Sunday, July 15, 2012

Grace For the Good Girl

Something else that is changing my life is this book: Grace for the Good Girl, by Emily P. Freeman.  I've been meaning to get to this for a while, but then I loaned the book to a friend, and then I wanted to reread it, and then...  Nevertheless, here we are. 

Emily is a recovering "good girl" who spends this book exposing good girl syndrome for what it is - works righteousness - and then preaching the gospel to other "good girls" who so desperately need to hear it. 

I should start by noting that Emily has some theology going on that I'm not quite on board with (lots of "when you give your life to Jesus" and believer's baptism talk).  But I'm pretty well versed in working my way around that sort of stuff and taking what's good.  And there's a lot of good. 

I have so much of this book highlighted and underlined that I had to develop a system for marking the stuff that was good vs. the stuff that was really good.  For example, Freeman starts by noting the masks of fine/good/perfect/strong/responsible/busy/etc, and the way that we perform those roles. 
"I perform to prove my worth to you, to God, and to myself.  I perform because I don't know how not to.  When bad girls perform to get their needs met, they get in trouble.  When good girls perform to get the same thing, we get praise.  That is why the hiding is so easy for us.  We work hard, we do right, and we try not to ruffle feathers.  And even if we do all that by the strength of our own selves, we tell ourselves it's okay.  It seems to work, therefore it's acceptable.  So we keep right on with life, and our masks mix with our personality and circumstance.  Before we know it, we don't really know who we are, and nobody else does, either."
Part of the reason this book "works" is because it speaks to an experience, and to people, who don't often get spoken to. Because so often, the "good girls" are the ones who don't need the attention - it's the rebels, or the ones that manifestly do not have it all together who have books written for them.  And this is partly our fault.  Freeman notes that one of the hallmarks of a "good girl" is that we teach people that we have no needs - and then we secretly resent them for believing it.  So true.  And this book is incredible because it speaks from a place of "been there, done that", not from an outsider "I know some people struggle with this" perspective.
"I never seriously considered being a rebel.  There was that one time in high school when I was the only one not drinking at a party.  I looked around the room and briefly wondered why I felt so responsible to not be that way.  I wondered why I couldn't simply lighten up and have some fun.  But I just didn't have it in me.  There was too much at stake.  I had a good reputation to uphold, a sweetness to protect, an important list of rules to follow, and a long list of people to please.  This innate desire to be good indeed protected me from a lot of heartache and baggage.  It protected me from teenage pregnancy and bad grades and jail.  But it did not bring me any greater understanding of God.  It did not protect me from my own impossible expectations." 
The good girl reading this protests: "Well, true.  But this is how God wants us to be.  Somebody has to bear the burden of being good."  To which Emily responds,

"When we believe that God expects us to try hard to be who Jesus wants us to be, we will live in that blurry, frustrating land of Should Be rather than trust in The One Who Is.  We will do whatever we believe it takes to please God rather than receive the acceptance that has already been given.  We will perform to live up to what we believe his expectation is of us rather than expectantly wait on him....Our desire to be the good girl, the good Christian, the good wife, and the good mom becomes our number one priority, and Jesus isn't even in the room.  Our failures expose us and so we hide them.  We hide us.  We work hard to perform for acceptance, and most of the time we don't even realize we are doing it.  It has become the natural way of things, the only way we know how to live." 
Yup, that's me.  One of the reasons I loved reading this book is because, when you're a good girl like this, it's hard to even talk about because it sounds like bragging.  "Look how hard I try.  Look how much I do the right thing.  Look at me, look at me."  Because of the nature of our ailment, confession can sometimes feel (at least to us, on the confessing side of it) like showing off.  But Emily gets it.  She says it first, so that I can say, "OMG that's totally me."  Granted, the next part stings a little.  But the law always does.  (See, I'm such a good Lutheran.) 
"As a good girl, I formed my own definition of sin rather than understand God's.  Sin was the bad stuff people do, the heartache people cause, the poor decisions people make.  But my insatiable desire to be my own little god somehow didn't make the list of sin in my book.  My incessant need to be better than, to be important, to be liked and right and good on my own and by myself - those things pulsed just under the surface of my smiling exterior.  In Christian circles, we tend to call that self-righteousness.  And it is.  We could also call it self-dependence, and this gospel of self-sufficiency robs good girls of a life of freedom and victory."
 Well, damn.  But wait, what?  Aren't we supposed to be serving God?  Well, yes.  And Freeman exegetes the Mary vs. Martha story here.  Martha started from a good place, a place of wanting to serve Jesus and have him in her home. 
"Choosing to please God sounds right at first, but it so often leads to a performing life, a girl trying to become good, a lean-on-myself theology.  If I am trying to please God, it is difficult to trust God.  But when I trust God, pleasing him is automatic.  Anything we do to get life and identity outside of Christ is an idol, even service to Christ." (bolding mine)
Wow.  This one hit me right between the eyes.  When I read this, I was at a place in my life - and had been for 18 months - when I had most definitely been making an idol out of service to Christ.  I was trying so hard to serve him, in the way I thought he wanted me to serve him.  I was terrified of prayer, because I was convinced that everything I was trying to do still wasn't going to be enough, and I would "hear about it".  And then Emily's words just bowled me over.  Who would have thought?  Service to Christ can be an idol.  But she's right.  Yes, it was a measure of law - but the gospel followed almost immediately thereafter.  When I - mistakenly, even - make an idol out of the things that terrify me, because I think it's what God wants - hearing that I'm an idolator is freeing - because that can be forgiven, and there is Jesus on the other side. 

