In her book Cut, author Patrica McCormick tells the fictional yet hauntingly real story of Callie, a girl who has been put in a residential treatment facility because of her struggle with cutting herself. Throughout the book, Callie proves to be a master at appearing invulnerable. When pressed with questions by her counselor, she remains silent. During group therapy, she keeps her body language as still as possible so she isn’t called on to share. If things get really bad, she runs away. Deep down she knows she has a problem, but addressing it would require exposing her true self and that is a risk she is unwilling to take. It isn’t until the last page that Callie is finally able to vocally admit her problem as well as her desire to get better.
Many of us know this paradox well: something deep inside of us yearns for authentic and real relationships, but the risk of exposing ourselves is too much for us to handle. We become experts at defense mechanisms and dodging the tough questions, all the while suppressing our hearts desire to be truly and intimately known by others. Why is it that we so often fail to open ourselves up to another, to entrust our truest selves to someone else? I think the answer comes down to one simple four-letter word: fear.
The Fear of Being Known
We know at a propositional level that community and deeper relationships are for our good. We even recognize on an emotional level that our souls desire to be known and loved by others. And yet, such relationships require a level of commitment and accountability which scares us. The fear of being known for the first time feels like an exposed nerve just waiting to be damaged. Such a fear can seize, paralyze and ultimately prevent us from giving ourselves to others as God intended.
When I first became a Christian, one of the things that surprised me most was just how open and honest older men in the faith were. I had never needed to open myself up to others, and I had deceived myself in to thinking I was impenetrable. However, there was something captivating and attractive about men who could expose their genuine selves to other men and actually be loved more for it. As soon as I recognized what they had, I knew it was something I desperately needed. I had to make the conscious choice to stop living out of the fear which had previously taken control of me.
The Fear of Being Known…Again
You may have read the above section with a sick kind of knot forming in your stomach. The reason for this is because you know all to well the stakes involved in exposing yourself to others in vulnerable community. At some point in the past, you’ve entrusted your heart to another – and now you feel as if you’ve paid the price. The central nerves to your soul were revealed and the result was that they were damaged by some kind of relational sandpaper, stripping you of any desire to ever expose yourself again.
I was about kindergarten age when I had my first memorable experience with really bad food poisoning. The culprit? A grilled cheese sandwich from my daycare. This delicious morsel which had been created for my good and my joy betrayed me. I was dumbfounded as to how something that could be so good could hurt so bad! Even at that age, I knew I had simply had a bad experience with one particular sandwich and that not all grilled cheeses would give me food poisoning. Yet I couldn’t get over it for years – so long in fact that I was an adult before I ate that cheesy goodness again.
I think there are a lot of us who have had a “grilled cheese experience” with Christian community. We took the first step out of faith and obedience and gave our hearts over to others, and we were tragically wounded by someone close to us. We know all to well that those nearest to us have the potential to hurt us the most. In order to try and protect ourselves from ever being heartbroken again, we return to living out of fear; this fear when it has conceived gives birth to bitterness, and bitterness when it is fully grown brings forth a kind of deadly cynicism which can feel impossible to crack.
What hope is there for those of us who are plagued by fear? What are we to do about our paralyzing cynicism? How can we ever get to a place where we are willing to embrace vulnerability in community?
The Fear-Conquering Hero
Cut tells the story of a helpless child whose physical struggles point to a weightier spiritual struggle: the fear of being rejected if others find out who she really is. Our own stories all look different, but we play a similar role. Like Callie, we too fear what will happen if others find out just how much of a fraud we really are. The good news is that there’s a Hero who rescues us out of our own bleak stories and bring us in to His.
Christ knew exactly what awaited him in his incarnation. The stakes of revealing himself to the world were high; the stakes in remaining hidden were even higher. In these last days, God made himself fully known through his Son (Heb. 1:2). He became one of us and fully exposed the height and depth of his heart for us. But the fear of being fully known by God was just too much; our defense mechanisms kicked in – so we killed Him.
Our Savior knows what’s at stake in exposing and giving our hearts to others in community, but he did not allow fear to consume him. He took the first step and engaged us in an intimate and loving fellowship, no matter what the cost was to himself.
Jesus knows what it means to be wounded by those closest to him: Peter made promises he couldn’t keep (Matt. 26:34), his three closest friends couldn’t protect him in his hour of need (Matt 26:40), Judas betrayed him (Matt 26:49), and when it was all said and done his only company was that of two robbers who were crucified with him (Matt 27:44). When our closest friends in community wound us, we identify with Christ probably more than we realize.
