I relate to Matt a lot … except that he evolves much more quickly than I did.
My biggest takeaway from church, growing up, was that I had to be perfect. Imperfection was never modeled for me. I know now that everyone there, everyone in the world, is imperfect. But I didn’t see that as a child. What I saw was people who never had doubts, who never did anything wrong. If anyone did, or if something went wrong in their families, the world crumbled around them. It seemed like the exception, not the norm to have doubts and struggles. So much condemnation. So much watching for someone to mess up. So much pickiness over details.
The problem was that I had doubts and I wasn’t perfect. I tried to be. And if I had doubts, I didn’t even keep them to myself … I couldn’t admit to myself that they existed. Because I was imperfect, I was constantly punishing myself, constantly doing penance.
I remember saying to someone at church, many times, and fully meaning it, that if I came out of church not feeling like a worm, I hadn’t really worshiped. I didn’t mean that sarcastically. I thought that was how it was supposed to be. I thought it was a godly statement. I don’t remember anyone ever disagreeing. I probably sounded like I knew what I was talking about.
The main person in my life as a young adult embraced that ethos to the millionth degree. He was always finding anything that was wrong with anyone and revealing it. I admitted to him one time that I had a wrong thought and he was extremely condemning, threatening to destroy me. Naturally, I hid my true self even more thoroughly.
I had grown up happy in my church, despite the perceived standard of perfection. People loved me and I had some freedom to minister, and that brought me joy. As long as I was young and unmarried.
As an adult, it seemed like there was nothing I could do right. Volunteering to lead singing on Sunday mornings because the current song leaders wanted to step down brought about a 2 hour debate in a church business meeting, the conclusion of which was that if we allowed women to lead worship, the next thing we knew, we’d be ordaining homosexuals. (Up until that time, every choir director in the 20+ years I had been at that church had been a woman. But a woman couldn’t lead the congregation in singing apparently.) I’ve since learned that people thought I was rebellious. I truly didn’t mean to be. I just couldn’t figure out the rules. Nothing made sense. I always felt like I was walking through a field of land mines, trying to be good, but everything blew up in my face.
I’ve been in a lot of churches like that.
How can you dare to be real in an environment like that? I wasn’t. Even to myself. Legalism forms a protective shell designed not to let grace through. Because in order for there to be grace, sin must be revealed. But while legalism can be an impossible taskmaster, it can also be the thing that brings us to our knees before God’s grace. As Paul said, the Law is a tutor. Eventually, we learn that we can’t live up to our legalism, we reach the hopeless bottom of the pit, and the shell begins to rupture.
For me, the ruptures took place at various times, occasionally lashing out at others, but mainly taking it out on myself because I knew there was something wrong with me. I felt guilty for everything, even things I did right. I eventually took to cutting myself. I wonder if some of the people who are so nit-picky in church are actually “rupturing” — coming to the place where grace might reveal their true imperfections — and not yet ready to let that happen? With 20/20 hindsight, I can’t blame them. It’s a scary thing!
Although it was frightening at the time, I look back now and realize that it’s part of transformation. Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, it takes hard work and we’re extremely vulnerable during that period. But once we eventually emerge … we find we can fly!
It’s not really something we can push someone else to understand. It has to be the work of the Holy Spirit … though He uses people to help the work along. To try to force someone to understand grace, though, would be like ripping a chrysalis open … and finding that we’ve killed the butterfly by not allowing her to go through the transformation.
There were times when I think my chrysalis began to crack open and I had tiny, but profound glimpses of transformation, but it wasn’t until my late 40s that someone showed me grace in a big and practical way. I had gone to my pastor in Tennessee and told him that I had sinned and I needed to step down from leadership. He took me to Psalm 103 – “He knows that we are but dust.” It was the first time that I knew it was okay not to be perfect. That while God wanted it, He knew I couldn’t produce it. That I didn’t have it in me. The idea that God actually knew I was human, in this respect, was hard for me to fathom. I seriously thought most Christians were perfect. Or should be.
