As a recovering people pleaser myself, I certainly can relate to Kelly’s story. And when we’ve spent most of our lives shape-shifting and trying to fit in, sometimes it takes a drastic situation or event from outside of ourselves to get our attention. In Kelly’s case, God met her in a big way, far away from home. He made her aware of where she had been placing her value and identity, and to this day continues to guide her into freedom. I love Kelly’s story and the mission she’s found for her life. I pray that it encourages you to embrace who God made you to be too, sweet friend.
This is Kelly’s Freedom Story.
– – –
Even as a little girl, all I ever wanted was to please people. If we were playing the game of “good church answers,” we’d say I needed Jesus. You’re right. I had church, but I didn’t have Jesus.
High school was a mess, but not many people would have really known because I did a pretty good job of managing how things looked. Thankfully, I met my now-husband and he took on the role of being the steady part of my life. All through my twenties, I fought to figure out who I was. I wanted to be the good Christian wife, but I hadn’t found anyone quite like me to imitate so I did my best to fit in, or at least not stand out.
Finally, at 30 years old, I started to understand who I was meant to be. Separated from all the distractions of my life, Jesus met me in a Guatemalan ghetto.
Being in Guatemala without the pressure to perform and responsibilities of home, I was free to experience God at work for the first time. I’ll never forget my first hike into the Maria Teresa ghetto. Walking down the steep steps, we stopped every so often to visit a family in their small, cobbled together home. Each time, God spoke through the families, assuring me of his presence and pulling me in even tighter. When we reached the bottom, the community who struggled to provide for themselves welcomed us like family with food and games. “Our home is your home. You are always welcome here.” Day 2 of the trip and I was changing.
Looking back I see my struggle. Without knowing God or understanding how he created me, I was never going to fit anywhere. The restlessness I felt was never going to get better because I wasn’t looking for the right things. All my life, I’ve been striving to be the best, to please people, and to be who they wanted me to be. It wasn’t always a bad thing. I have so much to be thankful for because people believed in my abilities and pushed me, but I also carry guilt and shame for the ways I disappointed myself trying to please others.
I know there are other women like me. We’re the ones on the fringe at church or just outside. Sometimes we try to be part of the group, to fully engage, but no matter how hard we try, it just doesn’t feel right. You probably won’t notice though because we’re really good at hiding who we really are.
We’re playing a part, always dreading the reality that one day we might stand out. This is how I’ve felt for the majority of my life. The older I’ve gotten and the closer I am to God, the more uncomfortable I’ve become living what feels like a lie.
Life experience tells me to protect myself, to put up walls, keep everyone out, and avoid getting hurt. Self-preservation has been my go-to in the past, but the isolation is suffocating. I need people in my life who allow me to be real and still love me. When I’m wrestling with the tension of questions and faith, wondering if I have the right answers or if the questions even matter, I need people who aren’t afraid and won’t abandon me. Working to become who God is asking me to be isn’t a solitary assignment.
What I know for sure is God didn’t make a mistake when he rolled the dice with me. (If we’re being proper, there’d be no dice game for God, but I already told you I don’t fit in.) He isn’t disappointed with who I’ve become, even with who I’ve been in the past. Believe it or not, he isn’t keeping score at all.
I wish this story could be tied up with a beautiful bow and note saying I’ve found freedom and joy in believing who God says I am. But even now, at 38 years old I struggle to be confident in who I am and what God is calling me to do. I doubt myself constantly, my mind like a playback reel of all the ways I need to be better—be calmer, don’t curse, be more patient with the kids, and forgive old wounds—just to name a few. Letting go of my own shame and disappointment is almost impossible.
I fight to believe God could ever be proud of me just the way I am. My greatest fear is that one day someone will walk up, or let’s get real—comment online, that I am a terrible writer, a heretic, and completely unworthy of working in ministry to teach and share the gospel. I live my life waiting for the shoe to drop and someone to call me out as the imposter I fear I am.
Two very different narratives compete in my life at all times—God tells me he is strong and has an amazing plan for me, while the devil is making me relive all the minute (and sometimes not minute) ways I have failed.
Jesus met me in Guatemala eight years ago and keeps showing up. Sometimes he shows up through someone’s encouragement, occasionally the Holy Spirit pushes me in a way I can’t resist, and still other times there’s unbelievable ideas I can’t shake. I wouldn’t be a writer on my own. When I started my first blog, I didn’t even tell people out of fear they’d read my posts. Going to seminary was certainly never part of my plan. But seeking, learning, writing, and serving have all led me to the place he wants me.
I am the misfit in your church, the one who doesn’t really fit.
