My love quickly turned to a need to please and my feelings of being loved to a fear of failure.
I remember feeling overwhelmed by love when I started following Christ, but the feeling didn’t last long. Like a hamster on a wheel, I started performing. I learned all the right things to say and do, the places and people to avoid, the ways a Christian is “supposed” to look.
I was overtaken with a fear that I wouldn’t measure up. There was a story that was read to us one day in youth group. The gist of the story was a man who found himself in a room full of file cabinets. On the cards in were written every sin, every evil thought and dark place inside of him. Jesus read them all and then canceled them out with his blood, showing the man he was forgiven.
Looking back, I know the intention was to show us that we can be forgiven but all I heard was the part where every horrible thing I ever thought of doing was laid bare before Jesus. I spent so much trying to please him and when I failed, I ran the other way instead.
After years of running from Christ, so tired of that endless race of striving, I found myself sitting again in a room of students. A woman passionate about us wayward college girls was trying desperately to convey God’s love to us. She read us words from the book of Romans telling us that no matter what we had done it was forgotten forever.
“No condemnation,” she said “for those in Christ Jesus. Literally none. Your sins are completely gone, remembered no more.”
Brick by brick the walls I had built up to protect myself came tumbling down and I crumbled before her in tears. I had lived so long in fear of my own failure.
Through my tears, I cried out, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?”
Fifteen years later, I still struggle to remember this truth, still fighting my tendency to be motivated by fear instead of love.
I sat in another room of students last week, a very different kind. A gathering of writers, we all came to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing to learn about growing our craft and to connect with other writers.
But I came for another purpose, too. I prayed I would find a place to connect with God, to become a student of silence and contemplation.
“All that really matters is this: Have you experienced the furious longing of God or not?” we were asked (the words of Brennan Manning). It’s this kind of love I knew when I first met Christ but have seldom been able to hold onto, so easily losing it in all the ways I try to measure up instead of accepting His reckless pursuit of me.
And it was God’s longing for me that I found in all the silence and the noise of the past week.
In the sanctuary I clung to the paper I was given with some suggested scriptures on it and read the words over and over as we sat in silence, practicing contemplative prayer.
“I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs 7:10). I felt His love wash over me like He was sitting next to me in that room. Desired. Pursued. Wanted. Accepted. Beloved. These words kept coming to me in the silence.
When a friend looked me in the eye and spoke the benediction over me that day, “Nicole, you are God’s beloved” I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.
I know this truth but most days I live like I belong outside the gates, instead of in the house of my beloved. It’s a tiring race and I so long to just rest with him instead.
As I ran through the next three days of workshops and meetings, lectures and lunches – it was these words that sustained me. And God spoke them to me over and over again.
The words of Henry Nouwen were spoken by a panelist to remind us as writers not to strive to earn the approval of others or of God: “I am not what I do. I am not what I have. I am not what other people say about me. I am beloved.”
The final keynote address of the weekend was spoken over me like another benediction, as if it was just for me. When Nadia Bolz-Weber looked out over a crowd of hundreds and said, “We’re too busy trying to earn what’s been freely given to us. You are God’s beloved,” I knew they were the words for a child wounded by years of striving and an adult that still tries to earn what she never can.
I knew those words were the voice of God.
And I knew that I was beloved.