Our brains and bodies are wired to protect us against threats. But what about when we perceive threats that aren’t really there? Is there a way that we can shift our thoughts to a more loving place, in order to move forward instead of getting stuck in our fear?
When I was younger, I took swim lessons at the township pool. On summer mornings before the rest of the clear blue water filled up with families, a lifeguard took me and my peers through basic strokes and breathing exercises. The hardest part of the summer was the day he taught us to tread water in the deep end. We moved under the rope to the 6-foot section of the pool, my lungs tight with worry. My muscles seemed to spasm instead of gently moving through the water to keep me afloat. I was so scared of drowning, even with the lifeguard in the water right next to me. He kept telling me to imagine my arms as spaghetti, fluid and gentle, but I instead I chopped at the water like a karate kid, and my head bobbed up and down as my legs kicked hard under the water. I couldn’t keep my head above water, and I grew exhausted quickly, tapping out of the exercise. I cried when I got out of the pool, embarrassed that my fear overtook my desire to pass the class.
I took my son to the Y this weekend for his first swim lesson (he did great), and I was reminded of myself as I watched a little girl across the pool. She entered the chlorine-filled room with a huge smile on her face and a swim cap covering her head. She seemed eager and excited, until it was her turn to jump into the pool. The rest of her class jumped in one by one, to the safety of the teacher’s reassuring words and extended arms. But the little girl’s smile turned into a whimper, and she spent the whole class period overtaken by fear.
I’ve been learning to show love to my anxiety lately.
Last week I had an insightful conversation with someone about my anxiety, and she encouraged me with some interesting facts on neurobiology and redirecting my thoughts.
When my brain cycles through anxious thoughts, I can choose to keep surrendering to that fear, or I can pause and choose to surrender my anxiety to love. I imagine that sounds a little woo-woo, but something about this concept is so comforting to me. She asked what it would look like for me to engage with my anxiety, almost as a friend that I would show compassion to instead of judging so harshly for getting to that anxious place. When we talked about surrendering my anxiety to love, I imagined surrendering it to a God who loves me and is always with me; to my community and my people who love me well, no matter what I’m facing; to a narrative of self-compassion instead of judgment and shame (which feed my anxiety).
I am learning to look at my anxiety with love and say, “What are you trying to show me? What are you trying to protect me against right now? Can we step out of this fear place together, and move towards love?”
I pray that this new way of thinking will help me jump in with both feet and stick with the hard stuff. Here’s to more joy, connection, and love over fear.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” -Romans 8:1 ⠀
When I wrestle with the weight of shame, my past says to hide. It says “you are not welcome here.” It chokes and stifles. It makes me feel like I’m covered in grime and stains that cannot be scrubbed clean. Shame says my baggage will prevent me from moving forward or getting through the door. It says, “this is who you are; this is the whole story.”⠀
I want to refute that, in the name of Jesus. ⠀
Because we are in Christ, shame is no longer part of the equation. ⠀
Where shame stifles and chokes, God’s Truth breathes life into us. Where shame whispers lonely, God says loved. Where shame hides our secrets in the darkness, God tells us to talk them over in the light. And freedom is found there.⠀
Will you join me in throwing off that cloak of shame? He already washed us clean, so we can stop rolling around in old dirt. He calls us to new life- the shame of the past died with our old selves. He calls us redeemed, so we can re-claim our stories in Him.⠀
Friend, I am praying that we would know that freedom, all the way down to our toes and in the marrow of our bones. If you’re anything like me, and you’re still dragging around the baggage and chains of the past can this be the month where we drop them at the door, once and for all? ⠀
As much as shame wants us to think we’re too broken, this is not the whole story. But we have to let go of the shame first. Because if anything, the SHAME is holding us back. ⠀
Your story is welcome here, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of it unfolds. Together, let’s step through the door into freedom, friend.
All the World’s a Stage: Shape Shifter
When I was in elementary school, I was painfully shy. I was tall, skinny, clumsy, smart, and awkward. I didn’t like getting the answers wrong in class so I didn’t raise my hand unless I was 110% sure of the answer. I often looked at the other girls in my class and wondered how to be more confident, pretty, and popular like them. I wanted to be like them, not like nerdy, quiet me.
Then, I discovered summer theatre camp. We got the chance to step into new roles and characters different from our own, everyday-life selves. There were a lot of kids there like me- quirky, shy, lonely, or loud, silly, and unique. As we rehearsed our parts and learned our lines, tried on costumes and stepped under the bright, hot stage lights, we literally “became” our characters. I entered the world of fairy tales and had so much fun blending into the forest as a bright and happy pink flower. In a jungle, I became a strong and sure-footed elephant. In a kingdom far away, I became a beloved princess rescued by her prince charming. Over about fifteen years in theatre, I played characters that were brash, hilarious, provocative, complex, moody, sly, witty, demure, or intelligent. With each wig and set change, these characters allowed me to transform into whatever was required of my role.
In real life, I was also learning how to shape shift. I worried so much about what others thought of me, that I adjusted myself to fit into the “world” of characters in any given scene. If the environment was stressful or argumentative, I did my best to diffuse the situation with a peace-making attitude. If the room was full of outgoing and confident individuals, I played strong and confident. In academic settings, I could be the studious, try-hard perfectionist. At social gatherings, I adapted myself to be more outgoing and fun than I naturally felt. In romantic relationships, I molded myself to meet the needs, desires, and requests of a significant other, letting go of my own needs to make sure the other person stayed happy with me.
