By Tolivar Wills
Growing up poor, black, in an all white town, and single parent home, I developed several misinterpretations about my place in the world. In particular, my general comparison of myself to other families in the neighborhood was that of always being the one from “the other-side of the tracks;” that certain aspects of life were for “those people,” but not for me. The latest version of Nike’s Jordans? Nope. Name brand clothes? Nope. The amenities of two-parent homes, like nice cars, houses, and extra lunch money? Not even close. These experiences during my developmental years, as I have learned through The Soul of Shame class, shaped much of my perception of how others, God, and even myself were and are postured towards me; namely, that I am unwanted and uncared for in the world.
A deep sense of abandonment had colored much of my world and thus helped shape the self-driven means I would use to try to justify myself to God, others, and myself. I would use anything to try and prove that I was worth caring for: sports, humor, grades, people pleasing, and entertaining were all continuously employed to gain the favor and acceptance of others. The ironic flaw in these attempts, however, was that my efforts to show myself worthy were really only masks to hide my deep sense of shame. Everything looked good on the outside, but deep down I was filled with pain, fear, and sadness.
As you might imagine, over the course of nearly 30 years of walking with the Lord and serving in His Church, this seemingly never-ending spinning wheel of achievement has at times burned this pastor out.
It is in these broken moments that one can no longer hide the sad reality of what is occurring within one’s soul. The sadness brims over the fake smiles, and the tears supernaturally break through the vaults of our facades that we portray to God and others.
I can tell you from experience that this is not a fun or comfortable place to be as a Pastor. Thoughts have run through my head like “You are supposed to feel like this; you are doing all the right things,” and worse yet, “If I am in this horrible place of despair, then where is God? Doesn’t he know I am doing all of this stuff for Him?” And then, following several fist slams of the table or verbal cursings of God, the tears begin to flow. I’ve realized that no amount of anger could make these horrible feelings go away; I was left alone with only myself. No amount of performing or hiding would cover up the deep shame that I’d been working so hard, for so long, to hide.
It is here, when God and others felt a million miles away from the deepest part of me that the Lord made Himself present and known. Recently, this truth has come to the forefront of my life as I have been slowly meditating upon Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
In Nouwen’s meditation upon the Luke 15 parable, he points out the stark observation that regardless of the behavior of both the younger and older son, the Father is shown to be ‘for’ His children; whether in their wanton rebellion or self- righteous indignation, the Lord is really ‘for us’.
In fact, as we consider just a few of His precious promises to us we see that in many ways the children of God are really not warranted to have such a ‘glass is half-empty’ mindset. Whether in this world or in the next, these beautiful anchors of the soul pull us deeper and closer to our ultimate and unique flourishing in Christ.
For instance, in Romans 8:27-39 we find the creme-de la-creme of this theology:
“In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written,We were considered as ‘sheep to be slaughtered.’
But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is only one of many examples of the depth of God’s commitment to His children. A commitment that has no end, and results in both ours and the whole world’s reaching its fully intended purpose. As we head into the Christmas holiday, it is this beautiful truth that I am most thankful for; that my story and my interpretation of it are not the ultimate author; that God the Father is intimately involved in each of our journey’s, working to take them to a place and quality that I could never have imagined or directed myself or others to. I am thankful that our Father is committed; He is in it to win it for us and through us for the sake of His church and world. Thanks be to God!