Without a doubt, God is asking me to be honest with you about who I really am, what I believe, what I question, and how he’s using me. Friends, we need to embrace the ones on the outside because he’s working in them too. My questions are not a measure of the faith I lack. Instead, it’s the way God works in me, allowing me to question my understanding to seek deeper truth and a sincere understanding of how he wants me to be.
Without him, I wouldn’t be sharing this story with you. Nor would I be working for an orphanage or writing a book for all of us who feel slightly on the edge.
I am choosing to believe in my freedom and the purpose he has for me. Even on the days when it’s a fight not to fall into the depths of self-loathing or when someone’s words cut straight to my deepest insecurities. If my book never gets published, or if it does and is quickly forgotten, I’ll keep sharing because if for no one else, this is God’s purpose in my life. He is asking me to go forward and be honest with others who feel like misfits.
This is for the one who was afraid to be herself until she heard my story. It’s also for my girls, who I desperately want to show how to face their fears. This is my story of walking with God, wrestling with my faith, and embracing who he created me to be.
– – –
Kelly Beckley Shank found her passion serving in Guatemala. A writer, frequent flyer to Guatemala, and wannabe world traveler, Kelly encourages women to embrace their identity in Christ, especially those on the outside. When not traveling, she enjoys farm life with her husband, 3 children, and their myriad of animals.
P.S. Want to read more stories of hope and freedom? Read the Freedom Stories of more than thirty different women here. Only a few more left before the summer!
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.
– – –
Shifting the Self to Make Room
When I was growing up, I didn’t play “house” in the same way other little girls did. I played writer, teacher, theatre director, Miss America, and interior designer. I played artist, inventor, and in 9th grade I had one weird year where I thought I wanted to be a behavioral geneticist (I was really into science that year). As I entered into my 20s, I often thought I would opt to not have children. I was afraid I was too selfish. I feared I would mess up, or couldn’t handle the responsibility of raising a human. So it was easier for me to dream of Broadway instead of babies.
Then, Emmett entered my world.
Six weeks into my young marriage, I got sick and convinced myself it was a stomach bug showing up late from a Mexican honeymoon. But two pregnancy tests at home and one blood test from the doctor proved me wrong. That “sickness” was the most unexpected, terrifying blessing I could have ever imagined.
I had an unexpected reaction to this news. I grieved. I was so scared to step into this role, and I had no clue how to adjust to the reality of being a mother. I was so scared to embark on this journey, unsure of who I was, unsure about the impact upon our finances, and honestly unsure if my fragile new marriage could handle a baby.
Most of all, I was scared I would fail at motherhood.
Each day, as I rode the commuter train to work in Boston, I prayed.
God, I don’t know what I’m doing. Please show me how to love this child. Show me how to be its mom. Show me what to do.
I bought a cute little journal that I slid into the front pocket of my purse, and I started writing notes to the baby. I told it what I was eating that caused the most kicks and wiggles. I shared how the weather and shifting seasons looked like from my view out the train window. And as the baby grew, I started to cradle my belly with a protective hand.
When we found out the baby was a boy, we knew his name right away– it was a family name from his dad’s side that just seemed to fit. Emmett. I started writing notes in my little commuter notebook to Emmett- I wrote love letters each week, poems and observations about the world in 2012 when he was growing in my womb. I fell in love with this baby, and my heart took the full nine months to get ready to be his mama. But when they placed him on my chest, right above my swelling, full heart, I knew he was a gift. He was a straight up blessing from the Lord.
The first year was a blur. I tried to be “mother” but really didn’t know what that meant. Postpartum depression felt like I was moving towards my crying baby in a fog. My exhaustion amplified his colic, and I don’t think I showered much that year.
My afternoon walks on the farm where we lived were my sanity savers. I tucked Emmett into a little carrier, and he cozied into my chest each day. As we walked in quiet, I often felt stinging tears in my eyes, but also peace that God was with me. God was with us. I breathed in the air of our Virginia mountains and whispered to Emmett about the robin flying by, or the way the ground felt beneath my feet. I thought that being a mother meant completely dying to myself– denying all of my wants, needs, and dreams. I thought it meant sacrifice at my own expense, 100% of the time. I stopped caring for myself as I tried to care for this sweet little boy. In the midst of that (and in the midst of other hard circumstances), I think I just lost myself entirely. Or maybe, I didn’t really know who I was to begin with.
– – –
God Loved Me Into Motherhood
The postpartum depression didn’t go away on its own. I visited a Christian counselor to seek help climbing out of the pit.
She helped me to discover much bigger work that I needed to do. As I started to uncover more over the next year or two about my identity in Christ, I looked at some deep wounds buried deep beneath a facade of perfectionism. I realized that if I was not well, I could not be well for my son. I could not transform magically into a mother, caretaker, and homemaker, if I did not know who I was first and foremost in the Lord. I could not show unconditional love to another until I fully accepted the unconditional love of Christ myself.
