A strict upbringing taught Ruth Leigh to repress her emotions and, ultimately, turned her away from faith. But God is more interested in authentic relationships than perfect Christians, she says
Earlier this year, as I sat down to write my second novel, The Trials of Isabella M Smugge, I spent some time considering how my heroine, a beleaguered Instamum and successful lifestyle blogger, would feel as she explored faith for the first time in her life.
Writing the blurb for the book, this is what I said: “But while Isabella is able to be more open about her trials with her millions of adoring fans, she wonders if she can also be truly open with God. And many of us, if we are honest, can probably relate. When we are angry or frustrated, we can want to vent our feelings, even to swear, but can we do this before God, or do we have to ‘filter’ our true selves before we come to him in prayer?”
Getting angry and expressing my feelings was strongly discouraged. I left childhood a confused, stressed non-Christian
As a woman who filters, inspires, curates and trend-scouts for a living, Isabella is an expert in putting a gloss on the most mundane of daily activities. Scarcely a moment goes by without a stream of trending hashtags, beautifully shot images and inspirational announcements hitting her followers’ feeds. She talks often about authenticity - it’s one of her favourite words - but when it comes to the knotty topics of forgiveness and true honesty, she often struggles.
I do too.
Not good enough
In my early 30s, considering baptism, I chatted to a friend at church about whether I was ready. “I don’t think I’m good enough yet,” I confessed. My friend laughed. “You’ll never be good enough, Ruth,” she said. “God wants you just as you are. Don’t wait. That’s not how it works.”
She was right of course. Sometimes, even after finding faith half a lifetime ago, I think I have to come before God in the correct way, whatever that is. So when I wrote this book, I sent Isabella off to a ladies’ group run by Claire, the vicar’s wife, where the topic of forgiveness was discussed. When she then talks to her friend Lauren about her struggles, she is shocked at Lauren’s own honesty:
”’Look, babes, when Claire started talking about [forgiveness], I thought she was mad. Why should I forgive people who screwed up my life? Some days I just shout at God and swear loads, but I always say that I choose to forgive whoever it is.’
I was shocked. ‘You swear? At God? Is that even allowed?’
‘Claire says it’s OK. She does it sometimes. God doesn’t mind, apparently, as long as you say sorry at some point.’
Well. This was news to me. I had never, ever even considered the possibility of using naughty words in the presence of the Almighty.”
Isabella looks on God as a rather intimidating authority figure who must be treated with great respect. It’s only at the end of the first book, when faced with a crisis, that she wonders if perhaps he might be more like her own beloved father, someone who loves her unconditionally and wants only the best for her.
So back to the swearing. Have I ever shouted at the good Lord and asked him what the heck he thought he was doing? I won’t lie to you. I have.
God wants you just as you are. Don’t wait. That’s not how it works
Like Claire, I say sorry when things have calmed down, and it doesn’t seem to have damaged our relationship. As I’ve journeyed with him, I’ve come to realise that being myself is what he wants. He created me as I am, after all, and I really don’t think he wants me to pretend.
No room for error
Brought up a Christian from birth, my experience of church was a happy one. I loved Sunday school and Girls’ Brigade; I felt safe there and I had plenty of good role models. My home life wasn’t that great, sadly, and without meaning to, my parents managed to give me the idea that there were lots of bad things which would impact on my ability to be a Good Christian Girl. Swearing was a no-no for starters (not that I knew any naughty words. No television and a diet of classic children’s books saw to that). Getting angry and expressing my feelings was also strongly discouraged. I left childhood a confused, stressed non-Christian. Even though all those Bible stories stayed in my head, I had no time for church or returning to the straight and narrow. Not that I really strayed too far down the path of temptation; I was too scared of the consequences.
When it came to writing Isabella, I wanted to put her in a place where she questioned what she thought she knew. As someone who is the diametric opposite of me (rich, posh, thin and Queen of the Socials) I had fun making her up, creating awkward and challenging situations for her and helping her to start understanding that all the granite worktops, toned arms and on-trend fashion choices in the world don’t begin to fill the God-shaped void within. A big part of that was about honesty and I wanted to surround her with real, authentic, messy, mixed-up people who follow Jesus and admit they’ve got a long way to go.
My readers have been honest with me about what they think of Isabella and interestingly enough, it’s the non-Christians who speak most often about the topics of prayer and forgiveness within the books. These seem to strike a chord with them. And this makes me very happy. If poor, deluded, snobbish Issy Smugge can reflect the love of God and his joy at each sincere, badly-worded prayer, then I have done my job. Naughty words and all.
The Trials of Isabella M Smugge (Instant Apostle) is available now.