I have a past that I’m not very proud of: and in a cafe, I saw someone from my past for just a flash of a second.
It was all I needed to remember. In that tiny compact parcel of a second, I replayed every terrible, awful, humiliating moment of self-indulgent excess in a nauseating loop, both the ways I used people and was used, and then: shame. Drowning shame. That awful sick-stomach feeling of tendrils racing up my gut, a stench that begins at the back of the throat to the tip of my nostrils, like choking in reverse.
A Christian might call this “condemnation.” I also call it “standing naked in town hall with every hurtful thing you’ve ever done on the wall, and also it’s very cold in there.”
Slipping, I reached for something in my head, fingernails scratching through a narrowing stone tunnel, spinning, up now down, the verdict pressing in, chains tightening. I felt like that guy on the news who has microphones shoved in his face after a scandal; you know, the carnival games were rigged the whole time, how dare you, you monster. Voices crowded in, the chorus shouting, “You’re not any different, you haven’t changed, I know who you really are”—and somewhere in that mess of lies, I found it.
It’s sort of trite maybe, and one of those moments I groan at during an inspirational Sunday service. But I thought of the verse: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”
I remember researching this once, and Paul was so excited when he wrote this verse that he skipped all the verbs. Which was very unlike the eloquent Paul. So it actually says, “Therefore anyone Christ, he new creation; old gone, new here.”
I’m imagining how liberating and heart-rending this was for Paul, who once killed Christians for a living and was probably serving at churches where there were family members of people he had persecuted. I’m imagining his nightmares and the regret over people he hurt. I’m envisioning his tears and apologies and humility for these families, only for them to say, “You’ve been re-made, Paul. You’re not who you were. You’re new.” I’m thinking of how much this tenderized him and galvanized him.
That’s what Christians call “grace.” It’s the hope of an undeserved love so that we can bear to be vulnerable in honesty and intimacy. It’s what we crave most and what we’re least willing to give. Yet God, we’re told, is willing to give it freely, at a cost to Himself, wave after wave of that stuff, like galaxies in a cup.
It doesn’t mean we’re not accountable or that everything is just fine. Of course, there must be reparations and reconciliation. But it does mean we’re no longer imprisoned to compensating for the shame of the “old-me.” I’m not bound to paying off my record by faking some kind of head-hanging modesty. The old-me is dead. The old-you is gone. It takes no less than the piercing love of God to put it to death, to die. It takes no less than the restoring love of God to give us breath, to make us alive. That’s the only thing I know that keeps me humble and fills me with confidence at the same time. It’s how we stop tumbling, and stand.
In Christ, no one is ever the same person they were before. It means that I don’t forget where I came from, but I can’t forget where I’m going.
The shame lifted then. Not all the way. Maybe enough to breathe a little. Maybe enough to fight back the voices. Maybe enough to still the past, and reach for hope, for a memory of the future. And that was enough.