Some life lessons stay with you . . . Years ago, Father Mike Kolar gave the closing address at a youth ministry conference. The title said it all: “Before you go out to save the world, don’t forget to clean your room.”
One of the ways I’ve come to interpret Father Mike’s life lesson has to do with the inner homework of conversion. It reminds me that I need to clean my “inner room.” The inner homework of conversion transforms our thoughts, emotions, and motivations.
When we take on the inner homework of conversion, we become increasingly self-aware. As that process unfolds, there are times when we are forced to swallow hard and accept things about ourselves that we don’t like and aren’t pretty. As our self-awareness deepens, we discover ways in which our inner rooms do, indeed, need cleaning.
The inner homework of conversion and the self-awareness it fosters reveal the dark and unredeemed places within us. The mess in my inner room includes negative thinking, demeaning self-talk, and excessive self-criticism. It includes replaying tapes of the negative messages I internalized as a child.
My inner room also houses the high expectations that I have for myself – including the demands to achieve, excel, and strive for perfection. It also contains the downside of my expectations – the ways I am too hard on myself, punish myself for failure, and double down on self-improvement efforts. The inner homework of conversion forces me to admit that most of the time my motivation is mixed: my generous acts and efforts to serve others often include a covert agenda of self-interest and the desire to look good.
Analogies can break down if they are pushed too hard. Father Mike’s address to the conference was solid. My application of it to the inner homework of conversion, however, includes two flaws. The first is that our inner room needs to be clean; the second is that we need to clean it ourselves.
Any significant exploration of Jesus’ ministry reveals that our inner room doesn’t need to be clean.
When Jesus reveals himself to the Samaritan woman he encounters at the well, it’s not because her life is exemplary. It’s because he knows she is desperate for a love that will last and has failed in every attempt to achieve it.
When the forgiving father runs to meet and embrace the prodigal, it’s not because the prodigal is worthy. It’s because the young man will always be his son and because the father’s heart overflows with forgiveness and love.
When Jesus entrusts the sheep to Peter’s care, it’s not because of Peter’s outstanding track record. Jesus bestows it on him as an unearned gift drenched in forgiveness and love.
The essence of Jesus’ ministry is reaching out to the lost, forgiving sinners, and healing those who are wounded and broken. That includes all of us. His ministry isn’t based on room inspections; it’s a lavish flow of mercy, forgiveness, healing, and love that is willing to endure anything – even suffering and death.
The second flaw in my over-extended use of Father Mike’s analogy is thinking that I need to clean my own inner room. I’m an anxiety-driven, high-achieving perfectionist who finds it hard to admit that my self-improvement efforts will always come up short. It’s humbling to confront the reality that there is nothing I can do to make myself worthy. The dark and unredeemed places within me are simply out of my reach and beyond my ability to fix. As that awareness dawns, inner homework and self-awareness lead to a profound shift and a necessary conversion. It forces me to come face-to-face with my inability to save myself. It creates the opening I need to invite God to be a healing and redeeming force in my life. In that moment, I become the woman at the well, the prodigal returning home, and Peter being forgiven.
The inner homework of conversion reveals that the way of perfection is futile; we simply can’t save ourselves. Confronting that dead end allows a new possibility to emerge: opening ourselves to the healing and redeeming power of God. Our room doesn’t need to be clean, and we can’t clean it ourselves. The essential conversion that we need to embrace is giving up our reliance on our own feeble efforts and turning to the boundless mercy, forgiveness, and love of God.
When I was growing up and my Mom asked me to clean my room, I had a quick way of doing it. I simply shoved the mess into the closet. The room looked clean as long as you didn’t open the closet. For much of my adult life, I’ve taken a similar approach to the inner homework of conversion. I hid what was unacceptable and ugly in order to project an image of myself as looking good and having it together. Yet, there was always the closet – stuffed with the things I wanted to keep hidden.
The inner homework of conversion involves the slow and painstaking process of dealing with what’s in the closet. It begins with admitting the ways that we are broken, wounded, and in need of healing. It requires making a fundamental shift – acknowledging our powerlessness and opening ourselves to the healing and redeeming power of God. As we embrace that shift, the divine presence begins to permeate the dark and unredeemed places within us. As that occurs, we join the woman at the well, the returning prodigal, the forgiven and empowered Peter, and so many others. As that occurs, we are bathed in the lavish flow of God’s mercy, grace, healing, and forgiveness.
Questions to Ponder
Here are some questions to help you reflect on the inner homework of conversion:
- In what ways do you identify with the notion of the inner homework of conversion?
- When has increased self-awareness forced you to swallow hard and accept things about yourself that you don’t like?
- What thoughts and emotions in your inner room are inviting you to open yourself to conversion?
- In what ways does your need for mercy, forgiveness, and love lead you to identify with:
- The woman at the well?
- The returning prodigal?
- The forgiven Peter?
- What is keeping you from opening yourself to God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love?