God poured healing balm into the holes in my heart and showed me that this baby could not fix my breaking marriage (that was way too much pressure for a child), and a marriage could not fix the holes from past trauma or wounds (that was way too much pressure for any human being). It was time to do some work with God to fill in those holes, with God as the Healer, Fixer, Redeemer. And He did fill in the holes– but first He tenderly unearthed the pain of the past. He waded through and weeded up my selfishness and pride. He helped me to see how my perfectionism was holding me back in motherhood. He planted seeds of healthier new thoughts about myself, and gave me a firm foundation in Truth to replace the lies I had memorized about who I needed to be to please and love others well. He brought community in my life to surround me when I felt lost. And mostly, He showed me so much love. I learned to accept His grace, and came to see Him as a loving, good father instead of a judgmental, condemning or apathetic figure. I learned how to parent from the ultimate Parent. He loved me into motherhood.
– – –
A few years ago, in the midst of my divorce, my best friends from college convened in Minnesota for a wonderful reunion weekend. It was amazing how we were able to pick up right where we left off. It was also a gift to be with one another in person in the midst after years of major life transitions in each of our lives.
We laughed a lot, went for walks, drank afternoon tea on the porch, and held space for each other to fill in the details that we miss when we live hundreds of miles away from our dear ones.
We talked about jobs, moving, new marriages, and a marriage ending. We talked about missions and motherhood and reminisced about college memories. Our sweet friend hosting us for the weekend had her boys with her, and we took turns playing cars on the carpet with her toddler and holding her youngest baby. Two of our girlfriends there had bellies round with their first babies.
Where I once feared being a mother, I had by that point come to embrace it. Where I once had no clue what to do with a baby in my arms, my heart now ached to hold another of my own. As sweet as it was to be with these five beautiful girls, there was also an aching reminder that life had not turned out the way I had expected. They showed me so much love in that space, but it was bittersweet. I looked at the growing bellies friends expecting their first with simultaneous joy and sadness. And when it was my turn to hold the baby boy of our host, it was overwhelming.
Holding him brought up a surge of unexpected emotions. As tears welled and I choked back tears, I gently passed the baby to another friend and went to a room to cry by myself.
I felt gratitude for my friends. Joy for several of them as they also entered into motherhood. Awe for the growth God brought into each of our lives, not just in parenting but in other areas too. And then a deep, deep ache.
I had been ignoring it for a while, but the smell and softness of her baby boy brought it all to the surface. Along with the ache to have more children was a keen awareness that it may not be possible for me to have another. Then, guilt washed over me since I had already become a mother when others feel this ache for most of their adult years. Then, gratitude for Emmett and the chance to be his mama.
Grief for my breaking family. Gratitude for the family God HAD gifted me with. Gratitude and grief in the same moment, wrestling around in my heart in Minnesota.
Thus began a long season of reconciling the desires of my heart and the aches of my heart, and placing them in God’s hand. I began praying for His will for my family and acceptance of the season where He had me right now, but it still hurt.
– – –
This Sunday in church, a sweet little girl in a tutu skirt babbled and smiled from the row of chairs in front of us.
When she made eye contact with me, she smiled even bigger and nuzzled into the arms of the woman holding her. I smiled back and we played a subtle game of peek a boo.
A few minutes later, I looked over at my fiancé, who was smiling in the little girl’s direction. I followed his gaze and saw she was playing the same bashful game with him. It made my heart happy to see.
It made my heart happy to see the pregnant mama at the grocery store last week, cradling her belly.
It makes my heart happy to get the video messages from another one of those dear college friends, snuggling her new baby and telling us about life with two kiddos.
It makes my heart happy to check in with myself and recognize that envy is not there. The aching is no longer resident. I can smile and know that God knows the desires of my heart, but also place those desires back into His hands and say, “Thy will be done, Lord.”
It makes my heart happy to know that God loved me into motherhood, but He also loves me in every single season of my life. He has loved me as a creative independent, as a new and overwhelmed mama, a broken-hearted and aching woman, and in the beautiful present season where he has me right now.
– – –
If you struggle with contentment in the right now of your life season (whether you have a deep dream, an aching desire, or questions about your identity as it relates to your dreams and roles), here is a prayer I want to share with you:
You know what’s best for me, You have a design for my family, and You have a good and perfect plan for my future.
I know that You know my deepest longings and desires of my heart. Thank You for seeing me– for really seeing me– and loving me when I sit in unrest, longing, or questions about who I am. Help me to remember first and foremost who You are. Help me to remember who I am in YOU, beyond any earthly role, responsibility, dreams, or relationships (whether those roles and dreams are fulfilled or not).
