I have an incredible network of women—spanning churches, cities, and even states—who I have had the privilege of growing to know as sisters over the last few years. In a society that tries to perpetuate the lie that women cannot build authentic community together, I am blessed to be doing life with countercultural women who are supportive, encouraging, ambitious, and always willing to hold me accountable to my destiny. We laugh, we cry, we pray, and we continually seek God in Scripture. Against the chaotic backdrop of current events and rise of social movements, many of our recent conversations have centered around inner healing, wholeness, dignity, worth, belonging, and acceptance in Christ.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with one of my sisters about a particular issue she was wrestling with and, after offering my prayers and advice, I encouraged her to seek the Lord about what was really going on beneath the surface. Some days later, she wrote me back and responded, saying:
I desire this feeling: to be. Because I know as soon as I walk out of my door...I am longer going to be whole. As soon as I step out of bed, I begin a slow path towards dismemberment. When I walk in the classroom, I need to leave my sexuality, body, emotions, and spirituality at the door. When I walk into the church, I need to leave my sexuality, womanhood, desire for physical intimacy, body, intelligence, boldness, blackness, and desire for justice at the door. When I walk into my relationship, I need to leave my sexuality, body, intelligence, boldness, voice, and emotions at the door. When I walk into my home and talk with my parents, I need to leave my emotions, sexuality, and voice at the door. It's not until I enter my room, close my door, and escape into the depths of quiet that I can pull all the pieces back together. All the pieces of myself that have been whitewashed, neglected, broken, attacked, rejected, unacknowledged, and unappreciated, and say: you matter. You're welcome here. I won't hide you or suppress you any longer. Because you, too, are worthy.
Her words stung with painful familiarity, because they reminded me of all the parts of myself I had once discarded in various places in my past—in broken relationships (romantic or otherwise), in painful memories, in instances of disappointment. I thought of all the facets of my identity—as Christian, as woman, as black, as an artist, and more—and how often I negotiated which parts of myself I could bring into any conversation or interaction with another person. Which parts of me will be accepted? Which parts do I leave behind?
More Christian than Black?
Something I have set out to do this year, by the grace of God, is make a more conscious effort to be all of who I am, all of the time. Before God and before people. In my first few years of really walking with the Lord, I remember preaching freedom and wholeness in Jesus Christ to others, all while robbing myself of fully experiencing these myself. My fear of rejection had me so stuck on pleasing others, I ended up rejecting myself and subjecting myself to the same pain I fought so hard to avoid. And those self-inflicted wounds cut deep. Freedom doesn’t look like exchanging one set of obvious chains for more obscure ones.
And yet, in church, I suppressed my heart for social justice because I didn’t think Christians (let alone God) would care or understand. I stifled my creativity and artistic expression because I didn’t think my ideas fit the mold of biblically-inspired art. I felt silenced regarding issues specific to women of color, because I had always been told “You’re more Christian than black!” or “You’re more Christian than you are a woman!” I understood the heart behind this sentiment: Jesus Christ is preeminent, and my allegiance to Him surpasses any allegiance to shifting cultures or traditions. But it placed my identity at odds with Christ and ultimately affected the way I related to people and most importantly, to Him. I was never my whole self in relationships with people. And I never talked to God about my blackness, my womanhood, my artwork, or any desires that did not seem explicitly connected with church life because I thought all these parts of me were irrelevant to Him.
The church acts like our identities (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) are a product of the fall instead of a consequence of divine creation. But all humans are masterpieces, created in the image of God, purposed to reflect His glory in the earth. Our identities are based on the intentionality of Heaven, and although they have been marred by sin, Jesus is on a mission to restore us completely. Our longings for freedom, love, justice, beauty, intimacy, and significance are God-given desires hardwired in our DNA, and can never be fully satisfied apart from Him.
What I am saying is this: My blackness and womanhood are not antithetical. My identity as a Nigerian woman is as much a part of God’s plan for my life as was His plan for my salvation. He didn’t save me in spite of being a Nigerian woman; He is redeeming every part of my identity and rooting it in Him. My artwork matters to Him. My relationships matter to Him. My personality, my sense of humor, my hobbies, my questions, and my concerns all have a seat at His table.
A Seat at the Table, with Christ.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” — Psalm 23:5
There is space for all of me at the table with Christ. I’m not talking about a cheap gospel that accommodates biases or even sin, I’m talking about a radical understanding that Jesus desires to permeate every area of our lives. He wants to talk to us about our sexuality. He wants to talk to us about our dreams. We are to be hidden in Christ, not hidden from Him.
Feast on God - through prayer, worship, reading the Word, writing, singing, painting or connecting with community. At His table, every longing to be deeply known and fully loved is satisfied. At His table, we can feed our souls with His truth, and starve out every need for pretense to cope with the pressures and accusations from society, people or circumstances. At His table, we allow His redemptive power run its course, heal every wound, and purify our hearts. At His table, we can simply be.
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” — Timothy Keller