by Liz Johnson
It was following me everywhere.
I couldn’t figure it out. It smelled halfway like a porta potty at a July music festival and halfway like my freshman brother’s bedroom. The whole day became almost a waste; the words out of my professors’ mouths were muffled and distant and I kept trying to sneakily lean over to find out if one of my nearby classmates was the perpetrator of the stench. It followed me into my car and drove with me all the way home, but later that day it disappeared. I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t me. Even the next day, when my hair was smelling of Pantene Pro-V and my sweater was straight from the drier, the stench followed me to school and followed me back again.
And then I discovered it. I unzipped the small front pocket of my backpack in search of a writing utensil – the smell was almost paralyzing. I had thrown the delicious piece of string cheese in my backpack for a little afternoon snack and had abandoned it for days – possibly weeks. Now it sloshed around in cheese juice, soft and squishy in the plastic wrapper. Before I lost everything I had previously eaten up to that point, I sprinted to dump the putrid snack in garage trash bin. But it’s presence still lingered, permeating my section of the house and saturating my trusty backpack. Even after scrubbing it with a soapy rag and airing it out on the deck and drowning it in Febreeze, I still had to stuff the pocket with dryer sheets for a week before I could bear to wear it around in public again. Sometimes I still feel like I didn’t quite do enough.
There are some things that we just can’t seem to shake. It’s the ugly reactions when we’re stressed, or the controlling tendencies when we sense that someone’s not doing it right, or the angry words that spew from our mouths in conflict. We see our downfalls, we smell the stench and we scrub. We work to clean it, to get rid of it. We feel like we’re making progress, like our lives and our personalities and our character are becoming less shameful and more beautiful, but then something happens. We have an outburst, or we hurt someone we love, or we believe a lie about ourselves – or about God. The progress seems lost and our lives and relationships seem permeated with that stench again.
Through this, in the muck and the mire of my failings, in the shame of my old habits and in the reality of my humanity, this is when the beauty of God’s grace is overwhelming. His forgiveness and favor are overpoweringly sweet and uncanny. Psalm 103: 11-12 says, “For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.” It’s in these moments of weakness and frustration that these words become real to us, felt in us. God is at work in our lives, maturing us and sanctifying us through His Spirit; at the same time, He sees us as spotless, sinless and stench-less. His love for us, His delight in us is not shaken by the ugliness of our mistakes. Or the week-old cheese in our backpacks.