Today marks five years since my longest-held dream came true, and my jaw was broken.
When I was twelve, my orthodontist uncle pointed out that I was developing an underbite that would eventually need corrective surgery. And from then on, that was the day I looked forward to — more than moving to the UK for boarding school, more than finishing high school, more than graduating college, even more than getting a girlfriend.
I finally began the process to prepare for the surgery in 2006, when I moved to California for seminary, a process which involved getting braces (for the first time in my life) so that my teeth would be ready for when they would break my jaw, push it back, and then re-set it.
Now, on one level, it was a purely functional, purely physical procedure — the underbite needed correcting and the surgery would do that.
But it was so much more. It was the thing over which I had no control: I couldn’t speed up the process of making my bones stop growing so that I could start the process of breaking them; I couldn’t make the decision as to when I was ready; I couldn’t fix myself.
So it impacted me on a mental, psychological, and emotional level too: if this needed fixing, then there must be something wrong with me, because if there was nothing wrong with me, I wouldn’t need to get it fixed! There were days when I would think that it was my underbite that was holding me back from _______ — maybe it was because of the way I looked that I hadn’t had a girlfriend, for instance.
The day of surgery was my Promised Land. Although I may have been able to tell myself that getting my jaw fixed wouldn’t solve all my problems, I felt that way nevertheless.
Only the Promised Land was a long time coming.
From the time I first learned I’d need surgery to that day five years ago, I waited thirteen years — by the time I had my surgery, I’d been waiting more than half my life.
Over the years, and especially in the ones leading up to the surgery, I wrestled with questions of self-esteem and self-worth, how much my appearance mattered or didn’t matter, realized how superficial I was being and, on many an occasion, didn’t really care how superficial I was being because I knew how I felt — at least, that was the emotional process. During those years, God broke off a lot of clinging detritus from my soul, helped me see myself in a healthier way, grew me in community, surrounded me with people who loved me unconditionally and affirmed me no matter what, pruned me of a lot of the weeds that had grown up over years of letting myself believe the lies I (and others) had told myself.
By the time the surgery happened, it still wasn’t purely functional or physical — there were still hopes and dreams attached to the Promised Land of Post-Surgery; but a lot of the extra baggage that I’d attached to the occasion was no longer there. Most importantly, through the process, God taught me experientially what I’d read in Ben Patterson’s book Waiting:
Who we’re becoming while we wait is far more important than what we think we’re waiting for.
I learned how to cling to God during those years because I had to. I learned how God saw me through the love others showed me. I learned how I saw myself as God revealed the facade of my self-sufficiency to me. And, more than anything else, I learned how much God loved me.
It’s strange looking back and thinking that the greatest challenge of my early life — the thing that I felt looming over my head for more than half of my first 25 years, the chapter that felt never-ending as I lived through it — has been done for five years.
Life hasn’t become easy; I haven’t learned how to overcome every challenge that comes my way; I still have things about myself that I’d like to change — as age catches up with me and my metabolism slows down, I still don’t look or feel the way I want to.
But I’ll never forget the feeling of worthlessness. I’ll never forget the sense of helplessness and my inability to change my situation. I’ll never forget the self-doubt and the God-doubt that plagued me. I’ll never forget that particular crucible.
It helps me as I minister to others who are going through difficult times of self-doubt and God-doubt, or those who are wrestling with self-esteem issues or battling things that they don’t know how to explain; it helps me to love out of the love of God, in the same way that others showed the love of God to me.
I don’t know what you’re going through right now. It may not seem like much to others but it may be the biggest obstacle or challenge or impediment in the world. (As you can see from the picture below, the surgery corrected my jaw alignment by … not very much. And yet it was the biggest, most difficult thing in my life for many years.)
My prayer for you is that, wherever you are, you would know the love of God for you. He knows what he’s doing, even when we don’t. Learning to trust in those times when we don’t feel like we can … that’s where our faith grows the most — though we may not realize it till years later.
Soli Deo Gloria.