That was the first time grace dawned on me … just barely. It was still really out of my grasp because it was so foreign to me. Then, reading about John Bunyan’s conversion, how he realized that nothing he could do could make God love him more, and nothing he could do could make God love him less … I couldn’t grasp that, even intellectually, and definitely not in my heart, but I wanted to. It became like a mantra to me because I knew it was true and I wanted it to be true for me.
It wasn’t really until I was in my early 50s that I genuinely began to understand grace. (I still have a long way to go, if I’m honest. I’ve begun to notice that when I get angry, it’s usually because I’m feeling pressured to be perfect — pressured by others, but more often by myself.) I was reading a book about spiritual abuse. Excellent book. I had brought it with me to Minnesota when my grandson was born and when I looked at the back to find out about the author, I found out he was the pastor of a church nearby, right there in Minnesota! When we moved there, the kids and I went to the church that he pastored.
I do remember thinking consciously that this was a church where I could hide because it was so large. I was tired of being under the microscope. Not tired in the sense of being fed up with it — I still thought it was a good thing to be examined by fellow Christians and told about any nit-picking thing they could find wrong with me so I could punish myself and do whatever it took to become perfect. But I was spiritually and emotionally exhausted … and I had divorced, so obviously, I wasn’t perfect … and how do you deal with the fact that God must hate you? Or at least that He should?
This church was my first real experience with grace in action on a consistent basis. People were real there. Not that sin was okay, but there was an acknowledgment that we all sin. There was an acceptance of people as sinners, loving them, encouraging them if they asked for help to work on a problem they were having. People could actually admit that they were struggling with sin and find compassion and help, rather than condemnation. I think it would have been too much for me if I hadn’t already read the pastor’s book about spiritual abuse and was then reading Families Where Grace is in Place and in a group to discuss it. In this book, Jeff VanVonderen helps you understand the way grace banishes manipulation, legalism, and shame. Imagine life without those dudes!
The concept of grace was so foreign to me. The members of that small group truly labored over me to help me understand it. I was addicted to legalism, guilt, and shame. They were a huge part of my identity and it was hard to feel like a Christian without them.
I was well into my 50s when an understanding and acceptance of grace took hold, and I think that’s really sad. How can we be raised in the Church, in a Christian home, involved deeply in ministry (and add to that, for me, a degree in theology) and not have the slightest inkling of grace?
It’s an amazingly common experience, I’ve learned. We perpetuate it in our families, our churches, our communities. We do it unwittingly and with good intentions because we don’t realize that it’s wrong. It’s all we know. What we think is the Gospel is actually an enemy of the Gospel.
Of course, the enemy of our souls would not want us to understand grace! To be bound up in legalism is to not have a relationship with God … and that’s the reason Jesus died for us. “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the one true God …”
There are also churches where grace is truly embraced. Where legalism isn’t legit. Where manipulation isn’t mainstream. Those just weren’t the churches I gravitated to for most of my life. Like a magnetic force, the negative drew me in and the positive repelled me.
I think Matt, as a pastor’s son, wanting to be a pastor, struggled with that … and wasn’t yet at a point where he could even admit the struggle to himself in Beauty for Ashes. When it does happen, when the Holy Spirit starts shining light on it because He knows we’re ready for it, the rupturing may come out in a way we could never imagine ourselves acting. For Matt, the first rupture came when he nearly beat up Nelson.
Emergence takes time. The rupturing is not usually something that happens just once.
- Do you think the fruit of the Spirit is noticeable in your life? See Galatians 5:22-23.
- Do you find yourself trying to measure up or worrying about what people think?
- Do you find yourself trying to justify what you’re doing?
- Does an article on grace bring you joy or make you feel nervous and defensive?
- Do you have a personal story about God’s grace breaking through in your life that you can share with others?