And if Your plan does not include the fulfillment of these desires, I pray that I can genuinely say, “I praise You still.”
I want to honor You in the attitude of my heart as I live the life You’ve blessed me with. Help me not to envy others, but to trust Your plans for my life, Lord. Help me to be content and present in the season where You have me, right now.
P.S. I am deeply grateful to my friend Kristin Dunker of Kristin Dunker Photography for taking these beautiful family photos of Emmett and me in 2017. Thank you, friend!
Yesterday, I celebrated my 31st birthday. This week I’ve been reflecting a lot on my 30th year, and the amazing healing, hope, and freedom I now cherish. So this week… I’m sharing my own Freedom Story. A story about my 30th birthday and the significance of a tattoo. In many ways, this is part of my heart for this series.
I’m grateful to celebrate with you here.
Tattoo Parlors and a Birthday Present
This wasn’t an impulse decision. It was an intentional, prayerful choice.
For my 30th birthday, I decided it was time to seal my freedom as a reminder to myself. Last December, I planned a trip to Baltimore to visit my best friend Char. We researched tattoo parlors, and I asked Char to write out an important phrase in her beautiful calligraphy to incorporate into the special design that I dreamt of for nine years. We sat across from each other in the tattoo parlor, taking in the bright blue paint and looking at framed images on the walls. I was wearing my favorite scarf and filled to the brim with excitement. Char sat cradling her belly, at seven and a half months pregnant. I remember thinking we probably looked a little out of place, but I didn’t care. As the artist I chose took me back to the chair, I didn’t feel nervous. My cheeks hurt from smiling, and I felt an anchoring sense of peace.
This was a day I wanted to remember.
Italy and Peppermint Tea
When I was 21, I studied in Italy for four months. Our group stayed in Orvieto, an ancient town carved out of the top of a rock cliff in the region of Umbria. My favorite features of the town were its beautiful cathedral, the rolling hills and vineyards below our cliff, the lemon trees in the library courtyard, and the kind families I often saw at the market on Saturday mornings. Those four months signified self-exploration, my wrestling attempts towards independence, the savoring of the slower pace of Europe, and a marked turning point in my life.
We lived in an old monastery, no longer in use by monks but inhabited by Christian college students on one side and retired nuns on the other. Often, we looked out the windows to the gardens below to see the nuns waving up at us, “Ciao!”
One spring afternoon, I sat in the kitchen with our program director’s wife, Sharona. I loved spending time with Sharona and her young kids. They reminded me to laugh and slowed me down from my normal whirl of activity. That day, we opened the windows and had peppermint tea from a special ceramic jar on her window sill. There was a vast difference between the cozy tea, the smell of Italy after a rain, Sharona’s peaceful presence, and the tumbling anxiety I carried inside. She asked me to tell her my story. I took a deep breath and shared while I held my mug of tea close.
When I was finished, she looked me in the eyes and said something I will never forget.
“It seems like all your life you’ve been a bird. You’ve wanted to fly but you’ve had your wings held down and held down… I think you’re ready to fly.”
I’m not sure why, but the image of the bird unable to fly struck me deeply. I imagined one day I might fly, but I knew I wasn’t there yet.
The Bird Cage
When I think of freedom, I do picture a bird. Not a bird in a cage or with its wings pinned down, but a bird soaring against a bright blue sky or a gorgeous sunset. I picture joy.
For a good portion of my life though, I was more like the bird with pinned wings. I had debilitating anxiety, and I struggled with striving and people pleasing. I lived in fear of letting others down or hurting their feelings, and my highest aim was to make sure others were happy. The peace-keeper, the straight-A student, the good girl with a constant smile on her face.
I imagined sky-high expectations from others and feared I would never live up to those ideals. My extreme perfectionism led me into obsessive compulsive thinking and behaviors. I didn’t believe I was worthy of good things or healthy relationships, and often settled into relationships that reflected my poor self-esteem. I had terrible boundaries and said “yes” to everything and everyone, because “no” felt selfish.
The breaking point came at 25. I was a new mother, wrestling with life–not just the life of my little boy and providing for him, but my own life. I didn’t want to live the way I was living, but I couldn’t picture another way. I had so many questions about how I had gotten lost, how I had strayed this far off track. The birdcage was suffocating. I was losing my fight… part of me didn’t even care if I ever flew or got out. I lost much of my faith, and I realized I lost myself too.
Learning to Fly
Then, a light.
I went to a meeting- a support group. I was there to “help” someone else, but as I looked around the room and listened to stories of hope and healing, I recognized that I was in desperate need of help myself. The thing was, I couldn’t help myself anymore. No amount of reading from self-help books or journaling could pull me out of the pit or the darkness. I needed others. And I needed God.
