She was, what many would call, a lost soul. She drifted through life – watching herself from above, serving as her own judge and jury. She rarely spoke – sometimes for days. According to Allison, if she didn’t interact with people then no one would have a reason to criticize her. Even though she was smart, pretty, gifted and kind, all she saw was a broken, disgraceful, scared, introverted mess.
“I saw myself walking through the doors of the church and the critical me thought, ‘You don’t belong here. This place is for righteous, good and loveable people,’” said Allison when I asked her what prompted her to walk into the chapel that day. She couldn’t be sure, but she truly felt that something—Someone – was calling her into the sanctuary. She proceeded to tell me her story.
“My father left when I was two. My mother remarried a man who accepted nothing less than perfection – from his employees, to his wife, to his children,” Allison explained. “If we failed, if we made a mistake, if we faltered, we were punished and shamed. I was afraid to speak for fear I would use my words improperly. I was afraid to play for fear that my clothes would get messy. I was even afraid to pray for fear that it wouldn’t be pleasing enough to God. My stepdad had us convinced that God was angry and licking His chops to break our legs every time we messed up. He would rage about anything that was out of place, anything that looked unkempt, anything that he deemed imperfect. But the more I tried to be perfect, the more flaws he found. I became a prisoner in my own mind and body.”
Allison continued, “When I went off to college, I thought I would be able to break free from the belief that perfection was the only option. But I was incapable of shaking my fears because at every turn, no matter what I did or didn’t do, I would hear my stepfather’s voice telling me that I was a screw up. Still, I thought I could prove myself so, I agreed to go home to visit my parents one weekend around Thanksgiving and it was a disaster. I primped and planned for the day. I ironed my new dress meticulously, made sure my hair was styled in a way my stepfather would approve, and covered up the few blemishes I had.
He hates your dress
“The minute I got home my stepfather wouldn’t speak to me, look at me, or interact with me. When I asked my mother what I had done, she simply said, ‘He hates your dress.’ My dress? He hated my dress? That night, I crawled into bed and wept – feeling more alone than ever. I wanted to cry out to God for help but I didn’t. If my stepfather believed that I was an imperfect mess, how in the world does God feel about me? That morning, I awoke to find my dress gone. Months later, I learned that my stepfather had stolen it from my room and burned it.”
For Allison it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Desperate for hope and longing for peace, she uncomfortably crept into that small but beautiful on-campus chapel.
“The day I was drawn into the chapel, I really prayed to God. I didn’t know if He was even there or if He would even listen to me because I was such an imperfect mess, but I felt so desperate – I had nothing left to lose. It was the first time I had allowed myself to cry in public. I was a sniffling, snotty, messy-faced girl who didn’t care that her cheeks were mascara-streaked and her lips were catching her tears. It was then that I opened the Bible my hands were resting on. I didn’t know what to read—I just opened it. And my eyes focused on these words:
“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
Robes of righteousness
Allison said that after reading those words, the tears came quickly as she felt the hatred of her angry stepfather and remembered the dress—the one he hated and stole and burned. She reread the passage again, “He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” It was as if her eyes were finally opened. Everything became clear for her in that moment as she saw the difference between her earthly father and her heavenly Father. The difference was that while her earthly father burned her dress, her heavenly Father clothed her in one.
In the quiet of the church, Allison realized that while God required perfection, there was one who came to be perfect for her. And because Jesus was perfect for her, she was free to be imperfect. She finally had the capacity to admit her weaknesses and fears and brokenness because she knew that God’s love for her was not based on who she was or what she did, but rather on who Jesus was and what he did for her. She was set free knowing that the God who made the demand for perfection also met the demand for perfection on her behalf.
Because of Jesus, Allison was now and forever clothed in an irremovable, unburnable dress of spotless beauty. She now rests in the infinite embrace of a Father who loves her just as she is, not as she’s supposed to be. She’s no longer weighed down by her inability to measure up because she is perfectly loved by the One who measured up for her. She is finally free.
Tullian Tchividjian is a South Florida native, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He is the founder of LIBERATE (liberatenet.org), a bestselling author, a contributing editor to Leadership Journal, and a popular conference speaker. Follow Tullian on twitter at: @pastortullian