By Robin Stanley
“If I’m not perfect, what am I?”
I repeated the question she wanted me to ask myself—and with hesitation responded, “Imperfect?”
The counselor nodded, her head cocked to one side, her eyebrows raised. Her body language coached me to keep trying in an “OK, and . . .” kind of way. Suddenly my armor split. Straight down the seam. I couldn’t hold it together anymore. Bruised flesh oozed, raw and in need. She offered no bandage, only the question.
“I don’t know. I . . . I really don’t know.” It’s all I had.
Tears spilled and kept spilling. They spoke the shame I couldn’t voice. They gave permission to receive the help I came to seek.
The season had not been kind on my psyche—or anything else, for that matter. All of life seemed muddled, and I couldn’t muster an answer to appease my internal judge, so I kept quiet. But the question came again. My first ever counseling appointment and I had homework. It was hard homework, and there were no answer keys in the back of the book.
I left for home but soon realized my emotional state rendered my driving skills void. I detoured to a nearby park where I often sought stillness in the tension of my underground life. That day I sought and found the bench that bore the etchings of a life distorted by fear. I had made an agreement with the enemy. He silenced my voice with his lies and held me captive in a skin I could no longer stand.
Even my reflection in the lake denied my true identity. I cried out to the heavens as if “Perfect” were a stage name. “If I’m not Perfect, what am I? Who am I?” The question reverberated under the bridge and echoed back to me. Again. And again. And again.
Changed by the Lion
I felt like C. S. Lewis’s fictional character, Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Described as “a rotten boy” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he found himself in possession of a grand treasure. After a night of self-indulgent choices, he eventually falls asleep and wakes up no longer a boy, but clothed fully in the skin of a dragon.
In a powerful scene, Eustace remembers that a dragon can shed like a snake. So he begins to rip at his scales with his new dragon claws. Deeper and deeper he goes. One layer, then two, and finally three. Still, he remains a dragon. Eventually he realizes there’s nothing he can do to clean himself up or make himself whole again. He lies down and humbles himself toward the merciful Aslan. Aslan had come to Eustace, saying he would have to let Aslan change him.
Eustace describes Aslan’s first penetrating grip as one that goes straight into his heart and hurts worse than anything he’d ever felt. But Aslan was able to peel off the dragon skin so that he was a boy once more. Then he threw Eustace into the water.
Recounting that scene in my mind, I recognized myself in Eustace, and I wept. There was nothing I could do to remove the skin that rendered me someone other than who God intended me to be. I could no longer hide behind the name Perfect. I had to let the Lion take hold of me and change me. But how?
A picture of Jesus came into view. Jesus, the Lion of Judah. I could see him intervening as the enemy stood over me, nails in hand.
“She’s mine; release her. Take me instead; let her live.”
Let her live? How could it be that the one who made the lame to walk and the blind to see would be crucified for me? After all I’d done? the lies I’d believed? the love I’d denied? I deserved to die a lonely death, forever in the skin of a dragon.
But Jesus, with his fierce, forever love, would not let me go. Would. Not. Let. Me. Go. He pursued and waited, a persistent and patient love. I resisted. Over and over and over. He would lift my chin, and I would look away, too ashamed to hold his gaze. I couldn’t let him see . . .
When I finally quit struggling against him and released myself to him, I lay down at his feet, never so aware of his presence. I’d known his name, Jesus, since I was a toddler. As a teenager, I acknowledged him as Lord. But today? Today I knew him as love. Mercy’s love. He called to the deep, tender places of my soul, drawing up, through tears, my heart’s whispered response.
In one fell swoop, Jesus, who had given his life so I could live, ripped through every layer of shame-filled flesh, straight to my heart. It hurt like nothing I’d ever felt before and brought freedom like I’d not before known. Freedom to live, no longer a slave to sin. No longer Perfect or thinking I had to be, I now knew myself to be Forgiven. I let the Lion of Judah change me. He gave me new clothes and a new name. I belong to him.
Surrendered to Grace
While finding the answer to the difficult question, “If I’m not perfect, what am I?” meant my counseling homework was done, my journey toward abundant life was far from over. It led me through some difficult days and continues to teach me some valuable lessons. The greatest of these is love—love that always protects, never lets go, and can never be earned. That is the gift of grace. That is the gift for which Jesus was born and the gift he died to give.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).
Maybe you struggle as I have, letting shame keep you isolated and in hiding. Perhaps you’ve made agreements with the enemy? That you are undeserving, unwanted, unloved, or unworthy to be loved? A mess. Broken. Beaten. A bum. If striving to maintain the image of perfection is causing you to scrape and claw, trying to fix yourself or to be good enough on your own, then you’re missing the point of the gospel of Christ, and it’s time to let go.
Now is the season to finally release the shame. The guilt. The bondage. The deceit. Will you step out of hiding and let yourself be seen? We’re made for life together. Your community needs you. Your family needs you. The kingdom needs you. We need your real self, not your dragon self. Your imperfect, forgiven self. The self that knows the power of love, the gift of grace.
As Anne Lamott said, “I do not understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” In the ebb and flow of living, I’m learning that positioning myself to receive grace (so that I can give it) requires an everyday remembering. I pick up old habits too easily when things feel hard and messy. Here are some reminders that may be helpful for you too:
• There is nothing we can do to clean ourselves up or make ourselves whole.
• When we acknowledge our need for help and give ourselves permission to seek it, shame can no longer hold us in hiding.
• Freedom comes when we humble ourselves toward the Lion of Judah and allow him to have his way. We have to let him change us.
• A heart surrendered daily to Christ is open and ready to receive grace, the greatest gift of his unfailing, sacrificial love, a gift that cannot be bought and can never be earned.
Now go and be grateful for all that Jesus has done. He died so you could live, abundant and free. And if anyone asks, “If you’re not perfect, what are you?” You know the answer. Give it.
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4, 5).
Robin Stanley is a life coach, writer, and speaker anchored in Lexington, South Carolina (robinstanley.org).