It was a perfectly crisp Sunday morning in late October. I was swaying on the wooden swing at my parents’ home with one leg curled under my body and the other hanging over the side, just like I used to when I was a kid. The breathtaking sight of the varying orange, yellow, and red hues falling from the trees and fluttering to the ground, combined with the refreshing smell of the earth awakened my senses, which yearned for the solitude of my country roots. With a book in one hand and a cup of warm chai tea in the other, I began the most astounding and emancipating journey of my life thus far. The self-exploration voyage was sparked by a book titled Captivating, written by John and Stasi Eldredge. The book provided a wealth of insight into the very depths of my soul; in fact, it very much served as a mirror into my soul.
Until recently, I would have described myself as an introverted twenty-six-year-old who believes in God, is financially dependent on my parents while working my first “real job” post college as a social worker for a wage hardly considered livable, survivor of sexual assault, and am nine months into my first serious relationship with a man I intend on marrying. Until recently, I firmly believed that it was the culmination of these attributes and experiences which defined me: I believed I was nothing more than a product of my environment. However, I now see that while I have been molded and shaped by my experiences, they do not define me.
Being an introverted twenty-six-year-old woman who believes in God and is financially dependent on my parents while working my first “real job” post college for a wage hardly considered livable presents a whole slew of mystifying emotions. I am constantly fighting between the pressure to fit into the box of qualities in which our society deems acceptable for the post-twenty-five age group and the desire to lead a holy life. Media messages, peer pressure, family expectations and societal norms leave me feeling hopelessly inadequate physically, socially, spiritually, and emotionally. It seems that I receive messages daily from numerous outlets telling me my natural inclinations are abnormal for someone of my age. I should be socially active, financially independent, married and starting my own family. Also, prior to the appearance of my boyfriend, I was being told that I was seeking unrealistic expectations for a potential spouse, and I often felt like the only explanation for my single status came down to something must be wrong with me. I habitually battled the dejection of feeling unworthy. I was in the habit of defining my self-worth based on how other people made me feel.
I can’t explain why, but when I reached the middle of the book, I felt challenged to take a deeper look at what I find charming and attractive about my boyfriend, and I wasn’t surprised when I was easily able to come up with an extensive list. I will spare you the mushy details, but to sum it up I listed my admiration for his steady and strong faith, the way he sees and hears God, his demonstrated ability to give God the glory when he could easily take the credit for himself, the way he conducts himself as an employee, employer, friend, boyfriend, son, and lover of God and his ability to lead as it seems to be second nature for him. I also savor moments of laughter with him, I always have fun when he is around, and I am filled with adoration while watching him interact with children as his charm and attentiveness elicits an obvious admiration from both boys and girls.
After I reviewed the behaviors and character traits which make him exude appeal and strength, it hit me: this must be how God measures my beauty. He doesn’t pick apart my physical appearance and dwell on how beautiful I have the potential to be if only I could stretch my legs to the equivalent of a runway model’s length, enlarge my breasts, and tone the jiggle in my arms, stomach, butt, and thighs. No, I am God’s masterpiece—His prized possession. I am unique and special in my own way, which should not be viewed as a shortcoming, but rather a gift. God gave me brown hair, fair skin, a curvy figure, thumbs that look like toes, and cankles. He looks at me—His work of art—and relishes in the beauty of His creative creation. God has also provided me with an innate desire to nurture—to care for others in a sweet, sensible, creative, and vivacious way. These are the qualities I should be cultivating and fostering and using to glorify God. After all, I can easily use the gift of nurturing in my profession, relationships, and every other facet of my life.
1 Peter 3:3-4 tells us, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment such as braided hair and wearing gold jewelry and fine clothing. Instead it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” So, what does it mean to possess “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit?” The authors of Captivating stated that they believe it means to have a heart of faith and complete trust in God. Instead of having a heart which is constantly striving to be “beautiful enough” and “worthy enough” and “restless” as our society teaches, we should instead exude a spirit quieted by God’s love and filled with His peace. Because when one emits this thoughtful restfulness, others cannot help but feel the same.
I began mulling over what everything in the above paragraph means to me and how I could relate it to my life. It dawned on me that when I describe spending time with my best friends I use the words peaceful, quiet, restful, relaxing and wonderful. Their presence exudes comfort and embraces the tranquility of slowing down and enjoying life’s little pleasures, which causes a reverberating effect on me. I am entirely comfortable being myself in that environment. I leave feeling centered, like I just spent the day at a spa enjoying a massage and facial while talking out my inner struggles with a counselor and enjoying a glass of hot tea. The world is a burdensome place full of stress, hurt, deceit, greed, and unrealistic standards, which is why it is so important to have a quiet and restful place to unwind.