Gently, lovingly, He patched my wings. He helped me shed the weights pinning me down. He focused my eyes on Him instead of worrying about everything going on around me. He started to heal me from the inside out.
I entered counseling and began to cull through wounds. The Lord taught me about forgiveness.
I found true, authentic community in my support group. No longer was fear of judgment the driving force for my behavior. My desire for change was finally greater than my people pleasing. I let my new friends open the door to the bird cage for me.
I came to understand who God really is. As I read more of the New Testament (particularly John, Matthew, 1, 2, and 3 John, and 1 and 2 Corinthians), I learned more about His grace.
I memorized Psalms and spoke His Truth to myself daily, instead of dwelling on my negative self-talk and criticism.
I learned what brought me joy: serving others without expectation. Running. Hiking. Baking. Painting. WRITING. Worshiping. Mothering my son. Connecting bravely with others who have hard stories but have found hope in Jesus.
I started to understand more of who God made me to be: He made me with a heart that loves deeply. He gave me creativity, depth, and zest for life. An empathetic and compassionate spirit. A quirky sense of humor. An ability to lead others with grace and gentleness.
Christ didn’t come to bring a nebulous, unattainable idea of freedom, but to give His children a true, deep, soul-level deliverance.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
“I am set free”
With pin pricks of ink, I heard the buzzing sound of the tattoo artist working on my rib cage.
My eyes stung and I breathed deep, relaxing into the table. As the artist carefully brought my vision to life, I prayed. I closed my eyes and thanked God for all of the work He has done in my life. I am set free FROM:
- OCD and trichotillomania
- Debilitating anxiety
- Toxic relationships
- Doubt about my faith; bitterness towards God
- Depression and suicidal thinking
- Extreme people pleasing
- Perfectionism and control
- Trying to live up to the expectations of others
Now, I live in freedom. God has brought me freedom to:
- Establish healthy boundaries.
- Forgive those who have hurt me.
- Take responsibility for my part, and let go of shame and self-condemnation.
- Carry JOY; this is not a fake smile to cover up my scars and my pain, but lasting, deep joy.
- Live in authentic community with others.
- Walk in the calling He has placed on my life to empower and encourage others who are hurting.
- Know His Word as truth. I know God is loving, merciful, steadfast. I believe He created me in His image, has His mighty hand on my life, and loves me fiercely.
As I prayed and thought about all of these areas in my life, the tattoo artist etched my best friend’s writing beneath an open bird cage on my side. It says:
On my left shoulder, there’s a silhouette of a flying bird. My freedom bird.
As Char and I left, I told her the significance of my time on the table, and the depth of my prayers and gratitude for how God has protected and guided me. She told me that while she watched me with my eyes closed, she prayed for me too. She thought about all of the amazing things God has done in my life. Who knew that getting a tattoo could be such a spiritual experience 🙂 I am immensely thankful for the work God has done in my life. Even on my dark days or difficult times, I know that the Lord is with me.
In Him, I am set free.
– – –
What are some things God set you free FROM in your life? What are the ways you walk in freedom now?
When the voices of comparison and lies from the enemy grow loud, we have to fight for the Truth of who God is and who we are in Him. My fellow writer, Heather, shares beautifully, bravely, and vulnerably about her own struggles with her weight, self-image, and how God met her in her suffering in this piece. I’m so grateful to share her words with you today.
Here is Heather Kristine’s Freedom Story.
I’ve struggled with poor self-esteem most of my life. Every time I walked into a room I looked around and ranked myself in comparison to everyone else. My ranking was largely based on weight. Am I the fattest woman here?
After losing 135 pounds in 16 months through restrictive eating I was sure I had arrived. Now I was worthy of other people’s time and attention, right? As soon as I began to eat normal food again the weight started to pile back on. With each pound, I gained I lost a corresponding pound of confidence.
I started to hide again. I’d cancel plans and refused new invitations believing that my weight gain would be the silent undercurrent to every interaction. Even my own pastor called me out on it. “What happened, Heather? You were doing so well. How did you let the devil get a foothold again?”
Was I really doing so well? I had been restricting myself to under 1,000 calories a day. I’d lost half of my hair. my nails were falling apart. My skin was dull, dry and itchy. Worst of all, I was too tired to do anything. I always thought that once I lost the weight I would regain radiant health, climb mountains, learn ballroom dancing, find love. The only thing I gained in losing all that weight was an inflated ego. Only if I ranked myself higher than average in a room would I have the confidence to strike up conversations and get to know people.