– – –
Suddenly Aware: People-Based Identity
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” –Galatians 1:10
Six years ago, I faced a new kind of shift in my life. As I stepped through the doors of a recovery meeting to “help” another person, I became painfully aware of my own unhealthiness. Over the next few weeks of attending those recovery meetings, a desperate need for change grew inside of me. If I wanted to live a life of freedom, peace, and one that was glorifying to Christ, I knew that I needed to let go of my people pleasing. I slowly confronted the habits I’d developed over the years through a world based on people-pleasing:
- I lost my sense of personal identity. When I built my life around the presumed needs or personalities around me, it was difficult to have a firm sense of who I was on my own. When I had too much time by myself, I panicked. What did I like to do? Where did I want to eat? What brought me joy? I didn’t know how to answer these questions unless I had someone else to answer for me. It was just easier for me to always be around people, so that I didn’t have to think for myself or assert my needs or opinions.
- I used empathy as an unhealthy tool. Because I am empathetic, I often feel or can sense the emotions of those around me. As a people pleaser, I learned how to read what the other person needed, and I attempted to be whatever they needed at the time. While I can now see that empathy is a gift when handled properly, the unhealthy management of this gift caused me to take on situations or problems that were not mine to solve. It also caused me to make assumptions that were not always correct. At the very worst, my people pleasing and empathy created ulterior motivations for my service and acts of care for others (“if I do this for them, they won’t be mad anymore,” or “if I take care of this for them, they will owe me/take care of me later”). Yuck.
- I had poor to zero boundaries. I often lost my own voice or strength as I tuned into what the other person wanted from me. I lacked the assertion to stand up for myself, and stayed in unhealthy situations too long. I didn’t always know where the other person ended and I began, so I stayed in those situations to bring encouragement, to help, or to show love. The word “no” was not in my vocabulary. I often said yes out of obligation (and then later resented my yeses). I absorbed the narrative that most things were my fault or my responsibility to fix.
- I was good at wearing masks. Because I only wanted others to see the version of Heather that was easy to get along with, happy, and helpful, I denied or pushed down any emotions that I considered negative. Just like in my theatre days, I grew skilled in my ability to wear masks. But instead of physical costumes or stage make-up, these were behavior masks I wore in real life. I put on masks of happiness and laughter, even if inside I was hurting or struggling with depression. I wore masks of achievement and busyness to cover up my sense of insecurity. I chose masks of forgiveness and peace-keeping, even if I was actually hurt or angry at another person.
- I served people above God. As a people pleaser, I attempted to be all things to all people. I sometimes went against my own standards or ethics of what I knew was right because I wanted to keep in the good graces of others. Essentially, people became my god. And the thing about people is that we are all human- our needs or emotions change on a regular basis. Our desires and relationship dynamics can shift with the season. By trying to keep others happy in a moving, changing, fallen world, I was all. over. the. place. There was nothing steady or grounding about placing my focus solely on others’ happiness. My choices that made someone happy yesterday could make them mad today. I constantly stayed on the merry-go-round of building my world around the moving target of other people’s expectations.
While the world of theatre welcomes this versatility and adaptability, doing so in real life can be exhausting, inauthentic, and even dangerous.
– – –
True Transformation: God-Based Identity
Here’s what I have come to know as Truth over the past six years of work in counseling and codependent recovery:
- A God-based identity is far more grounded than the one based on people. Scripture is packed full of references to Christ as a cornerstone and God as a rock. That identity is a solid ground we can stand upon in this world. I would much rather base my identity on something firm, stable, and unchanging instead of the whizzing, whipping winds of change that come from trying to please others. When I choose to ground myself in God, the world is easier to navigate and I know who I am.
“Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.” – Philippians 4:1
- An identity built on Christ is glorifying to God. His Word reminds us to put our priorities in the right order. He also tells us that when we try to please people, we cannot also be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10). When we build our lives around a God-given purpose and identity, we are able to serve Him with our whole hearts instead of the leftovers.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” –Matthew 6:33
- Rooting myself in God yields security in His true, unconditional love. In God, we are loved not because of what we do, what we bring to the table, what we achieve, or who we make happy. We are loved inherently, at the core of our very being, because He made us and we are His children. God’s love for us celebrates His good work in each of us, from our unique personalities and physical attributes, to our God-given design in our skills and gifts. When we cover up or move away from our own identity to be more like those around us, we step away from all of the special and wonderful things He crafted in each of us.
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” –Psalm 139:13-14
- A God-based identity builds authentic connection. People pleasing is surprisingly very lonely for how other-focused it is! When my people pleasing was at its worst, no one knew the real me because I didn’t know the real me. As I released my people pleasing tendencies, I discovered the things that brought me joy, what made me mad (and learning to express that in healthy ways), and how to share the real parts of myself with others. As I moved away from a people-based identity and into my God-given identity, I made real connections with others by sharing my authentic self. I also learned how to serve others from a healthy place, without ulterior motives or expecting anything in return.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” -1 Peter 4:10-11
- When we build our life on the identity God gave us, we get to celebrate our weaknesses and our need for Him. When we recognize that we can’t do it on our own, we rely on God instead of others to life us up. We allow Him to lead us in our work, relationships, love, goals, and our lives, instead of struggling through on our own false strength. A God-based identity allows us to remove all of the layers and masks to be proud of our weakness, because it brings glory to God and makes room for Him in our relationships.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. -2 Corinthians 12:9
Friend, if you struggle with wearing a mask for the fear of letting other see the real you, I am praying for you today. Christ allows us to step into freedom from the overwhelming exhaustion of our former ways of people pleasing.
