Author: Caroline Tiller
(Before we get into it, please go ahead and turn to/pull up Psalm 139 and try to read through it as though you haven’t read it dozens of times before, or sang along a couple of hundred times to a musical adaptation, or bought a cute sign at Hobby Lobby quoting it. Sit in the Psalm for a moment, and take in the gravity of what it’s saying about the Lord’s attitude toward you, personally.)
During one of our missions meetings before the 2013 Altaer Costa Rica trip, my team came up with a set of guidelines and expectations for how we would treat each other as a team. Our fearless leader, Sarah DeLotelle, suggested to a particularly sarcastic group of teenagers a rule that has stuck in my head ever since: “No jokes that are more than fifty percent true.” Because the funniest jokes usually tend to be the ones with the most truth to them, one of the reasons that humor is such a satisfying coping mechanism to employ and an uncomfortable defense mechanism to encounter. As I’ve gone through life I’ve tried to observe that rule by skewing to a more absurd brand of humor, which may be why I didn’t realize when laughing off my mistakes with a light “I hate myself,” became less of a joke and more of a truth.
On May 19, my parents dropped me off at the airport with a suitcase just barely under the international weight limit, watched as I waited in line to go through security, and then, as I settled in at my gate, they left. And I was alone, heading off across an ocean to live in London for a summer with a group of complete strangers. As I boarded the plane, my chest was tight with a knot of mismatched emotions, but as we took flight and my ears popped and the seatbelt light dinged off, I felt this very specific type of freedom—freedom from all of the built up expectations and relational habits of home. It was exhilarating.
To be clear, I deeply value and cherish my friends and family in Atlanta and Suwanee, but when you grow up with people for the better part of a decade, all of these residual patterns of past behaviors exist. And although we’re all doing a fine job of growing up, all of us still tend to backslide into these knee-jerk reactions and attitudes toward each other. And for the first time in years, in London, I felt an acute freedom to be myself without any restraint or hesitation. I was unreservedly myself—the version of myself that I have grown into, the version that is growing ever closer to who God has created me to be, not the raggedy patchwork version I so often feel like at home. And even though this summer I was living relatively outside of community, I found myself more in step with the Lord than I had been in a long time. And even though most of my friends didn’t believe the same things as me, I had conversations about the Lord that felt truly worthy. And the reason for it all is that I was living my life in the place where I am right now instead of trying to be more mature than I really am to live up to expectation, or less mature to fit back into an old, comfortable mold. Turns out—strangely enough— that when you just exist the way the Lord has created you while pursuing Him, it is Good, and others can tell. So I lived my life this summer out in the open, effortlessly, and became so confident in who I am and who I’ve been and who I want to be. There were entire futures unraveled before me if I’d only chose to pursue them. The Lord showed me all of these beautiful things that I could be and do, and then I had to come home. And instead of remembering the promises that had been made to me only weeks ago, I lost my head. I was plunged back into this environment where I felt like I was constantly wading through wet cement, tied down by relationships that were messy and complicated before I left and (plot twist!) are still messy now. That easy confidence in myself and in the Lord fell apart, and every ounce of insecurity and self-loathing came flooding back all at once.
I’ve always gotten really excited about the Bible and the reality of grace, but I always got excited about the big, universal implications of it all. I love talking about God’s heart for humanity, and his grand love story to the whole human race told through the Bible. And I love telling other people how dearly they are loved, pursued, and known personally by the Creator God. And I love reminding people about how they are so intricately woven, and interesting, and important, and worthy, and needed by the world. I’ve always loved theology and applying that theology, but I’ve always loved applying it to others. Making it personal is where I falter. For years and years, I’ve understood in my head all the wonderful things the Lord thinks about me, but my notoriously loud and unruly heart, one that has historically won most battles with my head, has always been more skeptical. That heart has the hardest time believing that the Lord approves of me and gives me grace, so how could I ever approve of myself or give myself grace? If my heart believes that the God who created me cannot love me without reservation, then how could I love myself in such a way? And then, how could the people around me be telling the truth when they tell me that I am, indeed, worthy?
I’ve been spiraling down and around these thoughts since I got back, and it took a very unexpected conversation with an old friend only a few days ago for me to actually realize how deeply hostile I’ve felt towards myself, and how that has infected my relationships. It took this friend of mine telling me point blank that all of these negative feelings my rebellious heart holds towards home and the people in it are rooted in my own desperate need for the whole, indiscriminate approval that one can only find in the Lord and my stubborn refusal to go to Him for it. My friend reprimanded me, not unkindly, and told me to stop relying on myself, because it obviously wasn’t working. As I got in my car to drive home later that night, I found myself having the first real conversation with the Lord that I’d had since London. I sat in my car and let my armor fall away and let the torrent of emotion raging within me spill out, and I was met with the most wonderful silence: one saturated with this tangible feeling of wellness. The feeling of being told: “You are enough, right now, as you are.”
So here I am in the midst of this rough patch, revealed to me by a Hot Rod-esque tumble down from the mountain peak that was the best summer of my life in the best city on Earth. Here I am, putting into words the pain I’ve inflicted upon myself and letting you all see this vulnerable part of me that I find disposable and unlovable, because I believe myself to be someone who can see beauty in brokenness, and I want to trust you all to do the same with me. My old friend told me to stop running—more accurately to stop arbitrarily blaming cities, positively or negatively, for my well-being—so here I stand. I’m beaten up, but here I am met with hope and encouragement by the Lord, and hopefully by you all too.
I’ll start here, at Psalm 139, and ask you to read back through it with me once more. This time make it really, truly personal. Remember your favorite things about yourself and the moments you have felt proudest of who you are, and remember that the Lord knows it all intimately. Alternatively, remember the times you’ve done wrong and the words you’re ashamed you’ve spoken, and remember that the Lord knows it all intimately. AND YET: His high opinion of you does not change. You are the apple of his eye, the first fruits of His creation (James 1:18). And so am I.