From childhood I’ve learned people analyze, value and choose by a subtle little pre-sort mechanism called “labeling.” Most tend to classify others by any number of traits: looks or achievement, perhaps status, personality or culture. With this innate technique, they will include a select few into their circles and discard others.
Growing up, I found some of those labels to be inviting. If someone referred to me as “smart,” “cool,” or “pretty,” I was charmed, believing I was approved and accepted, and I easily reciprocated with my all-in trust and affection. Those labels were attractive and drove me to be progressively smarter, more cool and prettier. I longed to hear those words and was willing to do the necessary homework to hear them again. My appetite for love and acceptance was insatiable; and, of course, I was absolutely seeking them in the wrong place, because no matter how diligently I strove to fit in, inevitably I would disappoint someone and be crushed by rejection.
Early enough I discovered labeling could be cruel, too. “Klutz,” “chubby,” “whale,” and “fat pig.” Those were poisoned arrows that seemed aimed at my core to destroy the very life in me. For whatever reason, I sucked those into the vortex of my identity, and sub-consciously allowed them to define me. When I heard the first ugly descriptor, I immediately began a personal path of hiding and camouflaging my authentic self. It felt safer to try and please others around me, especially those I liked.
Unfortunately the pain trained me to do my own categorizing. I learned to read people quickly and immediately reject closeness with anyone who posed a potential threat. Oh, I never stated it out loud, but in my head it was clear: “watch out for the people who always look for pretty, they may like you today, but if you gain 10 lbs. they are out of your life forever; and, the cool ones…well, they are fun for a while, enjoy them while you can, but cool is fickle, don’t get too close to cool…that smart thing, most people seem to appreciate smart…work on that…guaranteed approval.”
So, while still trying at times to be pretty, or cool, or spiritual, or funny (depending on who was watching) I was always working on smart. I had a thirst for knowledge that unfortunately was driven by my need to fit in and be accepted. Smart was comfortable, so I strove to perfect smart.
It took me almost an entire lifetime to discover the inane futility of living a life whose value was constantly measured by what others thought of me. I had been living for the “smart” or the “pretty” or the “cool” labels, but I came to find out I was desperately seeking love and acceptance; I wanted approval.
Sadly, those things were available to me all the time. Father God was always trying to direct my attention toward relationship, authentic relationship with Him. This may sound a little ironic since I was surrounded on a daily basis with the Word of God, worship, spiritual interaction and godly people. I loved God and the moving of His Spirit; I valued my times with Him; I loved to serve Him and others.
Oddly, it took me many years to discover that since I was living a life of pleasing others, I was accustomed to behaving the way I thought someone else would be pleased. That is also how I often categorized Heavenly Father. You see, in order to please people, a person has to learn their rules and play by them. In my perception, if I didn’t play by their rules, I was out of the game.
I viewed God that way. He had rules and regulations; He had a dress code; He had many hoops for me to jump through. Then when I failed to live up to His rules; I immediately felt out of the game. I would revert to my pattern of hiding…desperately afraid of God seeing the authentic me.
I’m really not sure when it happened, or if it actually happened completely. All I know is I grew tired of trying to please people; I realized my efforts to please God were futile; I had to discover the authentic me. God had to show me myself. . .all of me. . .not just the damaged, ugly parts. . .but He also had to unfold my uniqueness, what He had placed there, the things He valued.
I vividly remember when I was working on the Christian school in the Bronx, feeling like such a failure. Our numbers were so small, and when I thought about my dad’s huge numbers and successes, I felt like I was missing the mark. During a worship service one Sunday morning, we were singing about the Lamb, slain before the foundations of the world. God caught me up in a vision and I saw myself as a 5-year-old girl, kneeling before a vast throne. While worshiping at the Lord’s footstool, suddenly the Throne opened and embraced me, pulling me inside. I knew at once that God had accepted me when I received Him as a little child. He had never been looking for performance, but for a relationship.
Father placed within my heart an exchange. Rather than seeking the meaningless, empty, limiting labels of others, I had a desire to become all I was created to be. I learned to be honest with my unanswered questions; I had to show God all my bruises and scars; I had to say out loud how hurt I was at times; I actually had to express to My Father all my fears and imperfections.
Amazingly, the more I expressed of the authentic me, the more comfortable I felt in my own skin. God allowed me to emote without any condemnation. God showed me my trouble spots and gently showed me how to improve them. He coaxed the desires of my heart out of me, validating the gifts and talents He Himself had placed there.
I am trying to write my own labels these days. . .joyful, free, loved, and accepted. I do not always get it right. Sometimes I can act very childish again, trying to fit in with others, when who I am is what God needs me to be. Yes, it’s still always nice to be affirmed or complimented sincerely, but God has broken me free of the chains of living up to others’ expectations. He has written His own label over me, “accepted in the beloved.”