Thursday, September 24, 2015

You Are Love

The other day a friend and I followed our four kiddos on a morning stroll, enjoying the blissful breeze of a fresh Fall day. All the kids had chosen some wheeled-vehicle for our walk: A scooter, a trike, a bike with training wheels and a "big kid" bike. No sooner had each child mounted their toy and exerted one full pedal or push, than did the first complaint of comparison begin. We immediately realized the error of our ways in letting the kids choose such varied vehicles. One toy was too small, another too big; one was too "babyish," another too hard; one was even too blue.

The back and forth bickering over who was riding what, who was riding beside what and what order they were all riding in was incessant. My friend and I did our best to field each complaint with encouragements about staying calm, being grateful, learning to share, and eventually, pleading with each child to just be quiet and keep riding. When, fifteen minutes later, we made it to the park that had been our original destination, we heaved heavy sighs as the kids threw their toys down and ran to various sections of the playground. We were silent - blissfully, beautifully, thankfully silent - watching the kids finally laugh and play together.

After a few moments, my friend said, "And that is why I don't know how anyone can argue with inherent evil!" referring to the kids' recent displays of selfishness and greed. I had to admit, their behavior on our walk had seemed selfish, and certainly short-sited and annoying. It had taken everything in me not to crack and rage against one of them for ruining our peaceful stroll. But a case in defense of inherent evil, I wasn't so sure. 


For as long as I can remember, I was taught the principle of inherent evil. I knew early on that at my core, I was corrupt. Not just that I was capable of making bad decisions, but that I - the essence of me - was naturally, unavoidably, offensively flawed. A "sinful nature" is what we called it, and I grew up knowing that this “sinful nature” was unacceptable to my Creator, embarrassing to my elders and, therefore, utterly exasperating to me. This all came to me as a permanent label, spoken in love by those I loved, a reality of life. 

Perhaps my youthful ears exaggerated the message or perhaps I misunderstood some key caveat to the concept as it was being translated into kid-friendly vernacular. Either way, these are the exact words that my soul chewed up and swallowed, over and over again, throughout my youth: The real you is evil. 

Jonathan Edwards, a popular preacher from the 1700's, is famous for expounding on the doctrine of inherent evil in his most popular sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. In it he said, "The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes that to bear to have you in his sight…"

A later sermon, directed specifically to the children of his church, took on even more extreme language. In it Edwards said, "God is not only angry enough to correct you, but to cast you into Hell to all eternity. You deserve to burn in Hell forever. Your being children don’t excuse you…Wicked children are in God’s sight like young serpents. We hate young snakes. They are the children of the devil…." While I was never personally lavished with such extreme language or in-your-face accusations of my own corrupt nature, the essence of this message still slithered its way into my heart, over and over again, in the guise of softer, gentler words, in the appeals of Sunday School teachers to "Give my sinful heart to Jesus." 

I am no historian, nor am I attempting to trap Edwards into a corner specifically marked "good" or "bad." But it is unarguable that his words have had great influence in the shaping of the Christianity we know today. And it is unarguable that his belief was deeply, completely rooted in the principle of inherent evil, a principle that continues to shape the way may of us think and talk about ourselves today.

As a child, naturally desiring to please and live up to the expectations of those around me, it was both devastating and toxically motivating to live with the reality that I was inherently evil. I needed to do right in the eyes of leaders, teachers, parents and peers in order to feel at ease in my own skin, corrupt as it may be. My young mind repeated a message to me that sounded something like this, “You may be evil, but look how happy they are when you do XYZ. You'll never be enough just being you, but do XYZ and they’ll notice you and approve.” I quickly internalized the reality that I could not escape my inherited nature, but I sure could work myself to death to prove my worth through academic accomplishments, discipline, beauty and service. This was my truth from a very young age. 

And it was this “truth” that catapulted me into my first spiritual awakening at age twelve. Having experienced a healthy dose of middle school meltdowns, I was desperate for something to “fix my life.” It was in light of this longing for "a fix" that the Christian Gospel first connected with me. As best as I can recall, and with a healthy dose of hindsight, this is the message my soul heard: You are evil, which you clearly know. You are broken and corrupt and hopelessly flawed. It’s not completely your fault, but you are stuck with it nonetheless. You are corrupt and that’s not okay, with anyone. But, there’s good news, too; there’s Someone who can build a bridge between your evil nature and the perfection you need. If you’ll admit how evil you are and how incapable of attaining perfection you are, that Someone will accept your flawed self and give you power to become perfect. Oh, and God loves you.

And so I admitted and accepted…and spent the next 15 years still working myself to death to be perfect. 

Perfection took on new meanings, though, shrouded with Bible verses and missionary service and endless meetings. And, yes, it was a bit messier and more mysterious than that. And yes, it did include true grace and kindness and forgiveness and connection and Love. But it also included an endless sense of guilt, of “not enough-ness,” of trying and proving, of blacks and whites and silenced questions, of empty relationships, of faking it or hoping for it or not following my emotions or thoughts or anything else that could be labeled as "me." After 15 years, I was still inherently evil and perfection still loomed far in the distance.

I knew that I was broken, that I was capable of great evil and tragically prone to sin, but deep down, at the very center of my being, I felt as though I still mattered to God.
Rachel Held EvansFaith Unraveled

I started wandering away from that pursuit, and all those beliefs, a few years ago. The perfect self crumbled so painfully small that I could no longer make out what it was I was aiming for. Somewhere in the mess of my pain and questioning, I connected with flawed humanity and fell in love. Without all the striving, I started to connect with my true self - my longings, my thoughts, my feelings, me - and realized there was much more good there than I’d ever been lead to believe. I started to question that early indoctrination about my inherent nature. I started to ask, Who am I, at my core?

And so when my friend suggested that our kids' selfish, annoying bickering was a good defense for inherent evil, I heard her comment through all those years of carrying a heavy load full of "not enoughs" and "keep tryings." I heard her through years of Sunday School classes that taught me both to believe the truth that God loved me, and to remember my sinful nature and repent of it daily. I heard her through years of hating myself - because myself seemed to be the root of all evil - and all the starving and abusing and repenting and dysfunction that was birthed out of such self-hate. 

Today, when I look at my kids, or when I look at myself, the first thing I see is goodness. I see a piece of the Divine, a sparkle of Love itself, sown into every fiber. I see kindness and selflessness, creativity and beauty. Of course I see the short-tempers and the selfish greed and the myriad other flaws, too. But I see them as a possibility to be chosen, not as the essence of any person's inherent nature. I see what Glennon Doyle-Melton writes to her son in her book, Carry On Warrior, "When you were born, I (God) put a piece of myself in you. Like an indestructible, brilliant diamond, I placed a part of me inside of you. That part of you - the very essence of you, in fact - is me; it is Love, it is perfect, and it is untouchable. No one can take it and you can’t give it away. It is the deepest, truest part of you, that will someday return to me. You are Love."

That's what I see. 

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