When someone said this to me recently, it wasn’t the sound of the words that surprised me as much it was the person who said them. The insult didn’t come from a stranger on the internet, an upset church member, a partisan antagonist, or some other usual suspect. Instead, it came from someone I have known my entire life. This person understands me inside and out. I am closer to him than I am to anyone else including my brother, my children, and even my wife.
The person who told me that I suck was me. I said the words out loud while hiking alone. It slipped out of my mouth impulsively, as if from a primal instinct, without premeditation and straight from the heart.
Out of the heart the mouth speaks.
Lodged in my heart at the time was a shameful memory of mean spirited words I had spoken to another person in public. My words had been crafted to harm, targeting a fragile, vulnerable place in her soul. I wanted to injure and humiliate her. It was cruel, and I was cruel. I have replayed this incident in my mind many times. I offered several apologies and received her forgiveness each time. Eventually, she insisted that I stop apologizing because we were approaching the seventy-times-seven mark.
The hurtful incident for which she and God forgave me, and because of which I recently told myself, “You suck,” happened thirty-seven years ago. It’s been almost four decades but still feels like yesterday. Like a familiar song or movie, the memory has become part of me. Like the “damned spot” that Lady Macbeth tried frantically but unsuccessfully to erase.
More recently, I ran into an old friend at a Christian conference in my hometown of Nashville. In college, we had participated in juvenile behavior involving alcohol and basically making fools of ourselves. At the time, we thought fancied ourselves as funny and the life of the party. We often egged each other on in these behaviors. Now here we both were, some thirty years later, all sobered up and participating in a Christian conference.
My friend broke the awkward silence and said, “I have only two words for you: I’m so sorry.”
“That’s three words,” I responded.
Then I said, “I’m sorry too. I would also like to introduce you to a better version of the friend you had in college. I am a friend of Jesus now, which I trust will make me a better (and more sober) friend to you.” The next morning, my friend showed up unexpectedly at our church, where I was able to serve communion to him. It was full-circle wonderful to be able to do so.
I mention these two incidents, both of which are told in greater detail in my latest book, to show how second-nature it is for us to hold on to things we’ve thought, said, or done that make us feel ashamed. Guilt, shame, and regret from the past die hard for us. The one whom the Bible calls “the accuser” throws it all in our faces, keeping memories about the worst things we’ve done so alive that in our own minds, they start to define us.
“I said something mean” becomes “I am mean.”
“I did something ugly” becomes “I am ugly.”
“I made a big mistake” becomes “I am a big mistake.”
We pastors are no less in need of grace than the next person. We, too, can be our own worst enemies and no amount of effort, positive thinking, or determination will make it otherwise. Admitting this about ourselves like Isaiah did with his unclean lips (Isaiah 6:1-8), David with his adultery (Psalm 51), and Paul with his coveting (Romans 7:7-25) is not only brave but healthy. Coming clean like recovering addicts improves our relationship with God, the people we are called to serve, and ourselves. Transparency about our unfinished selves is far better than relying on false, wishful verdicts about ourselves as we nudge God out of the picture.
Self-esteem is overrated. Only an esteem that comes from beyond us—namely, from the forgiveness, favor, and freedom achieved for us by Jesus—will be able to help, hold, and sustain us. His gruesome, haunted exterior on the cross mirrored our haunted, sin-contaminated interior. But grace becomes amazing as we are able to cry, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling. Naked, I come to Thee for dress; helpless, I look to Thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly. Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Guilt (the regrettable things we have done) can easily turn into toxic shame (the regrettable worms that we are) as we appraise our own worth. The interplay between guilt and toxic shame becomes, for some of us, a distinction without a difference.
Whenever toxic shame gains a foothold, things like grace, forgiveness, and new mercies leak out of us like water passing through a drain hole. It’s almost as if we’re hardwired for self-loathing, trapped in its grip like a tired, demoralized, wing-clipped eagle stuck in a birdcage.
But Jesus wants to help people stuck in the birdcage get their wings and freedom back. There is a bright blue sky of forgiveness and grace for demoralized, defeated souls. The air space is unlimited and free. Freedom is what he wants for us.
Even as I write this, I pray that the ugly things from your past and present would lose their grip on you.
I pray that you will come to understand that even though the ugly things are part of your story, they don’t define you.
I pray also that the eyes of your heart will be opened to receive the grace that is greater than the very worst thing about you. You couldn’t escape it if you tried because as sure as his tomb is empty, the goodness and mercy of Christ will follow you all the days of your life (Psalm 23:6).
Rejoice, because God knows the very worst, darkest, damaged things about you and chooses to stay.
And? The things you dislike about yourself the most are also the very things that stir God’s love for you the most.
This is an adapted excerpt from Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen: How God Redeems Regret, Hurt, and Fear in the Making of Better Humans by Scott Sauls. Scott is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books.
From Scott Sauls’ blog: https://scottsauls.com/blog/2022/06/19/you-suck/