The best policy
I’m not a parent, but from watching my sister Catie and her kids, it seems to me that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a mother trying to maintain a semblance of control is in want of a child who will keep her honest.
Enter my nephew Gabriel.
Gabe is six years old and growing up quickly. He proudly showed me his teeth—or lack of them—the other day over FaceTime. It’s hard for me not to feel happy around him, especially when he tells me that my mouth looks like the Amazon logo when I laugh.
The world is shiny and new, simple and golden for Gabe. Maybe that’s why he’s so fun to talk to. Or maybe it’s because, like most kids, he’s rich in the currency of total transparency. He just says stuff how it is, and there’s no reason to pretend you are something you aren’t. There is something renewing to the human spirit when you hang out with someone so very authentic, like their words are growing this beautiful but forgotten thing inside you. Soon you feel alive again.
A few months ago I got a huge dose of this childish magical heart fertilizer during one of my FaceTime calls with Catie. She and Jerick, her husband, had taken the kids to church, she told me. During the program, there was a special story just for the children. Gabe and Isabelle sat at the front to listen with all the other kids. The storyteller told them that one day she’d been walking around outside and she found a wallet on the ground. The wallet had money in it. She could have kept the money, but she knew it wasn’t hers. So, in an act of honesty (that I’m sure no one saw coming), she decided to return the wallet to the rightful owner without keeping any of the money for herself, or something like that.
…he tells me that my mouth looks like the Amazon logo when I laugh.
I guess Gabe felt the need to keep things a little more real though, because he quickly raised his hand and began to share his opinion with the storyteller—and the rest of the church—on what to do with such ethical dilemmas. With the confidence of Gomer Pyle, an oblivious grin smeared across his face, and a shrug of his shoulders, he announced, “Yeah, well, if I found some money, I would just keep it.”
Meanwhile, my sister began digging a grave for herself underneath the pew and praying death would come soon. However, she eventually recovered enough to have a very clear talk with Gabe to straighten out his morals.
I’m definitely pro-morals. Pro-honesty. Pro-giving-back-wallets-that-don’t-belong-to-you. However, if I’m going to be really honest with you, there’s a part of me that wants to stand up and applaud Gabe or attempt an Irish river dance or do something ridiculous to show my excitement for his response to such a teaching on honesty. Not because I want to encourage immoral behavior. I don’t. I want Gabe to grow up to be completely trustworthy. I want to know he’ll return all the wallets. But I’m realizing lately that integrity starts with being honest with ourselves about who we really are.
Our own faults and weaknesses.
Our human nature.
There’s the person we’d like to think we are. And then there’s the person we really are. The sooner we start recognizing the person we really are, the sooner God can transform us into the person we’d like to be. Being good starts with realizing we’re not.
Being good starts with realizing we’re not.
This is not an easy thing to do. Many of us spend our lives avoiding who we really are.
A guy named Andy Gullahorn, one of the best singer-songwriters in my book, wrote a phenomenal lyric that articulates this tendency to evade self-disclosure:
Have you ever been so selfish
that you let your baby cry
While you finished up a video game?
I haven’t either
That’s pretty bad
But have you ever stretched the truth
telling stories to your friends
So they’d be a little bit more amazed?
I haven’t either
I’d never do that
But there are some people out there
Who aren’t completely sincere
What they show in the daylight
Is not exactly what’s inside
It’s a form of protection
From being rejected
But you and I can be so glad
We are not like that
…pretending to be something or someone you aren’t never gets you where you want to be.
Whether we are self-deceived and don’t even realize we aren’t who we’d like to be, or whether we do realize it and we think we simply need to try harder to change ourselves, it’s difficult to get back to that place of radical, childlike self-awareness. It feels like death to say what’s really going on inside.
Yeah, I would have taken the money.
Yeah, I would have stretched the truth.
Yeah, I would have been jealous.
Yeah, I would have clicked on the link.
Yeah, I wouldn’t have stood up for her when the others were gossiping.
It’s hard for us to have an Honest Gabe moment.
What is your name?
