“You keep stopping.” Ms. Youshiura, my piano teacher of 3 years, nodded towards my fingers, which had stuttered to a halt after messing up the third movement of Clementi’s Sonatina Op. 36 in C Major–for the fifth time. Taking in another shuddery wet breath (I was on the verge of tears by this point), I tried again.
It was no use. My fingers would start off okay, tapping to the metronome’s beat, but then a finger would slip off, trip into the wrong key like hitting a black wall, and soon they would freeze altogether and I couldn’t go on. My whole world contracted into the three notes I couldn’t get past as I played them over and over again, panic rising. This wasn’t practice. This was punishment, and every discordant slam of the keys told me can’t, can’t, can’t.
I was 13, and I had started taking piano lessons at first just to learn the Star Wars theme song, but then I realized I loved the instrument itself. Now I regretted it all. My hands didn’t whisper melodies over the keys like the players I saw on YouTube. Instead they battled them until my wrist grew sore, fingers gnarled and red. And with each mistake, I turned the full force of my frustration upon myself because I hated that I couldn’t even get through one movement of one piece.
After yet another failed attempt, Ms. Youshiura turned to me. I could see there was no pity in her eyes even as I averted mine. But there was a gentle firmness trundled into her next words:
“You cannot stop every time you make a mistake. If it was a real performance and you made a mistake, you would have to keep going, and other people may not even notice or make a big deal of it. But here as well, you have to play the piece to the end. You have to play it through.”
Those words have come up a lot lately. I’m in a sophomore year of sorts in work, in ministry, in that twenties-something season, and I’ve found that it’s been all too easy to get frustrated with my surroundings–and with myself. I came into grad school with so many big ambitions and then saw them contested and altered to the point where I felt I was in limbo. I’ve seen work projects planned and failed, friendships fade, and my continuing bouts with singleness blues.
Not only that, but I keep stumbling along the same fault lines. I say “I’ll stop doing X God!” (fill in X with anything from emotional eating to judging people to being a selfish friend) and I doggedly do well for awhile. But then when I inevitably mess up, I resign to being miserably stuck in place, stuck in guilt until the cycle restarts. I’ll call it “repentance” when it’s really just a disguise for hurt pride.
See, I’m someone who retreats when something gets too hard or I hit a wall because I get locked in the “not enough” game. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t care enough. I fixate on everything wrong with me because in some warped way I believe it’s more Christian-y to list out my sins with citations and a three-page bibliography of examples (because even in my sin I’m a nerd). At least that means I’m self-aware! Or so I believed…
But a friend recently reminded me (with a gracious bluntness I admire) that my line of thinking is NOT humility. Not only that, but it isn’t of the Gospel either.
When I mess up or experience failure, I should not be drawing further into myself–whether it’s to blame myself or muster up the energy to do better. When I do this, I’m taking all the work of me becoming more like Jesus…out of Jesus’ hands. And it’s exhausting. No wonder I feel like I freeze in place when I screw up–it’s the natural conclusion!
Instead the Gospel tells me that while I’m going to wrestle with my sin nature and still hurt myself and others many more times, it’s not up to me to maintain my own goodness. I’m a human container of distorted will and less-than-advisable choices…but Jesus chose to save me. He chooses to love me everyday, especially when I feel most unlovable, and there’s nothing I can do to refund him for an eternity of promise.
God’s grace is received, not grasped as if it’s something we earn and must cling to through our good acts because we’re afraid it will slip through our all-too-human fingers. And the natural conclusion of contact with God’s grace is freedom, not self-condemnation. Not freedom to do whatever we want or even freedom from suffering because we are not entitled to easy lives (note: don’t follow Jesus if you want an easy life). Instead we are freed from the pressure to perfect ourselves. We are freed from having to struggle through life’s seasons of frustration alone, and we are freed to continue in that race and share the hope we have for the future. The same words Jesus told his worried disciples before he even went to the Cross applies to us today:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
Persistence is knowing you’re going to trip but choosing not to stop because the finish line can’t be reached if your eyes are fixed on what’s behind you. Now, I don’t know when or where my finish line is, but I follow Jesus into that unknown, trusting that his goodness, his faithfulness is more than enough to sustain and grow my sliver of faith. And grow I will.
I know this life’s movement has beauty even through the stumbling, and every single day I’m called to play it through, play it through, play it through.
In case you were wondering, I did manage to get through the third movement of Clementi’s Sonatina in C Major. Here’s 13-year-old Joanna at it again:
If you can relate to anything I’ve shared, be encouraged today. You’re not alone, and even when you feel like giving up or nothing’s changing, I pray you know how dearly loved you are. Your life was bought at the price of Jesus’ life because he believes you are worth it. He has already made you worthy, and nothing can change that.