Sometimes it feels like my life has been one long audition.
I’ve always had a bent toward trying to prove my worth through performance, but it was at 13 years old that I fell into the clutches of a perpetual audition that would consume me for the next 16 years—the audition for love. One short conversation spoke a new paradigm into being, one in which I would pace back and forth, miserable, for years.
A Hopeless, Hopeful Romantic As a young teen, I was already in love with the idea of love. I was praying for my future husband, writing love songs to him in a blue spiral bound notebook, and savoring any bit of romance I could access—in books, in songs, in movies. And at age 13, lo and behold—I found the man I wanted to marry. He was everything I’d prayed for— he was musical, he made me laugh, he knew how to have deep conversations, and above all, he loved God. Well, I suppose he wasn’t technically a man—he was only twelve years old. But I knew, I just knew, ours could be the sweet story of growing up side by side, our friendship eventually blossoming into a beautiful romance. He might see me as just a friend for now, but one day, just like in all the books I’d been reading, he would wake up to the devoted woman who’d been there all along.
But, at this point, we were far from romance—I was his confidant when he wanted to talk about the girls he liked, usually cute, thin blondes worlds away from this basketball playing redhead who had no idea what to do with her frizzy hair.
The Auditioning Begins The memory is still vivid. It was the most romantic of nights, the type that awakens all your senses—the Maine summer was bleeding into fall, and the air was just chill enough to prickle your skin with minty adrenaline. The stars above the countryside home hung like specks of powdered sugar in the sky as he, our friends and I played an intense game of manhunt. But the sense that was most heightened was the sense of hope. Perhaps tonight, he would see my worth. Perhaps tonight, our romance would begin.
Winded after sprinting through the chilly dark, we stopped to catch our breath. Then, he started one of the deep conversations that he was so good at. “You know Hope,” he said, “I liked you once, but it was only for like a day.” It was quite the backhanded compliment, but rather than deflating me, it egged me on.
For a day, at least, I had taken center stage in his mind. For one day, he had seen my worth. The spark of hope emboldened me to probe a vulnerable question that voiced a longing I believe is embedded in the heart of almost every woman—to be found beautiful.
“You liked me,” I ventured. “But it wasn’t because I was hot or anything, right?” I stood with bated breath, waiting for this 12-year-old child to validate my existence.
But as 12-year-old boys often do, he said exactly what he was thinking: “it’s okay, Hope, your personality outweighs your looks.”
And he was off again, onto another game of manhunt, while I made my way to the swing set, hot tears blurring my view.
“Your personality outweighs your looks.”
I had held out the most vulnerable flame of hope, and he had snuffed it out with blunt indifference.
“Your personality outweighs your looks.”
I ruminated on his words, taking them as both a definition and a challenge.
The one whose opinion I cared about the most had defined me as unworthy and unremarkable, but the story wasn’t over. I could show him he was wrong about me. I could show him I was beautiful. I could show him I was worthy of his love. And he would see one day. Wouldn’t he?
Leah Syndrome That night begins what I call my struggle with Leah Syndrome. You’re probably familiar with the heartbreaking love triangle recorded in Genesis. Jacob falls in love with the beautiful Rachel, works 7 years for her, then is tricked by his Uncle Laban and ends up marrying her older, less attractive sister, Leah. Jacob was understandably furious, and he struck an agreement with Laban that he could marry the love of his life, Rachel, in exchange for 7 more years of service. Jacob and Rachel were finally united in wedded bliss, but where did this leave Leah?
Genesis 29:32 says, “Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now’.”
Leah’s words break my heart, because I know how her story ends. I know that Jacob never loves her, no matter how much she prays, no matter how hard she tries, no matter how many children she bears. I also know that her longing for his love never goes away, although you can see her hope wane as she shies away from using the word “love” in later verses. After her third child, she says, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me.” After her sixth, she was willing to settle for even less, saying, “this time my husband will treat me with honor.” Leah lived her whole life in heartbreaking limbo—hope never left her, but her husband never loved her.
