Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.
– Charles Dickens
I spent about 26 years of my life feeling pretty good about myself. I was always a good student. I didn’t get in too much trouble in my teen years. I was active in my church, and in my community. I went to grad school. I worked out regularly and tried to eat healthy most of the time. I had a “good” relationship with God. I had quiet times. I volunteered. The list could go on.
Point is, I had all the things. All the accolades. And I dusted them and shined them each day and placed them neatly on my mantle.
Then one day, someone (a counselor) slid a blank piece of paper in front me and told me to imagine a picture of myself on it and what defined me, what I was made of. Then she asked me to imagine striping away all of those things, all of the accolades on my mantle. One by one, she said. Strip them away.
Now, she said, looking at me. What’s left? What is left at your core? What is left at your center?
I looked down. I stared at the blank piece of paper. I squinted really hard, but I couldn’t see anything. All I could see was a question mark.
Who am I at my core, you ask? I knew the Sunday school answer, but I didn’t believe it.
Who am I without my things? Who are you without your things?
The thing with things is this: things go away. At age 26, all my things had to be going well in order for me to feel good about life. Because if one area suffered, my identity suffered.
That day with the counselor I began to learn that the alternative to living an exhausting life of keeping your accolades nice and shiny is living a life of feeling broken, bent and empty. Seriously, there is no middle ground. There is no other alternative.
In the Christian life, you either secretly believe you are everything and, therefore, see little need for Christ. Or, you think you are nothing and, therefore, believe all that you need is Christ.
Option one causes us to “fluctuate between castigating ourselves and congratulating ourselves because we are deluded into thinking we save ourselves,” says Brennan Manning. Option two gives us a “deep gratitude for God’s love and deep wonder at his mercy.”
You can be still be a Christian and adapt a life dependent on things with little need of a savior. You can be. I don’t think it’s a matter of salvation we’re talking about here. But I think the option one life greatly misses out on the truth of the gospel. I think that life misses, completely, grace.
I was on a road toward missing it. I get it. I had to break open (part of that story is here) after 26 years of holding myself together.
And guess what. The breaking wasn’t a one-time thing. It just keeps happening.
I recover, I’m feeling good and put back together and then boom, something happens and I break all over again. We are all broken hearts trying to navigate a broken world. But broken spirits searching for wholeness in a broken world are not going to find it.
So now I’m learning what it means to live broken. To walk this life as someone who really has nothing to offer. To look at people and hold out my palms and shrug. Nothin’ there, I say. To go home at night and stare at a blank mantle, the accolades all thrown away.
But if it’s between living a life of things and a life of nothing, I now know to choose nothing every time.
It sounds worse than a life with lots of things, and it certainly looks more pathetic. But it feels real. It feels free. It feels like my core is beginning to find its shape. It just needs a little more bending and a little more breaking.