Do you remember a moment when you encountered an ideal for the first time? I do. The first time was a moment several years in the making. See, I turned away from God when I was eleven years old. Some people tell me I was too young to make that decision at that age, but at eleven years old, thanks to the circumstances of my life at the time, I told God I didn’t believe in Him anymore. And I didn’t hear Him say anything right away, so I didn’t talk to Him for another 15 years.
Those were dark years. By the age of 26, my life was collapsing. There was addiction, there was depression, there was an empty, abusive marriage, and there was this soul rot... deep in my core... that I couldn’t escape, no matter how many substances I dumped on top of it. And I had no idea how I had gotten there. In my head, see, I was a good person. I had a house and a career and a nice car. I had all kinds of moral standards I couldn’t live up to. Everything was falling apart, and I couldn’t understand how I let it all get so bad. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Toward the end of the whole mess, there came a point when I was sitting in a circle one night, looking around at the faces of a bunch of other people who’d messed everything up, too. That night, when it was my turn to introduce myself, I opened my mouth to talk about my legal troubles, and instead I heard myself saying the words “I have no integrity.”
And I lost it. I started bawling. I fell apart in front of a bunch of strangers. I didn’t know I was going to say those words, but there I was. It wasn’t my circumstances that got me there, it wasn’t other people, it wasn’t bad luck. It was a character issue. I got me there. I didn’t know who I was, and I was no one I wanted to be.
Fast forward a little over a year, to February of 2011. By then, I had lost my career, my marriage, my home, my entire social circle, and everything else I ever thought I knew about myself. So there I was, sitting at Perkins with a friend in recovery one night. We were talking about how our lives were falling apart in the same ways at the same time, and all of a sudden, I noticed we were talking about God, and it didn’t sound crazy.
Then that friend opened up a book that is used in Twelve Step recovery, a book I hadn’t read all the way through yet. My friend read me a prayer from that book that pierced all the way to the middle of the rotten core of all the failure, all the shame, all the inadequacy that I’d been carrying around inside of me for all those years, and I saw hope.
Now, that prayer is generally credited to a man called Saint Francis of Assisi, and if you want to identify with another person who struggled with faith, I encourage you to go Google Saint Francis of Assisi. But not now, because we’re going to look at that prayer right now. The prayer of Saint Francis, the prayer my friend read to me that night, goes like this:
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace—that where there is hatred, I may bring love—that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness—that where there is discord, I may bring harmony—that where there is error, I may bring truth—that where there is doubt, I may bring faith—that where there is despair, I may bring hope—that where there are shadows, I may bring light—that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted—to understand, than to be understood—to love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life. Amen.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions)
Just like that, God spoke right into the middle of all of my mess, all of my wounds and weaknesses, all of my character issues, and He showed me a godly identity. I’d just lost everything I ever had, and through that prayer, God showed me everything I ever wanted.
Have you had a moment like that yet? A moment when God has cracked open all the gross and squirmy parts of your secret guilt and regret? Do you know what it’s like to feel that huge rush of relief and freedom because ahhhhh—here is what God wants for you instead of all of that?
Maybe you haven’t had that moment yet. Maybe you’ll have it today, or tomorrow, or 15 years from now. Maybe God will bring you to that moment of clarity where the gate crashes open and you realize it’s not the circumstances that got you here. It’s not other people. It’s not just bad luck. It’s a character issue.
Maybe you’ll go looking for yourself in Scripture, to see what God has to say about you. I’ve done it. I did it for the first time at one of the strangest intersections of my life, and God used that mess to root me in the relevance of the Word in a way I had never experienced before. There I was, 26 years old, stumbling around and just now learning how to live a life based on spiritual principles, reaching for God well before I was willing to accept Christ back into my life. And you know what? That was progress.
In my case, I saw just that little piece of God’s ideal—I heard just enough of the God I had never known personally; I heard His Spirit in the prayer of Saint Francis in a way that was real and tangible to me in my very own sin context—and I couldn’t wait to see more of Him. So I came at this church thing like “Okay, bring it on, then! I want to know this God. I want to know His face.” And I went looking for myself in the Bible because everybody says the answers are in there, right? You’ve been told, “The Bible has all the answers,” even though maybe most of it has never made sense to you before, and you don’t know how it’s supposed to make sense to you now. So maybe you can identify with me in what I’m about to share, and maybe this is not specific to your particular experience, but stick with me—there’s a point we can all relate to in this.
See, in my case, as I was coming closer to God in faith, I needed to know what it meant to be a woman of God. So I needed to figure out what God had to say to women. And believe me, I had a lot of preconceptions and judgments about what the Bible had to say about women! Even never minding all that submission and stoning stuff, even just looking at the “good advice” parts, I knew the Bible had all kinds of guidelines and commendations about being a good wife and a good mother, but I was neither of those things at the time. As I was coming toward faith in Jesus Christ, I needed to know what the God of the Bible had to say to a twenty-something childless divorcée, because that’s what I was, and I needed to see what He planned to do with that.
Now, I know some of you are feeling pretty scandalized right about now. Not only a woman teacher, but a divorced woman, too? And that’s fair. I mean, I’m sure none of you can relate to me in that. You don’t know any Christians who’ve been divorced or remarried, do you? My experience can’t possibly be relevant to you or anyone else in your local body of believers.
Yes, I am being sarcastic, but hypocrisy among sinners in the Church is another topic for another day. We’re looking at something called “noble character” right now. There I was, at a point where I was looking to Scripture to tell me what I needed to know about me, and that same friend who read me the prayer of Saint Francis was also the friend who happened to pick up a Life Application Study Bible. He grabbed it one day from the “take one free” box at our local Goodwill. And that friend and I started reading that Bible, and all of a sudden, the heavens opened and the sun came out and the angels sang and the Bible started making sense to us. Hallelujah!
But way before any of that, it was in the Life Application Study Bible, in the character profile of a woman named Ruth, that I experienced the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and God spoke an ideal into my life. Through the character of Ruth, I found out what it meant to be a woman of God—a woman of noble character.
Next >>> Leave It On the Side of the Road: Ideals, Identity, and Character Issues (Part Two)