Although lupus took her life at the age of thirty-nine, Flannery O’Connor wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories that garnered several awards and honors. She was a Roman Catholic and made no secret about it or apologies for it (“I write the way I do because I am a Catholic”). Due to her illness (and perhaps her personality), she lived an isolated life with her mother on the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. She was something of a literary John the Baptist.
She was also a prolific letter writer. Many of those letters were preserved and later published. One of her more notable correspondences was with a woman who lived in Atlanta and worked as a clerk in a loan company. They exchanged almost three hundred letters from 1955 until O’Connor’s death in 1964.
The woman (who wanted to remain anonymous when the letters were published after O’Connor’s death) was known as “A.” She had a difficult childhood—her father had deserted the family and she later witnessed her mother’s suicide. There were other things that happened in her adult life. In one of her letters to O’Connor she shared what she described as her “history of horror.” O’Connor wrote her back immediately and said this:
If in any sense my knowing your burden can make your burden lighter,
then I am double glad I know it. You were right to tell me . . . Where you
are wrong is in saying you are the history of horror. The meaning of the
Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history, and
nothing is plainer to me than that you are not your history.
In Nehemiah 9 the Israelites gathered together and “confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors” (v. 3). They didn’t confess their forefathers’ sins because they were responsible for them. They did it to acknowledge to God that through their own unfaithfulness they had taken on the same status as their ancestors.
More to our point is they owned their history. They didn’t make any attempt to excuse themselves, point to extenuating circumstances or anything else to qualify their culpability. They owned it. That’s a powerful thing to do because when you own your history, it can no longer own you.
In the end those are our only two choices: we can own our history or our history can own us. As long as we live in some form of denial through acknowledging only certain things about ourselves, our history owns us. But once we own up to our history (the good, bad and the ugly), then we are no longer owned by it and can be owned by God. This is what it means to be redeemed and this is all wonderfully illustrated in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).
The good news in Jesus is that “we do not have to be our history.” A man from Tarsus experienced this glorious truth in his day, as did the Israelites in Nehemiah’s time and three thousand people on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-41).
This can be your story as well.