"It was right here," he said. "Right on this spot."
Hank was telling me about a recent dream. We were walking on a gravel bank on the edge of a beautiful Ozark river.
"We were right on this bank, Jesus and me, when I picked up a stone and skipped it out over the water," he continued.
"After I threw it, Jesus stopped and looked at me, smiling. Actually, I thought it was a bit of a smirk, and it hurt my feelings just a little. He said, 'Let me show you something,' and he picked up a stone of his own and fired it out over the water. It skipped way on out there.
"Well, you know, my pride was a little hurt, and I said, 'Now wait a minute. I was just getting warmed up.' And I got a good skippin' stone, and I launched it. It went skippin' on out there a bunch of times before it sunk.
"I felt pretty good about that one," he said, "but Jesus, he said, 'Okay, I know you're good, but now I'm going to teach you something.' He had a smile on his face, but I knew I was in trouble when he just grabbed up a stone--not even a good skippin' stone--and fired it out over the river. Man, I gotta tell you, that thing looked like it grew legs and walked on water!"
By now I was thinking, Hank, you're crazy. You've lost it.
But then I thought about what I had just heard: Hank and Jesus going out together, just messing around along the river. Hank skipping stones with God! What do I do with that?
Hank and I were friends, and we both loved God. But I never had the sort of relationship with God that he had. I never dreamed about Jesus, much less went skipping stones with him. I envied him for his friendship with God, just as I envied Abraham, Moses and others in scripture.
Hank, I thought, if you're crazy, I want to be crazy, too.
I want the kind of friendship with God that, when I'm sleeping and my analytical mind is turned off, something in me--that part that makes my dreams--goes out to play with Jesus. How cool is that?
But wanting it can be a long ways from having it. I struggled with putting myself in Hank's dream. Something stood like a wall before me, keeping me from moving to where I wanted to be. Me, skipping rocks with Jesus? I don't think so. Hank was great in God's sight, one of his choicest saints. And me? Well, I'm just me.
As I look at my relationship with God, I would like something better, deeper. But I wonder if I am my own worst enemy? Am I doing the very things that hinder my growth?
I think part of my problem was this: If I asked Hank if God loved him, he would immediately say yes. I would, too, and probably, so would you. After all, that's Christianity 101.
Then if I asked Hank if God liked him, he would again--just as quickly--say yes. But I would not have been so sure. It's a far different question, isn't it? And there we have a problem. We can agree that God loves us, despite some reservations about the details. But I have asked many people whether they thought God liked them. Usually, there was a pause and a wistful no.
Why is this such a problem for us?
Here's what I think happened in me. I thought God didn't like me because I didn't much like myself. And who knew me better than I knew myself? I knew what kind of person I was, and I wasn't too excited about it.
We might say I had a poor self-image. And there's no question that my self-image is a factor in my relationships. I act according to who I think I am. If I see myself as a slob, for example, I will act that way. But what we're interested in here is not only how I see myself, but how I came to see myself that way. I was not born disliking myself; I learned it from someone. So does everyone.
From early in life, we take cues from those around us, learning who we are. For most of us, we see and hear is mostly positive and encouraging. For some, however, it's negative and critical, and they grow up thinking badly of themselves. As children, we believe most of what we hear about ourselves. As adults, we still believe more than we should. In the end, most of us grow up at least a little touched by the destructive things around us.
I privately thought I was a loser, but I didn't want to be a loser and I certainly didn't want the world to know I was. So, to protect myself, I learned to keep others at a distance. To do that, I began to act like someone else, someone I thought was more acceptable and safe, but not the real me. I hid me and created a stand-in--an imposter--who looked, acted and talked just like me, but who was harder to hurt. And this imposter is who I presented to the world. Nobody got to know the real me. If people knew me, they wouldn't like me.
But there were problems. Sometimes protection and truth are incompatible. Because the imposter's mission was protection at all costs, he wasn't concerned with truth. So this "me" was a liar--a good one--and the lies kept me feeling safe. Another problem was that, over time, I came to believe the lies. I believed that what I was hearing was the truth about me, a reflection of reality. But it wasn't.
So because I believed a lie, when I said I knew myself, I was mostly wrong. When I said--often justifying behavior my mother would not like--"That's just the way I am," it wasn't true. I didn't really know "the way I am," because the real person had been hidden so long, I didn't even know he existed. I knew the imposter, not the real me hiding out behind the barn. And this fake person I knew wasn't one I liked or respected, one who measured up to what I wanted to be. The imitation was "safe," but not good.
So I became increasingly unhappy with my perceived self. I would inwardly cringe at who I thought I was and the way I behaved. None of it was true, but I didn't know that. And in time, the negative attitude became destructive. It always does that, sometimes ruining lives.
Now, this whole subject is important and complex. Small libraries have been written about it. From one aspect, however, it's not so complicated, and it's something we must address for wholeness. Here's the way I understand it:
Like everyone else, I have an internal standard, a picture of the "ideal me," the person I think I should be. Sometimes that standard is a good one, but often it's not based in reality and sets me up for failure. When I do something I think I should not--a too-common happening--I violate my standard. It doesn't matter if the act is really wrong or not. If I believe it's wrong, that it's less than I expect of myself, then for me it becomes wrong. When I do these things, even things nobody else knows about, I offend my own expectations and over time, I lose respect for myself. In my case, I became ashamed of myself.
