For most of my Christian life, I would have told you, just as I told God, that I had no other gods before him and that Christ’s work on the cross completely saved me. It has been both painful and freeing as God showed me a life strategy I was actually living, revealing that, underneath it all, I doubted his goodness and doubted I was truly worthy of his love. In it all, though, God is showing me the depths of his grace, rewriting how I see people, situations, and myself.
Several years ago I experienced a deeply disappointing and confusing situation that shook my life in profound ways and resulted in a career change. I won’t go into details, but I felt not only misunderstood, but also abandoned and devalued. I suspected my motives were being questioned behind my back. Former coworkers pulled away, leading me to suspect my reputation was being defamed by rumors. It hurt deeply. A door was closed and I was on the outside. It was confusing and exceedingly painful—especially because I thought I was acting honorably and in the best interests of the organization in which I served.
I entered into an extended time of personal evaluation and reflection to try to wrap my mind around what happened. The whole thing felt like a train wreck, and I felt pushed off the track. Part of me just wanted to feel better. But part of me wanted to understand how this happened; I had observed similar situations unfold for others in different organizations. It was such a confusing jumble.
In short, I found I needed to sort out four important points:
- Forgiveness—I need to recognize that something wrong actually happened. I did experience an injustice. What happened wasn’t right. There was wrong in the actions of some as well as the inactions of others. It is correct to clearly recognize an injustice as a precursor to forgiving others and letting go of my own inner demand to see them “pay”. I needed to entrust them, as well as myself and my career, to God.
- Compassion—Without diminishing the wrong suffered, I need to acknowledge there was brokenness operating in all parties, including me. This hurtful event was not just about this one situation; it was a product of years of painful experiences and misunderstandings unrelated to me. The event wasn’t as personal as it felt. I don’t know all the struggles that were being experienced by the other parties, but I’m sure they were more significant than I considered. When seen with a clearer perspective, I’m sure all parties would regret some of their actions/inactions. Without excusing the injustice, I need to see the other parties with a measure of compassion and patience. If I was in their place, I may have acted the same way they did.
- Learning—There were several things I need to learn. I recognize that I contributed to the entire situation in multiple ways—over multiple years. In the midst of it, I was blind to how my actions and words made it difficult for others to express opposing perspectives. I allowed misunderstandings to persist. This train wreck, combined with the reflective experience God brought, became a “second master’s degree” in lessons learned to make me a better leader and a better person. While it was painful, ultimately I thank God for the learning opportunity, even while I sincerely hope never to repeat it.
- Locating My Identity—Even after working intently on forgiveness, compassion, and learning, there was more: I was left with a confusing and painful remnant. The train wreck left me feeling thwarted or blocked. This part of the knot was much more difficult to untangle. This “remnant” kept inflaming the injustice in my mind and made it necessary for me to re-forgive over and over again. I felt as if I was walking in deep mud and it was impossible to gain solid footing again. I’m discovering some uncomfortable things:
A significant part of why it hurt so much to go through that experience is that I had too much riding on my service in that ministry context. I was building a significant portion of my self (my self-righteousness) on my performance and on what others thought of me. It was a “functional idol” in my life—and I was attempting to use it to fill a heart-need that only God could fill: telling me who I am and what I am worth.
As I have discovered this subtle idolatry in my life (shrewdly interwoven into my efforts to excel in Christian service as a mission leader), I have unmasked a doubt of God’s goodness dwelling deep in my heart. Effectively, I had built a life strategy that depended on my good efforts and others’ positive responses to feel good about myself. Wrapped into that was a prideful assumption that I could impress God, and more subtly that I somehow needed to impress him in order to experience his embrace.
My heart breaks in repentance as I recognize what, in reality, I have been believing: that the Gospel is not enough, so I had to make up the difference with my own “good Christian service” and exemplary performance. How something as horrid as thinking that the Gospel was not enough could drive something that looked so good is sobering, but it is the truth. My repentance is deep and ongoing as I continue to unearth deeper roots of this anti-grace belief in my heart.
In the midst of the repentance, I’m discovering genuine rest. Jesus has completed the ultimate work! I’m enjoying knowing God and being known by God. It’s refreshing. He is easy to be with. He enjoys being with me. I can tell he is smiling (the way I smile when I think of my grandchildren). And, I can fully engage in work and service because it is no longer about securing my reputation; it’s just about being who God made me to be and living out of a heart that is grateful for grace!