It is possible to stand firm and secure. It may take some more shifting (a good kind of shifting!) to fix your focus onto a lasting and steadfast love rather than seeking the approval of man. But I can guarantee you that God provides us with a full, abundant, grounded life when we surrender to Him. I pray that over time, you can shed those layers and learn more about who God made you to be.
Since January, I’ve been learning how to play piano. It’s slow going, but it brings me a lot of joy to be able to play and sing worship music (even in the comfort of my own home). Sometimes I play in front of others, but mostly it’s just me and Jesus in my dining room.
On Monday nights I’m the worship leader for a group at church, which usually means coordinating the song selection, facilitating practice, and leading vocally on some of the songs. Occasionally, as needed, I also jump in and play keyboard. It’s clunky and a little awkward and I often apologize for my piano skills over the mic because I am a perfectionist and want others to know that I’m aware that it’s not good. How silly.
The point of worship is to glorify the Lord, not ourselves. I have come to believe that the gift of worship leading is to help usher others into the presence of the Lord, and to help a community of believers come together to offer God our praise. But sometimes, I still make it about me. If I’m in my head too much, I end up thinking about the quality of our playing and singing instead of the quality of my heart. And that is pride at its worst.
This Monday night, I lost sight of the greater purpose of worship. During our team’s practice time, I self-consciously stumbled my way through the music. I just could not get my fingers to work right and I kept losing my place in the music. When my team tried to offer suggestions I kind of snapped, and had to step away in an almost-panic attack. I closed the door of the bathroom behind me and leaned against the door with tears stinging in my eyes. I prayed for forgiveness for my heart, for my lack of humility, for my desire for control. I came out and apologized sincerely to our team. They met me with the sweetest grace and encouragement. During worship time later that night, my playing was not perfect, but my heart was better. And I know the Lord was still there and He was lifted up. Not me. As it should be.
I came home from group that night and beat myself up. About my perfectionism, my pride, my control issues. I wallowed in the fact that I sinned against God and my teammates.
I sat for a while that evening so aware of my own sinful nature. I wandered down a shame spiral- starting to list the other areas of my life where I have messed up. I started drudging up things from last month, last year, 10 years ago. And this was over a fairly small grievance. The shame spirals are wider, deeper, and last much longer over sins that I perceive to be even more severe.
Do you ever do this?
Learning to Let Go
God extends forgiveness and grace to cover our sins AS SOON as we reach out and ask Him for it.
My friends extended grace and compassion to me. They forgave me and let me know that it was okay.
I have to remind myself that when I go down those rabbit trails of looking at my own sin and failures, I am not walking in the freedom that God has given me. I have a hard time forgiving myself and letting go of what has already been covered.
There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is godly sorrow over our wrongdoings, which is meant to lead us to repentance. When we experience guilt, it is conviction from the Holy Spirit. Guilt draws us to our knees to ask God to make our hearts right with Him and with others. Guilt says, “That specific action, thought, or word was not okay. Let’s go make it right with God and the people that may have been hurt by that.” Guilt recognizes our responsibility in wrong-doings and brings empathy along with it. And when we offer our sin up to the Lord, He makes us white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). Our sin is removed as far from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
But shame? That is not from the Lord. Shame has a painful grip, and says to me “YOU are a mess. YOU are too broken for forgiveness. YOU are a bad person.” It takes my eyes off of others and brings them fully onto me. Shame separates me from the Lord and others, and often makes me isolate. I feel disgraced and find myself wanting to hide. While guilt spurs us to action, shame is chaotic and paralyzing.
Last night I was reading 2 Corinthians 3, and came across this verse:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” (2 Corinthians 3:17)
When I am sucked into a shame spiral, I push out the Spirit of the Lord. Because shame holds us captive.
When I encounter shame, I need to remind myself to invite the Spirit of the Lord in to remind me of His forgiveness. Of His grace for me. Of His ability to let go of my past.
And if He, the creator of the universe and a perfect Father can let go of my past, I can too.
I am learning to let go. To step out of the spiral and invite His Spirit of freedom to enter in. To remember that I can learn from these times when I stumble. To say “it is finished” and move forward with confidence that He is continually making me more like Him. To speak kindly to myself, with the words that He gives me as reminders of His grace.
If you struggle with letting go of your past or shame too, I want to share some verses and a prayer to encourage you today.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9)
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us,” (Psalm 103:8-12)
“Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame,” (Isaiah 50:7)
“Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed,” (Psalm 34:5)
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” (John 1:12-14, 16)
You are not a god that is far away, looking down on me with a wagging finger of disappointment. You are a loving, perfect parent. You see me as Your sweet and precious child. You welcome me into Your arms. Thank You for the GIFT of redemption and forgiveness that we can receive through Your love and through Christ’s sacrifice for us. Lord, I pray for Your Spirit of freedom to be close to me. Help me to remember Your Truth about Your mercy and love. I pray for strength and courage to let go of my past. Help me to see that it is not helpful for me to drag around self-condemnation. I pray for Your guidance to learn to walk with confidence in the knowledge that I am wholly forgiven and redeemed. Thank You for loving me for exactly who I am. I pray that I could bring YOU glory in the way that I walk that out. I love You Lord.
|| O P E N ||
A suddenly free day created an expanse of time for thought around this word.
To lay beneath a tree and look through the clearings, between the branches, to take in the expanse of pure blue sky.