This is especially true in the case of betrayal. When I betray someone, I become ashamed, because I have betrayed my own idea of the kind of person I should be. This is true both when I betray someone else, and when the one betrayed is myself and my own expectations.
This is a very big deal, because this dislike of self is an inward thing; it attacks my self-respect. It's at the root of much destructive behavior and many personal problems, because I begin to act like the one I think I am, making my life a self-fulfilling prophecy. If this pattern is not broken, I will never live the rich life God intends, but may even enter a destructive spiral downward, thinking and acting worse and worse. We have all known people who have done this. We can never live well if we dislike ourselves.
But what to do? We've believed the imposter's lies for so long, it's hard to know what's true.
But there's hope.
We don't have to live this way. God doesn't intend that we live a self-critical, self-condemning sort of life. After all, we are the jewel of God's creation, the only part created in his own image. He has spoken in many places of his delight in us. Overcoming, getting out of the trap in which we live, can be difficult, but it's not hopeless. In my own journey to healing, I have found three things especially helpful.
The first has to do with prayer, and it's not complicated. I began to pray this way: "God, help me see myself as you see me."
It's simple and straightforward, and it's powerful. And the truth is, I really did need to change how I saw things. So I stopped praying about my wants, my sins, my "needs," or the rest of my usual me-focused prayers. Only, "God, help me see myself as you see me." That makes sense, of course, because God sees us as we really are, consistent with truth, and not through the squiggly carnival mirror of our own self image. Nobody needs to live as a carnival character.
A good follow-on prayer is this: "God, help me see you as you really are." They go well together, like a matched set.
Second--and sort of related--I had to decide whom I was going to believe.
I could continue to believe myself--or more accurately, the imposter--or I could believe God. And while we can recognize that our beliefs got us into this mess in the first place, changing those beliefs is not a simple task.
Here's the problem: Most of us would say, "Well, of course I believe God. He doesn't lie." But I don't think I really believed him. I have noticed that my ease in believing God varies with what he seems to be saying, with the demands his words make on me. For example, it's fairly easy to believe Jesus came and died for my salvation, as long as I accept it at an intellectual level and it doesn't make too many demands on my life. But when the Bible gets more personal and insists that I have to do something with my faith, it's not so easy. For example, when God tells me He has chosen me--and you, if you follow him--to represent him, it's tougher. Still, both Jesus (John 20:21) and Paul (II Corinthians 5:18-20) say it's so.
We might also talk about not being focused on ourselves, for another example. Children--both the young people kind and the spiritual kind--are self-focused. Adults are not supposed to be. It's not about me. It's about Jesus. As I believe that, my life will change.
And more to our immediate point, when God says good things about me, about his passionate love for me and his delight in hearing me pray to him, do I believe him? The Bible says it's so (Proverbs 15:8).
So do I really believe him? Do I live my life based on his word? Sometimes that's a question I would rather not face. He says he delights in one in whom I have too often taken little delight. I still don't dream of skipping stones with Jesus. But here's the bottom line: I can choose either to believe God or believe a lie, and so can you. There's no other option. We need to decide whom we will believe. It's our call. And like the man in scripture, we can pray, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24).
Third, I began to read the Bible--starting in Genesis--with a view to learning what God says about himself--his nature and purpose--and about us and the sort of task He has given us collectively and me personally as a reason for life.
God is purposeful in both his words and actions. That means we don't just happen to be here, like we accidentally fell off the back of the pumpkin truck. We are here for a reason, and to live well, we have to know what that reason is. We might label it our "call." We all have one, and it comes on three levels.
The first call on our life is what God says about our fundamental purpose, the reason we live as human beings. Why did He create us? Why does He leave us here? Genesis 1 and 2 cover that pretty well. You can read carefully and see Adam and Eve in relationships with God, each other, and the natural world. They were here to live in intimate relationship with God and each other, and to act with God's delegated authority ("exercise dominion") in managing the world on God's behalf. They were sort of God's junior partners in the business of completing creation.
After that, we need to know what life is about as a member of God's redeemed people. What does it mean--day to day--to be a follower of Jesus? The answers will be evident as we read some of the passages I mentioned above, such as John 20 and II Corinthians 5. In very much the way Adam and Eve represented God on earth, so do we. The details have changed a little--now we are "ministers of reconciliation"--but the basic focus is the same. We can understand more if we read the gospels in this light: what did Jesus do? Then, in Acts we can see how the first followers of Jesus understood these things.
Finally, there's the details. This is how the first two look in my life in this place at this time. It deals with vocation, location, relationships and more. God leads us into it through a variety of means as we seek him. It involves our talents, interests, training, and the whole of who we are. So after I understand the first and second calls, I then pray about how to put that vision for my life into practice. I want to know how to make God's idea my idea. That's the third call.
We need all three, but we have to understand them in order. We can't go backwards, because each builds on the ones before.
Now, these steps are much easier to describe than do. They were not easy for me and there were no overnight successes. In some cases, I still occasionally struggle. But they are not complicated, and as we seek healing, God hears our cry and responds with his gentle strength and care. I have stumbled many times, but God lifted me up and together we continued. And as I practiced them, especially believing God, I began to see changes in my life. I began to see myself differently. I made decisions differently. I am no longer ashamed of who I am, and I am becoming a friend of God. And that's good.