My first days of high school were rough.
I had spent the previous four years at a small private Christian School, which offered academics but not sports, other than loosely defined gym classes revolving around Capture the Flag and kickball. By contrast, my large high school thrived upon competitive academics and athletics.
The summer before ninth grade, I tried out for the field hockey team, and understood immediately that I was out of my league. I had never so much as held a field hockey stick, and these girls had been playing together for three years. Not only were they experienced in the game, but they were wiser to the ways of the world, which is a fancy way of saying they formed an impassable clique. Only two of us were cut from the team: another newbie plus me. Honestly, it would have taken months for me to gain traction, and as the competition within our high school division was vicious, the coaches had neither the time nor the inclination to play catch-up. They needed the best, and pronto.
I inwardly paced for the remainder of the summer, knowing full well that these girls had their own language and friendships, secret codes that sent them into fits of hysterics, laughing behind cupped hands. A mysterious and impenetrable barrier. What would high school be like? I thought, terrified.
A colonial minuteman served as mascot heralding our school motto: Don’t Tread on Me. Most people lived out those four words daily. Not only were sports essential, but academics were rigorous and competitive; on par with college academia. New England is fiercely independent, leaning heavily upon intellect and performance and self-rule. Crush or be crushed, as it goes, and Don’t Tread On Me.
While this often produces winning teams (Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox) and prestigious academic institutions (Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Colby, MIT), it also offers a deadly elixir for those lapping up this mentality. A steady drip of heart-hardening poison.
So pair all of that with the fact that I had never opened a coded locker, nor switched classes in long confusing hallways, and you can perhaps understand my stress that first week. Somehow I muddled through, wide-eyed as I sat in crowded classes with perfect strangers, limping home with burgeoning backpack and silent tears. I innately knew that I was expected to push through this difficult transition, but it hurt that my clothes were all wrong, my hair was too short, and I had braces.
To complicate matters, the most popular girl in the entire school sat directly behind me in homeroom, chomping gum and swapping boyfriend stories with her friends. She, too, was a freshman, but dated a senior, and could snap her fingers and have any boyfriend of her choosing. She wielded the power to drop friends if they crossed her, while plucking other girls as willing replacements. She was as cruel as she was pretty.
By week two she noticed me. Jiggling her foot, legs crossed, while blowing pink bubbles during homeroom announcements, she poked my shoulder. I turned.
Ewww, where did you get that sweater? So ugly.
I was devastated. That sweater was my favorite. My difficult grandmother had actually knit it for me. I adored the color and its softness, but most of all was touched that Grandma had actually done something kind.
My cheeks burned and my eyes filled as the bell rang and I dashed to my first class. Later that afternoon, I stepped off the school bus and into our empty home, heart thudding as I balled up the sweater and buried it in the bottom of our kitchen trashcan. I told no one, but my mother heard me crying late that night. She told my grandmother, (which I begged her not to do), and in an odd flush of understanding, Grandma informed me that she and Grandpa would be taking me on a shopping extravaganza for a new wardrobe that weekend. It was both a relief and a sorrow.
Over the next several years I changed, bit by bit. I grew my hair long, bought new clothes, and smiled without braces. But there was another invisible modification. A hard, protective wall had grown, brick-by-brick, around my tender heart. The foundation solidified on the day I buried my sweater. I had always lived to please others, but was now taking this notion to a skyscraper level, flip-flopping opinions and habits depending upon whom I was with at the present moment. Voicing a need or holding a strong opinion was unthinkable.
I played some sports, joined a club or two, made friends, got the hang of makeup, and purposefully tempered my opinions and ideas. Although I knew my own mind, I had been badly burned at field hockey tryouts and in homeroom, and did not care to touch that fire again.
So I did not live my faith boldly, but tucked those truths in deep pockets, scared to be called out at school; terrified of being humiliated. I studied, obeyed rules, and remained an average student with decent grades in a sea of highly functioning overachievers. Laboring diligently to remain hidden in plain sight came to be my new and insulated normal.
People-pleasing at its finest.
Which, if you think about it, is quite common.
But we do not serve a common God, and he is not pleased when we choose to obliterate who he created us to be: image-bearers glorifying him.
Fearing man is serious business, with disastrous results. It comes across as sweet-tempered and gentle, helpful and unthreatening and kind. A blank slate. What a lie.
In my blindness I had assumed that I had dodged the arrogance of Don’t Tread on Me. As it turns out, I was grieving the heart of God by giving others the glory that was meant only for him.
In short, it was a rocky, torturous road, decades later, as I finally dealt squarely with my sin and exited the Fear of Man way of living. As I rapidly discovered, folks grow happily accustomed to people-pleasing people. When this faucet is turned off, and the flimsy facade collapses, so do many relationships.
I could write a nice little paragraph offering suggestions for Ten Ways to Become More Assertive, or How to Grow a Backbone With Extended Family, or How to Stop Saying Yes to Every Perceived Need in Church, but that would miss the heart issue.
People-pleasing, bullying, gossip, slander, pride, sullenness, bitterness, covetousness, and every other sin are children of the same root: idolatry. Stark rebellion against our Creator. Our way of pumping a fist at God with: Don’t Tread on Me.
I am not ignoring the fact that the human heart is fragile and often breaks open: unkindness of any type tears a deep and throbbing pain. We all have scars, and we all inflict wounds. Sin hurts.
What I am honoring here is the better news that true joy remains untainted by any ugly circumstance. True joy doesn’t dry up when we are teased by homeroom girl, or slighted at work, or undone by gossip or slander. Yes, we acknowledge the ache and deal directly, but deeper still is our understanding that we are held and known and loved by God himself. He is our peace.
And we cannot have true and lasting joy until God is supreme in our affections. As believers, our unshakable contentment is draped upon the cross of our Crucified King. This is the mystery revealed: joy amidst the ashes and scars.
Life will always wreck us if we cling to anything other than God. Our love for him, and our pursuit of him actually draws him near to us (James 4:8). If pleasing people is your priority, you will soon find yourself miserable and deeply frustrated. We are not created to thrive this way.
I picture my faith in Christ to be a pearl, embedded in an oyster, hidden in the depths of the sea.
The pearl forms through the abrasion of sand: an intruder to the oyster. The oyster then secretes a fluid to protect itself from the irritant, coating it with layers that ultimately form a stunning pearl. Trials are like intruders, beautifying and strengthening our faith if we only trust God through all of those painful situations, knowing that he works all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).
We are his.
Both the simplicity and difficulty of this truth are staggering.
This is why Corrie ten Boom could forgive her Nazi tormentors.
This is why Elisabeth Elliot ministered to the very tribe that murdered her beloved Jim.
This is the reason we may live joyfully through the hard, jagged edges of life. We give our yes to God in reverence, pleasing him through obedience to his Word.