Of Tarnish and Shine

The ring was silver, with a strong, simple design of two interlocking loops. My grandmother had given it to me years earlier. I’d always loved it, but I hadn’t worn it in a long time and it was now black with tarnish. Just the sight of it depressed me, because it reminded me of me.

I was nearly twenty and had recently come to the realization that I was a fool. I’d once heard someone say that in Biblical terms a fool was someone who knew what was right to do and didn’t do it. That was me. I was all style and no substance. I alternated grand professions with spectacular failures. I had a sort of cheap intellect of superficial knowledge and flashy undisciplined cleverness, but I lacked application. My behavior was both self-serving and self-destructive; my life was more or less a maelstrom of guilt and bravado, anxiety and pride, fear and desire, and stupid, stupid waste. I had been redeemed by the God of the universe, but I sure didn’t look it.

Well! It was time to change things. I covered note cards with Bible verses, mostly from Proverbs, and stuck them on a wall in my efficiency apartment, which I did my best to keep in ruthless order. I maintained a rigorous schedule, or tried to. I got up before dark to read my Bible because that’s how godly people did it; I strove to be in bed by nine. I didn’t go out much.

As is often the case, my legalism came from a not unreasonable fear. I knew my frailty, and every rule I made for myself was like a piece of scaffolding meant to keep me from falling. It takes courage to live by the Spirit, and I didn’t have much of that. Rules provide security—illusory, but comforting in the short term. Basically I was making up my rules as I went along. I rarely confided in anyone; I kept my own counsel and did my best to train myself up. It felt like climbing a staircase while simultaneously trying to build the thing with inadequate tools and poor carpentry skills. I was always one step away from raw ends of two-by-fours, empty air, and a bad fall.

All this time God was ready to teach, protect, and sustain me, but I felt that I had to keep up my end of the bargain. The truth is, I saw God as a hard master, a shadow at my shoulder silently registering each infraction and emanating disapproval. I knew better, but that was how I felt.

It was hard, bringing myself up. I liked solitude, but sometimes I got lonely and bored, and the silence of an empty apartment made it easy to hear echoes of past regrets and doubts about the future.

One day, on impulse, I decided to put on my tarnished silver ring. It was flawed, but it was mine.

Once I put it on, something wonderful happened. Without any special effort on my part, the tarnish just wore off from ordinary friction and abrasion. Being on my finger was what it needed to restore its luster.

(Does my surprise here seem silly? My grasp of practical knowledge has always been substandard. I didn’t know lefty-loosey, righty-tighty until I was a wife and mother; before then I just randomly spun things and hoped for the best. I still struggle with directions and can’t be relied on to accurately perform simple arithmetic or count persons or objects. My discovery about the silver was a huge epiphany.)

I’m a big believer in the power of the private life, the sanctity of solitary study and introspection and prayer. These are the keel of the ship, hidden beneath the surface but providing stability for the visible public life. But cloistering can turn stifling, and if we wait to make things perfect before making them accessible to the world, we will always be waiting. We need the friction and encouragement and irritation and exhortation and so forth of our fellow human beings. It takes some humility to go public with our tarnish, but that’s mostly how the tarnish gets polished away.

I don’t mean to imply that our efforts accomplish our sanctification. As believers, we are made new and clean by Christ’s propitiation whether we realize it or not. He has removed the dross and purified our substance. Tarnish is an external thing; we are still refined sterling underneath. But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11). Putting on the ring, so to speak, is an acknowledgement that what God says he has done in us is true, whether or not it matches our perception.

Neither am I advocating all-out maudlin confessions! Let’s respect personal boundaries, by all means. But if we are to interact meaningfully, we must be transparent. This keeps us humble and grounded, and matures us as we in turn make allowances and show compassion for the frailties of others.

I still wear the silver ring on my right hand; I’m wearing it now. There are faint traces of tarnish lingering in the crevices, but it shines with the white-metal gleam I love. Its surface is marked with the patina of a well-worn, well-loved piece of jewelry.

Newness of life! What a wonderful thing.

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