There’s a guy in the Bible named Jacob who had an Honest Gabe moment though, and it changed his life. It came in the middle of the night during a wrestling match with a Stranger. The Stranger asked Jacob a simple but triggering question: “What is your name?” Who are you?
Twenty years before, Jacob’s father had asked him that same question.
Oh! the irony in his answer!
“I am Esau.”
Back then, parents didn’t call their kids cute, trendy things like Harper or name them after geographical features of the earth, like Fields or Prairie. Names had a lot more to do with your whole identity as a person. The name Jacob means “deceitful,” which is exactly what he was in that moment. A deceiver. He lied to his dad and pretended to be his twin brother in order to get the birthright blessing that traditionally went to the oldest son. However, Jacob soon learned that pretending to be something or someone you aren’t never gets you where you want to be.
Esau found out that Jacob had stolen his blessing and began to plan how he could kill his twin brother. Jacob heard about Esau’s plans and fled the country under the alibi of needing to find a wife (usually a good excuse to travel, especially when you’re trying to not get murdered). He ends up going east and falling in love with a girl named Rachel. He’s poor and can’t afford a dowry, so he works for her father for seven years. But there’s a plot twist when Rachel’s dad tricks Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah, instead. Jacob then works another seven years to get the woman he really loves, but the drama continues. Each sister-wife has a maid, who incidentally become Jacob’s concubines when Rachel and Leah get into a giant fertility contest. Eventually, Jacob becomes quite wealthy and due to the jealousy of his father-in-law, he flees the country again to go back home. This time with a pile of children, wives, concubines, animals, and possessions.
(And you thought your family was crazy.)
Now, it’s the middle of the night. He’s heard that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, so he decides to spend some time alone in prayer. Suddenly, a hand is laid on him. Thinking it’s a villain, Jacob starts wrestling the Guy. And they wrestle all night. When the Man sees that Jacob isn’t giving up, He touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of joint. Jacob realizes he’s not wrestling with any ordinary Man. He is divine. Instead of throwing in the towel though, he clings on with nearly herculean effort, because something divine is what he needs right now.
“I will not let You go unless You bless me!”
Twenty years of dealing with the aftermath of his choices has made him desperate to be someone new. No more a deceiver. And it’s going to take Someone divine to do that.
Then the Stranger asks the most painful and crucial question of all.
“What is your name?”
Who are you really?
Are you ready to stop pretending?
I imagine Jacob in that moment letting all the air out of his lungs as his life passes before his eyes. He sees all the moments that led to this moment. He can’t escape who he is anymore and he’s finally ready to admit it.
Who are you trying to be? Who do you wish you were?
“Jacob,” he says quietly but with finality. I’m the deceiver.
The next thing the Man does transforms Jacob’s life. He changes his name from Jacob to Israel. When Jacob finally quits running and admits to his true identity—his selfishness, his deception, his bent toward leaning on his own strength—suddenly the divine Stranger has the space and freedom to transform him and give him the power to be someone he never could be otherwise. He’s no longer the deceiver, but a prince with God. (See Genesis 27-32.)
I’m not a princess
After Gabe was born, Catie and Jerick prayed for a girl. Isabelle came along and she’s 200 percent girl. At three years old, I’m pretty sure she thinks she’s going to be a Disney princess when she grows up. She likes to spend her time gracefully walking down the stairs, giving little melodramatic gasps and saying things like, “My whole life! My whole life is beginning!”
This morning over FaceTime, she was dressed up, as usual, and I asked her which princess she was. Who are you trying to be? Who do you wish you were? Rapunzel, she told me. Then she proceeded to feed me a play cupcake and pizza through the phone.
We’d all like to be someone we’re not, like Jacob. We’d all like to be shiny and new. Transformation into anything new, though, starts with admitting that we are what we are. It starts with an Honest Gabe moment. I’m not a fancy princess. I’m not always a completely honest person. I’m not always gentle or kind. I’m not selfless or loving or humble. It starts with letting all the air out of our lungs and admitting, as one pastor put it, “I love sinning, but I hate that I love it, and Jesus loves that I hate it, and we’re working on it, He and I.”
Honestly, honesty about ourselves can feel like death, but I think we’ll find in the end that it is the most life-giving policy.