I stood in the embrace of my husband in our bedroom. As the man who had committed to loving me almost a decade ago secured me in his arms and rubbed my back, it was as if a storm of haters paced in my brain: you are ugly, you aren’t beautiful, you are stupid, you are ugly, you aren’t beautiful, you are stupid. I chuckled.
“What?” Brandon asked.
“If you could hear the racket in my mind right now, you wouldn’t believe it.”
I told him what came over me in waves sometimes, moments when I should feel filled with love and adoration but can’t keep the negativity and self-hate away. And I was right; he couldn’t believe it.
But this is how it goes, even now at age thirty-three, mornings before the mirror when the shadows under my eyes appear darker, facial scars and bumps more noticeable. Maybe tomorrow it will be the flab that makes my jeans too tight (they shrunk!). Or maybe it’s just that nose again, being exactly as it has always been—my father’s nose, my nose, me.
Give me a minute and it won’t matter what you say or do; everything will be wrong. Everything will be broken and ugly and dumb. I will never measure up.
I’d like to lay the blame on magazines and posters of naked women. It’s also every pretty girl in my high school’s fault for being so confident and sure of herself every day of her life. And the boy who took advantage of my silence and naiveté in a movie theater in eighth grade. And the boyfriends who fell out of love with me once I had chameleon-ed next to them.
It didn’t matter that the people I loved most encouraged, praised, and affirmed whatever direction I showed any passion. It was never enough to drown out the mockers I imagined into being. It was never enough to silence my own self-doubt. It never struck deep enough to stop the dissonance between who I thought I was and who I saw in the mirror. I simply never measured up to my own yardstick.
Some people have a magic turning when they come to know Jesus Christ, the Savior who speaks the truth into their hearts and sets them free from whatever shackles and chains entangled them. When I heard the rush of Spirit whisper, You are mine, it was just the first stitch in the hem toward healing what had been broken. The tear is long, the stitch complicated, the cloth worn. But the Healer is patient, the Mender is wise, the Lover careful with what is most precious.
And identity is a big deal to God. God calls himself I Am That I Am, which to me means something like I inhabit fully the being I am. As a child of God, I am forever seeking after the I AM that I am, the version of me that is most Me. The more I tried to be the person I thought others wanted or needed me to be, the farther I departed from Me.
In her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes,
“Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school—they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything else that tries to tell us who we are.”
I have believed those demons of lies: you are ugly, you aren’t beautiful, you are stupid for too long. The moment I give words to what possesses me, they lose some of their power. I say “some” because I know just this afternoon their whispers caught my ear again: they’re judging you, you don’t know what you’re doing, you aren’t enough.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about the difference between guilt and shame as defined succinctly by Brené Brown: Guilt says I’ve done something bad. Shame says I am bad.
Our actions are separate from our identities. And yet I have confused these things.
I have taken verses from Paul like “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and forgotten “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”. I have taken verses like “Be holy, because I am holy” and forgotten “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”.
I have twisted the process of being perfected into an expectation that I should be perfect, and the difference between those two is more significant than where we put the syllabic emphasis.
I have heard about my utter depravity and my desperate need for a savior and assumed that means he is good and I am bad.
But God declared the creation of humankind very good. Before Jesus walked here, even. Good, very good, at the root good, worthy of love—worthy, worthy, worthy.
What happens when we say, “I am depraved, I am broken, I am ugly, I am stupid, I am wrong”? We say that God created something broken, something irredeemable except for his mercy, like giving a child a toy and breaking it on purpose just so I can fix it and be thanked. See what I did for you?
What happens when we say instead, “I did something wrong”? We acknowledge our need for grace and find hope for forgiveness in a Father who knows we are good, very good, at the root good, worthy of his love—worthy, worthy, worthy—and forgiven over and over as we walk toward him and stumble and wander away and return.
If I let loose the lies that possess me and embrace that identity as God’s child, God’s beloved, what is true and real and good and beautiful can abide in the spaces emptied of those lies. God calls us his children. He says he has loved us with an everlasting love. He loved us so much he sent his one and only Son so that we might have life and life abundant, freedom from these heavy chains of lies about who we are.
It’s from that place of love we find worth, courage, and strength to change the things we do, to live out of a place of love and worthiness, to match the beautiful spirits we already are, made in the image and likeness of God.