Our wonderful friend Sara, who is living in St. Thomas while attending grad school, took us around the island showing us the sights during our visit. While we were driving up and down the hilly and curvy roads that crisscross the island, she told us that the locals are afraid of the water. She said that each generation has taught the next generation to fear the ocean. I found this so shocking, and so counter-intuitive. It seemed so sad, especially as I had just gotten SCUBA-certified and had – for the very first time – seen the breathtaking splendor of God’s creation in deep water. It was also bewildering because people all over the world come to the US Virgin Islands just for the water! Yes, the ocean can be dangerous at times, but it is stunningly beautiful and majestic – how could anyone be so consumed by fear that they miss some of the most beautiful experiences in life?
Through Sara’s observation, I knew that God was speaking, not about the locals, but about me. The details were different, but the issue was the same. Just like the locals, I lived in fear.
When I was young, I sang all of the time. One of the most formative experiences I had while singing happened on my way to Wednesday night bible school when I was about six years old. My grandfather took some of my siblings and me there every week to learn about the Bible while he met with the elders of the church. This particular Wednesday, we were driving along and I began singing something I had learned that morning on my Mozart’s music “Leap Frog” game. The song was Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from “The Magic Flute.”
Apparently, Grandad wasn’t expecting his small grand-daughter to sing one of the most difficult arias ever written in the back seat of his car. I remember the moment so clearly because he was obviously delighted. And more than just delighted – he was exulting in my singing. He was flabbergasted and completely overwhelmed by it! I had never seen him react to anything that way. And knowing that I was bringing him joy with my voice, I decided in my heart that day that this is what I was meant to do: I was meant to bring people into a beautiful experience through my singing.
Fast forward a few years, and the beauty had faded. Stress and competition filled my thoughts instead of the bliss I had experienced as a young child. Plus, added to the mix were peer rivalry, jealousy, rumors, pride, and the need for approval and affirmation. At this point, I had forgotten why I began walking this road, as well as the real purpose for my gift, for my life.
The day after I heard Sara’s story, I began reading a book by Stasi Eldridge called “Captivating.” In it, she comments on the core desires that every woman seems to have, and discusses how most of us have neglected our hearts while surviving life’s wounding blows. One of the first stories in “Captivating” is about a little girl, the daughter of a friend of the author. When her mom brought her to work, she would go from office to office singing and twirling, fully expecting to delight her audience, and be delighted in. She didn’t think she may have been distracting them from their business, or out of place in a work environment. She wasn’t worried about bothering or annoying anyone. She was just being her joyful, musical self, and loved sharing that gift with the world.
When I read that story, it took me back to that car ride with my grandad, singing unashamedly and letting my gift shine before others. Then I took a long journey through my past, reliving the painful experiences that taught my heart to hold back my true self, and to care so much about what other people thought of me. I realized that I had been living my life in fear.
At times, I truly felt that the only reason my friends and even my family liked me was because of what I could do for them. This has led to the disease of perfectionism. Sometimes we joke about that term, and even use it as a reasonable justification for why we do things the way we do. But that hides its malignant source, and never forces us to consider the insidious toll it takes on one’s heart. I was never perfect, but I would put my whole heart into doing things with the assumption that I needed to be. The primary reason wasn’t because I strived for excellence and wanted to honor God (even though that’s what I kept telling myself), but because I believed if I didn’t do things well, I would be found lacking, rejected, and cast aside.
Through multiple moments of rejection, pain, and unhealthy thinking in my life, I had become dependent upon the good opinion of others. If I am not keenly aware of God’s unconditional love and acceptance of me, criticism crushes my spirit. If I am asked to do even a small thing differently, my heart curls up into a tight little protective ball, to guard against the rejection I think is inevitable.
This isn’t just about singing. It encompasses all the things that I find myself doing throughout the day. The lie I fight every day is, “You will never be good enough.” The fear I have been living in is, “if I don’t perform well today, no one will love me or care about me.” There’s even a medical term for it: atelophobia. But even as I write this, it is so sad that I believed this lie even for a moment. How could I live in fear about something that is so untrue?
I thought again about the story of the locals in St. Thomas. They have been taught, most likely through real experiences that crushed them, to fear the water. I sat on the balcony of our hotel room, overlooking the sparkling blue waves lapping in the bay, and feeling the heavy weight of my fear that was also learned through real experiences that crushed me. And then I asked God for help. For hope. For something. And in those quiet moments, He responded. He let me feel His deep affection for me. I didn’t need the approval of others. I have the approval of the One who matters. The One who loves me with a fierce and undivided love. A love that is not fickle and dependent on my actions and behavior. And He has given me a beautiful life. One to explore and enjoy without being hindered and held back by fear.
My hope is that one day you and I will fully and continually operate in the wide-eyed innocence and trust that my six-year-old self displayed when singing for my grandad. I want to always sing and live joyfully, exuberantly, shamelessly, with abandon. I know that people may criticize and reject me; nevertheless, I will continue to delight my Father in heaven and be the apple of his eye (Psa 17:8). And all the while, I am committed to inviting and welcoming others to join me in a new way of believing, where we can all feel the depths of His great love – a perfect love that casts out all fear.