I used to be afraid of people. Long after the bullies had graduated and moved on, I was still bullying myself with a non-stop inner monologue of disgust and condemnation. If I could be this mean to myself then other people were scarier. Why would anyone want to be friends with the likes of me? If I couldn’t even do something as simple as eating less and exercise more, what could I possibly have to offer?
Then God met me in the midst of my suffering.
I had crept out of the evening session at our women’s retreat. Overcome by self-hatred and condemnation I sought refuge in the quiet of my hotel room. Alone with my two favorite guys, Ben & Jerry. Stuffing the empty pint of “Peanut-Buttah Cookie-Core” into the garbage, I was covering my shame with wads of clean paper towel when God whispered to my heart. “Can you learn to love yourself, even if you gain all the weight back?”
I don’t know.
I tried to love myself. I really did, but I couldn’t get free of comparing myself to other women. I lost the ability to pay attention in conversations because all I could think about were all the ways I didn’t measure up. It was like I was being bullied all over again, except that the voices never stopped when the bell rang. They were always with me.
Several months later I was at another women’s conference. Everyone was standing in worship and I was cowering in my seat, fighting the urge to bolt for the doors. After one of the songs, a speaker led us in a time of confession and prayer. I turned to the two friends on either side of me and begged them to pray for me to stop comparing myself to others.
As they laid hands on me and prayed I saw myself in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I looked was a mirror reflecting and magnifying each of my flaws. “Lord, how can I escape from this nightmare?”
Then a sermon from many years ago began to ring in my ears. The radio preacher was reading from the book of Ezekiel:
“You were the signet of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden, the garden of God;
every precious stone was your covering,
sardius, topaz, and diamond,
beryl, onyx, and jasper,
sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle;
and crafted in gold were your settings
and your engravings.
On the day that you were created
they were prepared.
You were an anointed guardian cherub.
Ezekiel 28: 12b-14a ESV
The preacher said that Lucifer was covered in precious stones so that he could reflect the glory of God.
The enemy of my soul is reflective!
Suddenly, the hall of mirrors took on an entirely new meaning. As soon as I thought it, I had a large rock in my hand. As each mirror shattered a new rock appeared in my hand. When they were all gone, Jesus was waiting to take my hand and lead me back into the light.
I’m still tempted to compare myself to others. But then I recognize that my eyes have wandered back to the enemy of my soul so I search for Jesus in the eyes of that other person instead. Somehow, this has brought me the freedom to show up authentically in community. I no longer resist the urge to text or call a friend because I don’t want to burden them. I’m no longer afraid to introduce myself to someone new because I’m sure I have nothing of value to offer them. I’m just looking for Jesus in everyone that I meet and I make friends along the way.
– – –
Heather Kristine is a writer living just outside of Columbus, Ohio. Making homemade soup is her love language and she is currently training to be a spiritual director. She has one adult daughter who has flown the coop and two white rabbits. You can follow along with Heather’s beautiful words and journey on Instagram.
– – –
Special thanks to Averie Claire (via Unsplash) for the photo that accompanies this post.
I love Kate’s story so much. When she sent it to me, tears filled my eyes- THIS was exactly my vision for the Freedom Stories series. Kate’s story is one of motherhood, and of postpartum depression, yes, but even more than that it’s about finding a sense of belonging that is lasting amidst all of life’s changes. Her words are strikingly beautiful and honest. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share them here.
Here is Kate’s Freedom Story.
I lost my way for a long time.
About 3 years after my son was born, maybe a little longer.
I left my career to stay at home, a blessing to be sure. But, all at once I had this little human that I was responsible for, a marriage that morphed into a full-fledged family, and a new life in the span of 12 hours. As I labored, my husband and I grew up.
Too fast, and not fast enough — all at the same time.
Drowning in hormones and the recovery of a tough birth, I experienced the identity crisis that had been chasing me my entire adult life.
I’m lucky, really. I’ve always had someone, someone has always stood the gap for me. Being young when my parents split, there were grandmothers and aunts and a stepmom that shaped who I was as a woman. I’ve never been without a guide or a protective wing. But I still struggled. I struggled with identifying with my family, with my friends. I struggled to belong to anyone or anything.
In the tumult, I found Jesus. And while He filled a lot of holes in my heart and mended many of the cracks; I still didn’t quite understand.
I was a believer, sure, but where did I fit in?
And then marriage, and then kids….
Was I my husbands? Was I my parents? Was I my kids? Did I have any right to claim family in any of these instances? Where did I belong?
These questions might seem silly to some, but if you’ve ever struggled with belonging, then you’ll feel right at home within my crisis. It’s as if I was a walking, vibrating, sandcastle. The winds and waves of every day threatened me, and so far I’d held up nicely.
But the storm of becoming a mother, myself, made landfall, and I collapsed.