Space for Sabbath rest, a run by the river, cooking the stew that reminds me of my best friend.
To hold hands open, gentle, soft for whatever is placed in them.
To remove clutter, extra, the unhealthy and the unneeded. To make space for the healthy and good.
To hear other people’s stories without judgment.
To create room for those who are different than me to feel heard and loved.
Allowing my own feelings to rise up without self-criticism. Letting go, as with a breath, those that are not healthy or helpful. Holding on to what is true and will create growth.
To let love in again after deep pain and sorrow.
Noticing the September around me.
What does the word OPEN mean to you today?
“But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” -2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)
Here is one of the biggest lies I have ever struggled with. And one that I see others wrestle with all the time….
That thing that I carry? The wound, the scars, the memories, the propensity for a certain sin, the part of my story that is hard to speak out loud?
It makes ME too messy, broken, wounded, scarred, weak, and messed up to ever be well again. Or to be used by God. Or to be loved by others.
But here also is what I know from 4 years of walking in recovery with an incredible community of others who recognize their weakness. Before sharing the thing (you know– THE thing) out loud, it has SUCH a powerful grip of shame, fear, or even denial over us. It keeps us in darkness. There is such a clear humility to saying “I can’t do this on my own anymore.” And I’ve seen over and over again that once we voice our weakness or brokenness, amazing transformation can happen.
I am weird and I really like charts/graphs/visual tools to explain things, so I made you a chart of three of my THINGS. I included a few bullet points/symptoms of what happened when I tried to cover each of those things up in my life, and what happened when I finally let those parts of myself and my story be seen:
If you think about the people in the Bible who made a huge impact for God, a lot of them had their own THINGS. But God doesn’t see those as the definition of who we are. He is able to use us, and even those heavy or hard parts of our lives, to tell a greater story. Of redemption, of restoration, of how His power is made perfect in our weakness. Remember Jacob who was a manipulator and a liar in his youth (to trick his father into giving him an inheritance that should have been his brother’s)? Or Joseph, whose brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery, upon which Joseph also encountered false accusations and imprisonment for a crime he did not commit? What about Ruth and Naomi? Naomi lost her husband and two sons, and Ruth lost her husband and moved to a new nation to become a foreigner. David, a man “after God’s own heart,” who committed adultery and murder? Paul (formerly Saul) who persecuted Christians in the new church? Gosh… what would have happened if any of these people decided that they were too broken for God to use them? But, amazingly, each of them persisted in faith that God is who He says He is, even when our lives on earth don’t turn out the way we expected. The God that each of these people served, and the God we serve today is this kind of God:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…
…I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” (Isaiah 61:1-3, 10-11, NIV)
Friend, your past does not define you.
The present struggle you are wrestling does not define you.
Your wounds and scars and baggage do not define you.
The brokenness you feel when you think of yourself? THAT does not define you.
God says that in our brokenness He can bring beauty. That He will restore the years the locusts have eaten. That He binds up the brokenhearted. He proclaims freedom. He SETS THE CAPTIVES FREE.
When we come out of hiding, we are set free, sweet friends. There is nothing too dark or too heavy or too broken for Him that He cannot redeem. And in the present, while we are waiting to see how it will be restored? In the waiting for that beauty and redemption, we get to wait with open hands and humble hearts to know that HIS power is made perfect in our weakness. We get to offer our weakness up to Him to watch how He will fill us with His power and reach others in our lives through it.
We get to be like Jacob with his sinful past who was newly named “Israel” and blessed by God as the father of a nation. God re-defined Jacob and used him as the foundation of a favored people.
We are able to stand firm like Joseph, who said “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). God sustained Joseph and rescued others through him.
We can comfort those who mourn and stand by their side, like Ruth did for Naomi. God restored Ruth’s broken heart and brought her a sweet redeemer in the form of Boaz, and even used her in the lineage of Jesus, a true Redeemer for the rest of us.
We can cry out to God in our shame, our pain, our brokenness like David throughout the Psalms. God forgave David in his repentance, and still used David’s story and his heart to show others how to walk through the light days and the dark.
We can be like Paul, who stepped into humility after he met the Lord and brought truth to others. God transformed Paul’s heart and gave him a powerful testimony that allowed him to speak to others from a place of true awareness of his NEED for a redeemer.
What if instead of praying away that weakness or brokenness, we instead prayed that God would transform the way we look at it? If we prayed for Him to use it, however He can, to bring hope to others and bring glory to HIS greatness? What if instead of covering up those parts of our story, we shared with others to let them know that they’re not alone? In your honesty and vulnerability with yourself, God, and others, I pray that you might be released from shame, darkness, and feeling like you will never be free from those heavy burdens. Because, dear heart, when you set those things into the light, the darkness cannot have as much power here.
A prayer for you:
Lord, I know that I cannot do this on my own, so I don’t want to hide anymore. You are a God who redefines, sustains, restores, forgives, and TRANSFORMS lives. You have been faithful to do so for others, and I pray that you would help me to trust that You have restoration for me too, Lord. I pray that in the midst of my weakness or brokenness You would allow me to see others who are hurting too, so that we can come together and realize we are not alone. Lord, I pray for your comfort and for reminders that you are with me in the midst of my pain, my battles, my darkness, and any brokenness that I experience. I do pray Lord for Your work of restoration and healing, but in the meantime Lord, I pray that YOUR power would be made perfect and known to others in my weakness. Thank You for loving me and helping me to step into Your light and healing.
