Awhile back, maybe even before we rejoined the church, I was sitting in my hairstylist’s chair listening to her talk about her relationship with her husband. This was not the first time she’d shared with me about him; seems like they have a difficult time of it on occasion. This particular day, she was telling me about an argument they’d had over something or another and how, in the midst of it, he muttered a few words to her that apparently stopped her in mid-sentence. As she explained it to me; “Like, what he said made me totally stop what I was saying because I was, like, totally convicted. You know? I mean, C-O-N-V-I-C-T-E-D! So, like, I had to totally apologize to him and admit that I was like, totally convicted”. Yes, she really does speak this way; all in a rush and full of enthusiasm. I recall being a bit bemused, at that point in time not really understanding what she was going on about with being “convicted”. Frankly, it didn’t sound that great to me; bringing to mind standing in front of a judge and having the book thrown at you for some crime or another.
A few years and many hours of Bible study and discussion later, I realize that I did have it partially correct but, like so many people, I mistook one “C” word for another and went down a much harsher path with it than I should have.
What she was expressing to me was this; what her husband said to her made her realize (at least in that moment) that he was right about something and she was wrong. She was, in essence, guilty as charged, which is why she admitted to being convicted. If you follow the courtroom scene I was thinking of, this makes sense. You do something wrong. You are found guilty. You are convicted. And, hopefully, you serve your sentence and learn something from the experience. Certainly, this is what society desires for those who screw up enough to end up in prison; that they’ll eventually come out the other side having learned a valuable lesson, ready to contribute to the good of all. The fact that we as a society don’t make this very easy to accomplish is disheartening. What happens more often than not is the person is not just convicted, they are written off as a matter of course.
They are condemned.
And what do most condemned people do? They lose hope. They think their life has no purpose. They give up on everything and everyone, including themselves.
I don’t know many people who have spent time in a physical prison, but I know plenty who have spent too much time in prisons of other sorts. I’ve hung out in some myself and I put myself there. We all do.
My primary prison has been what I’ve come to think of as The Prison of Perfection. On the surface, it doesn’t sound like such a bad place but it’s full of false facades, useless stairwells that go nowhere and hidden trap doors. In short, it’s a deceptively evil place to be. In plain English, I have to guard against wanting everything to be perfect. A no brainer, you’d think, since, logically, this just can’t be. Yet, this desire sneaks up on me and either fills me with envy, coveting and dissatisfaction; or, worse; discouragement, despair and (ultimately) depression.
I’ve been trying very hard these past few weeks to not complain, which means I’ve worked on focusing on the positive aspect of every situation. To be sure, I’ve had some challenges during this Lenten Journey; however, it’s not necessarily been these that have caused me to stumble in my resolve, likely because I’ve been fully aware of them and so have been “armed” to deal with my reaction. No, one or two times, something has happened that caught me unawares and my resulting behavior was something less to be desired. I illustrate the following because it’s a “perfect” example of what the trap of desiring perfection in oneself can result in.
Our Disciple class meets Wednesday nights. Mr. B is co-leading the class with our friend Tracey; they’ve been alternating back and forth between who leads, which mainly means, they follow the leader’s guide’s instructions in order to cover pertinent points and to keep the discussion on track. Since we’ve been meeting with this group almost two years, we’re really more like a big bunch of friends hanging out discussing the Bible than an actual class. Anyway, this past Wednesday, Tracey was supposed to lead, which was a good thing since Mr. B was going to be a CPA-Zombie (it being the day after tax day). A few days before, Tracey told Mr. B she wasn’t going to be there since she had all three of her grandkids visiting. She knew this might put him in a difficult spot, so, she suggested I lead the class. Mr. B asked me, “How would you like to lead Disciple on Wednesday?” and explained to me why. For whatever reason (I can only plead my own share of tiredness and frustration), this irritated me and I did not react graciously to the request. After ranting for a while about how unfair it was that Tracey should think I had nothing better to do than prepare for a class on top of everything else I was already doing, I went into pout mode and Mr. B took himself wearily off to bed.
Well, after sitting by myself in the kitchen for a few moments, a deep sense of shame washed over me. I mean, we’d just been studying in our previous Disciple class about answering the call when it came, and here I’m offered an opportunity to lead our group (a very safe environment, too) in a discussion about God’s word, and I acted like a two year old. I saw Tracey’s suggestion that I lead was, in actuality, a compliment, a voice of confidence in me that I could do it; not a suggestion that I was sitting around eating bon-bons and needed something Godly to do. I got up and went into the bedroom and told a half asleep Mr. B that I’d be happy to do it.
I should have felt better, but I didn’t. I spent the better part of the night beating myself up for my terrible behavior. I felt like I not only let Mr. B down, but God down, too. Maybe I’d just never get this “Christian” thing right, after all. I would never be perfect at it, I was always going to screw up so why bother? I was condemning myself to be complete failure; preparing myself to give up.
The next morning I woke up still agitated with myself. I sat down to do my morning prayers, devotional readings, and Bible study. After telling God during the “confessional” part of my prayer routine what a total schmuck I was (as if He didn’t already know what I’d done), I opened up that day’s reading from The Upper Room, which was a woman from Georgia comparing her daughter’s frustration with learning to play the piano with the frustrations Christians feel when they fail. She wrote, “Sometimes we set unrealistic expectations for our faith. We accept Christ as our Savior and think we should instantly have perfect lives…But just like playing the piano, maturing in faith takes practice. Faith is like a muscle that needs to be worked in order to grow and stay strong. The more we read the Bible and spend time with God in prayer, the stronger we become in our faith”.
I was discouraged, despairing (of myself) and bordering on being depressed, yet I took the time that morning to be with God, and this is what “just happened” to be in the reading for that specific day. Further, this is what my other devotional, “Jesus Calling”, told me that same morning:
“Trust me in every detail of your life. Nothing is random in My Kingdom. Everything that happens fits into a pattern for good, to those who love Me…Even your mistakes and sins can be recycled into something good, through My transforming grace”.
Which made me think of Romans 8:1-2: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death”.
In other words, yes, I screwed up. I knew it, I was convicted of it and I made the best out of it by reversing course. No need to condemn myself, to give up.
Guess who wants me to do that?
Our Pastor said once that he answered the question, “What would you do if you knew you would not fail?” with “I’ll be a Christian even though I know that I will fail”.
God does not want perfection. He wants persistence. He knows we’re going to screw up, He just doesn’t want us to give up.
Convicted? Maybe. Condemned? Never.
“For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. John 3:16
Because of the cross, I will choose persistence.