Have you ever been bad at something? Like, truly, unequivocally terrible?
I cannot skate. Not roller skate. Not ice skate. Not roller blade or skateboard. Heck, I can barely ride a bike. Maybe it has something to do with growing really tall really fast as a kid. My center of gravity never quite figured out where to land. Or maybe because even though they say you can’t walk until you crawl, I skipped right over the “on all fours” stage and stood straight up. I hear that jacks up your balance.
Whatever the reason, I found all those elementary school skate nights and birthday parties at once horrifying and lonely. I’d shove off each wall hoping I’d launched myself with enough force to bump safely into the other side, having the neither the ability to steer nor stop. Or start, for that matter. If I ran out of steam mid-rink, I would have to wait for a kind soul, usually someone’s mom, to give me a tow to the wall or perhaps all the way back to the snack bar where I would sit in a booth and daydream until the party was over.
My last time ever on skates ended with, what I imagined, was me almost slicing a small child in half. It was a youth group ice skate night, I think, and this tiny little girl had been practicing her serious figuring skating skills right in the middle of free skate. It was legitimate practice. She was wearing the tights and the little skirt and was spinning, spinning, spinning. Full-on Nancy Kerrigan.
Then she fell. I had just pushed off the wall, arms straight out like a mummy to brace my impact on the opposite wall, and suddenly she was right in front of me, face down on the ice. I had no way to stop. Visions of this girl sliced to ribbons by the blades they’d let me strap to my feet and a hysterical mother screaming, “Why didn’t you stop?!” Had paralyzed my breath and slowed down time.
Little Nancy was down and up before I even had time to blink and I made it, stiff limbed, all the way to the wall where I pushed myself to the door, off the ice, and straight to the skate return window. I never put skates on again.
I am not a skater.
I am also not a cartwheeler, a stick-shift driver, or a baker of gluten-free cookies.
Those “I am” statements, though. They’re tricky things, easily slipping from benign to malignant. When it’s something I just am, it can become something I cannot overcome.
You can learn to do pretty much anything if you put in the work, right? I can sign up for lessons, buy new skates (and knee pads, elbow pads, a helmet, 30 yards of bubble wrap), and learn to skate. I COULD be a skater. Not a Nancy Kerrigan, Kristi Yamaguchi skater, but I could stop and start and maybe turn a corner.
Like Thomas Edison said, “There is no substitute for hard work.”
Except when there is.
Hear me out, American bootstrappers. Hard work is very important, but grace is critical.
Is there something you struggle with? Something that makes you feel like you are beating your head against a wall? Something that you know you are just one adverse experience away from skating off the ice, handing off your skates, and never looking back?
Sometimes I feel like those things pile up. The other day I suddenly realized that I had let a bunch of negative “I am” statements pile up. Tiny shortfalls clung together…didn’t get to the dishes, didn’t deliver some work on time, didn’t get back to a friend soon enough. Little moments conspired together with dark places in my heart to present evidence that I just AM bad at those things. And it is so sneaky how it transforms from “I am bad at x” to just “I am bad.”
I stood in my kitchen that day, mentally checking off all the shortcomings of the week that were getting in the way of me being whatever brand of nebulous, undefined awesome I was using as a measuring stick just then, when I thought, “If you just worked harder, you’d get better at all of this. Just work harder.” It was followed quickly by, “Yeah, you could. But you’re pretty terrible.” You just are. It was such a strong feeling of “I am not. I cannot.”
It felt very much like I was at the very bottom of a pit, all alone, while everyone else was at the top and they had all scaled the walls. All on their own. And there I was, sitting in the dirt, deciding whether or not I had the energy to sustain the climb.
I sat down and prayed because here’s the thing: I know better. As soon as that thought, “I’m terrible…I can’t,” popped up, I knew something was out of alignment. I asked God to straighten it out. I know I am adopted into His family, saved by His grace, His beloved, redeemed, made whole, called worthy…all the things. So why weren’t my thoughts, actions, attitudes lined up with that knowledge?
I said, “Lord, I am starting with ‘I am bad. I could climb out of this pit if I try hard enough.’ It should be, ‘I am good. You have pulled me out of the pit. Why am I peering back in?”
Then I opened my Bible. (Let’s be honest. I hadn’t in several days.) I have a journal that provides small pieces of scripture to write out and reflect. I checked the reference, turned to the right page, read the first verse, and then in surprise said a swear word right out loud.
He raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Not in the pit. In the heavenly places. Not a thing He is going to do. A thing He has done. Talk about realignment. Talk about a God who answers with specifics.
Here is the whole passage:
He raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Whose work? Who saves? Who prepares the good works? Who does the raising to the heavenly places?
Who just gets to accept that gift? Who gets to see the exceeding riches of His grace? Who receives the kindness? Who just gets to walk in good works that are already lined up?
We do. Right now.
Instead of thinking, “I’m not. I can’t. I’ll work harder.” Pray, “I can’t, but Lord, You already have. I’ll go with You.”
It is so easy to every morning wake up and look back into the pit, to check out what our neighbors have going for them, what looks shiny on instagram, what someone else has accomplished or overcome, and slowly start piling the dirt around ourselves, shoveling expectations higher and higher. And let’s be clear, God is not the one doing the digging. He raised us up to the heavenly places, saved us, prepared good works for us, all at the cost of the cross. I do not believe He would pay the steep cost of our rescue just to toss us back in from time to time.
Instead of the pit, choose His presence. He has made it pretty clear He has done all the heavy lifting. When I turn toward Him, those “I am” statements shift from oppressive identities too weighty to shake to the truth of who we are: His workmanship, created for good.
That’s our job. That is the “work” we have to do. Turn to Him. Turn away from the pit. Walk in the good works He has laid before us.