As a young student, I spent kindergarten through eighth grade in three different rural schools. These schools were tiny–one in particular, where I attended half a year and was the only third grader in the entire school (yes, I’m serious). I joined up with the first and second graders. Our classroom picture shows seven smiling kids, the total for all three grades.
The next school I attended felt significantly larger–about 60 scholars in the whole school. We had two grades per classroom, with 10 to 15 kids in each room. And I graduated from eighth grade with four other people.
Like I said, tiny. I didn’t appreciate how tiny until my family moved and I found myself in an urban school, surrounded by a couple thousand strangers.
You may assume my educational experience suffered without hundreds of classmates; it didn’t. This was a great–and fun–way to get an education. Every student had individual attention, self-pacing, and an automatic spot in extra-curricular activities. We learned in an authentic kind of community I’ve never had since. It was pretty much impossible to fall through the cracks.
Thanks to school consolidation, the school where I celebrated eighth-grade graduation is now a community center owned by residents of the town of 200. Happily, it’s become a place to sustain the kind of community it fostered among its students.
A few years ago, the town hosted a 125th-anniversary celebration, including a banquet for school alumni. I wasn’t there, but I spotted a picture from the event on a friend’s Facebook page–a snapshot of 1980s alumni who attended. It was fun to recognize faces after nearly 30 years. It was also weird to look at adult versions of people I haven’t seen since I was 13. They were immortalized in my memory at what I now recognize as an awkward age.
I also felt a kind of nostalgic sadness at seeing them all grown up, with no idea what intervening chapters had been written in the lives of these people I had once known so well. I felt a twinge of longing to know them and their stories as I once had—and to be known myself. To have the kind of community I took for granted as a child.
Behind this longing was a desire we all share–to be known and loved in a way no community could truly satisfy. In a way that means we don’t have to explain ourselves, wonder whether we’re being misunderstood, or question whether we fit in.
Ironically, we are masters of disguise, skilled at blocking the very thing we want. We manage our images, hide our intentions, and cloak our desires in subtle manipulation. We want to be known, but we are bound by fear of unendurable rejection. We can’t live with the possibility of others’ pity, disrespect, or horror at our true selves.
The ultimate irony is in hiding from God. We all believe we can put our best soul forward, keeping parts of ourselves hidden from him. But we are known to him–comprehensively, devastatingly, stunningly, without limit. Better than we could ever stand to know ourselves. God knows us as we were, we are, and we will be. We’re longing for something we already have.
The Bible shows what happens when people find themselves known by God. Way back in the beginning, Adam and Eve were the first to discover shame, hiding from God when they felt their sin (Genesis 3:7-10). When God called her by name, Hagar found the fortitude to submit to her jealous mistress and raise her son in light of a hopeful future (Genesis 16). Jacob, patriarch of Israel’s 12 tribes, committed himself to a God who called him when he thought he was all alone (Genesis 28:10-22). Moses, disguised as an anonymous Egyptian in the wilderness, was transformed into a courageous and powerful leader when God called him by name (Exodus 2:16–3:10). Because God knew his heart, the young shepherd David became a great king and a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 16:1-13; Acts 13:22).
A young virgin, Mary, became history’s most blessed mother when she was called by name and told she had God’s favor (Luke 1:26-39). Nathanael became an instant disciple when he realized Jesus knew him (John 1:45-49). The woman Jesus met at a Samaritan well changed her village when she told them, “He told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:16-42). And Saul was transformed from oppressor to apostle (Acts 9:1-31) and the world’s most effective missionary.
God exposes us and validates the guilt we feel over sin. Yet he accepts us and validates us by removing our shame at his own expense–no one else can do that. God’s knowledge of us does not remove our need for relationships with fellow pilgrims. But it can take the edge off our expectations of other people. Armed with the assurance that we are known and accepted, unveiled and loved, we can let others in on chapters of our true stories, knowing we have great hope in the community we’ll enjoy someday. For “now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
© 2016 Amy Simpson.