Saved by Jesus and Therapy

Learning to Tell My Story Honestly — In Six Words or Less.

Sarah Condon / 6.15.21

This essay comes from Churchy: The Real Life Adventures of a Wife, Mom, and Priest.

When I was in college I had a very painful falling out with one of my oldest friends. It was public, and I was mean. Even though I wanted to move on with my life and never talk to her again, I could not shake the incident. I had been awful to her, and no matter how many times I told myself that I was “right,” I could not believe my own story.

This was the era of Jewish College Boyfriend. I told him that I simply did not know how to handle this situation. He told me that his synagogue was on the verge of the High Holy Days and that it might be the perfect moment to seek my friend’s forgiveness. I had no idea that Judaism encouraged this kind of person-to-person repentance. During the High Holy Days, Jews observe the Ten Days of Repentance where certain prayers are offered, charity is suggested, and repentance is demanded. Much like the infamous ninth step of Alcoholics Anonymous, Judaism beckons the repentant to seek the forgiveness of those they have hurt.

I wrote my friend a letter. I don’t remember exactly what I said, except that it felt as much like the truth as I was capable of telling. I said that I had been hurtful and mean, and I asked for her to forgive me. I told her the honest version of my story. I felt crappy and needed her to say she forgave me. And, graciously, she did. I remember being struck that it took an entirely different religion to make it possible for me to say that I was sorry. It was the first time I felt like I was being honest about who I was, even if it meant me owning up to my worst parts.

This was a part of a general sea of change that took place in my twenties. I started what would be a decade of therapy and eventually had what I can only call a gospel conversion. My version of Christianity had always been about doing good to make up for the bad. In other words, with enough good works, I could make my story sound better. As I grew into adulthood, I began to realize that I was just lying to myself.

I had to be honest about who I was if I wanted any real sense of peace in my life. I needed to be real about the fact that my story was the story of a sinner. I was not a victoriously moral individual. I had no righteous wisdom to share. Like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26), I needed Jesus to say, “I see you. I see your sin. And I’m here to save you.”

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One of the more challenging rituals of seminary usually took place during the first few weeks of school. We would be asked to go around the room and to tell our story. This was intended to be a lovely exercise where everyone felt heard and understood. But given my human nature for pooping in Paradise, I saw it as the perfect moment to talk about how incredibly interesting I was.

I had “facts” about my life that I would always share. I had lived in New York (which meant I was important), but I was originally from Mississippi (so, folksy with an accent). I was married to an Episcopal priest (so I knew more than all of you naïve fools combined). While glossing over a lifetime of bad choices and hardship, I knew that I needed to look like the shiniest chalice in the cupboard. And so, I headed straight for the sin of omission.

The odd thing about seminary is that you get to know your classmates quite well. I once heard the seminary environment described as being like a cruise ship. You get up in the morning and pray with a group of people, you eat breakfast with them, attend class with them, head back to church with them, have dinner with them, drink with them, and, depending on your marital status, you may even sleep with them that night.

So eventually, these people knew me, like really knew me. They knew I struggled with not feeling smart enough. They knew I was either in the throes of morning sickness or spending sleepless nights with a newborn. Some of my good friends even knew if I had yelled at my husband that morning before class.

As I took my place at the octagon-shaped table every year to share my story, I began to let go of my need to curate it into something it was not. I started to tell my actual story, the one about my sin and Christ’s redemption. The one where I remind myself of all that God has brought me through, despite my profound lack of trust. I began to tell people that I feared motherhood and that being married to a priest was much harder than I ever expected it to be. I told them I almost left Christianity completely.

After our first two years of seminary, I noticed that we all became more honest about who we were. I began to wonder if our professors asked us to do this every year, not because they needed a refresher on who we were, but because they needed us to give up on dancing our well-dressed skeletons around the room. They needed us to tell our actual stories for our own sake. We had to drop the I-am-so-amazing monologues in lieu of whispering our truths to Jesus at the well.

Several years ago, there was a fun cultural moment where people were asked to write their own “Six Word Memoir.” I remember hearing about it on the radio and immediately the phrase, “Was saved by Jesus and therapy” popped into my mind. I had not had time to think about something witty and poignant. I was alone in my car, so the performance aspect was gone. It continues to be the most honest version of my story that I have.

We live in a culture where “telling your story” is practiced and celebrated. While I like the sound of that, I also require the subtext of the cross to give my story its real rhythm: sin, sorrow, redemption, gratitude, sin, sorrow, redemption, gratitude, and so on. Left to my own devices, I will tell the story about myself that makes me the most likable. I will try to be charming and funny. I will want desperately to look like the most professional and religious seminarian (or mother or wife or priest) in the room. Nothing I say will be true, and I will become exhausted by the sound of my own voice. As much as I need honesty, I also need Jesus to keep me honest about who I am.

We worship a God who finds us at the well and tells us all about the life that we thought we had kept hidden. We are loved by a God who offers us living water so healing, we cannot help but drink it. Even after a history of self-destruction, meanness, and denial, Jesus meets us at our point of greatest need and promises blanket forgiveness. Even after a day of profound self-justification and self-serving lies, we fall into bed at night, and Jesus tells us, “I know you. And I love you, still.”

I need Someone Else to truly be myself. I need the safety net of the cross in order for my story to be honestly told. I need reassurance that this bleak and beautiful planet is not my soul’s final resting place, and my sins are not the final word. If I am going to tell my story, and tell it true, then I need Jesus to be my merciful narrator.

Churchy is on sale at the Mockingbird store.