The name of Jesus is sufficient to name us. The story of Jesus is sufficient to be our story. His name liberates us from preoccupation with self. ~Scott Sauls, Befriend
As a kid, my family would often spend our vacations at a family camp in Pennsylvania; the organization owned a huge, old hotel where we would sweat in the summers and freeze in the winters. Meals were family style, children sitting with their new friends and adults volunteering to help in the kitchen to wash the dishes. The kids had free reign, and we would explore and go on adventures and come back for dinner dirty and covered in bug bites.
In college, I went back to work there one summer, and the general who had been the camp’s director during my favorite childhood years lived down the street with his wife, enjoying retirement. General and Mrs. B owned a barn across the street that they converted to a big game room, and they’d invite the camp’s staff over for milkshakes and fun. It seemed to my young mind that everything this couple did was out of love for others. I gloried in their generosity and their invitation to call them Mom and Dad B.
That summer was just a year after my parents died; when you’re 20 and your parents die, you not only lose your mama and daddy, but you lose your home. During school breaks, I hopped around from family member to family member until campus was open again. One Christmas, I stayed on campus, my sister joining me for a simple celebration and hours of binge watching The X Files before binge watching was a thing. So getting this job at camp was a huge blessing—I had a place to stay, I didn’t have to worry about meals, and I knew I’d have the time of my life.
And I did. I started off in the kitchen, but when the wrangler quit before the campers came, I was asked to help with the horses instead. And then I was asked to help with the junior highers as well. I laughed so much that summer and felt safe for the first time in a long time. But when I reflect on those 3 months, what really stands out to me is how Mrs. B loved and pursued me.
The B’s lived in a sweet, historic home that had personality for days. Entering their home, I felt like I had entered another land—a simpler place where things like homemade jam and good cheese were priority. Each room held years of secrets, and I often daydreamed about the feet that went up and down the tiny stairway in the kitchen instead of the big stairway at the front of the house. Mrs. B made herself available to me whenever I needed a listening ear, and she invited me to stay with them during my two 3-day weekends over that summer and again for a week at the end, knowing that unless I drove several hours to my sister’s house, I had no other place to go. I loved staying there, though I was rarely the only student. They had a passion for sponsoring foreign exchange students, and I met many interesting people. But despite the [often] full house, I never felt overlooked or unseen. I felt snug and at home and like there was a place for me there.
But over time, I started feeling a little uncomfortable. You see, Mrs. B had this way about her. When I would drag myself into the kitchen for breakfast, she put down her Bible and gave me her full attention. Her whole face lit up, and she would say, Oh, it’s so good to see you! I was praying that you slept well and feel refreshed! You are such a beautiful girl, and God has gifted you in so many ways, and I’m so proud of you! And it wasn’t just at breakfast that she would talk that way to me—it was all the time. After I left at the end of the summer, she started writing letters—I would get pages and pages of what I thought were meaningless compliments. I would read over them and my insides would cringe, not knowing how to process Mrs. B’s words. She would call to check in and hear how I was doing, and again the compliments and niceties would flow. I didn’t get it. In my discomfort, I stopped answering her calls. And I never could bring myself to call her Mom B.
I didn’t know how to be with this woman who seemed to have such a misperception of who I was. Our interactions were me telling her what was going on in my life and her telling me how great I was and how much she loved me. Weird, right? Over time, I allowed the relationship to become distanced until I only heard from Mrs. B at Christmas.
Many years later, Aaron and I attended a conference that talked about grace and identity in Christ. We both had these beautiful lightbulb moments, and learning more about the gospel and who God says we are became our passion. We changed almost overnight, the reality of God’s love permeating our hearts. Anyway, at that first conference, we had to do an activity in which we affirmed each other—it wasn’t saying things like, I like your shirt or You’re really a good guitar player. No; it was affirming identity in Christ. So we had to point out things that reflected how God created us just so, and then give an example. I remember telling Aaron that I loved what an amazing pursuer he was, giving the example of how, after our first fight when I locked myself in the bathroom (sooooo mature of me…), he didn’t blow me off or demand that I listen to why he was right and I was wrong; instead, he sat down outside the bathroom door and spoke gentle words of love to me until I was ready to come out. Once I was out, Aaron reached toward me, embracing me so that I knew that no disagreement could cause a rift in our love.
As I affirmed him, I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. It took me a while to figure out why that was such a moving experience for me—in believing that God loved Aaron and created him with delight and purpose, I was starting to believe—truly believe—that God loved ME and created ME with delight and purpose, too! I couldn’t preach the gospel to Aaron and not believe it for myself.
