My most successful relationships are the ones I never saw coming.
The ones I never wanted.
I would love to say that I always experience God as a happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies bubble of fun.
And, yes, sometimes I do.
But, a lot of the time, I experience God as a brutal heart transplant that I find offensive and corrosive.
I stumbled across this “love” quote recently. It’s not the usual happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies interpretation that one usually finds on Pinterest. It’s gutsy and daring and ferocious and threatening and upsetting and unnerving. I love it.
“Life’s good,” she said. “All I need now is somebody to settle down with, somebody to complete the picture.”
Her friend laughed. “Love is never convenient,” she replied. “And it’s certainly never comfortable or complacent. Love strikes when you least expect it. Love upsets the careful balance of a life and leaves it in absolute ruin. Complete the picture? No. Love is the corrosive that strips your canvas bare and starts all over. So if you are looking for something that will slot seamlessly into your little old life, my god, look elsewhere.”
-Beau Taplin, The Picture.
And that’s exactly right.
When I talk about the effortlessness that successful relationships need, I am talking about how they come about in the first place and how they develop. When the Holy Spirit is in it, there is an effortlessness that just works. It is not forced. It flows.
But in addition to that sense of effortlessness, it should be life-changingly ferocious and unsettling.
I know there are people out there who think I have, a) a diminished brain capacity because I believe this airy-fairy Jesus stuff, b) a blind faith based on wishful optimism and/or a fear of facing a universe of nothing-ness, or c) an affinity to overlook scientific logic and reason that apparently debunks the Jesus stuff.
And, you know what? I get it; the Jesus story is indeed a pretty crazy story…!
A bunch of prophets with funny names and too much time on their hands came up with some nice ideas for the future, which were later somehow connected to a dodgy conception, a man flouncing around with lepers and prostitutes preaching forgiveness and grace and love, claiming to be God in human form, and a death by crucifixion and then suddenly re-appearing again.
Yes, it’s weird and, yes, so much can be explained away.
Maybe Jesus never really died. Maybe he survived the crucifixion. And that’s why he was walking around with holes still in his wrists three days later.
Or maybe Mary was some knocked up teenager who was too embarrassed to tell her fiance that she got pregnant to some other guy, so she came up with one heck of a cover story.
Maybe Jesus was just some do-gooder with fancy ideas about forgiveness or an extroverted attention-seeker who badly wanted a spotlight. i.e. Not actually God in human form, but just some regular mortal who pioneered a new way of thinking which is all well and good, but that’s it.
And maybe he knew what the dead prophets had projected about an eventual Messiah, so he did a little tweaking to tick all the right boxes and – just like when you read your horoscope and you go, ‘ohhh… yeah, I did make an exciting new discovery this week, so my horoscope was 100% spot on’ – maybe we’ve all just given Jesus a little ‘nip and tuck’ treatment and worked the Old Testament prophecies to suit this Jesus guy. No more, no less.
But every time I start to wonder about the many theories that float around in the cosmos – and every time I hear human logic and reason explaining Jesus away or portraying God as an inconsistent, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Cheshire Cat – I just can’t get past one thing:
I HAVE EXPERIENCED THE JESUS STUFF TO BE REAL.
And not just once, but over and over and over and over again.
For me, Christianity is about death and resurrection. A death and resurrection that comes from beyond myself. Something that I know I can’t make work on my own.
And it has everything to do with what Jesus was saying all those years ago and is still getting across to me today.
I first experienced it with my father-in-law back in earlier chapters of this blog. You may recall, I hated the man. I hated that he made my mum cry with his wedding-boycotting antics. I hated that he placed rules and expectations on his children in the name of “the lord”. I hated that he tried to tell me homeschooling was the only way to “bring up godly children”. I hated that he had a mentality of people being “good” (Christian/saved/not of the world) or “bad” (worldly/unsaved/not Christian).
So I had my father-in-law all sussed out.
And again as you may recall from earlier chapters, I ignored him. I stayed well away from him. And if I did have to go to his house with Mr Ex for some unfortunate reason, I’d be stand off-ish and keep him at an arm’s length.
Then, bang! Crash! Kick up the butt!
In 2013, post-separation from Mr Ex… My friend Sana speaks the truth to me.
I hadn’t overcome my father-in-law’s “good vs. bad” mentality.
I had just created my very own Essie Bell version of it.
Same sorting system. Just different sorting.
I had put me on the “good” side and my father-in-law on the “bad” side. And tried to carry out my own justice accordingly.
Well, I experience Jesus regularly in the form of a friend who speaks the truth.
In the case of my father-in-law, it was my truth-speaking friend Sana back in 2013.
Sana tells me that God’s grace is not just for me; it’s for my father-in-law as well.
Sana also tells me that every time I draw a line in the sand with me on one side and that person who is pissing me off on the other side, Jesus is always on the other side.
Every time I draw that line in the sand separating me and them…
Jesus is always on the other side.
And you can read how things turned out with my father-in-law in my much earlier chapter, Made New (Not Perfect).
You would’ve thought I’d learnt my lesson.
But in early 2015, a girl called Danielle started going to my Church of Quirks.
And she quickly began dating the guy who had taken me out for coffee a couple of times.
You guessed it; I didn’t like her.
Several months later, I went to a friend’s engagement party and I wasn’t feeling very well that night. I’d had minimal sleep and I wasn’t in a socialising mood.
So, I was sticking close to Annie, a dear friend who has always felt like a cosy blanket of sunshine and butterflies and we all need that in our lives.
But, I think God knew I also needed some corrosive, life-changing love, too.
Because, at this engagement party, yes, you guessed it again; Danielle was there.