I began to follow Leah’s example without realizing it. For the next 3 years, I did everything I could think of to prove my worth and beauty to this boy. I wore more makeup, I straightened my hair, I tried to lose weight. Each action I took embodied Leah’s tragic phrase, “Surely, he will love me now.” But he never did.
My Awkward C.S. Lewis Moment Let’s fast forward to my first year of college, to my freshman English seminar. Once a week, we sat around a conference table in the chapel of my small Christian college and discussed literature that delved into the hard questions of the Christian life. Today, we were discussing C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. Now, in Christian circles, agreeing with Lewis is usually tantamount to saying the sky is blue…unless it involves things he wrote about women, I found out that day. Apparently, those are parts of the Lewis canon that need to be excised or at least taken with a grain of salt. One passage in particular, where Lewis voiced his thoughts on headship in marriage, sparked anger among my classmates at its seeming misogyny. Lewis said,
“This headship, then, is most fully embodied not in the husband we should all wish to be but in him whose marriage is most like a crucifixion; whose wife receives most and gives least, is most unworthy of him., is in her own mere nature least lovable. For the Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives her; he does not find, but makes her, lovely. The chrism of this terrible coronation is to be seen not in the joys of any man’s marriage but in its sorrows, in the sickness and sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one, in his unwearying (never paraded) care or his inexhaustible forgiveness: forgiveness, not acquiescence. As Christ sees in the flawed, proud, fanatical or lukewarm Church on the earth that Bride who will one day be without spot or wrinkle, and labours to produce the latter, so the husband whose headship is Christ-like (and he is allowed no other sort) never despairs” (p. 148-149).
To my classmates, this was misogyny at its worst. The woman not being worthy? Comparing marriage to a crucifixion? The husband “making his wife beautiful?” To them, it seemed that Lewis was expressing that women were inferior to men both spiritually and morally.
But I didn’t read it this way. What I saw was the freeing beauty of a love not based on performance, on looks, on being the “perfect wife,” but a love that remained steady and faithful even when the object of love didn’t measure up. Lewis had described a love that did not require constant auditioning, and I marveled at it. It was such a peaceful, secure contrast to the conditional type of love I was used to pursuing. I pushed back against my classmates’ interpretations, and I was met with awkward silence. I don’t think anyone responded, but I think their collective thoughts could be summed up by Mr. Darcy’s quip to Elizabeth, “Are you so severe on your own sex?”
But it wasn’t severity or misogyny at all. I think Lewis’s words were so comforting because even at the young age of 18, I had already been auditioning nonstop for love for years. The unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus shone through Lewis’ words, and after years of holding my breath, I finally exhaled.
Surely, He Will Love Me Now Still, it would be years before the truth would supplant the lies. I loved Jesus, and He reigned in most areas of my life. But my ache for human love shouted so loud that Jesus’ voice sounded like muffled background noise when it came to my love life. I knew Jesus offered me unconditional love, but it didn’t seem to lessen my desire to be pursued by a human. And throughout my twenties, I continued to follow Leah’s pattern.
If I lose ten pounds, then surely, he will love me.
If I write something that touches his heart, then surely, he will love me.
If I show him endless grace and support, then surely, he will love me.
If I post a photo that paints me as beautiful, then surely, he will love me.
Over the past decade, I have prayed countless prayers that whoever “he” was at the moment would finally notice, finally see me as worthy, that I would finally get the role of beloved I had been auditioning for for years.
But the answer to each one of these prayers was “no.”
Navigating life with the map of that boy’s careless words, I interpreted each “no” as meaning, “you are not enough. And you will never be enough.” Although family and friends would assure me of my worth, that whoever “he” was just wasn’t the right guy for me,” their words seemed nothing more than hollow platitudes when the evidence for my insufficiency seemed overwhelming. Although I read Scripture over and over of how God saw me and loved me, it didn’t dissolve my obsession with being seen and loved by a man.
