What They Think

He put his hands on both of my shoulders, and I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Not only were too many people watching, but I was fairly certain my pastor would have never done this. We had known each other a week, he, an Afrikaans preacher with a serious Pentacostal bent, I, a Bible-believing Baptist with an aversion to the emotion on constant display. I, who had never considered myself the most conservative of my church family, was an absolute ram-rod of morals in comparison to every other person present at the conference.

He took a keen interest in my belief system and was forever asking why. I had always answered conservatively, intensely aware that we could not possibly agree and that he had several decades on me in years and life experience.

Despite our constant discussions, the closest I had come to disagreeing with him openly was over a dessert I refused to sample.

“Why will you not eat it?” he asked.

“I know I will not like it.”

“How will you know if you do not try it?”

“I have sampled cakes like this before, it is always a disappointment. They are too light.” I wrinkled my nose. “Like eating a sponge.”

“I think they are delicious.”

“That’s ok, I think I’ll pass.” I laughed.

“Why are you always so certain?” he looks at me with humor, “What if you are wrong?”

“If I am?”

“You won’t know until you try.”

I paused and narrowed my eyes. “Are we still talking about the food?”

He only laughed.

Now, a week later, he was leaving the conference, and he wanted to pray with everyone. We had joined hands in a ring and prayed for each other and his journey. I stood in the ring awkwardly, imagining what my church friends would think if they were listening. Afterwards, he asked if he could pray for me.

“I feel certain that we have met for a reason,” he told me, his blue eyes twinkling under his silver brows. I felt the eyes of the entire assembly on me. He bowed his head, and I focused on the tile under my feet, self-conscious and embarrassed that everyone was listening to his personal prayer for me. I felt stiff and unnatural, and his hands seemed incredibly heavy.

“Lord, thank you for this young lady…” he started.
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I felt my face flush, and I tried not to imagine what the others were thinking. “Use her in a mighty way, O Lord, and may she be set free from what others think.” I stopped listening. Instead, the words rang in my ears, free from what others think. Long after his last ‘amen’ and his last goodbye, the words stuck with me, echoing at strange points of the night or day.

He meant that he wished I would join into their soulful worship. He meant that he wished I would be more a part of the conference proceedings and not always be so aloof. Maybe he could see the iron grip that my self-consciousness had on my freedom to just… be.
I knew, however, that God had used him to put a finger on my motivations. How could he know that I kept many of my standards because of this fear? Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe it was God directing his lips.

How can a person possibly be free of what people think? I don’t think he knew that as he said the words, my heart yearned for that kind of freedom.

That was two years ago, in the sweltering heat of a Thai summer. I’m still not completely free, but I hear his words sometimes in that Afrikaans accent, praying for me. I thought of him today especially, when someone said to me, “That’s what I like about you, you are just yourself, you don’t care what other people think.”

I had flashed back and blushed heavily at the praise, wondering if it was any more true than it had been all those years ago. Perhaps it wasn’t, but perhaps I’ve learned the secret to not letting it choke me.

Empathy and Love for others. When you love others more than you love your image, it makes you do silly things, awkward things that reach across the distance and touch a person with the effort. You become so focused on them and their comfort that yours becomes secondary.You know what makes a person feel awkward and foolish, and you look for opportunities to take that awkwardness and foolishness upon yourself, to share that burden.

Love for God. When you learn that God is your highest calling and your soul’s greatest treasure, you tend to do awkward, uncomfortable things to obey Him. Well, at least try to. When He tells you to kneel, you kneel. When He tells you to walk up to a stranger to give them a tract, you do. When He tells you to go across the world, you go.

Experience. When you realize that no one else cares nearly as much about it as you do, you see that nothing should stop you from picking flowers, crossing streets, making faces at your friends across the room, and enjoying every single moment as they come. There is right and wrong, and then there are those moments in between, the moments of extra joy that God gives, and I would hold myself back from for fear. Fear of what people think.

I don’t want it anymore. I want that freedom of obedience and unbridled joy. You control yourself for their sake and to honor God, but never because you’re afraid.
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