On the Privilege of Feeling Disqualified

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to feel disqualified.

We all do it at some point. We look at our pasts, our weaknesses, or our circumstances and we see that, compared to our dreams, goals, and aspirations, we are woefully inadequate. Laughably so.

What’s that, Emily? You want to write a book? About the one topic that NO ONE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD wants to read about?

*derisive snort*

You silly girl.

But this, my friends, is a perfect example of irony, which, according to Google, is “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects.”

Allow me to explain.

Last week I sat down with two friends to hear their stories.

{For a bit of context, the project I’m working on (it feels too weird to say “the book I’m writing”) includes the telling of sexual abuse survivor stories. This is not a thinly-veiled request for you to cover both the project and me as I’m writing it in prayer, but if you want to take it as such that’s fine with me.}

With the first friend, I had heard enough of her story to expect it to be similar to my own. I’ll not get into the details, but I could not have been more wrong. Strangely enough, out of all the stories I’ve written so far, hers has been the easiest. Yet as I write I am constantly aware of how very different our stories are, of how very little I can draw from my own experience to relate to hers. I have a voice in my head continually whispering, “You will never do her story justice. You cannot offer your reader even the faintest glimpse of what she has overcome.”

A few days after hearing the first story, I sat down with another friend. Actually, I don’t know if I can call S a friend quite yet. We’ve barely had the opportunity to spend any time together at all, but when I told her about a second project – one that has nothing to do with sexual abuse but that also involves writing other people’s stories – she immediately agreed to participate. With S I had no idea what to expect. I knew she’d been in prison for a lot of years, but I could only guess at why. To see S is to see a hard-working, faithful, and bold daughter of God whose gifts and callings are clearly evident. Nothing in her person or manner would suggest that she was or had ever been anything different than that.

Appearances, as they say, can be deceiving. Sometimes beautifully so.

The story S told me began at age 4 or 5, when a man – several men, actually – in her mother’s social circle began molesting her. By 7 or 8 she was being raped regularly by her older step-brother and then later her step-father. At 12, after her mother had gone to prison on drug convictions and the physical violence in her home had escalated to the point that she feared for her life, she finally told a counselor what had been happening.

By that time she was pregnant with good ol’ step-dad’s baby.

Both she and her younger sister were immediately placed in foster care, where just a few months after her 13th birthday S delivered and decided to keep her baby daughter.

But by then the pattern of abuse and misuse was too well established in S’s life to turn back. She couldn’t have known which way to turn, anyway. She’d never known a different way.

So began a cycle in S’s life: she ran away, became addicted to drugs, and began prostituting herself. The system would find her, drag her back, and place her in another home, another shelter. But she always ran away again – back to the drugs, back to the prostitution, even back to her step-dad, because at least his abuse was familiar. Her parental rights were terminated, her little girl was adopted, and S continued on as she was until age 15.

When she killed two people who had picked her up for sex.

Does your heart hurt yet? I know mine does.

S was convicted and sentenced to serve 10 years with 15 years of probation. The judge, in his mercy, took her life story into account when deciding the sentence, called everything she had endured “mitigating circumstances” and decided she should only 10 years rather than the full 25. With good behavior she could have been out in 3 ½.

She served 12.

In those 12 years S earned the dubious honor of being the worst behaved inmate in her prison’s history; her number of write-ups, rule violations, and disciplinary problems far surpassed anyone else’s.

At the end of those 12 years, can you guess what S did? If you’re like me, you’ll say you hope she turned her life around and became a productive and rehabilitated citizen. That’s what the system is for, right?

But S’s freedom, if you could call it that, lasted a little less than 2 years, and in that time she gave birth to a baby that was addicted to 4 different drugs, shared needles every day with at least one person with full blown AIDS, and supported her drug habit with prostitution.

Our God is MIGHTY
Arms widespread for all who seek
To trust in Him
Is STRENGTH, renewal
To rest in Him is rest, complete

From the back of the police car the night she was arrested again, she cried out to God.

And He met her there.

Her life, literally – unbelievably – from that very moment, has never been the same.

I wish I could explain to you the fantastical beauty of her encounter with God, the sheer power of it, the incredible, incomprehensible glory of the day she met Jesus Christ for the first time. You who have known a glimpse of it would weep with me.

You who have not would weep as well, with longing to be loved so much.

The rest of her story is too beautiful for this writer to tell, but I will say it includes supernatural healing, deliverance, and the miraculous restoration of her life and family. She is a walking testament of the unconditional love of God.

So what does all of this have to do with feeling disqualified? Well, when I asked S what her goals are now, I expected her to tell me about bettering her education and starting a career. Only 9 months out of prison after serving an additional 8 years, she has made remarkable progress. She started a business called “She Does Odd Jobs with Integrity” that keeps her as busy as she would like. She’s also taking classes at TCC to learn a trade that will give her job security and marketable skills. After spending much of her adolescence and all of her adulthood up to this point in prison, she’s made great strides to do things the rest of us take for granted: learning to drive, holding a job, paying taxes. She has been blessed with emotional, practical, and spiritual support through two couples that volunteer with Standing in the Gap Ministries to walk alongside “women in transition” from prison to the outside world. Her future is bright with possibility; I expected her goals to reflect as much.

But you know what she said? “My goal is to keep serving the Lord, to be obedient and to do what He’s called me to do.”

I think of my own story, of the choices I’ve made that left me feeling weak and ashamed, that convinced me that I could never serve God in a meaningful way because look what I had done. Yet here was a woman who, by both the world’s and Christian standards, had never done anything “right” in her entire life. She has no track record with which to convince God that she is “worthy.” She had not a single thing to offer God except what He had provided for her.

Yet she does not feel disqualified. She instead knows she’s called, and in her own words, feels such a reverence for the Holy God who saved her that she can do nothing but be obedient to that calling.

And this is where it hits me: my feelings of disqualification are based on the false notion that I could have somehow earned my qualification if only. Telling myself I’m disqualified to serve God is the same as saying, “If I had not done this or that I would have been qualified – based on my own works, on my own merit, but alas, I blew it.” Even saying that my limited talent or skills make me disqualified is to believe that, if it were up to me, I could have have chosen a better person for the job God has called me to do.

Being qualified to fulfill the purposes of God in my life has nothing to do with what I’ve done and EVERYTHING to do with what Jesus did. The work He has done in me and for me is enough. To feel disqualified is to reject that work and to say that I could have somehow done it better.

S knows that, and I think I know it at different times, but so far removed am I from the transformative, regenerative, saving grace of God in my life, I find it easy to forget.

Oh, Jesus, I think. Your love truly is long-suffering.

So now, I write, knowing full well that HE has made me both qualified and capable of doing this thing He’s called me to do. It is not up to me to regard the difficulty of it, or it’s perceived senselessness, but only to obey.

I will write.

But I have to ask: What will you do?

– Emily


2 thoughts on “On the Privilege of Feeling Disqualified

  1. I can’t wait to read your book. There aren’t enough words to describe what these stories stir in my heart. Love you.

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