Head Stands, Summer Jobs, and Psalm 51

This morning on the way to church, a local pop radio station was playing in the car and introduced the Jason Derulo song “The Other Side” with a story on Derulo’s background.

Apparently, in January 2012, the singer fractured his neck while practicing a dance routine, leaving him with a neck brace and a cancelled concert tour. A year later, in spring 2013, he released a music video for “The Other Side” including a hands-free head stand. In an interview, Derulo shared:

“I wanted to go to the extreme…I wanted to do something that showed the strength of where I’ve come from…’What can I do to show that I am good, to show that I am on the next level and I’m ready to continue?'”

It sounds like an inspiring recovery story. And it is. From head injury to head stand is an impressive journey.

But in those words — “What can I do to show that I am good…?” — I hear a classic case of mistaken identity.

I’ve had a very mistaken identity sometimes. For instance, I once messed some things up at a summer job and mentally vowed to go back the following summer, maybe even in a leadership position, “to show that I am good, to show that I am on the next level and I’m ready to continue.” We all do it. We fail tests and lose sports games and hurt our friends/family, and we vow to do better next time.

Fast forward an hour this morning, and I was at church hearing a sermon about repentance, based on Psalm 51. Usually, the pastor said, we respond to sin with remorse and resolution, in which remorse says “I can’t believe I did that!” and resolution says “I’ll fix it” (or justify it, do better next time, etc.). But what if we can’t quite fix it? Or we don’t do better next time? Or even if we can fix it or do better next time, what kind of burden does that place on our hearts and minds to believe that we must redeem ourselves?

Perhaps, the pastor suggested, instead of dwelling in remorse, we should acknowledge the reality of our sinfulness. Perhaps, instead of chasing after resolution, we should let God sanctify us.

In Psalm 51 King David could have said “I just keep wishing that never happened.” But he acknowledged that it happened, saying “I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:3). He could have said, “I’ll create in me a pure heart, God. And I’ll renew a steadfast spirit within me. Really, I swear I will!” But he let God sanctify him, saying “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

He could have worked hard for a long time until he was able to perform head stands and summer jobs, like Jason Derulo and I did. That would have had 2 effects: put pressure on him (i.e. “I’d better be able to do this head stand/job/whatever…”) and brought glory to him (i.e. “Check it out! I did a head stand/job/whatever”). But he didn’t. He pursued joy not pressure, saying “Restore to me the joy of your salvation,” and pursued glory for God not self, saying “open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:12,15).

Certainly, I’m glad Jason Derulo’s neck is better. But did he feel like he had to do a head stand to prove that it’s better? And I’m glad I did well and had a good time with my summer job re-do. But did I feel like I had to do it to prove that I was better? Is there something you think you have to do to prove that you’re better?

There’s nothing wrong with pursuing improvement. But you are not defined by improvement.

In our world of self-help books and weight loss programs, promotions and pay raises, that statement is absolutely crazy. So I’m just going to say it again: you are not defined by improvement.   

This means, if you don’t improve, you’re not suddenly worse in God’s eyes…and, if you do improve, you’re not suddenly better in God’s eyes. As I’ve heard it said, God can’t possible love us any less or any more.

Taking on that same attitude, we can try to show ourselves and our friends/family the grace of not needing to improve but being free to improve by God’s leading.

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