Making it out of bed only to care for my newborn and lay on my family room floor, I was nothing but shell. I couldn’t sleep, I ate terribly, and I felt and cared so much with nowhere to place it.
It goes by many names. Generalized anxiety disorder, postpartum depression, panic, full mental breakdown, whatever you want to call it; it was all of those things and more. It felt like I was responsible for and incapable of everything. All at once. My body physically hurt and my brain swam and spiraled about with everything that could possibly go wrong at every minute. I was too full of worry to fit anything else, but at the same time, I was so desperately empty. It was as if I was living with my body turned inside out. Every nerve exposed to the dangers of this wild world. Every minute I was just waiting for something that would cause me pain.
That’s what depression and anxiety felt like to me; like everything was broken.
The meds helped.
They cleared the fog, removed the 400-pound elephant that sat on my chest, released my body from the suffocating imbalance it was experiencing so that I could lift my head. I’m so thankful for meds. I’m so grateful for doctors that listen, best friends that call out our pain, and husbands that don’t give up.
I’m even more so thankful for a Savior that doesn’t just remove pain and fix brokenness, but uses it to build and grow; to strengthen and prepare.
Meds, however helpful, would not solve the problem that still remained. That had always existed. I needed a place to belong.
I wish I had the perfect 5 step plan to find belonging, but I don’t. It’s a winding path that looks different for everyone. I know that it took time. It took honesty. And it took scripture.
When I finally lifted my eyes off of my own self-service, there He was. Waiting, as He always is.
Soft-eyed, and soft-palmed; He lifted me and branded my heart with His name.
Here was my place. Here, in Him, I find belonging.
It feels whole. It feels mended, and full of good things, and strong, and healthy. It feels like full breaths of fresh air.
And it also feels like my body is turned inside out. Every nerve exposed to the dangers of this wild world.
All of this was my path to this type of living I do now. This words on a page, bleeding from your fingers, the front door always open, heart ready to break for you, arms ready to receive you, beat up, bruised, and bandaged life that I am so gloriously sitting in. It is mine because He found me, branded me, called me, and comforts me.
My pain and my trudge to this place, that’s my freedom.
The world seeks belonging. It’s craving honesty, vulnerability, and authenticity. The world is looking for Jesus, whether they know it or not, and it doesn’t need any more telling. It needs showing and doing. This is the call that needs answering now.
The lost are searching. Searching for the patched-up ones, with still fresh wounds and bandages and bruises like ourselves. People who can be honest about where they are from, and gentle about where to go. People who live inside out, with every nerve exposed. And before any of us can answer this call, before we can live heart open like this, we need to belong.
We need to belong to Jesus.
Living vulnerably is not easy, it comes at a price. We give the world our worst moments and use them to point people to Jesus. We lead the charge into battle. We make ourselves vulnerable to judgment and ridicule.
And it takes a toll on your soul.
But the toll is a small price to pay. An investment in eternity.
So do the work. Lift your eyes to meet His gaze. Let Him brand His name on your heart so that your identity is firmly found in the hope and promise of Jesus Christ. The armor you wear into battle is a composition of His Spirit and His Word and His Salvation.
Be branded with His name and pay the toll from His pocket.
Because when He’s the bank, the toll on your soul is never too high.
We are all promised trouble in our wild world.
But also, victory.
– – –
Kate Radcliffe is Nothing Fancy. She’s a wife and a mom to two Wild Things. Out of her broken and restored soul, she writes. She’s honest, real, and extremely loud. She exists to gather people around her table and send them home bellies full and steeped in the aroma of the Spirit.
Her blog, Nothing Fancy, exists to encourage and inspire women to live free and full in the goodness of the Lord. Friendship, fellowship, and refining fires are her bread and butter. She lives loudly, loves wholly, and exists simply.
– – –
Special thanks to Daiga Ellaby for her gorgeous sand castle image that she donated to the public domain via Unsplash.
Friends, I’m so excited for you to meet Paola. She is sharing her story with us today through an interview we had this week. I love how technology can put us in touch with sisters/community from all over the world. If her words speak to you, be sure to let her know in the comments below or hop on over to her site (linked in her bio below).
Here is Paola’s Freedom Story.
Hi Paola! I’m so grateful you’re willing to share your story with us. Before we get into it, will you tell us some of the fun stuff? Tell us about where you’re from, what you love to do, and anything else that will give us a little slice into your life!
Several addresses and many accents along the way summarize my life. I was born in Spanish, live in French, and think in English! Born in Venezuela I was raised and educated between cultures. My formative years were spent between Europe and the US. I became a believer in college through the ministry of Inter-Varsity, and later joined a local church that became my home church for ten years. Years later I would return to Venezuela, now an adult. This makes me a TCK – short for Third Culture Kid.
