I used to have a dog named Cleo. She had a favorite squeaky toy that had been slobbered on, chewed apart and buried in the backyard. It was her prize possession. If I would try to snatch it from her mouth, she would run in the other direction. Even if I walked into the backyard with a T-bone steak to tantalize and entice her to drop the dirty squeaky, Cleo would still rather have that old toy. There was simply no reasoning with my canine companion that her favorite thing was a piece of junk.
But aren’t we like that sometimes? Don’t we treat our “stuff” as beautiful when, in fact, it’s banal? We may strut about proudly, like the Emperor in his new (no) clothes, only to discover that our wardrobe is rather threadbare. What we must do instead is exchange our filthy rags for Christ’s robes of righteousness. We must let go of some of our favorite things in order to pursue God’s favorite things–His holy delights. And God has an amazing exchange program. Just look at Isaiah’s prophecy, in which God promises “to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isa. 61:3).
Do you have any junk you’re having difficulty letting go of? One piece of junk I had a hard time letting go of was the need to please. I picked up that powerful compulsion shortly after my parents divorced, during my impressionable elementary school days. That tragedy left me with a sense of responsibility and blame. Perhaps it was my fault that Mom and Dad couldn’t stay together. I mistakenly believed that if I did everything just right, then events in our family life would turn out all right.
The day my mother told us of the separation, I set myself on a crusade to fix broken things through my behavior. I took on the role of the consummate middle child–placing myself in between two disenfranchised parties. If only Mom knew how much we loved Dad, she’d take him back. Perhaps I could communicate this to her. If only Dad knew how much we needed Mom, he’d apologize and come home. I reasoned that if I wrote him the perfect letter, got better grades in school or dressed like an angel, this tragedy could be reversed.
When my older sister, Suzanne, cried herself to sleep at nights for months in reaction to the divorce, I shifted roles with her. I became like the big sister, thinking that self-will and determination could make things better. Somehow I must fix it. The truth is, no matter how hard we try, we can’t fix people. That is God’s business.
Trying to be perfect only created a façade. What was visible on the outside couldn’t begin to reveal the emptiness on the inside. By the time I was in college, I had developed two insatiable needs: to feel loved and to be unconditionally accepted by a man. The loss of an everyday father figure left me searching to fill a gaping void. If love couldn’t keep my parents together, I believed I would never be capable of loving a man enough to marry one. Since I had no concept of “real love,” I settled for counterfeits, moving from one unhealthy relationship to another.
But I didn’t stop there. I also tried to fill the black hole in my heart by having a “good time”–which included drinking, smoking pot and developing a vulgar sense of humor. Outwardly, I maintained a 3.5 grade-point average, worked part-time in a swank department store and, with a major in fashion merchandising, I dressed like a model on the cover of Seventeen magazine. But these “perfect” trappings couldn’t contain the turmoil I felt inwardly. So, like many others of my generation, I self-medicated to keep up the veneer. I was a walking contradiction.
Something happened my sophomore year that tore off my mask of perfection, exposing my true self just beneath the surface. My father changed radically from atheist doctor and law student to a born-again Christian and disciple of Christ. One rainy winter day, at Pirate’s Cove in Newport Beach, he was baptized by Chuck Smith, the pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California.
Everything I had embraced in life-including my disbelief in love–including my disbelief in love and my hedonistic lifestyle–was now challenged by Dad’s newfound faith. I began to fall into a downward spiral of depression. The years of living a double life were catching up with me–and none of my “medications” was effective enough to stop the light from shining right through my outer shell into the depths of my soul. These burning questions irritated me: “What if Dad is right and I’m wrong?” “What if there is a God?” “What if heaven and hell truly exist?” As I headed for Southern California on summer break, I was determined to check out Calvary Chapel for myself.
Every Sunday morning, Chuck invited people to come forward for prayer, but I was too ashamed to join the many others making their way to the altar. I couldn’t escape feeling dirty and unacceptable in the eyes of God. Determined to find the cleansing and closeness I desired with God, I eventually left my seat on a painful journey to the prayer room. As I walked down the aisle, each step caused my burden to increase to an unbearable degree. I thought everyone present could see behind my façade.
Musician-turned-pastor Malcolm Wild greeted me in the prayer room. This gentle man with the honest gaze was a huge fan of Charles Finney, the great nineteenth-century revivalist who helped to bring godly repentance to thousands of people’s lives and hearts, and it showed. Malcolm asked me a probing question: “Have you repented or of your sins?” At first, I was startled. After all, it was a very bold question. Even more, I was unfamiliar with biblical terms and thought repentance meant wearing a large sign that warned “The end of the world is near!” So I told Malcolm, “I have no idea what that is.”
He responded, “Repentance means to have a change of heart and direction, to turn from sin, and turn toward God. Sin separates us from God but confession brings forgiveness.” Then he quoted Isaiah 1:18: “Let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘Through your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’ “And that’s when God’s compelling truth hit me: I had been too ashamed of my past to accept God’s mercy. But this passage declared that God was ready and willing to cleanse anything I might be guilty of!
As Malcolm spoke, my heart began to thaw like an icicle yielding to the sun’s warmth. Tears began to run down my face. My fake, “perfect” veneer was melting. When Malcolm asked, “Would you like to pray now for forgiveness?” all I could do was nod in agreement. With voice wavering and hands shaking, I repeated a prayer that set me free from sin and its destructive companion, shame. At long last I was letting go! Absolute relief and a newfound delight swept over me.
After that experience, my feelings of unworthiness never returned. My heart became like a fresh page, and I had a chance to rewrite the story of my life. The Holy One began making me holy as I made His delights my very own. I soon discovered that God reciprocated by delighting in me! The psalmist proclaimed, “He delivered me because He delighted in me” (Ps. 18:19).