Earlier this year I read an article about a Dutch student, Zilla van den Born, who spent 5 weeks travelling in Southeast Asia. Throughout her trip she posted photographs to Facebook, recorded videos, wrote a blog and bombarded her friends and family with the technicolor details of her once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
The remarkable thing about Zilla’s story was not the journey itself but the fact that, for the entire 5 weeks, she did not actually set foot outside her Amsterdam apartment. The whole trip—the photographs, the stories, the emails home—were all an elaborate experiment designed to show how easy it is to distort reality and create the story you want people to see.
Since I read the article the questions it raised have been playing on my mind. I may not go to the same lengths as Zilla to concoct a 5-week adventure in Asia but I am deeply aware of a constant temptation to present perfect children, an idyllic marriage, and a relationship with God that never waivers or falters in any way.
As a writer I struggle with the ever-present temptation to tamper with reality. I love words. I enjoy crafting them in the same way I imagine a sculptor loves to watch as the clay is moulded and shaped beneath his touch. However, I have discovered that there is a difference between presenting truth in a way that is beautiful and changing truth so that it will be perceived as beautiful.
Some of the stories from the Bible that breathe hope into my soul are the stories of ordinary people who falter and fail but are still loved and used by a God who is never fooled by outward facade. Faced with my own failures I find great comfort and encouragement in the knowledge that God has a place in his story for people who sometimes get it spectacularly wrong.
An apparently righteous and law-observant king allowed an unchecked problem to fester and grow until he found himself embroiled in a mess of adultery, murder, and rebellion against God. Yet, amidst the pain and brokenness of repentance, David finds himself forgiven and restored.
A prince-turned-murderer-turned-nomad confronted Pharoah, led the Israelites out of Egypt, and parted the Red Sea with his staff, only to lose his temper and forfeit his own chance to go into the Promised Land. Yet, at the end of his life, Moses was taken to a hilltop from which he could see the promise coming true and then, on his death, was tenderly buried by God himself.
A hardened fisherman and passionate, hot-headed disciple buckled under pressure and publicly denied Jesus. Yet Peter was not only forgiven, but entrusted with the shepherding of the fledgling church and the spreading of the story that would change the world.
What if we were only given the good parts of the story? What if we heard about Peter’s commission but not his denial? Moses’ leadership but not his rebellion? David’s devotion but not his adultery? Not only would we be robbed of the hope of forgiveness and restoration, but we would miss the stunning evidence of God’s grace in the lives of his people.
God’s grace is beautiful. That is a fact that needs no embellishment and is best served by truth. The problem is that in order to tell the truth about grace, we also have to tell the truth about who we are. When we play around with reality, trying to create or maintain the illusion of perfection, all we do is distract others from seeing grace for what it is.
There is no doubt that it is easier to keep hiding behind the illusion; voicing struggles, acknowledging defeats and confessing failures requires courage. However, we can take heart in the knowledge that the same Jesus who rebuked the pride of the religious leaders welcomed the tears of those who had been broken and battered by sin, setting them back on their feet and giving them a story of forgiveness and grace.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and Choosing Love in a Broken World. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now lives back home in Northern Ireland with her husband and two daughters. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible for themselves and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.