From merely surviving to thriving by design.
by Karla Kassebaum
I’m a grown-up PK. A preacher’s kid. You know, one of those kids who perform at church like an acrobat in a circus all eyes waiting for me to slip, miss a bar, or lose my grip, and fall right on my face. Like a star performer, I daily applied my flawless façade. I dutifully sang my token solos, played my piano pieces, and memorized vast quantities of the Bible. My outward appearances were my identity that marked me as a Good Christian. That is what I needed to be.
I became president of my high school youth group; it looked good to the staring church members. I faithfully attended functions at a well-known youth ministry; it was what Good Christians did to stay out of trouble. I cleaned like a martyr as janitor of the church; isn’t Christianity about sacrifice and service? Week after week, I was the last to leave the church building. Who could doubt my sincerity as a Christian?
Just me. After the performance ended, the dark curtains closed.
No one knew I cleaned the church just to have extra spending money. No one knew my first taste of alcohol was with my youth group or that partying became a regular activity. No one knew I carried the shame of being raped by a regular attendee of that youth ministry. No one knew that one night at church I sang “I Am Willing Lord” while drunk.
Web of confusion
Beneath my performance exterior was a desperately confused Christian with an impersonal relationship with God. If a deacon’s daughter got drunk, why couldn’t I? If other Christians lied, why couldn’t I? I set out to prove my normalcy but found myself still thrust into a never-ending spectacle of scrutiny. The urgency was to focus on outward appearances. But my emotions spun further in a web of confusion:
I just want to be normal.
I don’t feel happy.
I’m not doing anything she isn’t doing.
Can’t I play hooky from church just once?
Please let me just breathe; this is suffocating!
Why am I doing this?
Christianity to me was a formula. But the formula didn’t work.
After my rape, I fell deeper. How could something so bad happen to me when I was attending something good? I hid my rape from everyone, fearing judgment. I envisioned the headlines: “Flawless Pastor’s Kid: Damaged Goods!”
After graduation, I fled to a small Bible college because Good Christians went to Bible college. But it was full of rebelling young adults who sold drugs out of the dorm rooms and worshipped something other than the God I was raised to believe in. I wasn’t the only one performing a circus act. Unable to endure more hypocrisy, I left Bible college, stepped off the obligatory pedestal, and enrolled in a secular business school to embark on a journey toward authenticity.
Emptiness and failure
The first time I skipped church, I felt liberated yet guilty. I didn’t play the piano in church because I wasn’t asked, but I jumped at the chance to sing in the Christmas cantata. To perform once again made me feel elevated in God’s eyes. Yet without a formula, my emptiness lingered.
I felt like a failure as a Christian. My life resembled a mess and my performance was only sub-par. One trial after another ran me over.
Why doesn’t life make sense? Does it have to hurt this bad?
There has to be more to being a Christian.
One thing was for sure: I didn’t audition for this show.
Then I slowly realized that being a Christian had nothing to do with my act but with my relationship with God. When I evaluated that relationship, I fell short, as it required more than my performance-based connection.
When difficulty reared its head, I pleaded with God for relief. But when the dust settled, I went back to my empty fillers. I twirled in a losing battle. Weary. Defeated. Bad Christian. I was spent, empty, and unchanged.
It was time to get real. No more making my public image the priority. No more façade.
With no strategy in place but my determination to come clean, I persisted in my pursuit for authenticity. My quiet times became a quest to understand what motivated me to cry out to God instead of fulfilling a checklist.
God, what do I place more important than You?
Please show me what I’m missing.
After much diligence, my true motive glared. My greatest desire was for my life to be easy and pain-free. I wanted to receive my standing ovation. God was my emergency dial-up connection but not my lifeline. The problem wasn’t my circumstances but my focus.
The Bible says to seek God in all things, but to cling to and trust someone I did not know intimately seemed foolish. That theory got me raped, judged, and rejected. God was an intangible force I knew little about. If being a Christian meant clinging to Jesus, my head knowledge was no longer enough.
I delved in, but obstacles littered my path with my self-erected roadblocks exposed. My agenda. My past. Shame. Busyness. People-pleasing. Fear. Control. Mistrust.
As I mulled it over, a verse I’d heard countless times penetrated my thoughts: “As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, O God” (Psalm 42:1, NLT). Did I understand, accept, and believe wholeheartedly that just as I would die without water, I would die without God?
Sorry, God. But I don’t cling to You with that confidence.
The crossroads were obvious: I could continue to survive on my own, or I could choose to thrive God’s way. My way meant hanging on as best I could, hoping I exerted enough oomph to make it to the finish line without too many scrapes and bruises. But this new idea of God’s path gave me a different picture: thriving. I thought of a spring flower poking its head out for the first time, with vibrant colors glistening in the morning sunshine. A promise of renewal.
Standing still before God, I took off the mask and dumped my heart out to Him. Would He accept me in my filth? Had my hypocritical life gone too far to turn back? Unanswered questions. Tragedy. Discouragement. My twisted knots of uncertainty slowly untangled as I cried out. Ready for the painful blow of rejection and judgment, I waited in silence.
Where is the condemnation? I feel peace.
Where is the rejection? I feel accepted.
I’m exposed, but I feel sheltered.
I thought God was angry with me, but I sense only gentleness.
Tears trickled down my face. God wasn’t waiting to pound His fist at me but to give me His unconditional love. No longer would I just survive; I would thrive as God designed. No performance needed. No perfection required. Just my willing heart to cling to Him.
When I stopped performing, I released my white-knuckled grip and clung to the open arms of God where I embraced His love, faithfulness, gentleness, and protection. It was the start of a lifelong journey.
Today I see that clinging to God isn’t a one-time event but a daily decision. Each morning as I study the Bible, I seek to learn more about the character of God instead of looking for answers to pressing issues. I type out my prayers in my computer journal to keep me focused on God rather than on my to-do list. As a wife and mother, I look to Him every day for wisdom and guidance in situations, recognizing I do not have all the answers. I thank God for His goodness, regardless of my circumstances. I wait on Him before I agree to commitments. I hold to the truth that God is the only healer of my hurts past, present, and future.
Difficulty didn’t disappear, but peace overflowed because my life was broken. Old habits didn’t evaporate, but God showed me an alternative path to keep me heading the right direction. Days of frustration and discouragement didn’t vanish, but I saw that my hope is in the only One who sustains me. Unanswered questions remain unanswered, but I surrendered the control and timing to God.
Today I’m not a part of a show; I’m not surviving in a circus. I’m thriving in a new relationship with God, thanks to my trust in Jesus Christ.
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