A few months ago, the women on 100 Huntley Street's Full Circle interviewed Emily P. Freeman about her book, Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-hard Life. I considered not watching this particular interview. Frankly, the Good Girl label made me bristle.
You see, I'm a former Good Girl. As a young adult, I got good grades, I volunteered with special needs children, and I never smoked or snuck out the window at night. I was Amanda Bynes in Easy A with the judgemental attitude to boot. But then life got more complicated and my halo lost a lot of its sheen. Nowadays, when I can find my halo amidst all the baggage, I can see that it is really quite tarnished and has a great big divorce-sized dent. But the Good Girl remains. Sometimes she confronts me in the mirror, twirling her purity pearls around one finger and wagging the other finger in my face making a tsking noise.
I watched the interview in spite of myself. Perhaps it was a God moment. Perhaps I was just procrastinating from doing something else. The author proved to be a Good Girl indeed. She's a mother of three and minister's wife who writes for Hallmark and signs for the deaf. Yup. Oh, and she's charming and soft-spoken. But instead of feeling pushed away, I felt myself drawn in by the interview. I immediately went out to buy the book.
Freeman is a talented writer. She has a background in theology and adeptly weaves scripture - and sound interpretation - into the text. Hers a personal story but never descends into mawkishness. She comes across as self-aware and shows an objectivity when it comes to her own life that one does not always find in memoir.
Freeman is the daughter of an alcoholic and, like many young women who comes from less-than-perfect backgrounds, she learned that life was simpler when she did not create many waves: "I was good because I was afraid of boys, afraid of hell, and afraid of getting into trouble." She embraced Jesus at an early age, but secretly believed that she had to perform well to impress God: "My personal truth was I have to be perfect. And when I'm not, I have to pay." So she studied hard and got good grades, went to church, and didn't rebel. She took pride in her Good Girl status. "I put all my confidence in the things that were awesome about myself and tried to hide the things that weren't. If Jesus fit in there somewhere, well then that was nice. But if he didn't, I was doing okay on my own anyway."
But she wasn't OK on her own. Being a Good Girl is exhausting. Pleasing people, trying to earn God's favour, and managing one's image can start to feel like a full-time job. Freeman writes about how she was always putting on masks: Ideal Wife, Perfect Mother, Best Friend. Masks are heavy when they are on. And when they are ripped away - which is sort of what happened to me - it can feel as though there is nothing left. That's the trouble with relying on self instead of relying on God's Grace. When you trip and your performance is no longer perfect, you don't know where to turn. As a Good Girl, you are not used to asking for help from anyone, not even God.
Self-reliance is the sin of the Good Girl and it is as harmful as any of the other sins that separate one from God. But it's harder to give up than, say, promiscuity or gossip, because it is almost always praised ("Such Good grades!" "Such a good job!) by the same people -- parents, teachers and ministers -- who warn against other transgressions. It's no wonder that at times in her life, Freeman has been jealous of her more rebellious peers.
Growing up in the church, I heard a lot of testimonies from people who went from bad to Jesus. Their lives consisted of one bad decision after another, which is what made their story so powerful. From alcohol, drugs, sex, and cigarettes, their rebellion would lead to a dramatic climax. Jesus showed up and their lives looked completely different. There was no denying that God got the credit. As a girl who accepted Jesus at a young age, I couldn't relate. Im fact, I admit to sometimes wishing I had a few years of rebellion under my belt. Then my story would be interesting and dramatic too.
At times, Freeman worried that she might be overlooked by God:
I know that God is big enough to redeem the unruly, the rejected, and the addict. I know about the God who reaches way down into the pit and the One whose love stretches to the heavens. But I fear he misses the details. What about the girl in the middle? I fear I fall through the cracks because my story draws no attention.
The feeling that others, especially those who are leading lives of obvious sin, might be attracting more attention from God builds resentment in the Good Girl who so closely links performance with reward. Freeman writes about the story of the Prodigal Son, admitting that there have been periods in her life where she has identified with the older brother who finds it wildly unfair that his father throws a party for his brother, who has only returned to the family home after he has squandered his inheritance on riotous living. The party, he feels, should have been for him - the son who did everything right - and he refuses to come into the house to celebrate:
Good girls think there should be consequences for the actions of the prodigal, not a party. There should be a husband and a happy ending for the girl who has saved herself for marriage, not the one who was promiscuous ever since high school yet still landed the nice guy and just celebrated her fifth anniversary with a trip to Palm Springs....There should be reward for those who do good and punishment for those who don't. So we get angry. But good girls aren't supposed to be angry, so we convince ourselves we don't really care and it doesn't really matter.
But of course, as Freeman observes, the point of the story is that we all receive our Father's love: Good Girls and Bad: "Jesus didn't die so I'd feel a kinship with the prodigal, and he certainly didn't die so I could feel a kinship with the older brother. That older son had a deep misunderstanding about his father's acceptance of him. He worked hard to try to get something he already had."
What he had, of course, was Grace. He had God's love: always given, never earned. Although Freeman has been a practicing Christian since she was a little girl, it took her years before she realized that God meant Grace for the Good Girl too:
I understood at an early age about the first rescue. Jesus came to save sinners. He came for the lost, the broken, the hurt, and the lonely. He came to heal sick people and to raise dead people and to die for the sins of everyone. Never once did I consider he also came to save me from myself.
The purpose of the book is to show that there is Grace for the Good Girl too. She realized that she needed saving from her Good Girl self: from the striving and the burden of trying to do everything on her own.
I think of the effort and the work. And then the shame. I think of the worry that keeps me up at night and the fear that perhaps I've not done enough. I think of the way I compare myself and the pain that comes when I grasp for worth and security from my husband or my job or my children. Jesus came to save me from myself. He came to save me from self-effort. He didn't just die for my sin to give me forgiveness; he rose again to give me life.
Rather than feeling resentful that she is extended no more favour than those who are a little more casual in upholding the laws of God, she came to see the laws for what they are: "The law was designed to expose our heart condition, to make us see our guilt. It was never meant to make us righteous." She believes that the reason the laws are so stringent, and so hard to keep that even the best of the Good Girls will stumble at times is to highlight that we are not meant to do things on our own and to bring us closer to God:
The law was given to lead the unbeliever to her Savior, not for the believer to try to keep it....Without the standard, we would never be aware of our desperate need. Law in the life of the believer will do the same thing it is designed to do in the life of a non-believer: lead her to the end of her own resources.
Good Girls fear that if they are not perfect, they will not be loved. Fear drives the relentless need to perform. But as Freeman points out in her interview, "God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7) She urges the Good Girl to stop trying so hard, to put her faith in Christ, and to lay the heavy yoke of self-reliance at the feet of the Father who never required her to don it in the first place.
Freeman has a new book coming out in September titled, Graceful: Letting Go of Your Try-Hard Life. I'm pre-ordering it now.