Despite all of this, he now lives forever to give all of himself to those who trust him in faith. We know that he sees our truest selves – and loves us still. Others might reject us, but we know we are accepted by Him. If he has conquered fear, how then can we continue to live in it any longer? Let’s respond to Christ’s sacrifice by giving ourselves to one another in faith and love. What we will find is that as we grow in our relationships with others, we will grow in the understanding of our relationship with the Lover of our souls.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Do you remember teasing that phrase around the play ground? It is a cute little cliche phrase that catches on quickly. We like to teach this phrase to our kids with the hope that we can instill in them the idea of self-confidence, ignoring what other people say about them and finding positivity in themselves.
If we stop and think about it however, I think we would realize that this is one of the most deceiving and harmful things we could teach our kids. Perhaps the way this phrase should really be taught is, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but say them enough times and words will kill me.”
As adults we know that words can sting. Not only can they sting, but they can consume and eventually kill us inside. Let’s all face reality for a minute; if you’re called names like liar, loser, pathetic, worthless, failure, ugly, miserable, stupid, or unqualified enough times – you’ll start to believe it. Not only will you start to believe it, but you will be consumed with the idea of proving everyone wrong and that you’re not any of those things.
Let’s take this a step further. If we’re honest with ourselves, every time we try to tell ourselves things like “I am what I say I am,” or “no one can change the way I feel except for me,” or “I accept myself for the mess that I am,” or whatever other crafty little saying you can find on Facebook – these are all just defense mechanisms to cover up the fact that we are hurt by what other people have already said about us. Because we are so consumed by what everyone thinks about us, we need to tip the scales by consistently telling ourselves that their words don’t matter. We have to tell ourselves this because those words do, in fact, matter.
For those of us who are in Christ however, God’s words are stronger than the words of this world.
Child of God.
Because God’s words about us are final through the sacrifice of Jesus, we don’t need to try and find positivity and acceptance inside ourselves. We can rest in the love of God toward us once and for all. His words about us are complete and eternal. There is no need for us to put up defense mechanisms because of what other people say; God’s word carries infinitely more weight.
Christian, rest in the words God has declared about you to be true. You don’t need to spend time defending yourself to others or trying to make yourself feel better. Jesus’ bones were broken by sticks and stones, so that his words would give you life. Take comfort in what was done on your behalf so that you would be given a new identity in Christ.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” – 1 John 3:1
My family and I moved from our home in South Dakota in 1997 and traveled halfway across the country to Northern Virginia. I had grown up in the same small town there for almost 10 years, so this was an exciting but equally hard move for me. One of the most difficult things for me at the time was leaving my grandparents who I was very close to and facing the fact that I wouldn’t be able to see them whenever I wanted to anymore.
Both of my parents worked until late afternoon/early evening and faced long commutes, so for two years I attended an after-school care program at my elementary school. Since staying late at this program was normative, it was always a special treat when one of my parents got off work early and came to pick me up, because I knew that meant I would get to go home and have extra time watching TV or whatever it was I did back then.
I’ll never forget the day my father came to pick me up early from school one day. I was so excited to go home and have some extra fun. What I didn’t know was that this day was not going to be fun at all, but instead was going to be my first experience with death and mourning.
I remember walking in the door and seeing my mom sitting in the kitchen crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she gently put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Grandma went to sleep last night, and never woke up.”
Now, my little 10 year old mind had never comprehended death before – but I knew what it was. I instantly knew that this meant Grandma had passed away. After crying with my parents for a short time, I remember going up to my room and crying/thinking in solitude. And it was during that time alone that somehow my little brain genuinely convinced myself that what my mom actually meant was that Grandma had simply gone into a deep coma, that she didn’t really die. And so that was how I interpreted life for the next few days.
The night before I left for the funeral (somehow I didn’t realize that was what we were leaving for), my after-school counselor said to me, “Ben, I’m really sorry to hear about your Grandma’s passing.” Passing? I thought he was crazy! After all, Grandma hadn’t passed away, she was just asleep. So I ignorantly refuted him, “Dead!? No, not dead. She’s just in a coma. If she was really dead, I’d be a disaster!”
My father came to pick me up soon after, and I remember saying to him in the hallway at the school as we left, “Dad, isn’t it crazy that my counselor thought Grandma was dead? How crazy is that, right?”
Then I heard the words that my mind had been trying to shelter me from for three days.
No Ben. Grandma really did die.
I lost it. I broke down in the hallway and cried all the way home.
