down, and God absolutely accepted the faith I had, but the very shape of my emotions accepted that horrible myth. If I spent that long enslaved to it, I bet loads of other people have too.
You might ask – was this really worth it? Worth three of your children dying?
This might sound sort of awful, but yes. There are worse things than dying, and my children are fine. It’s just me who tends to be upset that I can’t have them with me, and that still makes me cry every time. But yes. Believing in the gospel, being rescued from sin in my actual life, being made whole, is worth having gone through that. I will probably go through plenty more crap in my life without having it so clearly explained to me as this was, but having gone through this, I will be a little more able to accept it.
The thing is, the only gift God really wants to give us is himself. He’s the only gift worth having. All the other stuff – good health, family, friends, good jobs, etc., are only good inasmuch as they point us to him, as they make us more into the kind of whole person who can be with him. If they doing that, they do it better if they go away. It’s a risk, because we always have a choice in how we respond to loss and pain, and we might choose to reject a God who would allow these things to happen. But “those who persevere to the end” will find themselves with God, only able to be with him because he’s changed them enough to know him. And when I’m there and can see him face to face… if it was worth God’s son dying on the cross to get me there, it was worth every other little death to self I had to go through to see him once I’m there.
If you are going through or have gone through some horrible crap yourself, I hope I’ve not offended. This is my struggle with God, and maybe he’ll give me a new name at the end of it. You have to have your own wrestling match with God. But you don’t have to do it alone.
Further reading: If you’d like more help sorting this out in your brain, the books that have been most influential on me are C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce, and John Piper’s God is the Gospel. They are certainly not the first people to have presented the ideas they do; I haven’t read a lot of the originals, but Irenaeus’s Against Heresies (I have this very well-edited and readable edition) has been helpful so far. Reading Aquinas, Augustine, and other long-dead Europeans and Africans sounds a whole lot more interesting now that I know they deal with stuff like this.
Do you have any testimonies you would like to share? Over the next few weeks, if you’d like your testimony to go up on the blog, you can email me. (Include a picture of yourself, if you like, preferably knitting, if you knit! This is still ostensibly a knitting blog; I have to keep up appearances.) I’ve already got one testimony from a dear friend, which I’ll post later this week, but it seems right to throw this open.
**Another aside: I am not saying that I needed less doctrine, more love. I needed more love, and it would have been great if my psyche had been formed differently. But the fact that I’d been raised in right doctrine (a) kept me very close to the true God, despite me not understanding him existentially as much as I thought, and (b) when I had the existential change, right knowledge of God gave me the categories to know him. There is nothing wrong with getting doctrine first; we always get to know someone first before we fall in love with them. Otherwise what are you falling in love with?