"As good girls, we are so used to hearing words like you ought to, you should, and you must.  With those same ears, we try to listen to Jesus and it sounds as though he speaks the same language.  But that is the language of the law.  It is time to say goodbye to fake, ought-to Jesus and meet the real one.."  She quotes Dudley Hall: "When you get miserable enough to die, you can be free.  Go ahead and live under the law - give it your best shot.  Ultimately the law will make you so miserable you'll want to die.  Then you will find that someone already died for you."

Hearing that was like a gigantic weight off my shoulder.  A breath of fresh air.  Somebody understands.  Somebody understands my weird, crazy self, and they have Jesus - real Jesus - to offer me in exchange.  "He is a generous, patient, compassionate God, and his expectations of us are not the same as our expectations of ourselves."

Seriously, this book just describes me to a T.  But not in a shaming way.  In a "Yes, it's terrible, go ahead and cry" kind of way.  To step out from behind our masks, to walk away from the "try-hard life", we're going to have to be vulnerable, we're going to have to get outside our comfort zone, we're going to have to believe that we're worth something. 

We're going to have to hear a little more law.  So let's dig into the Prodigal Son story. 

"Even though I know the Bible says I am not saved by my works but by faith, I still believe deep down that God is more accepting of those who perform well and do the right things than he is of those who do not.  And I believe that the bad girls shouldn't get the same rewards that the good girls get.  It's only fair...sometimes it doesn't feel fair that God seems to most powerfully use those who have chosen wrong and then come back again instead of those who did it right the first time.  Where is the celebration for us?"
But, she reminds us, this is not a good place to be: "my lack of common ground with the prodigal son has kept me from experiencing the limitless, compassionate love of Christ.  My unwillingness to admit my kinship with the prodigal, much like the older son, left me both right and lonely.  It caused me not only to be unwilling to receive forgiveness from my heavenly Father, but unable to freely offer it..."  The answer, of course, is that "He has always been with you, and all that is his is yours.  Are you willing to step into the celebration and receive the gifts of your inheritance, or are you hanging out with the servants outside the doors?"

How did we get here, outside the doors?  How did we fall into this weird sinful trap?  How did we come to believe that we had to do something, to be something?  Freeman takes a look at the story of the Fall.  Adam and Eve were made imago Dei, but Satan offered them the chance to be like God.  Wait, what?  "Satan was promising something to them that God had already graciously and lovingly provided.  Satan convinced them to forget God's gift and try to work for it instead....Satan had nothing new to give them that wasn't already theirs.  The only power he had was the power of the lie.  If he could trick them into forgetting that they were made in God's image, then he could get them to do crazy things, which is exactly what happened." 

This is what happens to us good girls.  Satan convinces us that we have to do crazy things to be accepted by God, and we fall for it over and over and over again.  "Where are you?  God asks, not because he doesn't know, but because he knows I have to come out of hiding in order to be found.  To be healed.  To be whole."

Which is precisely what this book is doing to me.  Dragging me out of hiding, where I can be healed. 

Part II to come. 

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My Comments Policy: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." Galatians 5:22-23