I grew up fat. Never to the point of having people stare at me on the streets, but fat enough to have well-meaning people say, "Such a pretty face, if only she would lose 20 pounds."
By the time I'd reached my 40s, I'd spread almost enough to graduate into the plus-size department. At just under 5'1", I was a size 14, petite and shaped like a beach ball.
One day I went to the doctor for my annual checkup. He told me the same truth then as he had every year: I needed to lose weight. He gave me a certificate for paid registration to Weight Watchers; I went to a meeting, joined a gym, and that was that. In about a year's time, I lost 37 pounds. By the time I turned 50, I'd reached my goal.
But I have to confess: My goal had nothing to do with improving my health. My goal—I'm almost ashamed to admit this—was to be a hottie. I wanted to turn heads.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God says, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). No one likes to think of herself as corrupt and wicked. So I told myself feel-good lies such as losing weight is good for my health. Technically true—but not soul-fully true. The soul-truth was too confrontational: I wanted to lose weight so people would notice me and like what they saw.
So I lost weight, went shopping, and bought all new clothes. One time my daughter, Laura, and I were in a store, and she said, "Mom, that guy over there is totally checking you out!"
It was at that moment that I crossed over from being mildly, annoyingly obsessive in my newfound hotness to becoming vainglorious, glorying in my excessive vanity. And it seeped into other parts of my life, parts that had nothing to do with having been fat and getting thin and becoming a total hottie.
For example, I attended a seminar at my church where the speaker talked about the old-fashioned way of doing church, with its religious jargon and "us versus them" mentality toward those outside the church, and contrasted it with the cool new methods some churches—like mine—are adopting. I left that seminar excited about my church. I was a part of this innovative, cool thing God is doing! Plus, I looked good. Could life be any greater?
What the Mirror Knows
When I was fat, I hated mirrors. But when I got thin, I loved them. I loved them so much, I made mental notes of the most flattering ones within a 40-mile radius (visiting them often) and which ones to avoid.
You can do that with the Word of God too. In many ways the Bible is like a mirror, reflecting who you really are, which isn't flattering. However, you can train yourself to look only at the pages and passages where you look best. I'm good at that. I'm good at not seeing my flaws and imperfections and at thinking they look better than they do.
That finally became apparent to me after a shopping trip to Macy's. I needed something to wear to an upcoming wedding, and that started a series of things that caused me to end up on my face before God—which is the best place one can be. It's just painful getting there.
At Macy's I busily searched for the ideal wedding guest outfit and looked for flattering mirrors so I could reassure myself I hadn't lost any of my newfound hotness. I ended up buying a twirly white skirt, then went home and wrote my weekly newspaper column about how perfectly it fit and how great it looked.
To spiritualize my whole twirly white skirt column, I inserted a story Jesus once told a crowd of people about what to wear to a wedding, based on Matthew 22:1-14. I thought that was probably the single most clever column I'd ever written, which makes me want to retch just thinking about my massive ego gone amok.
A True Love Story
Before I reveal the next thing that happened, let me tell you about Narcissus, a gorgeous, Brad Pitt-like creature in Greek mythology who one day knelt by a pool of water to get a drink and saw his reflection. Thinking it was some beautiful water spirit living in the fountain, he fell in love with the "bright eyes, the rounded cheeks, the ivory neck, the parted lips, and the flow of health all over." He'd fallen in love with himself.
As Narcissus came closer for a kiss, he plunged his arms into the water for an embrace, only to see his beloved disappear. Dumb as rocks—and madly in love—he waited until the beautiful creature returned, and he continued this love pursuit for days, unable to tear himself away from the sight of his own image. Eventually he pined away and died.
What a dope. If that's not self-regard run rampant, nothing is, unless you count the next thing that happened to me.
It happened as I began sharing my "self-in-love-ness" with my husband, giving him daily updates on the latest compliment received, who gave it, and my reply. The day my twirly skirt column was printed in the paper, I followed him around the house reading it to him, completely enamored with myself.
Because he either (a) loves me, (b) got fed up, or (c) both, he firmly told me that (a) I was in love with myself and (b) to keep it to myself.
Though in retrospect it was loving of him to point out my sin, I didn't think so at the time. At the time, I was just ticked. So I muttered under my breath, "I'm glad you're not a mind reader," and took off for the gym.
The Jesus Show
It's been my experience that when God sets out to teach a person something, he goes for the root of the problem, not just the symptoms.
For me, the whole weight loss/in-love-with-myself thing was only part of a deeper problem. Beauty, they say, is only skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone. Pride—self-regard run rampant—goes deeper than even bone-deep ugly. At 50 I may have looked better than I ever had, but God saw past that to the ugly within.
I left my house in a huff and headed to the gym, but I never made it there. Instead, I took a detour to the downtown area of my city. Still smarting from my husband's remark, I sat on a bench to stew awhile. That's when the final thing began—the Jesus Show. That's what my friend calls the street preachers who come like clockwork to the sidewalk in front of the courthouse every Saturday afternoon and hold signs that say things like "Repent!" and "The wages of sin are death!"
As I sat on the bench and watched these street preachers in their dark slacks, white shirts, and dark ties that smacked of Andy of Mayberry, I decided, in smug self-righteousness, that their old-fashioned methods, old-timey gospel singing, and King James platitudes were ineffective in today's culture.
Then God showed up. I thought maybe he was there to trade snarky comments about how they weren't part of the cool thing, but it turned out he had other things on his mind.
Honey, he said, let's chat about pride.
How ironic, I thought. Just a few days before, a friend from work and I were talking about that very thing. He'd given up pride for Lent the year before, and we laughed about how proud he was to have attempted it and how, since then, he's had a 180-degree change in his thinking about a lot of things, including pride.
So when God wanted to chat about pride, I was right there with him, ready to add my two cents to the conversation, especially about the Jesus Show people. I decided it was their pride that kept them stuck in the spiritual Stone Age. However, I should have known when God brings up a topic of conversation, it's usually so he can point out your sin (and not the sin of others).
As we sat on the bench, God held up a mirror and told me to take a look. In it I saw Narcissus—only it didn't look like Brad Pitt. It was me, a dope in love with her own image, with her own sense of cool, with her own sense of who God can use to further his kingdom.
I saw a woman easily seduced, easily drawn away from God and to the vainglorious. I was angry that I hadn't seen it coming, but that's the whole slyly treacherous modus operandi of seduction. It starts tiny, with a word, a thought, a glance, a doubt, playing to your weaknesses and your lusts. As it flatters and woos, it makes you feel good, and it's that feeling, that high, that pulls like a narcotic, feeding your all-about-me-ness, which is insatiable.
Eventually you go blind, unless someone comes along who loves you enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Like my doctor had done years earlier and my husband had done earlier that day.
Like God continues to do.
But—and this is what I love about God—when he sits down and chats with you about your sin, he doesn't leave you in your blindness.
He didn't leave me to stew in my sin or even to devise ways to atone for it myself or make me give up pride for Lent. Instead, he reminded me that, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
So that's what I did. And then I went home to (a) thank my husband for telling me the truth, and (b) ask his forgiveness.
Here's where I'd like to say: "And ever since, I have never looked in a mirror to check out my appearance or trumpeted myself either in my column or my conversation"—but that wouldn't be true. I'll always battle self. I'm easily seduced.
The best thing I can hope for is that the next time I'm tempted to linger in admiration in front of my own reflection, I'll remember Narcissus, and how it's possible to love yourself to death.
Nancy Kennedy is a TCW regular contributor and writer for our Walk With Me blog. She's the author of Girl on a Swing, from which this article was adapted. Used by permission of Multnomah.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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