My family and I recently took a trip to Fiji. (I will pause momentarily for your pity.) My husband billed the “vacation” as part of my present for my upcoming fortieth birthday, even though since (a) the kids came along, and (b) trips with kids aren’t vacations, then by deductive reasoning, (c) I did not get a vacation for my birthday. Nonetheless, it was one of many experiences we’ve been fortunate enough to have because of our move to Australia. The only other way I could see myself ever getting to the South Pacific is as a contestant on The Bachelor and let’s be honest: they aren’t going to do another season with old people. Oh, and I’m already married.

We were eating lunch one day by the pool and a couple caught my eye. While my husband asked if I was listening to him, I studied this pair intently, then turned to Jason. “I think that’s Bradley Cooper and his girlfriend,” I whispered nervously. Naturally, I texted one of my well-connected New York sources, who confirmed the sighting. Even Jason got excited. I texted a few people, then decided to share this gift with a broader audience and ventured onto Instagram. For the next three days, I searched for Bradley every time we left our room. I hunted for him at the restaurant where we had dinner (spotted! And we switched tables to get a better view!). I hid behind my sunglasses to peer at him at the pool. I considered approaching him at the fire-dancing ceremony and imagined the conversation we’d have. In short, I turned into a grade-A asshole.

But it was even worse than that. When Bradley was around, I changed. I staged photos of my children to get him in the background. I encouraged the boys to swim in the part of the pool close to where he was sitting. And, perhaps most odiously of all, I became a Model Person within the Coop’s (Jason’s name for him) presence: I laughed at my children’s antics instead of sighing, I engaged with them sweetly, I cuddled them attentively. All because of the possibility that someone with influence and stardust was watching me. GROSS.

I was raised on fairytales, power anthems, and the American dream, all of which tell me that keeping your eyes peeled, being strong and beautiful, and working hard will allow your own star to rise—will get you to the top. Sadly, the message I heard at churches all around the Bible Belt echoed such ideas, which allowed me, from the earliest of ages, to operate under the delusion that a little mascara, good grades, and perfect behavior would not just win academic and social points, but earn God’s love. This is a sickness that is more rule than exception in most churches today, and not just American ones (which I can say because I’m…wait for it…INTERNATIONAL now). Meanwhile, the only thing I can “Hold On” to with any consistency is my own sin.

I am getting weaker, not stronger. Who will deliver me from this body of death?!

I encountered one of my favorite recent theological quotes on the plane ride home from Fiji, hours after I realized that my source was given bad information and that the Coops had not, most likely, spent the week at our resort. I was tired, my children were climbing all over me, and I shot Jason one of those looks that he has learned to read: I’m about to lose it. By the time I returned from my trip to the bathroom with my third glass of wine, he had graciously taken the boys and I settled in to watch the end of Big Little Lies, which supplied the quote (I know, you thought it was going to be Joyce Meyer):

Welcome to the club. We’re all fucked up.

I inhaled deeply over my Cabernet and let it wash over me: all the preening I’d done on the island, over the course of my life, for some version of a judge: God, the Coops, Instagram followers. I remembered what comes to mind every couple of months before it disappears again into the realm of Fleshly Ills entitled “Short-Term Memory Loss”: I’ve been the judge and the accused. I’ve built the courtroom and constructed the bench, and on any given day I’m the one in the dock or the one presiding; the one who can’t stop failing or the one who rises (temporarily) on the laurels of her accomplishments. I am both, usually every day, when what I want is to be neither. No, that’s not true; what I need is to be neither. I need to be neither so that I can be free. I am sick and I need to be saved. But the lie I’ve believed too often is that the totality of the cure will come this side of eternity. That I will, finally (and maybe even pre-40!) arrive.

In How to Survive a Shipwreck, Jonathan Martin writes that “becoming more human is to have the image of God in us renewed.” This is not the message that has been preached to me through churches and anthems; if anything, we’re encouraged to be other than human—superhuman—as the years go by, propelled by collagen creams and celebrity testimonials about age making us freer and wiser, even though I just keep finding out how dumb I am (like that time I went to paradise and my patient husband ignored my being starstruck by a Bradley Cooper lookalike). I’m not thrilled by the crows’ feet inching their way across my face, or the knee that flares up every time it rains, or—especially—the weird cocktail of postpartum hormones that have invaded my body and stuck around and rendered me anxious and angry so much of the time. I’ll pass on the cellulite and extended hangovers and drooping everything, thanks. Getting older? Is wack.

Which is, apparently, exactly what it was designed to be. It seems to me that the built-in traumas of escalating weakness and growing dependence that are revealed by age are meant to show us something. Something we spend a lot of time and money trying to ignore: that the Christian life is not one of increasing strength, but radical failure. Followed by more radical forgiveness. Followed by freedom. In a never-ending cycle this side of eternity, because we never stop needing grace; we only grow—God-willing—more aware of our need for it. It’s not about holding on, but letting go—of the vision we had of ourselves and how this would all go—and stepping forward, blindly and on bad knees but held, into a future only he can see or provide. It means the end of raging against the dying of the light, because we’re on the dimmest side of it now. It’s only going to get brighter. All we have to do? Is die. 

If becoming more human is the gateway to renewal, then this is very good news for me. Because there are plenty of fake versions of me (check Instagram), but my humanity looks more every day like this: gritted teeth, impatience, ingratitude, irritability. And that’s a good day. So why would any of this renew the image of God?

Because it’s about him, not me. It’s about the million ways he steps in every day to show me I’m not beyond redemption, and he will never leave. That “try harder” is not included in the message “it is finished.” To paraphrase Yoda—who definitely did not use retinol creams—there is no try, only do. And it’s already been done. Now we live out the years that bring us closer to the one who did it.