We live in a world that seems to be intolerant of vulnerability as it is viewed as a weakness, a shortcoming, a flaw. However, all relationships – whether it is a relationship with God, family, friends, spouse, or mentor – require vulnerability. A person who is hiding from being vulnerable invites others to do the same; just as person who allows them self to be vulnerable and intimate expresses the tenderness, kindness and compassion of God. Until recently, I was most definitely the former – tragically hiding behind walls of sarcasm and awkward laughter to keep others from peeling back the layers of raw hurt and perceived weaknesses.
Taking this notion one step farther, I realized that God was desperately trying to work through me in my profession and relationships; however, I was ever resistant of His efforts. Instead of utilizing my brokenness as a means of intimacy and ultimately healing, I was hiding behind guarded, distracted walls. I was neither fully present nor fully engaged with what was going on as it made me uncomfortable to deal with those heavy emotions. Instead of welcoming others to become vulnerable in my presence, I unintentionally and almost naturally expressed a “back off” message resulting in just that. I not only used this technique at work, but with my boyfriend as well.
I began to think more deeply about the intimate paralysis I seemed to be experiencing with my boyfriend and I realized that it all dated back to my junior year in high school. Prior to my junior year I was a faithful follower of God, a person of relentless courage and a girl who cared little about others’ perceptions as I felt confident in where I stood in the eyes of God. However, the eleventh grade quickly became a time of great confusion. As I began receiving validation on my developing figure, I began seeking that validation from other male sources, instead of seeking God. The boys that I dated kept validating an appreciation for my appearance, but did not seem to care about my personality. Those boys sent very clear messages that they were only interested in one thing – and when they discovered I was unwilling to comply, they darted with critical words and phrases that have continued to cling in my memory bank. While that was going on, I was also receiving messages at home about being physically and personally unworthy.
Then, senior year approached, and I experienced sexual corruption for the first time from the hands of a male I barely knew. I did not ask for it. I did not want it. I was not emotionally or physically or spiritually ready for the experience. That boy stole my innocence physically and raped me emotionally. I should have experienced romance with God first. I should have had a better understanding of what it means to be beautiful in the eyes of God. Instead, I looked to the lustful eyes of imperfect mortals to define my worth, and they continued to send me messages of easily disposable worthlessness.
The sexual assault somehow led to a disgusting spiral of promiscuity with guys I did not even like. I was not dating those boys, I had no real interest in them – but I was still seeking their approval. Because my personality had taken a back seat to the abilities of my body—or at least that seemed to be how boys saw me and how I saw myself—I was using that to obtain affirmation that I was, in fact, worthy of attention, even if only briefly. Without realizing it, I was encouraging their lust by giving up that part of me as they did not know, or potentially even care, that I was only using my body under a feeling of obligation. What a vicious cycle.
This sad reality had been the baggage I continued to carry until very recently. I was still very much struggling with associating physical acts of intimacy with shame, but worst of all I battled feelings of insecurity and doubt. Because of my own inner turmoil and unhealthy coping skills, I felt pressured to DO more and BE more for my boyfriend. This was sadly inhibiting our relationship as I was unwilling to be emotionally intimate, but felt compelled to be physically intimate for fear of disappointing him. I was so concerned with pleasing him and giving him enough reason to hang around, that I avoided confronting him with my thoughts and feelings on the matter and instead fell back into the patterns that had become normal to me. My boyfriend, however, caught on and called me out on my behavior. He talked to me about the importance and necessity for a deeper emotional connection in our relationship. He expressed just how much he cared for me, and demonstrated respect and understanding of my feelings; it was unlike anything I had ever experienced with someone of the opposite gender. Even so, I still felt shame and doubt and insecurity pressing down on my chest like an elephant. I started to feel like something was seriously wrong with me; that I might never recover from these feelings and I may never be able to fully enjoy the ecstasy of a man’s love. Then God stepped in.
On that perfectly crisp Sunday morning in late October while swaying on the wooden swing at my parents’ home with one leg curled under my body and the other hanging over the side, just like I used to when I was a kid, I closed the book and took comfort in the feeling of peace that blanketed me. After spending hours learning about God’s wondrous, enduring, unconditional, and magnificent love for me, my soul finally discovered the meaning of rest. God used the words of John and Stasi Eldredge to reveal His perfect love to me: the only love sufficient in meeting my needs of acceptance and worth. All that time I was seeking the approval of man, when what I really needed was a more intimate relationship with God. Like my boyfriend, God desired a deeper emotional connection to me—a connection which required vulnerability.