In the months that followed, as I marveled in this new idea of affirmation and communicating to others God’s personal delight and love for them, that summer working at camp came to mind, specifically Mrs. B and her strange way of talking to me. I had another lightbulb moment—Mrs. B had been affirming me! All that time, she was trying to tell me how loved I was, not just by her and General B, but by God himself! She was trying to tell me how creatively and wonderfully I was made and how much God delighted in me. She was trying to tell me that I was the apple of God’s eye.
Yet I couldn’t hear her; in fact, it wasn’t just that I couldn’t hear, but those truths made me squirm and want to cower in discomfort. Why? Because I was full of shame.
I wasn’t full of shame because of some huge sin in my past; I was full of shame because somewhere along the road, I decided that my definition of myself was more accurate than God’s definition of me. Instead of going to Scripture to know God and hear what he had to say about me, I developed a distorted version of myself in order to protect myself from having to be vulnerable, from risking rejection, from being exposed. For years, I presented a half version of myself to others, not to specifically hide anything, but really to just present my best side all the time. Or at least what I thought was my best side. I put up walls to prevent people from pursuing my heart. I wore impenetrable masks so that others couldn’t see my flaws. What I didn’t understand all those years was that by wearing this disguise, I wasn’t giving people a chance to actually love me—they could only love my disguise.
And perhaps more tragically, by not accepting God’s love and delight for me, I couldn’t extend it to others. I spent all my energy managing the perception of me I assumed people had. I didn’t understand God’s love for me, so I couldn’t understand God’s love for you. I didn’t understand God’s pursuit of me, so I couldn’t pursue you. I didn’t know why Mrs. B said such affirming things to me, so I could never affirm you.
Shame—assuming an identity other than the identity God has given us as his beloved. Oh, how I still struggle these many years later.
In my story, several people have named me, and I’ve let them. I had a mother figure who criticized my appearance constantly, telling me I was ugly and undesirable. I had a boyfriend who told me (literally) that I was a piece of meat. I had family member tell me that I was only worth something if I bowed to her demands and agreed with her theology. Another boyfriend told me I was only worth serving his purposes. And that same family member told me that the boyfriend was right. A professor who said I was only worth the value of my research and writing. I believed all these voices until God’s voice was finally clear and loud enough for me to understand that only he can name me, and he has called me Beloved, Beautiful, Precious, Daughter.
I wish I could tell you that I overcame these issues, and that I pulled out all those letters from Mrs. B to read over again and again and soak in the truth of her affirmation. But I can’t. For one thing, I didn’t save the letters. But I still struggle every single day believing that I am who God says I am. And Scott Sauls’ book Befriend is bringing a lot of these issues to the surface.
As a friend pointed out, we all have some kind of shame issue. I think about Adam and Eve in their shame after they ate the fruit. They had never experienced shame before; they didn’t know what they were feeling. They panicked and went into survival mode, creating clothes out of leaves to cover themselves, hoping that these leafy coverups would disguise the sin and make the shame go away. Of course, that’s not what happened. So as they hid in the Garden, feeling the weight of the world on their shoulder, their bellies surely twisting and turning in a hideous, foreign fashion, they heard a voice. They heard their names. They didn’t hear anger or vicious accusations. They didn’t hear the yelling of someone whose plan had been foiled or whose heart was broken. No—they heard the gentle call of their Father coming to walk with them.
In their worst moment, maybe the most devastating moment of human history, they heard the voice of the Lord wanting to spend time with them. God knew what they had done (and he knew the implications of The Fall—his own Son dying), but that didn’t affect his love for them. He was filled with compassion for these children he had so carefully created. In their worst moment, God loved them and God pursued them.
As Sauls says, The story of Adam and Eve is also the story of us. We know that we aren’t what we should be, so we hide, blame, run for cover, and look out for number one. When shame knocks on our door, in desperation we create counternarratives to silence it. We grasp for something to tell us that everything is okay—that we are okay...But it’s only a matter of time before the validating “fig leaves” let us down. But just as the story of Adam and Eve is also the story of us, so is the story of God’s pursuit of them our story. God will never leave us. God loves his children, and he doesn’t abandon us in the mire of shame. He continues to move toward us, pursuing us, gently whispering his delight for us, who we are because of his love. His love didn’t just make us feel good in its affirmation—it changed the DNA of our hearts. Our heart genes are the same genes as in Jesus’ heart. We belong to God. We are his children. He has given us new names, and they reveal our place in his family.
So we cling to that truth. We beg God to help our unbelief. We devour Scripture that reminds us of his love for us and who we are because of it. And we find friends who will sing the melody of our identity to us when we’ve forgotten the tune.
What is your shame story? In what ways have you created your own version of your identity rather than believing who God says you are? Do you believe that God delights in you? Why or why not? What is a passage of Scripture that reminds you of your gospel identity in Christ?