There is nothing more transformative in human life than suffering. Whether it be from significant change, loss, grief, disruption, or despair, and COVID-19 has been all of those for so many of us. Routines have been interrupted, ways of conducting one’s private and professional affairs have been altered, possibly forever. Many are facing another underlying crisis as they wrestle with identities that had been associated with tasks in the public arena, modes of transportation, office locations and the varied nuances that we all too often come to believe are the things that make us who we are in the world. The rug has been pulled from under our feet.
But, if the truth be told, this disruption is the very kind of thing that just might awaken us all to life and life more abundantly. I have known this kind of awakening, the kind that turned me inside out, and totally destroyed all notions of who I had believed myself to be. My COVID-19 came a number of years ago in the form of a mental health crisis.
I was diagnosed with a major depressive episode and I felt as though my life had been built on a foundation of toothpicks, as it shattered before my very eyes. Not long into the diagnosis, I had to come face to face with the question, who am I? Who was I without my role as pastor of a vital and rapidly growing congregation? I couldn’t get out of bed so I couldn’t show up for the life that I had built, for my husband nor for my daughters. I had built an identity that was totally rooted in my doing, striving, serving, working harder and now this darkness had left me without a sense of who I was.
In the aftermath of my major depressive episode, what I call “the crash,” I have found a new source of identity. I am open to receiving God’s love and feeling loved without having to do a darn thing has made me open to loving me for me. Now loving others comes easier and there is so much joy in being myself without the weighty and tiresome burden of wearing a mask. I am learning to accept my personality and my God-given abilities and use them with wholehearted joy — not misusing them to gain approval from people.
In the search for my true identity, I’m learning to exercise and celebrate my uniqueness, my own way of being in the world. By nature I’m a risk-taker. As I’ve been growing, changing, expanding, it’s really transforming me in wildly wonderful ways. I’ve been willing to do some things that in the past I wouldn’t have done because they would have threatened the approval of others, but the new me is going for it. I realize now that I had turned my power over to all the people I was seeking approval from. God was teaching me how to be the authority in my own queendom, the queen of my own being. It felt like I was breathing for the first time in a long time. I was learning how to be me.
The “crash” has taught me that a secure identity comes from our relationship with God. The apostle John identified himself in his Gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). Does that mean he was the only one Jesus loved? Of course not. It means that Christ’s warm, strong, grace-filled acceptance was so overwhelming to John that it determined his very identity. It can determine ours too.
God doesn’t love us because we’ve earned it. Quite the opposite. That’s what grace is about! God opens wide the kingdom for God’s children, who are “dearly loved” (Colossians 3:12) and precious to God. Self-esteem doesn’t come by telling ourselves a million times that we are worthy, although that doesn’t hurt. Rather, it’s developed as we grasp the startling truth that God, in magnificent, benevolent and wildly outrageous grace, loves us. I am growing more open to and seeing in fresh new ways how “some things [like great art, poetry, and music] are loved because they are worthy”—they possess an appreciable value— “and some things are worthy because they are loved.” You and I fall into the latter category.
Does that mean we sit on our butts and do nothing because we’ve been unconditionally accepted? Not at all. The grace of God energizes us and directs us to do two things: humbly give thanks and boldly take action. The more we integrate God’s grace into our hearts and heads, the freer we become from our childhood happiness programs and we’ll stop re-creating our victimizing beliefs and instead be known for our hearts of gratitude and our glad acts of service. We’ll be present in the world out of a spaciousness that is far-reaching and life-giving to us and those around us as well. Some will not understand, but that is their work to do.
Our doing, no longer bound to the impositions of others’ opinions or expectations, will spring out of our deep and inexhaustible well of being.
Identity as a Treasure
Replacing feelings of inadequacy, fear and worthlessness with truth, honesty and confidence has changed my world. This has been the work of the Spirit of God in me; it was God-initiated, God’s way of awakening me to live. The darkness had a way of annihilating everything my ego identity valued. The darkness, the long shadow of silence and solitude, made way for the crushing weight of ego identification to be dismantled, literally smashed. Nothing that I had previously valued as being me— my accomplishments or even my failures, my roles, my to-do list—remained; it all crumbled. In the darkness of the crash I came to know nothing save the awareness of a deep, loving union with God and God revealing me to myself.
It’s kind of like coming home to find out that all of our prized possessions have turned to ash, and we can see them for what they were: nothing. Oddly there is no sadness or grief in seeing that; actually, there is so much relief and gratitude. I’m thankful that there is now more space for what can be and the clear awareness that my life is distinctly simple, not the complex self I had known; this insight has been amazingly refreshing and life-giving. All that defined me has been removed and replaced with a new reality. My sense of self is being revealed to me sometimes in the course of a day or a week. But the revelation comes. Now I know the crash had to happen so that the treasures so deeply embedded in me that were hidden from my sight could be revealed. Only this recovery time and space and mining effects of the crash could have excavated them.
The parable in Matthew 13, in which the man finds treasure in a field then sells all he has to buy the field, makes perfectly good sense to me. The treasure that I am coming to see in me is worth surrendering all that I had believed about myself. The old me feels like fool’s gold in comparison to the state of transcendence that I have been experiencing. I am growing in my awareness of my own sense of being; the presence of God in me is all-affirming. The cords of attachment are falling away and I feel no compulsion to do anything or any need to have work or affirmations to validate me; I just am.
I’m clear that God is in this, allowing the flow of God’s love along with this profound awareness that I am. Nothing to earn, nothing to accomplish, nothing to justify or to validate. I am because God is.
Adapted from Learning to Be by JuanitaCampbell Rasmus. Copyright (c) 2020 by Juanita Campbell Rasmus. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.
Juanita Campbell Rasmus is a speaker, writer, spiritual director, and contemplative. She copastors the St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Houston with her husband, Rudy. Pastor Juanita has served as a member of the board of directors of Renovaré and she cofounded Bread of Life, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, with Rudy in 1992. Juanita most recently teamed up with Tina Knowles Lawson and Beyoncé to help forty thousand flood victims recover in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.