Neuroscience and Auditioning for Love Now, you might say, Hope, I understand how you struggled with this through your teens and early twenties, but you’re almost 30 and you’re still talking about a stupid comment from a 12-year-old kid—as you matured through your twenties, couldn’t you identify it as a lie and just stop believing it? If you were especially unfiltered, you might say, “Hope, why couldn’t you just grow up?”
Believe me, I asked myself these questions over and over. I became more and more aware that objectively, my beliefs were inaccurate. I was growing leaps and bounds in my faith in so many other areas. In this area, though, I felt hopelessly stuck. But something I recently learned about our brains has shed light on why, as an adult woman, I was so greatly influenced by a faulty belief sprouted in childhood.
Now, I know very little about neuroscience, so I found this lay definition of The Reticular Activating System especially helpful. As far as I understand it, the RAS is a system in our brain that seeks out evidence for already established beliefs. According to Tobias Van Schneider,
“[The] RAS is a bundle of nerves at our brainstem that filters out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through. [It] seeks out validation for our beliefs even if it’s painful: Your RAS takes what you focus on and creates a filter for it. It then sifts through the data and presents only the pieces that are important to you….the RAS seeks information that validates your beliefs. It filters the world through the parameters you give it, and your beliefs shape those parameters.”
Learning about neuroplasticity also gave me some fascinating insights. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. Our brains our very flexible, and our thought patterns aren’t set in stone. The thing is, though, the more we rehearse a thought or repeat an action, the stronger the neural connections become, and the easier it is to succumb to the thought or action. I’ve heard it described like a well-worn trail that is essentially the path of least resistance. When hiking a mountain, most people stick to the trail rather than bushwhacking because it’s much easier. In the same way, if we’ve told ourselves a lie over and over, that’s where our brain will naturally go even when confronted with the truth.
For me, I’d rehearsed the thought that I had to prove I was lovable so much that my brain immediately reinforced it whenever I was rejected.
It was a vicious cycle—in auditioning for love, I was seeking out evidence to validate my original belief—and worst fear—that I wasn’t lovable. And every time I found evidence that my worst fears were true, the neural pathways became even stronger. So by my late twenties, not only had I not grown out of these patterns, I was enslaved by them.
A Three Month “Dating Fast” I know I’m not the only one who has spent years enslaved by deceptive thought patterns. I know I’m not the only one who has recognized that their thinking isn’t right, but their heart just won’t seem to follow what they know to be true. But I want to tell you today that there is hope for the renewal of your mind that Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2, because I’ve just experienced some beautiful breakthroughs.
There’s a bright side to neuroplasticity—our thought patterns can change! It’s basically the concept of “use it or lose it”—those neural pathways that we refuse to tread become weaker and weaker until they hold no power over us. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially if we’re talking about a thought or behavior that has enslaved us for years.
But although I believe my breakthrough has had a lot to do with rewiring thought patterns, neuroscience was the last thing on my mind when I started a 3-month experiment that felt like a last-ditch attempt at escaping from this prison of my own making.
Three wise people in my life saw how much I was struggling this past summer. I was beyond discouraged that at 29, I was far from the love and pursuit I’d longed for since I was 13. And as usual, I’d put my running shoes on and had started to pound the trail of those well-worn, deceptive neural pathways. “What about me is not enough?” “Am I doing something wrong?” “Do I need to try harder?”
After assuring me that, yes, I was enough, and no, I didn’t need to try harder, each of these three people said, “Hope, is there any way that you can set this aside? Just for a time?” The third person, a friend who knows me better than almost anyone, phrased it in a way that clicked. “What if you did a ‘dating fast’?”
Now, let’s be real, I haven’t been on a date during this entire pandemic, so this clearly wasn’t about taking a break from the act of dating. It had more to do with my attitude about dating. What this fast actually meant was that a.) I would not actively look for someone to date, b.) I wouldn’t talk to friends at length about dating or marriage, and most importantly, c. If I was interested in someone, I would not audition for them.
As I prayed about starting this “fast,” God revealed another truth to me. I needed to learn to relate to him in a way that didn’t involve me pleading for a husband. I needed to learn to relate to him solely for him.
So, I agreed—and on September 8th, I started my fast.
