“next time, baby, i’ll be bulletproof”
Let’s be honest, who hasn’t needed a good angry anthem now and then; a raging refrain of stubborn self-confidence? We scream them in our cars, pounding nails of resolution deeper into the ground with each decibel. It hurts now, sure, but next time I’ll be ready. Next time it won’t even touch me. I got burned because I failed to do x, y, z… but now I know better.
These wall-building word-shields are inspiring on the surface, acting like a balm on wounds of rejection and failure. But underneath, the message they carry is terribly damaging and tragically counterproductive.
Because even if I pull out all the stops, I cannot guarantee what happens next time. All my careful boundaries, all the “perfect” and “right” decisions do not guarantee me the future I want. And I’m learning how upset that makes me.
If you have any perfectionistic tendencies, maybe you can relate. I think of it as a checklist. A magic checklist.
This is how a checklist is made:
– watch other people make mistakes, hear about why good choices are important, and absorb bits of wisdom and advice
– decide, “I will not fail that way”
– take all the “do’s” and “do not’s” and place little boxes next to each of them
The formula of the checklist is simple: step carefully around all the wrong things + make sure to do all the right things = your life is perfect and all the good things happen the way they should and you can avoid hurt and pain because bad things won’t happen if you do everything right, if you follow the checklist.
This is dangerous for several reasons.
First of all, if makes me think that somehow, I can protect myself from pain, or at least corner God into protecting me from pain via my good behavior.
If I follow the checklist, then nothing painful should ever get close enough to hurt me.
If I follow the checklist, then God will surely keep pain from infiltrating my life
The checklist promises me that no mistakes = no pain.
Never, ever did Jesus promise me this.
Obedience is unarguably for our good. Everything he tells us is for our utmost and richest good, however hard it may seem. And some of those things do indeed help us avoid certain immediate and painful consequences. For example, if I don’t murder anyone, I don’t have to wrestle with the consequences of guilt, serving time in prison, or of any of the other painful things that would happen as a result.
Following Jesus sometimes includes this as a side effect: he guides us away from walking into sin that has heartbreaking consequences, and we get to enjoy the protection of taking Him at His word and obeying.
But following Jesus never, ever means that we become bulletproof, untouched by pain.
Sometimes what he asks of us will lead us right into the very throes of anguish. Sometimes, following him means we experience things that cause us to recoil in pain.
For example, He tells us to love each other. Loving others includes a willingness to come alongside their pain, experiencing it with them. This hurts. And also, at some point, we are bound to have pain inflicted upon us by them. No human on this earth that I could ever be in a relationship with will ever not-hurt me.
I realized, roughly a month ago, that I had a twisted deal going on in my soul between me and God. It was all one-sided, because of course He had never agreed to it, never promised it to me. But I was operating as if He had. I was operating from my checklist.
Deal was, if I do everything right, I get what I want. If I apply His standards and wisdom to my life, He makes sure it all works out.
I only realized this because there were some wounds that were still, for a reason I couldn’t pinpoint, gaping wide open. I hate lingering pain; I want to move on, I want to escape, I want it to be healed and taken care of. I want to learn my lesson, add another item or two to the checklist (what do I need to do in order to not get hurt again this way?), and never feel the pain again. This lingering tenderness was both unacceptable and annoying.
It all spilled out unexpectedly, a morning after I was reminded of how much it still hurt. The anger bubbled up into an angry cry, coming right from the center of all the frustration and anguish: “Lord, I did everything right. I followed all my “rules” and avoided all the behaviors that got me in trouble in the past. I did what I needed to do, and if you loved me, you would have made it all work out”.
There is no twisting that to make it sound pretty or holy. That cry was me, being honest. Being wrong, but being honest.
I was so angry. I had been cautious and tried to do everything right. I completed the checklist! So why was I left in a heap of pain, again? Why didn’t the checklist work? Why did I still end up in this place?
And it was in that moment that I realized a bit further just how unavoidable pain is. It is, in fact, promised to us. All of us. The wise ones and the foolish ones, the careful and careless, the prudent and wild.
I can’t tailor my behavior and choices to rule out pain from my life. It is going to come at me from all angles, in all types of ways, whether as the consequence of my choices, the consequences of others choices, or the general brokenness of this sin-ridden world.
I am going to have to walk through pain.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 (NLT).
“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have [perfect] peace and confidence. In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]! For I have overcome the world. [I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you.]” – John 16:33 (AMP)
At first, I was resistant to how the second version, the Amplified version, puts it: “deprived it of power to harm”. No, Lord, you got it wrong. I’m still getting hurt and this still sucks and you obviously haven’t deprived the world of all it’s power to harm, because here I am, wounded again.
But he never said that I will never be distressed. He promised that He reigns in those distressing moments, that He is powerful even over those seasons.
How can I face “tribulation and trials and distress and frustration” (too many “ands”) and not be harmed? How can I stand through all of those things and “be of good cheer”, live “undaunted”?
Because my God goes before and behind, and there is always hope for me. He is still God, and he is still good, even when sorrow hits me like a ton of bricks.
I think I need to re-organize my perception of my checklists. I need to mentally transplant them from being “ways I can avoid pain” and instead learn to see them as “ways I get to honor Christ, regardless of what the outcome of following Him is”.
After all, who am I? I cannot hold God to any deal I think I’ve made with him. It’s hilarious in it’s ridiculousness, but I try to do it all the time. Really, I can only rest in what he has promised to me. My stipulations to him are flimsy and unsupported, but his assurances to me are concrete and unshakeable.
But His assurances are so very much better.
I want to say: I will perform, and then you will provide. This is incredibly unstable, because I will not perform well all of the time, or even most of the time. If His goodness to me was actually based on my performance, I would be on very shaky ground (aka, I wouldn’t be standing at all).
He instead says: I performed, I fulfilled all of the checklists already, and I choose to love you on top of that. And this is actual substance. It’s the kind of grace that allows me to fully rest, to experience that “perfect peace and confidence”, because it has nothing to do with how well I’ve done. I can miss every box of the checklist and He is still faithful, still good. He still chooses to take the consequences of any situation, good or bad, and turn it around for His glory and my good.
This is taking me back to the very heart, the very basics of the gospel. I cannot fulfill even my own checklist, much less the checklist of a perfect, holy God. But He knows this, and has done all to make it possible for me to live in the freedom of His victory, while he pins my failures to the cross. It seems so elementary; how could I have forgotten?
“Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in. Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection. When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time… perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be – a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation – with courage and the willingness to engage.” – Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, from her book, “Daring Greatly”
I cannot protect myself from pain, no matter how hard I try. And I can’t follow any list perfectly, no matter how desperately I try. So, next time, I know I will not be bulletproof. However, for every “next time” that comes, I will still have the One who keeps me truly safe, who will see me through to the other side of the sea every single time.