And, at one point during the party – much to my absolute horror – Annie, my sunshine and butterflies, walked over and began talking to Danielle and British Comedy Dude. Grr!
I had two choices: 1) stay on my own and look like a loner, or 2) follow Annie and face possible conversation with people I wasn’t keen to talk to at all.
I took option 2. I followed. But I had zilch intention of making conversation.
So, standing next to Annie and avoiding excessive eye contact with anyone else, I thought I could slide under the radar unnoticed.
But inevitably, the unthinkable happened: Danielle said hello.
And I was now in a conversation against my will.
I thought, I’ll just fumble through some surface-level small talk, laugh at some jokes, show interest in a few things and then I’ll be on my merry way.
Well, fortunately for me, God always has other ideas.
God never sits still in our best formulations.
Three minutes into my conversation with Danielle, I was laughing. And I realised I wasn’t actually faking it. It wasn’t forced.
It was effortless.
Beyond-logic, Holy Spirit effortless.
We connected like two lobsters in a tank of goldfish. Two crazies in a world of sanity. Two galahs in a tree of magpies.
It worked. Our relationship really worked. And that is where my idea of ‘effortlessness’ (mentioned in earlier chapters) comes into play. ‘Effortless’ because I could hear my soul saying, “There you are! I’ve been looking for you” and it all unfolded without either of us forcing it or willing it or wanting it; Without either of us even seeing it coming.
But more than that, it also changed me.
It was God’s signature heart-transplant, where He reaches down into the depths of my dark, stubborn, vengeance-seeking heart of stone and He replaces it with a beating heart of love and life.
I had Danielle pegged. I had her sussed out. I knew I didn’t like her.
(Just like my ex-father-in-law three years earlier.)
But here we were – Danielle and Ess – literally spending two hours sitting off to one side at that engagement party, chatting and engaging oh-so-genuinely happily with each other.
In that moment, a mutual love was born.
And it didn’t start as convenient, complacent or even comfortable.
It started as upsetting and offensive and it completely, absolutely ruined my careful balance.
It’s like God loves me too much to sit idly by as I kill myself with bitterness.
God doesn’t sit still in our best formulations and I am so thankful for that.
Instead, He loves us.
And God’s love never starts off as an easy, happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies thing. It starts with all of those things in the quote above: never convenient, never complacent, never comfortable.
It’s annoying. It’s offensive. It’s painful.
And that is exactly because it goes against our every notion of justice, fairness and right vs. wrong. It goes against our instinct of how to treat the people who hurt us.
It’s like God’s love has to break us… in order to change us… in order to save us from ourselves.
“Love upsets the careful balance of a life and leaves it in absolute ruin.”
“Love is the corrosive that strips our canvas bare and starts all over.”
That’s exactly what God was doing when He took on human skin and bones and walked among us as Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus preached unconditional love and worked both sides of the street, He came to make a change in our little old lives. He was being outrageously offensive in His notions of forgiveness and grace and He absolutely quashed our best articulations of justice, fair vs. unfair, and how to deal with the people we just don’t like. Hence, the hearers of these teachings crucified Jesus in a bid to shut Him up.
But Jesus’s life, love and lessons, as much as they ruined the hearts of the people who heard, they also changed the lives of those people for GOOD.
Did those people wish they could return to the pre-Jesus days?! NO WAY!!
And those people were never the same again.
So, that’s what God was up to when I had my father-in-law all sussed out and when I knew I didn’t want to like Danielle.
And that’s what God is up to whenever I experience a friend speaking the truth to me. When I’m in a shitty, shitty mood and feeling all sorry for myself and Sana speaks truth to me, I experience God all over again.
Jesus’s love is life-changing.
It’s rarely easy to swallow, nor is it what we are necessarily looking for.
But it’s ALWAYS, always, always exactly what we need.
And it ALWAYS, always, always comes with a certainty that change has arisen from beyond ourselves.
Because that light – as offensive as it may seem at first – is where true freedom and compassion and love and solidarity and LIFE is found. And it is something we can never reach or achieve or attain on our own.
So, when I think about love within our own friendships, relationships and marriages, I now wonder if we are looking at it all backwards.
We want to find someone/something that affirms us in a happy-clappy sort of way. We want someone to ‘complete our picture’. And while that’s great, I wonder if there’s actually far more depth and life in someone/something that changes us.
In my marriage with Mr Ex, I was closed to change.
I can say that now with 20/20 hindsight.
I hated the idea of being open to another person changing me. And I get it; being changed by another person sounds like a dodgy practice. I mean, we all get fed nice little self-affirming statements, like “stay true to yourself” and “follow your heart”. Well, I’m now thinking that maybe remaining true to myself isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and following my heart is downright dangerous.
I can say with 100% certainty that because I met Sana and Danielle, I have been changed for good.
So, I wonder – and I’m only wondering this now with three and a half years of post-separation experience under my belt – whether the real power of love and friendship is being open to someone challenging us, coming out of left field and upsetting the perfect little equilibrium of our life.
You certainly don’t read that on Hallmark cards!
But I wonder.
Maybe love (just like God’s love for us) should strip our canvas bare and leave us in absolute ruin.
Because in post-ruin freedom, the light breaks in.
In post-ruin freedom, we are changed for good.
Danielle and I are best friends today.
And we often have a laugh about that first conversation that began through my gritted teeth which almost instantly evolved into this effortless, post-ruin magic.
This chapter is dedicated to those people (you know who you are!) who speak beautifully, wonderfully, divinely corrosive truth to my stubborn little heart, who upset the careful balance of my life, and who strip back my canvas to bare. In post-ruin turmoil, I find new depths of life, love and freedom.