If you ever plan to read one of my books, I’ll warn you in advance: My book characters all have a little ugly lurking in their stories. I think it’s a prerequisite for me to think them interesting enough to write about. To me, the flaws are the most integral ingredients to creating believable characters.
But there are a lot of outlets where people don’t want others to have flaws. I’ve seen a lot of Christians hurting other Christians lately – in reader groups, on author groups, in unfair criticism, in ridiculous pieces on the news. And while it bothers me on a deep-heart level, I must admit that I usually see these things online, let out an exasperated sigh, and get about my day.
Part of the reason I don’t ever get involved in those discussions is that I know the lingo. I’ve studied and read and processed and put way more thought into my faith than most of the people who cherry pick random verses to prove their points. I’ve been in a relationship with God all of my life. Not always the best relationship on my part, and sometimes through those angry “I’m not talking” phases, but there’s always been relationship. And being a “good Christian” in a by-the-book way isn’t relationship. I was there. I lived it, and rules don’t work. Striving for perfection doesn’t work.
This process of tearing down others popped up in my last two books as part of the reason the main characters questioned their faith. When things show up in my books that I hadn’t intentionally put there, I figure God’s trying to get my attention. And after doing a lot of thinking, when it’s boiled down to the bare bones, the message of those degrading, hurtful comments or Facebook posts always looks the same: I’m a better Christian than you.
What have I noticed when I really dug deep into my own life? The people who love me the most are Christians. The people who despise me the most are Christians, too. And the people who have hurt me the most weren’t the ones with the most egregious offenses. Plenty of people have showed me ugly moments, and I still love them. The ones that continue to sting are the ones who refuse to own the ugly. The ones who still want the world to think they’re perfect.
I used to try really hard to be perfect. My life once read a little bit like the quintessential good girl character in the novels – you know, the girl who you can’t help but hate a little. I had the absolute best opportunities growing up. My parents are wonderful. My mom is the kindest person I’ve ever met, and she tried to instill that trait in me (still a work in progress). My dad is one of the most dedicated people I know, and he passed some of his work ethic my way.
I tried to excel in absolutely everything I did. My grades were consistently high enough that it became unacceptable for me to get a B instead of an A. By the time I was in sixth grade I was playing the piano for the high school choir. My junior year I wrote a winning essay to earn a trip to Washington, D.C., and the next year I was co-Valedictorian of my senior class and voted Most Likely to Succeed. Before graduation I earned that elusive “I” rating on my piano solo at state contest, and then immediately went home and got dressed for the prom, where I was later named prom queen. (I know – yuck, right?)
It’s perfect on paper, but the thing about being perfect is that it’s never good enough. Even with all those amazing things happening in my life, it never measured up in my mind. Underneath all the things that looked like successes, I was a control freak and felt I deserved everything I desired because of my hard work. Needless to say, when things didn’t go the way I expected, my world fell apart.
I could provide a laundry list of bullet-pointed examples of the ways people pretend that they’re perfect, and the ways I have done so in the past, but the fact is they don’t matter. What matters is this: I know I have plenty of ugly moments. I’m not talking about when I wake up with a head cold and forget to brush my hair. I’m talking temper gets the better of me, my pride gets hurt, woe is me ugly moments. Moments when I’m not the person God called me to be. Moments when I am fallen and human and broken. If you’ve been near me during one of them, please accept my apology.
I get why we want to pretend that we’re perfect. Owning the ugly is one-hundred percent terrifying. But without the ugly, how can we showcase the beauty of grace?
Here’s what the other side of trying to attain perfection gets: I fell so hard that it took years of painful lessons to turn me into some semblance of the person God created me to be. Not just once, but over and over. Hard enough that now I wake up every day realizing that I control zilch, and I have nothing great to offer on my own. Hard enough that every time I see us tearing one another down, it makes my heart hurt. Isn’t this world dark enough without us trying to hurt each other?
So in this season, maybe God’s using me to write about the ugly. And maybe part of the reason I went through the ugly was to share it with you. I honestly don’t know, because I’m merely a mess trying to get penciled in on the periphery of a masterpiece. We all are, really, and until we choose to own it, those lights we’re trying to shine into a dark world are always going to look pretty dingy.