I left my dignity at the altar one night.
I had been sitting in the dimly lit sanctuary during that Sunday evening worship service watching my three-year-old son dance in the aisles to every song. He was the only one dancing in a roomful of expressiveness-challenged Minnesotans, but that didn’t stop him.
I didn’t feel that free. My mind and heart had been on overload in recent weeks, bearing a heavier-than-normal weight of self-consciousness. Lately it seemed that nearly every move I made, every word I spoke, was leaving me feeling raw, exposed. It was as if the simple act of being alive meant being quite vulnerable. Not vulnerable to the dangers of mortality, but rather as if my every word and action was a boldness, a risk that put my very self out in the open, on display and eligible for evaluation. It wasn’t that I was feeling judged by anyone. It was just an unusually heightened awareness that to be myself, to be at all, means to risk my reputation, and that sometimes, whether due to my own mistakes or to the perceptions and misperceptions of others, my reputation will be tarnished. It’s unavoidable.
I knew that to have my reputation damaged did not have to equal allowing my sense of self to be damaged. No, that is the part over which I do have control. But to live completely free from fear of what other people might think of me? And to still feel just as confident? It felt like such a foreign concept to try to wrap my mind around, though God’s been working on this with me for years. Yet during these past few weeks it was like God was leaving me no choice. He was somehow stripping away whatever false sense of security that I derived from having people’s approval and leaving me to take hold of what remained— just a naked, raw soul whose worth lies solely in being created, redeemed and cherished by the Creator.
That evening as I watched my son bound through the aisles with his arms outstretched to God, I was reminded of King David and the time he danced “undignified” for the Lord (2 Samuel 6). The newly crowned king was celebrating with reckless abandon because the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the very presence of God, was being brought to reside within the walls of his own city, the City of David. David had already seen God do mighty things. He had even been allowed to participate in the mighty acts of God in some really powerful and humbling ways. And now, God was coming to dwell with him! Him, who not long ago was a lowly shepherd boy.
So David “danced before the Lord with all his might,” it says. Can you imagine what it would look like to see someone dancing with all their might? To Saul’s dignified daughter, who was watching from a window, it looked ridiculous, shameful even. So much so that she despised him for it, and later chastised him for making a fool of himself, “half naked”, in front of the people. Many of us, if we weren’t already self-conscious about having made a display like David’s, would certainly feel embarrassed after that. But David did not become embarrassed. Do you know what his response was to being told he looked ridiculous in front of the people? “It was before the Lord,” he said, not before the people, that he was dancing. And he became even more emboldened to worship the Lord with all he had. “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these [people] you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” This man cared more about praising God passionately and being himself authentically than he did about what he looked like to anyone. He would gladly make a fool of himself for the God he loved and who had bestowed such great love upon him first. He was willing to sacrifice his reputation for God. He also trusted that ultimately people would actually respect him more for it, at least the people whose opinions matter.
For years I’ve been fascinated by David’s episode of indignity. I think it’s because I’ve so longed to be that brave but so often find myself unable to let go of my insecurity and my desire for approval. I knew, even years ago, that one day I’d write about this, about letting go of “dignity” and worshipping with reckless abandon. That one day, God willing, I’d own it. But up until now I’ve never been able to bring myself to do so, or even to really study that passage of Scripture, because I felt so far from ready to be that brave.
All these thoughts were flowing through my mind that Sunday night, and then the pastor stood up and talked about Letting Go. She told us that there was a pile of rocks at the end of the aisle and we were instructed to each take one as we thought about a particular burden we’ve been carrying. We were to carry our rocks up to the altar and leave them at the foot of the cross as a symbol of the burden we were choosing that night to let go of. I felt distracted and disconnected, having spent the service lost in my own thoughts, and I tried to fish around my brain for a “burden” in my life that I could use for this exercise, but I was coming up short. As I walked up to the rock pile, I saw a large white stone, and as soon as I saw it, I knew: My Dignity. That’s what I need to let go of. The need for approval. The desire to preserve my reputation. It’s just too heavy for me to carry. I’m tired of it.
I had always known I had to let it go eventually, but I hadn’t expected it to be that night. It seemed sudden. I hadn’t known that I’d come to church that night with my dignity and return home without it. But why not now? Something in me said it was time.
So I picked up a big, white rock, walked up to the altar, and told God he could have my dignity.
That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? A “dangerous prayer”, as I often call those kinds of things. But though I felt bare, I also felt safe. Because the thing is, God is not a stealer of dignity. He’s not out to make us look like a fool. God is the Giver of dignity. He bestows immeasurable value upon us by creating us, because he believes we were worth creating. He declares we are desirable as he pursues us ceaselessly, even when we run from him. He says we are worth everything and proved it by giving everything he had for us, even when we were at our ugliest. He gives us purpose by giving us gifts and abilities that we can use for the good of the world and for our own fulfillment and as a love song back to Him. No, God will never take away my dignity. He only ever gives it. What he’s asking is that I don’t give other people the power to take away my dignity by placing their approval of me above His, letting the wavering current of popular opinion be the basis of my security and the barometer of my worth. His love is my Dignity, and He Himself will be my Shield.
I don’t want to waste my life dwelling in insecurity for fear of earning a few glances of disapproval from onlookers. As I live this one life, I want to actually live it, and live it as me. I want to give my life as an offering of uninhibited worship for Him. I’m not perfect, and it will take some work, some refinement and humility to continue growing into the best version of myself. But as I look back on my life, I want to be able to say that I left it all out on the field, that I gave everything I have to the work He has called me to. I don’t know yet exactly what that looks like for my little life, but I suspect that it largely consists of just being me, for Him. And I’m sure of one thing: I will never be able to do that if I’m a slave to the opinions of others.
People will think negatively about me, about each of us, sometimes. No matter what course of action we choose, someone will always have an opinion to the contrary. I want to dance for the Lord with all my might, and as I do that, people might call me a fool. But they won’t be able to take my dignity.
I left it at the altar.