Now, you can chalk up my experience to the mental capacity of a 10-year-old and my inability at the time to process death. And I’m sure this is partially true. But I think my experience reveals something deeper about the reality of death: nobody ever gets used to it. Talk to anyone who deals with death on a regular basis (such as a soldier or a doctor/nurse) and they’ll tell you that nobody ever becomes adjusted to death, and if they do its because they’ve become numb to some other part of life as a coping mechanism.
See here’s the thing about death – it was never meant to be something we get used to because it was never supposed to be something we deal with. Death is an anomaly in creation; it shouldn’t exist.
But death does exist. Through our conspiracy and responsibility in the act of turning from God, we’ve brought the punishment of death, disease and decay upon ourselves.
For all the emphasis we have on justification and forgiveness of sins in the Christian life, I think we often forget the fact that through the work of Christ God is restoring all things to himself. He is making all things new. Read what Paul says in the first epistle to the Thessalonians:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
We need not grieve as those without faith in Christ would grieve. Because Jesus has overcome death and the grave, through faith we too share in his victory. Like Christ, we will rise and some day be glorified, being made like him as he makes all things new.
Christian, don’t forget that in the gospel we have much more than our forgiveness of sins – although certainly not less. Through the gospel we have all of Christ; his righteousness, his sonship, and his victory – even over death.
If you’re anything like me, then you love ordering things on Amazon Prime. Books, gifts (I do all of my birthday and Christmas shopping on Amazon) and basically everything else except for my groceries are purchased with Amazon. It’s such a time and money saver!
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the term salvation (or, deliverance), and I started to realize that in many ways the “components” of salvation can be broken down the same way as an Amazon Prime order. When we order things online we naturally just think of that purchase as a one step process. I click, it shows up two days later. Similarly, today we often minimize salvation to a one-step deal, and end up equating salvation to simply being the same thing as being forgiven (justified) without realizing that in our salvation we get ALL of Christ, not just one small piece of him.
But if you think about it, an Amazon Prime order isn’t as simple as just clicking on an item and then having it show up at your door a few days later. There are a few steps along the way, which I will outline below:
1) The Transaction: At some point, you add an item to your cart and click ‘buy’. When this happens, a transaction takes place. You paid for the item in order to get it from Amazon. The item could never be yours without a transaction where you pay for it in full.
2) A Change in Ownership: Immediately following the transaction, the item becomes mine and it is guaranteed to me. Because of Amazon’s guarantee to the customer, there is no scenario where I will end up without the item. It is now mine.
3) The Delivery Process: Unfortunately, Amazon has yet to invent space-time warp particle displacers, so the item cannot be instantly transferred to me. It must first be placed on a truck and sent out by Amazon and come via a delivery service. Even if the delivery process hits a snag or a delay, the process will still ultimately end up with me getting the product I ordered, because of the price I paid, the change in ownership and the guarantee to me.
4) The Arrival: Two days after your order, the product you paid for in the transaction that became yours ends up in your hands!
See, an Amazon Prime delivery isn’t as simple as one step – even though sometimes it may seem that way. In a similar way, we should see our deliverance – our salvation – as something much bigger than just one step.
Indeed a transaction took place to purchase us; we are a blood-bought people. But we are not only blood-bought people, because when the divine transaction of Christ dying in our place occurred to forgive us of our sin, we became children of our Heavenly Father. Our ownership was transferred out of this world and we became adopted as sons and daughters, acquiring the inheritance of Christ.
But, having been ransomed to the Father, we are not instantly taken to him. No, there is now a “delivery process” where we are being made more like his Son. I recently ordered some comics from Amazon (don’t judge me!), but rather than delivering them to me the UPS driver just took them to the local UPS center for pickup instead. The delivery hit a snag – yes it was a delay, but it didn’t erase the reality that those comics still belong to me, and are guaranteed to me. This is our sanctification; we are being prepared for the day when we will be presented to the Groom as the beautiful, spotless Bride. There may be hiccups on the way, snags that seem to slow or even reverse the process, but we are promised to Him. Nothing can now separate us from our guaranteed delivery.
Finally, in our glorification we will arrive in the Fathers presence. Never to leave his presence, we look forward to the final state of being delivered into his hands.
This comparison, of course, is not at all to belittle the magnitude and beauty of our salvation. However, I think this is a helpful picture for realizing that there is more than one piece to our salvation – and that is a good thing. So, to summarize in the paraphrased words of Herman Bavinck; in salvation, Christ first restores our relationship to God, then we are adopted into God, then he renews us after God’s image, and finally preserves for us our heavenly inheritance.