Dear 18-year-old self...

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I was only halfway listening when she asked me her question again.  I looked up from scrolling through Instagram, closed my eyes, and tried to fully concentrate on her words this time.  

"Mommy, what about you?  If you could go back to any time in your life, what age would you choose?" Now this was an intriguing question.  I thought for about a minute and then said with confident resolve: "I would choose to be 18 again.  Right before graduation, with my whole life ahead of me. BUT, I would absolutely want to take my current 39-year-old brain back with me."  

After putting my girls to bed later that evening, I took a few minutes to really consider what I would tell my younger self.  What exactly would I want that sweet and fairly naïve, 18-year-old, good ole Southern-Baptist girl to know?  

This required me to think back to the way I saw myself, the world and God.  At eighteen, I had it together on the outside.  I could check all the external boxes of “goodness.”  I made excellent grades.  I went to church at least twice each week.  I didn’t cheat on school assignments/tests.  I didn’t use foul language, smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs.  I obeyed my parents, and never even once snuck out of their house.  I worked and tithed exactly 10% on my earnings.  I was responsible, dutiful, and so on…

I played by the rules and thought everyone else should as well.  So, I was constantly comparing my goodness to the goodness of others.  How many boxes did THEY have checked?  What were THEY doing that was sinful?  Much like the account of James and John found in Luke 9, I would not have hesitated a hot minute to ask Jesus to call down fire on those who got out of line with my very narrow interpretation of Christianity, which incidentally, looked a whole lot like a morality-based religion.

You see, I believed IN Jesus, but somewhere along the way, I began to think that I could live in a way where I didn’t really NEED Jesus.  

I viewed God singularly through the lens of the Old Testament – all judgment, fire, and brimstone, constantly upset and disappointed with me.  As a believer, I was under a new covenant, but for some crazy reason, I was living by the rules of the old one.  

In the quiet moments the night after my daughter had asked me that question, I began to think about my journey of the last 21 years.  I began to bubble over with some poignantly-won spiritual truths.  I know we could all probably write a book on this subject, filled with advice and wisdom for our younger selves, but I’ve chosen to focus on some deeper-set beliefs - those heart values that guided not only my behaviors, but my daily thought-life.

Dear 18-year-old self,

1.    You ARE already loved.  Stop trying to measure up, struggling to earn God’s love and approval by being good.  You can never be good enough.  The Good News of Jesus Christ is NOT about YOUR goodness.  There was only one perfect human being – Jesus Christ.  It is about HIS goodness.  It all hinges on Him.  This is not an excuse to sin, but it is a reason to stop trying so dang hard to be perfectly right all the time.  

2.    You’ve got the Holy Spirit.  You’ve also got an inner critic.  They are NOT the same.  Learn to distinguish between them.  The voice of your inner critic is relentless.  It heaps doubt, shame, guilt, and condemnation on you. This is NOT the voice of God. If you listen to this voice, you will be imprisoned in anxiety, fear, depression, accusation and guilt.  

When the Holy Spirit speaks, He is kind.  He doesn’t wound or accuse.  His voice pierces the darkness, bringing hope.  He moves and speaks in loves and in peace.  He occasionally asks questions that divide the motives of your heart.  Listen for this voice. Get to know this voice. Cultivate a relationship with this voice.  This voice will bring wisdom, understanding, and life.  

3.    Amazing Grace wasn’t just a one-time event for you.  This life-giving grace is available every single moment of every single day.  Ask for it when you wake up in the morning.  Use it when you drive to work and school.  Walk in it.  Refuse to do life without it.  Stay in a place with God where you can receive it continually.  You’re going to make messes.  Grace is where Jesus meets you in the middle of your mess.

4.    Stop feeling like you need to know everything and speak it.  Cultivate the humility to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers.  You don’t need to have a fixed opinion on everything.  You are not a politician or a theologian.  Relax, you will never have all the answers.  But God does, and the Holy Spirit will reveal what you need when you need it.  

5.    The world is NOT black and white.  There is plenty of gray.  Please give yourself and those around you the freedom to be in the gray. Let the Holy Spirit lead you through the gray.  He is enough, and you don’t have anything to prove.

6.    About your career path.  It’s not about the money you’ll make.  It’s about what makes your heart sing.  What is the one thing that you would wake up every morning to do, even if you never got paid for doing it?  Figure that out now, before you have obligations, before you have people who rely on you.  Choose something that you can’t possibly accomplish by yourself.  Choose something that only God can do.  Go big.  Go all in.  What is that dream God has placed in your heart?  Do that thing.

And I saved the MOST important one for last.  Seriously.  ;-)

7.    Please don’t wear jean overalls.  Listen to me on this.  I know your freshman year of college, you will think it’s cute and trendy, but do yourself a favor and just say no.  You will not ever regret sitting out this fashion crime, err I mean, trend. 

It’s with a tinge of sorrow that I look back on my younger self that had so little grace for others and even less for herself.  So I share these words with a fervent prayer that no matter your age, they will encourage, enlighten, and possibly shorten your journey toward an abiding kindness for yourself and for others.  I know I’m not alone when I say, “Thank God, I’m not who I once was.”  All glory to the Father who is never satisfied to leave us in our current state.  May you say yes to Him as He calls you into a deeper relationship with Himself. 

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Jennifer Greene is passionate about inspiring and empowering believers through the study and application of God's Word.  She and her husband Jordan have two daughters and have been members of The River since 2012.  One of the many hats she currently wears is that of Discipleship & Assimilation Intern here at the River.  You can find out more about her at www.jennifergreene.org.