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Washed Away

  Words by Rhiannon Appelgrijn // Image by Kelly Kee

“You don't have any fingerprints,” announced the gruff man behind the counter.

“Excuse me? What did you say?” I had walked into a local fingerprinting office to fulfill a requirement for a new teaching position I had accepted, thinking it would be a straightforward errand.

“You don't have any fingerprints.”

“What do you mean? How is that possible?” My mind reeled. Is he joking? I know I have fingerprints! I've seen them. Everyone has fingerprints, for crying out loud!

“You teachers with your Clorox wipes and hand-sanitizers and all those chemicals . . . you're burning off your skin. You should be wearing gloves,” he reprimanded.

Suddenly, the man's chastisement gave way to a much more familiar and hateful voice than his.

This is all your fault.

Since childhood, the compulsion to wash my hands constantly throughout the day, whether they were dirty or not, plagued me. I can trace the habit's genesis back to the time of my parents' separation when I was ten. In the midst of an emotional maelstrom, hearing two sides of a sad story, and feeling torn right down the middle, I experienced a loss of security and sense of control. I'm no psychologist, but I believe my subconscious was searching for a way to regain some of that control. I couldn't clean up the mess in my life, but I could clean my hands. And I did. I scrubbed them until they cracked and bled.

While I had made great strides from adolescence to adulthood in curbing the behavior, I certainly was not cured. A series of unfortunate events followed my parents separation, including a near-fatal car accident that altered my mother irrevocably, leaving her severely brain damaged and unable to take care of me or even herself. My adolescent years were oftentimes painful and uncertain. When I was too tired to fight it, when I felt out of control over a situation in my life, my compulsion grew stronger. Despite my desire to stop, I yielded to it time and again. My inability to conquer such a seemingly ridiculous problem frustrated and embarrassed me. However, I justified it by thinking it couldn't really hurt me. That is, until my hands were resting on that fingerprint scanner.

How are you going to explain this to your new employer? How humiliating! You did this to yourself! All your obsessive hand washing has completely eroded the skin from your fingers to the point where you don't have fingerprints! You don't even have an identity anymore.

Do you recognize this voice? I hear it daily. Hissing in my ear, it urges me to wash my hands over and over because I did not wash them well enough the first time. It tells me I will surely get someone sick if I don't wash them again. In the next breath it mocks me because I'm a slave to this silly compulsion. I simply can't win. This is the voice of condemnation.

Condemnation is a cunning weapon the enemy of God uses to keep us, God’s children, from living the abundant lives Jesus died to give us. It says, “You are not good enough. You must try harder; but even if you try your best, you will still fail. You are a failure.”

It takes whatever form it needs to produce its desired result in its listener: incapacitation. Why? So you will stay stuck right where you are and not go forward to make the difference in this world that God created you to make.    

And incapacitated I was. I just stood there in the fingerprinting office feeling like a failure, unable to complete a simple task. The fingerprinter said he'd submit what he had, but he seriously doubted they'd be accepted. So I went home, cried, berated myself, and resolved to stop washing my hands so frequently. It wasn't just the loss of my fingerprints; it was my life that I was grieving. For the past two decades, I had been enslaved by overwhelming fear. Hand washing was just the symptom of a deeper issue.

After asking God to forgive me for letting fear control me and for his help in getting to the root of my problem, I sought the advice of a trusted counselor. I described to him a home video I had seen of myself many years ago that had awakened me to the frequency of my hand washing. I was at a wedding reception at the precise time my parents' marriage troubles were beginning to brew. The camera was fixed on the dance floor where everyone was dancing (including my parents) and seemingly having a fabulous time. Everyone except me. I was on the dance floor—right in the camera shot repeatedly—but never because I was dancing and having fun. I was crossing it back and forth to get to the restroom so I could wash my hands. I don't even know how many times.

The counselor asked me how I felt about myself when I saw the video. With no hesitation I oozed words of utter disdain, a hatred for myself I'd come to see as a normal self-motivator to try harder and do better. I was convinced that my reaction was appropriate. I fully expected my counselor to nod in agreement and pat me on the back for being able to recognize and verbalize my inequity. I was wrong.

I will never forget what happened in the next moment because it radically changed my life. The counselor looked at me with sadness in his eyes and said something enigmatic like, “Wow. Okay.”

I squirmed. His reaction confused me.

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“I'm thinking about that little girl whose world was being turned upside down and how hard that must have been for her. I thought maybe you would have felt compassion toward her and want to comfort her and let her know it wasn't her fault.”

I was stunned. Compassion? Comfort? For myself? I had certainly never considered that. His words spoke to a wound so deep inside of me that tears began streaming from eyes instantly as though a button had been pressed to release them. All at once, I could see perfectly the video footage replaying in my mind but from a totally different perspective. It broke my heart. The voice of condemnation was quiet for once, and I just saw a little girl who was an innocent bystander swept into a whirlwind of insanity and suffering. I wanted to give her a hug. I wanted her to know how sorry I was for everything she was going through and all the heartache that was yet to come. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was able to see myself through the eyes of grace.

Romans 8:1–2 came alive for me that day: So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death” (NLT).

As a child, I had committed my life to Jesus, and I genuinely believed the Bible to be infallible. So how had I missed this truth for so long? I was listening to the wrong voice. God's Holy Spirit wanted to speak love and grace to me, but I had quieted him steadily over the years by consistently listening and obeying the voice of condemnation. I found it easier to believe the negative words of the enemy because of my attitude toward myself. When I allowed the Holy Spirit to comfort me and bandage my wounds rather than push him away (because I didn't think I deserved his love), I was able to accept the grace of God and be set free! I may still have the inclination to wash my hands more often than I need, but I am able to see it as an indicator that I need to rely more heavily on God to help me and let his love wrap around me when I fail.

Unlike condemnation, grace speaks life: “You don't need to fix yourself. Give yourself to God! Let him work in your heart. He is for you not against you! He longs to set you free! You are loved and accepted just as you are. Your past is washed away by the power of the Cross, the precious blood of Jesus! You don't need to try so hard; you just need to trust in him and obey his voice.” Ahhh . . . Freedom!

It turns out that I do have fingerprints after all. A few days after the incident at the fingerprinting office, I spoke with my new employer to learn that she had my fingerprints on file, and I could begin work as scheduled. I could have been angry with the man who had caused me such anguish (well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little angry), but he actually did me a favor. I may have never been able to have that life-changing experience had he not given me his dismissive, inaccurate report. Isn't that exactly what God's Word promises? And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28 NLT).

Condemnation wanted me to believe my identity had been washed away by my past mistakes. The grace of God teaches me that my identity is found in the one who made my fingerprints, and the blood of his Son, Jesus, has washed away my mistakes. I pray you will find yourself overcome today with the realization of God's never-ending love, patience, and grace toward you. Let him wash away the past, drown out the voice of condemnation, and fill you with the power to move forward and grab hold of every opportunity he presents you to shine your light in this dark world.