*This post is the final installment of an IDENTITY series for the month of August. Here is the introduction (Who do you think you are?), followed by a post about our new-found purity in Christ, how to fight the lie that you are unworthy of love, and the 5 things that happen when we don’t believe that we are enough. Also, special thanks to Aaron Burden, Ibrahim Rifath, and Blake Cheek of Unsplash for the beautiful images to accompany this post.
“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” -Galatians 1:10 (ESV)
There’s an old wooden ladder, leaned up against a tall tree. Climbing this ladder proves to be challenging– shaky, unsteady. As you look around at the other trees, you see that some others are taller, some others are wider, some have brighter fruit or bigger leaves. So you keep climbing to get as high as you can. The wind is blowing, and your ladder and the branches around you seem like they could give way at any moment. And if you’re looking around and thinking about where you are compared to everyone else, there will always be another anxious climb, even if not this tree or this ladder.
But, what if there’s another way? Instead of climbing the ladder, can you just sit under the tree? Can you rest for a little while? With the solid ground beneath you, you run your fingers over the steady roots. You lean back, cradled in the shade of the leaves and branches above you. A bird is perched on a branch above and sings you a sweet song. You are grounded. Rooted. You are sheltered.
Have ever struggled with any of these statements?
- I’m too emotional.
- I’m not outgoing enough.
- I’m too loud; my personality is too big.
- I’m not organized or productive enough for that job/company.
- I’m too quiet to make an impact.
- I’m not important enough for others to listen to.
- I’m too broken for this church.
- I’m not spiritual enough for that friend group.
- I’m too quiet, shy, boring.
- I’m not pretty enough.
- I’m too inexperienced to succeed at this dream.
But here’s the bigger question–who says so? Somewhere along the way, did you hear that some aspect of who you are doesn’t meet the standard of other people’s expectations? Did you absorb the message that you need to tone down your light or your level of excitement to make others comfortable? Sure, for one friend group or person, you may be “too much,” but for another relationship, those very same characteristics might seem like “not enough.” For one job or company, you may be “not creative enough,” but for another role, you might be “too outside of the box.” It’s funny… all of these too much/not enough statements are actually very subjective if you think about it.
If we are living our lives in fear that our personalities, skill sets, and what we have to offer won’t meet the sliding scale of comfort or expectations for the culture around us, we end up living in a way that is inauthentic to who God created us to be.
As a recovering people-pleaser, I have had to remind myself often of what God says about where I find my identity. Do I find it in the opinions of those around me? Or in HIS value in me?
“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” – Proverbs 29:25
“Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?” – Isaiah 2:22
“For they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” -John 12:43
“Let no one deceive you with empty words…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” -Ephesians 5:6-10
Here is what I’ve seen happen when we don’t believe that we are enough, just as we are:
- We gain false security: We become secure in things that can change at any moment. When we think we have reached the status of “secure” in the opinions of others, those views can change within moments, days, seasons. We can become puffed up with pride when we value those feelings and accolades of man higher than the view of God.
- We scramble: When we are constantly trying to get in the good graces of others, we end up doing things for the wrong motivation of trying to be SEEN as helpful, likeable, needed. Rather than stewarding the good gifts, skills, and characteristics God has given us, we scramble to try to earn the favor and praise of others.
- We strive: Similar to scrambling, striving happens when we start climbing a ladder fast and hard to meet the standards or expectations towards worldly “success.” This is what happens when we try to prove to ourselves or others that we ARE in fact enough. Can you learn to rest secure instead? Not in what you have done or haven’t yet done, but in what God has done for you. He has already rescued you, redeemed you, set you free. You do not have to live a life of striving.
- We become stunted: The too much/not enough lies can make us compare our beginnings, our skills, or our stories to those around us. And then in that comparison, we can become completely paralyzed. Our growth stops when we try to be like someone else, or when we are frozen in fear that we will never be good enough to try going after those dreams He’s placed in our hearts. Instead, we are called to walk forward in the confidence and calling that God has for us, and in who He made us to be.
- We suppress: When we fear rejection for the truest and most authentic parts of ourselves, we hold back and dim everything about us that in fact makes us unique. Because maybe, when we have let our true selves show in the past, someone verbalized our deepest fear….that who we are (our very essence) was too much/not enough for THEM. But for God? The One who made you? The one who knows the very numbers on your head? You are exactly who He made you to be, sweet friend.
“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” -Isaiah 61:3
Notice that it says in Isaiah 61:3, that they will be called oaks of righteousness for HIS Splendor. By HIS planting.
I know that we live in a culture of upward mobility. Of making room for ourselves to make our voices heard. Or rubbing elbows to get in with the right crowd. When we are not secure in who HE has made us to be, we worry that we are not enough. We become so fixated on what we can do, and on not making the mark, that the ground beneath us becomes unsteady.
We do not have to do the work or put our own selves on display. In Him, we are oaks. Firm. Strong. Righteous. Planted- exactly as He made us, and exactly where He wants us to be.
While the opinions, values, and feelings of this world can change in an instant, and are as fickle as the “breath in our nostrils,” our God is different. Throughout Scripture there are SO many powerful images of God as a steadfast and steady force. Here are just a few that remind me of the strength we can find when we trust in God:
“And they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer,” -Psalm 78:35
“For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God?” -2 Samuel 22:32
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” -Romans 8:31
“Be still and know that I am God.” -Psalm 46:10
“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.” -Psalm 95:1-5
“‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” -Isaiah 54:10
Instead of swaying back and forth, trying to be everything to everyone, I pray that in HIM, you can stand firm. I challenge you to rest secure in the fact that the Creator of the universe also created you, with all of your quirks, character traits, passions, and your specific voice. We do not have to scramble or strive for value, because we are already seen as valuable to our rock and redeemer. If we can take our focus off of the changing tides of this world, we can keep our eyes on His steady face and do it all for His glory instead of man’s.
