A dear old mentor of mine passed away a few years ago. But the lessons he taught still help me see things—see myself—a little more clearly. Maybe the most important of those lessons came in the form of a story he once told on himself in his usual self-deprecating way. He said:
“I used to be perfect and I was miserable. So I went to therapy. I got all screwed up but I’m really happy now.”
It can be terribly difficult to admit when we’re wrong. That our choices and our actions have taken us deep into the weeds. At some level we sense that coming clean about our blunders and missteps offers the only way out of the mess we’re in. But man, it’s hard. It’s emotionally risky.
Psychologists tell us that when we struggle to admit that we’re wrong it’s because of what they call cognitive dissonance. If the world presents us with evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we’re likely to experience an inner tension. Our turmoil becomes especially acute when the world tells us that we’re wrong about who we think we are.
That’s exactly what John the Baptist was telling the people around Jerusalem. You’re not all that. You really need to admit it. Like, you know, now. Or as Matthew’s Gospel puts it, ““Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2)
You might have heard John’s words as something like this. God is coming soon. You do not measure up. At all. God has high standards. And even if God grades on a curve, you’re not going to make the cut. Get your act together before it’s too late.
As for me, I hear something different. It goes like this. You’re only as sick as your secrets. Keeping those secrets about your messy old self is exactly what makes you sick. Your problem is that you assume that you have to make yourself lovable.
Look, God isn’t just on the way to you from a distant planet. God is here. Right now. Already all up in your stuff. God knows everything—simply everything—about you. And God loves you to death. Sort of literally.
You’re already God’s beloved. Life is not about making yourself worth loving. Life is about discovering and then acting like you are the beloved.
Paradoxically, we discover the depth to which we are loved precisely when we look honestly at what we take to be unlovable about ourselves. We see that we are loved because, well, Jesus. Not because of us. Not because of what we accomplish or achieve. Jesus loves us because that’s who Jesus is.
And here’s the deal. Not only does knowing that God loves us give us the courage and the freedom to admit just how messy we can be. That admission carries us a step toward becoming a truer version of ourselves.
A beloved person can forgive, even themselves. A beloved person begins to heal and offers compassion to the wounded. A beloved person responds to another’s need without weighing what they might deserve.
Now don’t get me wrong. Like my old mentor said, you and I have quite a way to go. From time to time we will hurt other people, get resentful or envious, struggle to be generous or to forgive, say things (at least in our heads) that make Jesus run for the airsickness bag.
John the Baptist told his listeners that he baptized with water to mark their repentance. He wasn’t announcing their graduation from human boneheadedness. No, that involves another. Another would come to baptize with the Spirit and with fire. That other of course is Jesus.
The presence of Jesus in our lives is like fire. Not the destructive fire that blisters skin and razes villages. His is the fire that warms and transforms. Gradually. Often imperceptibly. Over time.
Admitting that at times I’m a mess can be hard and risky. And it’s how I discover again and again that I am the beloved.
My latest book is Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope. Click here to learn more and get a copy. As always, you can click the contact page of my site to schedule an event with me in-person or via Zoom.