Despite the heat and humidity of late-July Florida, I strapped on my shoes for an afternoon run. The relief of getting out of the house and capturing a few quiet minutes on my own outweighed the threat of heat stroke.*
Andrew, our firstborn, was just a few weeks old. My wife, Joy, had taken maternity leave from her public radio job and since I was on a college faculty, my summer months were my own to structure. So we both spent the first days of Andrew’s life sharing his every gassy smile, dirty diaper, and middle-of-the-night feeding.
A combination of sleep deprivation and cabin fever was tipping each of us toward new-baby psychosis. So when Joy said, “Jake, I think you need to get out the house. For all our sakes,” I jumped at it.
At about the half-mile mark, I’m sure I looked a fright. My heart rate and breathing had evened out, but my face was flushed and sweat had saturated my t-shirt and shorts. One of my older neighbors was shuffling toward his mailbox. As I ran by, he said, “What on earth are you doing?”
I responded, “I’m running from my past.”
It seemed funny at the moment. But the phrase kept swirling around in my mind. I’m running from my past. Am I running from my past? What am I running from?
What I was coming to realize was that I was running from hurts I had received in my childhood. You can read about this in detail elsewhere, but for now it’s enough to say that my father was physically abusive to my mother and emotionally abusive to me.
Like so many children, I was a keen observer. But my ability to draw conclusions from what I experienced was still in the early stages of development. As a result, I emerged from childhood doubting my own lovability.
We all need to feel loved, so I adopted a strategy that may sound familiar to you. I became an achiever. People would love me for what I accomplished, produced, and created. For my grades, my trophies, my degrees, my career advancement.
Mind you, it was not a conscious decision to hop on the achievement treadmill. I stumbled onto it. And I’m not alone in this. We live in a success-oriented culture. Being upwardly mobile is taken to be a sign of virtue. Nobody wants to be a failure.
What I was beginning to realize on that run is that a life based on chasing achievements is not a life worth living. I was miserable and exhausted. It was dawning on me that I could never accumulate enough achievements to experience the peace I longed for. To be genuinely comfortable in my own skin I needed to know myself as the beloved no matter what.
Love earned from achievements is always contingent. There’s always the fear that you might not measure up next time. What I needed, what I suspect we all need, is what Henri Nouwen calls first love: love given freely. As a gift. Because the lover loves us. Period.
Paradoxically, we discover first love for ourselves—I mean we actually feel it in our bones—when we admit that we’ve got nothing to offer. Nothing, that is, but our imperfect self.
And that is exactly why John the Baptist called people to repentance. He was preparing his contemporaries and preparing us today to meet God face to face. To meet Jesus.
Contrary to what some have thought, John was not warning people to clean up their act before it was too late. Instead, he was telling us to take a huge risk. Get real with ourselves and offer what we find to Christ. Especially the stuff that can still shatter us, enrage us, flatten us, and make us wince.
That’s repentance. And repentance allows us to see that Jesus has loved us all along. Before we even took our first breath. Because, well, Jesus.
Once again this Advent John the Baptist is preparing us for Christmas. To meet the Christ child again for the first time. He calls us to repentance because he wants us to experience first love for ourselves.
*A portion of this essay appeared originally in A Resurrection Shaped Life. Click here to learn more or grab a copy.