Lord I pray that you would remind each of us that we are not defined by what we DO, but by who you are, and who we are in you. Help us to rest secure in You, in your steadfast love and righteousness, not in our own striving or scrambling, or in the changing and unsteady things of this world. I pray that we would rest our souls before you, knowing that in you we can be called oaks of righteousness, planted and secure. Because you are more than enough for our questions of whether we are enough, Lord. We pray that today we might find our value in You, and You alone.
*This post is part of a series about IDENTITY for the month of August. If you want to read the series, here is the introduction (Who do you think you are?), followed by a post about our new-found purity in Christ, no matter how dirty we feel (I am clean, I am made new), and last week’s post about the lie that you are unworthy of love. Also, special thanks to fancycrave1 of Pixaby and Kevin Young of Unsplash for the beautiful images to accompany this post.
In this identity series, I will tell you a story of my own struggle with a particular lie/old identity, and then the Scriptures and prayers I’ve used to re-claim a new identity in Christ. Read the intro here.
I thought I was…. (here are the lies I wrestled with):
Unclean, dirty, impure, shameful, destined to repeat the past, defined by my sin/mistakes
Over the course of my 30 years of life, I have oscillated between different identities related to my status of clean, unclean, pure, impure. There have been seasons where I wore my purity like a badge of honor, an outward symbol of how pure I could make myself. Looking back I can see it was just that–a badge that could easily fall off, a self-proclaimed purity. My heart wasn’t necessarily as clean as my outward actions.
And there have been times when the actions of others or my own choices have left me in a pit of shame, chained down by darkness, covered in the grime of sin. Times when others called me “unclean” and I said, yep, that’s the truth. I took the words, actions, and fallen human choices that happened on this earth (either by myself or others) and let them define me as ultimate truth. No matter how much I prayed to feel clean I would not accept that God could really wash me and make me new again.
This past April, I helped lead worship at a women’s retreat for my church. The theme of the retreat was “Clean.” In preparation for the retreat, I prayed deeply and listened dozens of times to Natalie Grant’s song “Clean” (which would be our theme song for the weekend). That gorgeous weekend at a retreat center in a wooded area of West Virginia, our speaker poured Truth over us about our status as clean in Christ. We sang the words, “there’s nothing too dirty that you can’t make worthy,” and I spent a lot of time journaling and praying. I knew something deep and rich was stirring in me– memories were rising to the surface from childhood and adolescence and even recent months and I was seeing for the first time that what God had already CALLED clean I was still wrapping around myself like a cloak of shame. Although He had already released me from the chains of the past, I was dragging them around and wallowing in my own shame and self-condemnation.
I went for a run in the woods during the Saturday afternoon free time on the retreat. As I ran on the path down a big hill, I had this incredible feeling of innocence and childhood. With sunlight bursting through the trees and pouring over my head, I imagined a little girl running down a grassy hill into a field of wildflowers with her arms wide open to scoop up color. I laughed and felt like I could fly, I was so light and happy. And suddenly, I realized. Breakthrough. I let go of the chains I’d been set free from long ago– as I ran, I felt heavy weights falling off of my ankles and hands and my heart. I found myself running, wide open and free into pure JOY. Since that weekend, I have felt a sense of freedom I’ve never before experienced in my life– relishing in the fact that GOD has made me clean. There is nothing too dirty or shameful I could do that He would choose not to forgive if I asked in earnest for His forgiveness. Once He has washed me clean, I no longer have to sit and wallow in shame that I am dirty, unclean, or defined by my past. And there is nothing I can do to make myself worthy enough. I need Him to make me holy and pure.
I am learning more and more this important truth about my identity:
EVERYTHING I am flows out of the Truth of who He is.
