Before and After: A Fairytale

Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), “1830 et 1833”
Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), “1830 et 1833” (photo: Public Domain)

Lots of my friends are selling "wellness" products -- shakes and powders, juices, creams and wraps meant to tighten your tummy, brighten your baggy eyes, and generally turn you into a startlingly more magnificent version of your current schlubby self. Before and after pictures illustrate the progress you can make: She used to look like this (awwwwww), but now she looks like THIS (oooooooh!).

Pictures never lie, right?

Ha. Sure they do. A few years ago, this amazing piece ran in the Huffington post: Personal trainer Andrew Dixon demonstrates how to produce inspiring "before and after" photos . . . on the very same day.

He says:

About six months ago I was around 185 pounds and about 16 percent body fat. I was feeling particularly bloated on the day, so I asked my girlfriend to take a before shot. I then shaved my head, face and chest and prepared for the after shot, which was about an hour after I took the before shot. I did a few push ups and chin ups, tweaked my bedroom lighting, sucked in, tightened my abs and BOOM! We got our after shot.

Take a look for yourself -- it's an amazing transformation! And it's a big lie. Something to keep in mind if you're tempted to buy a product that promises quick, spectacular results. Things are not always what they seem, especially when someone's trying to sell you something.

So that's the first thing to keep in mind about "before and after" photos. Second, sometimes these photos photos are quite real, and show an actual time lapse -- but they're out of order. Unscrupulous marketers will go to a gym, find a trim, healthy, attractive person, and pay him to pose for a photo. Then they pay him even more to spend the next six months eating pizza and Fudge Rounds and watching Netflix. Then they take another picture. Swap the order, label them "before and after," and it looks like someone's gone from sluggish to sublime, when in fact the opposite happened.

Finally, check out this before and after picture posted by a woman who's struggled all her life with her weight. In one photo, she's trim and fit, with a proud, bright smile. In the second photo, she's heavier -- maybe even "plus sized," by current standards. But in this set of photos, the first one, the thin one, is labelled "before." When it was taken, she was in the grips of anorexia, at war with her own body, starving and killing herself. In the second photo, she probably gets fewer compliments from a weight-obsessed culture, but she is far, far healthier in body and in mind, and her smile is more sincere. 

So what? Well, I'll tell you.

The other day, I was chatting with a friend who's struggling through a spiritual crisis. She felt that she did not love God. Worse, she felt that she had never really loved God. Worse yet, she felt that she had been lying about it all her life. She looked back in horror and disgust at the beautiful, inspiring things she used to say about her faith. Now they seemed so glib, so hypocritical, so false. How discouraging to see the "before and after" photos her memory provided of her spiritual state.

There were a few possibilities here. First is that, yeah, maybe she was just faking it before, and this new spiritual stage is the most honest. Maybe she was just putting on a big show about how holy and religious she was, but she was just mouthing the words because those are the words we're supposed to mouth; and deep down, she didn't believe or live any of it.

This is the equivalent of the guy who knew how to take a photo and make himself look buff and trim, when really he was just using light creatively and sucking in his gut. You can't sustain this kind of thing forever, and it's something of a blessing when you finally drop the facade, take a good look at what bad shape you're in, and start in on the long, arduous journey of self-improvement.

The second possibility is that she really has lost ground spiritually. Maybe my friend used to love God more, and now she loves Him less. We tend to think that our lives are on a simple, single trajectory upward, and that everything we experience and everything we learn inevitably contributes to our current state, which is the pinnacle of our achievements of our life as a sentient creature. This is a silly idea. In fact, what you're like now may just may be the most current version of yourself, nothing more; and maybe you used to be a better, wiser person than you are now. It happens.

This is the equivalent of the deceptively switched photos. We see fat, then we see fit, and it never even occurs to us that we're seeing it backwards. When we look at our own lives, we tend to believe that everything in the past is part of our old, discarded "before" lives, and whatever it is we label "after" is by definition more mature, more nuanced, more refined. Well, sometimes we've just been spiritually sitting on the couch eating pizza and Fudge Rounds, and that's how we got where we are today.

The third possibility, and the one that I thought was the most likely, is that she really did mean those things at the time. She really did love God, and really was moved to speak about grace and salvation and trust and hope -- but she is currently under spiritual attack, which is distorting how she perceives the past. The devil is not content with ruining your life now; he wants to poison your past, as well. Remember the scene in The Silver Chair, where the witch is intent on persuading the children not that they belong underground, but that there is no such thing as an overworld. There is no such the sun; there is only an oil lamp that hangs from the ceiling of a cave, deep, deep underground. The witch wants very badly for them to say that this is so.

This is the equivalent of the "before and after" pictures of the girl with anorexia.  If you had shown both photos to someone with anorexia, she would look at the healthier one and think, "Ew! Gross! Unhealthy! Disgusting! Unbearable" -- even though the photo shows someone who is is no way fat, but simply not rail thin. She would see the "fat" picture as unhealthy and undesirable because of her current illness. That's how evil works: it's not content with making you sick, it has to skew and distort everything around you, including other people, and including your own memories of yourself, until it all looks dreadful and diseased and unbearable.

What's the moral of the story? Before and after pictures very often lie; and the same is true for the mental images we keep of our spiritual lives. If you're worried about your spiritual state, don't worry about before and after. Don't compare yourself to the way you used to be, or the way you think you used to be, or the way other people seem to be, or the way you think you could be if you followed this glossy, packaged spiritual wellness program.

Never mind before and after. What about right now? You can't see yourself clearly, and you don't really need to. You need to present yourself to the Father and say, "Here I am. You know me better than I know myself, and you love me better than I love myself. Tell me how I should spend the rest of this day; beyond that, my trust is in You. Teach me how to love You, because that is the only thing that matters."