Mrs. Reed was the meanest teacher I'd ever had. All my other teachers had given us hugs and seemed to know how we were feeling, even if we never said. In Mrs. Reed's second-grade classroom, little blue Smurfs lined the wall, each of their white hats displaying a name. Three little magnetic buttons lined their tummies. Real Smurfs didn't have buttons.
The boys always got in trouble, and when they were caught, they would take a painful walk in front of the rest of the class to remove buttons from their Smurfs. The first button cost them five minutes of recess. I don't remember what happened when you lost all three; back then they could have probably locked you in a closet or something else just as terrible.
This day, Brent, who wanted to be my boyfriend, was sitting across from me, kicking me under the table. So I kicked him back and told him to stop.
Mrs. Reed looked up from her paper. "Jennie, get a button."
The room started spinning...this had never happened to me. It was one of those times in life you think will never happen to you. I stood up in front of everyone and began the painful walk to strip my Smurf of his pride.
Recess came, and as the class filed out, I stayed glued to my seat for five eternal minutes. I wanted to be under my seat. Mrs. Reed was grading papers and not even looking at me. I was sure she was too disappointed to acknowledge me anymore. I felt as if I were getting a fever. Some disease was spreading through me.
It wasn't the last time I'd have that feeling. Shame seems to fill me sometimes, even now, even while holding on to grace.
All kinds of things keep people from God. Even those of us who may appear as though we live extra close to him don't really. Sometimes we are close to him, of course. But lots of times we aren't. We are supposed to wait on God all the time for everything and trust him with every aspect of our lives. We are also supposed to hand write thank you notes and vote in local elections.
But when our sin distances us from God, what do we do? When I sit with one of my kids after he or she repents for lying or clobbering a sibling, never has my child said, "I feel so much better because that sin was really detracting from my prayer life."
We are also bothered by what sins and mistakes do to our relationship with God. Maybe he doesn't feel real enough, or maybe we think God just accepts our sin. When we are saved, spiritual things begin working inside us and disrupting the way we used to think and live. Sin becomes distasteful because it fights with who we are. God becomes our chief desire. These are marks that we are believers. Unless there is some craving for God and some distaste for sin in us, we should question if we are believers. We are children of a living God who wants us out of bondage, out of sin, out of the weight of shame.
We are so often content to live stuck. I've seen it in my own life, and I constantly hear it over phone lines and see it in people's eyes -- the weight of shame, that horrible feeling dating all the way back to the day I picked a button off my Smurf.
How does all this intersect, this shame and grace and holiness, and this God who requires everything, but yet forgives everything?
I grew up thinking that revealing the worst parts of me, especially in church, would be unacceptable. If grace is real, how could I ever feel that? The places that hold grace should be the safest places to unveil our humanity.
But they usually aren't. The gospel of grace fights every piece of pride in us. When God gives us grace, he is also taking something from us. He takes our control. So many of us don't live in grace even though we may have grown up singing about it since birth.
We want to earn the feeling that we are okay. We want to climb ladders and have everyone tell us how proud they are and how much we deserve everything good, so we can nod and smile as we agree. If we are really extra bad, like the prostitute or the men just out of prison, grace is the best thing we've ever heard of. But for the good kids with most of our buttons on our Smurfs, it feels a little different to think we may need God in a desperate way.
True grace threatens our control. But it gives something too. It gives something better.
Join James and Betty as they talk to Jennie Allen this week on LIFE Today. Reprinted by permission. Anything: The Prayer That Unlocked My God and My Soul by Jennie Allen, ©2011, Thomas Nelson Inc. Nashville, Tennessee. All rights reserved.