As I was on that retreat weekend, I remembered a strange phrase from the psalms… and I couldn’t get it off my mind for days. “Cleanse me with hyssop.” This was David’s cry in Psalm 51 to be cleansed not just physically, but spiritually after he was found out in his affair with Bathsheba. I know that feeling–wanting to feel like your insides are clean and pure and no longer charred by sin and darkness. I read that hyssop is an herb from the Middle East similar to mint, used for cleansing, medicinal and flavoring purposes (it resembles lavender in photos I’ve found). It was used throughout the old testament related to sacrifices, used as a paint brush to place blood over the door frames in Exodus 12, and in David’s heart-wrenching cry of wanting to be purified. The good news is that Christ became our sacrifice so that we COULD be called pure, worthy, and clean– so much better than any outer cleaning we could try to give ourselves. Our hearts are able to be new each day, and through Him we are called a NEW CREATION. I am praying that by remembering who God is, what He is able to do, and the new identities we can have in Him, you will be able to join me in walking in this status of being redeemed and set free from the past. I used Psalm 51, Psalm 103, 2 Corinthians 5, and Galatians 5 to walk through this exercise:
Because God is… (fill in adjectives that describe the character of God):
- Steadfast in mercy
- Abundantly loving (unfailing in His love)
- Slow to anger
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” -Psalm 51:1
HE has the power to… (verbs listed with God’s actions for us/over us):
- Deliver me from bloodguiltiness
- Wash me thoroughly
- Cleanse me/create in me a clean heart
- Forgive all of my sins
- Heal all my diseases
- Redeem my life from the pit
- Crown me with steadfast love and mercy
- Satisfy me with good
- Renew my life
- Work righteousness and justice for the oppressed
- Remove our transgressions (sins) from us, as far as the east is from the west
- Reconcile us to Himself, through Christ
“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow….Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” -Psalm 51:7, 10
So, He calls us… (new identities we can claim for ourselves):
- Whiter than snow
- Ambassadors for Christ
- The righteousness of God
- A new creation
- Set free
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” -Psalm 103:11-12
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” -2 Corinthians 5:17, 21
To dig in further: read Psalm 25, Isaiah 43, Isaiah 44, Colossians 2:13-14, 1 John 1:9
Friend, no matter what you struggle with that makes you feel dirty or unclean (whether it is in your past or a present wrestling), my prayer for you today is that you could KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that in Him, you are a new creation. He is abounding in love and is able to cleanse you thoroughly. He calls you pure, redeemed, reconciled, and has set you free. Now, let’s spend some time scooping up those wildflowers of color and life, knowing that we are free indeed. Here is a prayer you can come back to when you are wrestling with shame:
Lord, I praise You– that You are steadfast in mercy, unfailing in your love, and that you are Truth. You have the power to carry me out of the darkness and shame and into Your light. Wash me, and let me hear YOU when you call me clean. I humbly ask you to help me to release the lies and chains I’ve carried around that say otherwise. Please help me to see myself the way You see me. I boldly ask for you to free me from the bondage of my past that has still been gripping me– the chains that I’ve heavily dragged around with me for all this time. As I step deeper into the purity of Your heart, I pray that I would not just define myself by outward actions, but that I would be cleansed at the very depths of my heart and mind. If there are wounds from my past that still linger, I pray for your healing touch that I could reach the fullness of the restoration that you have for me. I want to run freely into Your arms with joy, knowing that I am free indeed. I love you Lord.
Four years ago I walked through the doors of my church for a recovery meeting. I was really there to try to support… help… okay, fix another person that I thought could benefit from the meeting. What I found was how deeply hurting I was, and how I really needed the support and help to recover from my own hurts, habits, and hang-ups.
Celebrate Recovery became a safe place for me to take off my mask, understand myself and my issues better, and find healing in a Christ-centered recovery program. [Celebrate Recovery is an international program started at Saddleback Church with Rick Warren and John Baker in 1991. The program is now offered in over 35,000 churches, prisons, rescue missions, and colleges worldwide].
Over the past four years I dug deeper to the root of my issues, completed a 12-step study, attended a CR conference last summer in the Nashville area with 3,000 other people in recovery (it was AWESOME), and entered into leadership at our church’s CR ministry. I now mentor other women, help lead the Newcomer’s class, serve as the co-leader for the Monday night worship team, and am passionate about recovery in all aspects (not just my brand of recovery). This is part of the life work I know I am called to do, and I am so thankful for the way this ministry opened my eyes to the pain and struggle of others (outside of my own “stuff”). At the end of the day, we’re a room full of people who love the Lord and want to be real about where we’ve been, but also find hope in where God can lead us next.
The first step of recovery (for ANY area in life) is stepping out of denial; admitting that we no longer have control. In the language we use at CR,
“We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. -Romans 7:18
Once we admit that we do not have control over those compulsions, those painful areas of our lives, or other people, change is finally, truly possible. But first we have to get to that point of unmanageable–the out of control, rock bottom, heart break that life cannot go on like this any more.
Each Monday, for the past four years, I have introduced myself in this way:
“Hi, my name is Heather. I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ, and I am in recovery for codependence, anxiety, and divorce.”
We introduce ourselves in this way to first of all recognize that our greatest identity is found in the Lord (our addictions do not define us!). We list our areas of recovery second to keep us out of denial– there is something very vulnerable about sharing those struggles out loud… but also extremely freeing to know that there are others who can relate, encourage you, and spur you on to greater growth. Once we say them out loud, those secret heavy things we’ve been carrying around for so long start to have a little less power. It is then that we can finally get to work.
At some point I would love to tell you more about codependence and God’s journey in my life of shifting my identity away from extreme people-pleasing to finding my identity in Him. And I’d love to tell you more about these 12 steps that completely changed my life.
But this week, what’s heavy on my heart is that my busyness is no longer something I can manage. It is officially… unmanageable. I have shared before with friends, family, colleagues, and my recovery friends that this is a deep-rooted struggle that has been a part of my pattern of existence for as long as I can remember. High school was stacked full of the hardest academic classes I could take, school plays, band, student council, church youth group, private flute lessons and voice lessons, a touring show choir, and a restaurant job. When I got to college, I promised myself that the fresh start would allow me to hit re-set. It didn’t take long for me to pick up new roles and routines that were jam-packed into my days, along with trying to find more balance for a social life. But that meant lunch dates and coffee dates and weekend outings with girlfriends and more things packed in than I could handle. I kept pushing. When I would come home on Christmas and summer breaks I would just sleep for the first 2 or 3 days home, only waking to eat. My mom would ask me what was wrong, but I was just purely exhausted.
My adult life at 30? I could post a picture of my calendar here but I think that would only prove a point I’m finally coming to see– my own pride. A sense of self worth in how much I can juggle before breaking. I think there are roots of this busyness habit that are very much tied to my codependence (identity based in what others think/not wanting to let others down), but there is fresh, new work to do here. There are new layers to address about how I find a sense of worth in performing well, and coming to REST in the identity God has given me instead of one I create for myself or how I am perceived by others.
