MIKE FOSTER Guest Post: Don’t Let Past Mistakes Define You

My dignity as Abba’s child is my most coherent sense of self– Brennan Manning

In January 1998, Monica Lewinsky found herself in way over her head. Her face was on the front page of every newspaper, and each new day seemed to bring one more humiliation.  She was 25 years old – and caught in a presidential sex scandal.  She had no idea what was coming.

Today, at the age of 38, she’s still caught.  Single, alone, and running out of options, she’s the butt of jokes, the object of stares – the easy sexual punchline.  Seventeen years later.

Most of us are not former presidential interns.  Most of us haven’t had our decisions scrutinized by pundits and talk-show hosts.  And most of us haven’t had an affair with the most powerful man on the planet. We’re nothing like Ms. Lewinsky.  Or are we?

How many of us live with embarrassment about secrets that got out?  Or betrayal from past lovers and friends?  Or fear that someone will recognize us as a fraud?  Or hopelessness, brought on by repeated failures?  I’m willing to bet Ms. Lewinsky knows what that’s like, and I’m willing to bet more than a few of us do too.

Those of us caught in embarrassment, betrayal, fear, and hopelessness are living with a label that lies. We live branded by things that happened years – maybe even decades – before. And as a society, we are 100% percent OK with letting that label stick.

Maybe you’ve heard or said things like:

“He’s the pastor that was bangin’ his secretary and then ran off with her.”

“Isn’t she the one that was hooked on prescription drugs and went crazy?”

“Remember, that’s the pervert youth pastor that was caught looking at porn at work.”

In our desperate need to understand each other and place people in context, we attach permanent labels – usually from the dirtiest and most controversial part of the story.  Sometimes the label is attached to others, and sometimes it is a label we believe about ourselves.  Either way, the label lies, strips away our complex humanity, and falls short of describing who we really are.

Grace is the second chance that erases labels for others, and it’s the permission to move on that we give ourselves. And yet, grace is so scarce.  It’s disappearing, and its disappearance is leaving an army of wounded “has-beens” and “screw-ups” in its wake.

In grace’s absence, we instead choose to label.  Our culture thrives on devouring the Monica’s, the Haggard’s, and the Michael Vick’s, replaying their past mistakes for a quick fix of pleasure and entertainment. It makes us feel good to think that people have flaws worse than ours; it feeds the insecurity caused by our own labels.

So what can we do?  For one thing, we can stop kicking people when they’re down.  We can start skipping the water cooler, deleting the emails, and raising our voice on behalf of second chances.  When someone seeks to label another soul, we can speak up on their behalf.

We can start risking our own “personal brand” to encourage the downtrodden and defend life’s outcasts.  In fact, People of the Second Chance was started to do just that – tear down the labels of a Vulture Culture and replace them with a culture of grace and second chances.

Of course, this is all utterly impossible if we can’t rediscover our own identity in grace.  Giving someone a second chance starts with giving ourselves a second chance.  It means stripping away the labels that we wear and finding the truth of who we are in grace.  I’m sorry, but you can’t give what you haven’t first received. The strength to forgive others and forgive ourselves comes from finding our identity as the one God forgave first.  In the face of that grace, labels are shattered.  In the face of that grace, dehumanization crumbles.  And in the face of that grace, someone like Monica Lewinsky stops being the punchline.


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