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The Good Girl


I remember hearing the old familiar hymn as a child, “Jesus Paid It All.” As I stood amongst a chorus of voices in that small church with its red pews and a wooden cross that hung above the altar, I sang along to the words, not fully comprehending the weight of their meaning.

I found my acceptance in being a “good girl.” If the teacher said, Stay seated and quiet,” I didn’t move. I sat with hands folded in my lap against my corduroy overalls. Still enough that my seat wouldn’t make the slightest creak.  Still even when my teacher left the room. I crossed the street at crosswalks only. I was obedient to the law, reverent of authority, bordering to the point of fear. Not perfect because no one is, but not a rule breaker by any means.

I was well into my adulthood before I realized there was a lie nestled in the core of my heart. The lie that God loved me based on my performance. He loved me and approved of me when I behaved, when I agreed and didn’t voice my opinion. Or when I kept the rules, went to church and read my bible enough and prayed enough–all of the things on my exhausting and self-created checklist. At some point, the lie knocked on the door of my heart asking to be believed, and I flung the door wide open and gave it a room.

“God, search my heart,” I prayed. Like that spotlight search bar on my computer. Search my heart for what is stored in there that I am unaware of, downloaded and forgotten about, but now affecting every aspect of my life drenched in shame.

I saw it one day in my mind at a women’s retreat like a time travel glimpse into the past. I saw the little girl version of myself standing before my father. I saw the tears in his eyes. The face marked with sadness, which as an adult, I understand with time and clarity. But as a little girl, I misinterpreted as otherwise. There must be something wrong with me, I thought. Sarah causes pain.  So I strived to be a good girl. And this exhausting effort seemed to work for a while. I could at least try and mostly succeed at being on my best behavior.

Until one day, curiosity climbed from the passenger seat to the driver’s side, giving way to the temptation that now dominated the fear and need for approval. I found that even the good girl has a rebellious heart. Prone to wander into the dark, despite being warned about dangers that might meet me there. Prone to wander just because I can.

On one warm September night that I never saw coming, it all changed. Suddenly I found myself sitting in a detainment room with my hands folded in the lap of my beige cotton jumpsuit, the uniform color in the county of my confinement. Sentenced to the Ohio Department of Corrections, a foreign term I would become fluent in.

And now what, God? No more of the good girl. She has exited left of center stage. Show over. Curtains on that act. A disastrous ending. She couldn’t keep the rules anyway.

The old hymn of my youth played out quietly in the memory of my heart, where lies and truth collide.