by Dale Wolery
Cleaning up the outside of the cup while leaving the inside a mess is not something Jesus recommended. He made his views on this matter perfectly clear: paying too much attention to how we appear and not enough attention to who we are is like trying to make a tomb seem more pleasant by giving it a coat of fresh paint! It doesn’t clear the tomb of the dead bones. It just does not work. Vigilance about the external—especially as a part of an effort to cover up what is real about who we are on the inside—offended Jesus. He knew it was a symptom of spiritual bankruptcy. He knew that solutions of any value had to start on the inside.
Jesus’ clarity about the futility of trying to fix our problems by working on external appearances did not, however, prevent me from spending enormous amounts of energy on looking good and covering-up. I am not sure which look in the mirror, which comment from a family member or which internal sliver of shame prompted my first, self-conscious, insecure reach for the fig leaves. But, for most of my life, the fig leaves of various kinds have seemed much more promising to me than anything else.
Sometimes I have used “good little boy” behavior as the cover. I have tried to act so good that others would take notice, affirm my goodness and assuage my shame. I remember in the fourth grade it was a flat-top hair cut that stuck up like the quills of a porcupine which evoked an affectionate pat from my teacher. I can close my eyes today and feel the rewarding warmth of her touch. From that—and a million other events—I learned that looking good was the path to being loved. Over time the amount of attention I paid to my appearance—whether it was my physical appearance or my behavioral facade—escalated. It was an escalation that was directly proportional to the extent of my neglected internal pain.
At the zenith of my addictive processes my need to manage appearances included “dressing for success.” When my life was at it’s worst, I looked the best. There was a book titled “Dress for Success.” I bought it. I read it. I lived by it. I practiced putting on the businessman uniform with precision and attention to every detail. My ties were tied with the right knot and always formed the correct dimple. My shirts were pinpoint oxford cotton—starched heavily to perfectly frame the ties. Only fine blends of classic wool suits suited me. The finest hand-sewn shoes were the only ones that met my standards. I jogged obsessively and skipped meals to stay lean and appear fit. I was a fine specimen. I was proud of how I looked. But all of the dressing up did nothing to clean up the inside of my life. I looked good. My life was a mess. All of the attention to detail failed to attend to my deep shame. External covers just don’t work—even when we practice them obsessively.
Dressing for success is, of course, just one way in which we work on externals. Entire industries are there to help us fix our appearances. The cosmetics industry. The plastic surgery industry. The fashion industry. The weight-loss industry. If you want to look different, you will find lots of people willing to help you, for a price. All appeal to the instinct that if only we looked better, or different, or thinner, or more successful, or more talented, or more intelligent, or more athletic…then everything would be fine. Unfortunately, this inappropriate focus on externals has often been reinforced by misguided theology. My theology didn’t help me much. When I thought about God, it just reinforced my sense of shame—it confirmed how bad I was and how important it was for me to try harder—to try my hardest to get it right, to do better, to have a good testimony. As adolescence developed into adulthood, this overwhelming sense of badness increased. When I focused on the fact that God looked on the heart (seeing right through my uniform) and not on my outward appearance, I cringed even more. Inside me was all the shame and pain—and the lust, inappropriate longings, fear of failure, defensiveness, ambition, and pride. I took no comfort in the fact that God really knew me. It terrified me. How could I ever hope to please someone who was unimpressed by the “good little boy” and the uniform? That’s all I had. All I had was what was on the surface. How could God love me if he saw through all of that to the shame that was festering just beneath the surface?
It has taken me years of hard work in Christian recovery to get past my decades of focus on externals. It turns out that there is much more to who I am than either external looking good or internal shame. It turns out there is a precious child of God inside. A child who is very much loved by God. Having discovered this, I now embrace the comfort of being known by God. I rejoice that God sees past the surface of things. I know that God sees me. And that God’s love for me is not about my behavior, or my performance or my appearance. God is not in love with my appearance. God loves me. That’s not really very complicated theology. But it took me years to get it. God loves me.
If you wrestle with an eating disorder, with anxiety about your appearance, or with trying to behave just right to get God’s approval, then this issue of STEPS is for you. We invite you to relax and enjoy the Truth that God knows you—really knows you. And loves you—really loves you.