During the last month, I read Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, a wonderful biography by Brad Gooch,.
In the book, Gooch tells the story of O’Connor’s friendship with Betty Hester. For nine years, they corresponded by letter. In these letters they discussed matters of theology, philosophy, and the content of the various books they were reading.
At one point in their friendship, Hester revealed to O’Connor the details of what she called her “history of horror.” She had a very painful childhood. Her father abandoned the family when she was very young. When she was thirteen years old, she witnessed the suicide of her mother. Neighbors, believing that her mother was playing a joke, refused to call the police. Later, she joined the army, only to then be dishonorably discharged for her sexual behavior.
O’Connor’s response to Hester is classic:
“Where you are wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning of the Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history.” (p. 282)
Now I like that.
Far too many people underestimate the power of God’s redemption to change their stories. Consequently they believe their history has doomed them and forever tarnished them.
You can often see it in our eyes. They have experienced failure and consequently seem to think they will forever be among the ranks of those who are losers. I have heard these statements in 32 years of ministry with churches:
- “Look at me! I am so messed up! Obese. Addicted. Self-medicated. I am an anxious mess.”
- “You can’t tell me there is hope. I’ve messed up every relationship I’ve ever been in. If you don’t want your life messed up, stay away from me!”
- “God is punishing me for the abortion I had while in high school. I know he is!”
- “How will I ever be able to look my parents in the eye after what I’ve done?”
- “I would die if my children or wife knew my secret. I’m so ashamed.”
- “There is so much mess and dysfunction in my family. Will my marriage be this way? Will I mess up my children?”
Yet, O’Connor is right: “The meaning of the Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history.”
As Christ-followers, who are experiencing the Redemption of God, our identity does not come from our history. Nor does our identity come from our behavior, whether it has been good or shoddy. Nor does our identity determined by how many problems we have in our past. We don’t have to be our history.
Redemption means that my most shameful moment does not define me.
What defines me and what shapes my identity is Jesus. There is nothing in my past that he is unable to overcome. There is no failure that he is not willing to forgive.
Why are we often tempted to believe that our history defines us?