As this realization really started to hit me this week, in yet another cycle of burnout and exhaustion and a 4th of July Wednesday that involved sleeping and “wasting” half of my day off, I realized…. unmanageable. For how much I CRAVE rest, peace, stillness, rhythms that feel intentional and slow, why have I not been able to change this pattern? I picked up a book from my bookshelf that I started reading two years ago. But this message is right on target with the reminders I need right now, in handing over my whirlwind of a lifestyle to God and STOPPING. To learn to be more present than perfect. To be more still than successful. To have peace when I sit in quiet instead of a frantic to-do list constantly running in my head to do more, or to be more.
There was an ah-ha moment for me when I hit this passage in Shauna’s book:
“You can make a drug– a way to anesthetize yourself– out of anything: working out, binge-watching TV, working, having sex, shopping, volunteering, cleaning dieting. Any of those things can keep you from feeling pain for a while– that’s what drugs do…
Most of us have a handful of these drugs, and its terrifying to think of living without them. It is terrifying: wildly unprotected, vulnerable, staring our wounds right in the face. But this is where we grow, where we learn, where our lives actually begin to change.”
So on that note friends, I am ready to take step 1 to admit that my busyness has become unmanageable. I’m ready to strip it away and look at the wounds and meet change.
“Hi, I’m Heather. I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ. And I am addicted to busyness.”
This week, the greatest joys after making this realization were the moments of stillness and stopping to pay attention….
I realized that every time I get in the car I use my voice-activated Siri and tell her to make a note in my phone about new things to add to my grocery list, my to-do list, my writing list, or to send a text message for me. My boyfriend (a wise man who gets me/my heart) challenged me to use my car rides for prayer or worship time. I loved it on the first morning…. but by the afternoon I auto-piloted into making a phone call when I got in the car. It’s deeply ingrained, but I am making progress by taking note, giving myself grace, and making heart adjustments.
I wanted to work through lunch on Tuesday (a particularly busy/stressful day), but instead took a midday run through 90 degree humidity (I packed shorts, so don’t worry, I wasn’t running in a dress). I listened to a thought-provoking and centering podcast with J.A. Medders and Tony Merida about Christ-centered writing [Home Row, episode 31]. I let myself run slow up hills, and I took mental note of every single beautiful, simple thing I saw. I literally stopped to smell flowers. I waved at people I passed. I looked goofy, I’m sure, jogging in the heat, with a big happy grin on my face. But I felt peace.
I spent time digging into Romans and DELIGHTED over all of the exciting ways the Word came to life. I could not get enough! So this weekend, I am unplugging. I am going to pay attention to where my sinful tendencies rise up to cover up any emptiness with activity, and I am going to work on being more present with my son and the people God has me with each moment. I hope you can do the same, one day at a time, one moment at a time.
If any of this struck a chord with you, I’d encourage you to press in. Take note. Maybe sit with the question for a few minutes in a quiet place…are there any areas of your life that feel unmanageable/out of control? It’s okay (even freeing) to admit it to a safe and trusted friend… that’s where the healing begins. If I can pray for you let me know – I’d be honored.
“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” -Psalm 147:11
The past couple of years I’ve spent the weeks leading into January 1st asking God for a word to guide my next year. A word that I can press into-whether it becomes the umbrella for my goals, the anchor on the hard days, or something to set my eyes on that’s bigger than momentary trials.
️I loved how in 2016, I heard the word FREEDOM so clearly, and He was faithful in helping me find that in so many ways. I paid off a large amount of debt through an incredible side job. I let go of some unhealthy relationships, and found some pretty incredible new relationships that brought a sense of authentic community. I took control of my health, ate a more plant based diet, and even ran a half marathon! There was great freedom and joy in all of this. But God especially gave me freedom as I pressed into counseling and a recovery group for my people-pleasing codependence, and for the first time ever, I found my identity completely in Christ. That year was life-changing for me in stepping into that true sense of freedom.
️This past year, I claimed the word REDEMPTION. I learned that these words for my year are not necessarily a road map, they are a stepping into of trust. After divorce and single-motherhood, I think I imagined that “redemption” would mean God saving me from some of the burdens of my situation. I thought 2017 might bring greater financial redemption, a new home, a relationship that could fill the holes left by past wounds, and a greater sense of a traditional family for me and my son. The redemption God had in mind was different than what I imagined. He revealed to me how much work He is still doing to fill up my empty places. His healing touch has covered so many of my relationships and circumstances. I’m learning to step back and trust God to lead me on HIS own path of redemption for me. And that means releasing my control on my best-laid plans, laying them at the altar, and for once, not picking them back up again.
️Over the past two weeks, looking to 2018, I asked for a word again. Can I be honest? I almost felt frustrated by the word that continued to show up- HOPE. My hopes have been at times dashed and defeated, and I hate to say that hope hasn’t been coming super naturally for me lately. But maybe that’s why God is whispering it to me, nudging me to a place that feels a bit cliche and uncomfortable. He maybe knows I could use a year focused on hope and the goodness He has for me. This year, I will work on finding my hope for the future in the Lord- not in my striving, my expectations, my goals (whether I achieve them or not), the people around me, my financial situation, my relationship status. God is the source of hope I want to cling to.
This verse was one I used to focus during my half marathon training, and it’s been coming to mind a lot today again:
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” -Isaiah 40: 30-31