I got off to a bit of a rough start—it certainly didn’t help that I started getting wedding dress ads on Facebook right after I began. I kept going, but it was just as hard as I’d expected. About 40 days in, the same friend asked me, “what have you learned so far?” All I could say was, “that I’m really bad at it.”
Because numerous times since September 8th, I’d been tempted to audition—and when you’ve been doing it for years, you can find ways to, even in the middle of a pandemic in a small town in Upstate New York.
But I was committed to the process, and, as always, Jesus was committed to me. And slowly, but steadily and surely, He has used this fast not only to weaken the neural pathways that have enslaved me for years, but to create new pathways that tell the beautiful truth for which there is evidence upon evidence: the unconditional love I long for exists, and it has always been mine.
He has shown me that constant auditioning is in direct opposition to the truth of the Gospel. With God, we never have to pursue his attention by proving our merits—he pursues us with a passionate, uncalculating, unconditional love.
Illogical Love I see this most clearly in the strange, illogical language God used in the book of Hosea to describe his love for his people.
“I will punish her,” the Lord said. “’I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals; she decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but me she forgot,’ declares the Lord. Therefore, I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.”
I would circle this “therefore” in red if I saw this in one of my student’s essays. “Inappropriate transition,” I’d write. Then I’d add what one of my middle school teachers used to say, “Whenever you see ‘therefore,’ you need to see what it’s there for!”
And that is the beautiful, paradoxical logic of God’s pursuit of us. The “therefore” isn’t there for anything, at least not any of our merits. It is simply there for love.
The “therefore” would have made sense if it referred to Israel’s virtues. But she had none. This is the illogical, strikingly beautiful truth of how Jesus relates to us, this fiery pursuit of those he loves, not because they prove that they are worth it, not because they wave their arms, saying “pick me! Pick me!” but because his love is what makes them worthy. It is the purest type of love, one that is not transactional or predicated on performance.
Surely, He Loves Me I see now that I don’t have to audition for love anymore, because I’m starting not only to see, but to experience how loved I already am. I am learning that the only way to experience true freedom is to stop striving to prove myself and rest in the arms of Him who tells me has love has nothing to do with my merits, beauty, or accomplishments. And I can honestly say I’m thankful none of my auditions so far have worked out.
Because if one of them had finally been successful, if I had finally “gotten the role” of wife, I think I would have kept on auditioning. Without a renewed mind, I would continue to look for evidence that I wasn’t meeting my husband’s standards, and I would live afraid of losing his love. No matter how much he affirmed me, I wouldn’t believe his words. I see now that the answer to my longing lies not in finally getting the role of wife, but in seeing where Jesus meets me in my desperation for unconditional love.
I still have a lot to learn about his love. My mind still needs a lot of renewing. I still feel the constant pull to try and prove myself–a little more mascara, just the right words, smoother hair—but what the Lord has engraved deep into my heart over these 3 months is that always, the answers to the deepest cries of my heart are in Jesus, and the place where my longing finds its fulfillment is the Gospel.
So as I continue this journey of refusing to audition for love, I know that what will keep me grounded is the truth that
Surely, He has always loved me.
Surely, he loves me now.
And surely, He always will.
 I got the idea of using the word “audition” in this episode from Kait Warman, the founder of The Heart of Dating Podcast. Her podcast has been a huge encouragement and great source of insight along the way, and I highly recommend that you check it out.
 Van Schneider, T. (2017). Could this be my superpower? https://vanschneider.com/the-reticular-activating-system-explained
 Medical definition of the Reticular Activating System. https://www.medicinenet.com/neuroplasticity/definition.htm
 God’s words become even more breathtaking when you delve into what the “Valley of Achor” represents. Some translations interpret it as “trouble,” but it’s the “why” behind the trouble that points to grace and redemption so beautifully. The Valley of Achor was named after Achan, who sinned against the Lord and was stoned to death in that very place (Joshua 7:25-26). The Lord said that he would turn the valley where sin led to death to a door of hope. What a striking foreshadowing of the redemption to come in Christ over 700 years later!