Practically a foreigner, it would prove a hard experience, and by God’s grace, a great blessing. It was there that I met and married my husband. As the political situation there worsened, we began to pray for and research legal avenues to leave. The Lord made a way and after a rigorous application process, we were approved and immigrated to Canada in 2012. We became Canadian citizens in 2015.
It’s all harder than it sounds, less glamorous than it looks, and infinitely more blessed than I could have ever expected. When we moved to Montreal, learning to run in its majestic winter became a goal. Now, for fun, I run outside year-round in Canada!
What a journey! And friends… Paola runs in the snow, like -20C (which is about -13F). So she’s a warrior in my mind! Paola, Galatians 5:1 is a key verse for our FREEDOM STORIES. It says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Therefore, do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” What was the old yoke you were living under? What was that slavery like for you?
Ever since I can remember, I wanted to succeed. Both my upbringing and my education showed the ideals of the world, so I had very high expectations of myself from a young age. By the time I was in my 20’s I was hungry for achievement, that I may feel validated and important. Without realizing it, I gladly served at the altar of success. My worth was completely married to the fruits of my labour.
What were some of the old narratives you absorbed?
My old narratives dictated that to be someone, I needed to attain certain goals. The size of my bank account, my job title and client portfolio; it all said something about me that confirmed to me and others I was a person of value. I was hungry for achievement because I was hungry for identity.
The core issue with narratives is to ask – is this true? According to who? There is nothing wrong with wanting a good job and salary. The issue becomes the definitions we attach to things. For me, these things became markers of approval. A full life was a life of influence and plenty. I was working with the wrong definitions.
What was the turning point? Was there a rock bottom or a point that you realized that you couldn’t live like that any longer?
The turning point came in the form of a severe burnout and depression. At the age of 43, I woke up one day hating my life so much I was looking for ways to quit it. Nothing will sober you up more than to realize you have the life you wanted, and its emptiness swallows you whole. None of the achievements I’d worked so hard for were giving me any of the validation and comfort I wanted. (If you want to read more about that, I’ve written about it here).
So what happened next? What actions did you take? Did you connect with community or find new Truths that helped you find freedom?
The moment of truth came when I finally made the decision to quit my job. It seems like such a simple and even small thing. People quit their jobs every day. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Who would I be then? After being the shadow of a person for months, tired, sleepless, and depressed, with a big gulp I timidly typed up and handed my resignation. It was the hardest and most freeing thing.
After I quit it, I realized I wasn’t just quitting that job. I was quitting an entire way of looking at myself and others. I was quitting a pursuit of 15+ years to make a name for myself, that had turned out to be a house of cards.
My husband coined the aftermath of my quitting rehab and detox. Indeed, over the months that followed, I relearned to be a person again. Stripped of all the things that gave me identity and security, I had to learn to walk again. Scripture became my shelter. I read and pray like never before. I had lost my way home and got to see God’s truth afresh. It was such a gift, that literally saved me from myself.
To find myself face to face with the gospel again was the greatest respite from the relentless pursuit of so many years. Jesus’s work on the cross makes me whole. The Bible clearly states that it is by grace alone that we are saved. Our identity is safely in the hands that were pierced for my sake, that I may have communion with the Father. Losing sight of that had meant losing my lifeline. Lies spread into every crevice of my thought-life. Reconnecting to the Vine, revived my heart and made room for the Truth while exposing the lies.
Being part of a gospel-centered church was also pivotal. To hear God’s Word preached Sunday after Sunday makes a dent. When I was lost in the idolatry of success those words became medicine when I finally understood my workaholism and idolatry.
I love your story because I see myself (and many others) in it. You made such a bold change that required such a step of faith, and I’m so grateful to hear about the changes that brought for you. Tell me about your life of freedom. What does it look like for you now?
Today I see my life is small and my God is big. I was so hungry for spectacular, so avid for results, I had reduced God to a small caregiver I’d summon when things got too hard to face or I didn’t have the outcome I was hoping for. Today, my life is small and simple. I don’t have a big salary for an important position at a big-name company. My days are invested being a wife, a learner, and a mentor, writing, reading, and studying. I try to live each of those roles out of the title that makes every breath possible – disciple. I am a follower of Christ.
Do you still wrestle with those old struggles? What do you do on those days to fight for your freedom?
Of course! The flesh is in perpetual opposition to God. There are days when I fear my life is too small to count. My calendar, once filled with meetings with big-name clients, now has writing days, and coffee dates with women I mentor. Sometimes I feel like my contribution to our household economy reflects my worth. I’m especially grateful for my husband, who is the first to bring me to the Truth.
Today when I feel down and realize the root is a thought that is faulty in light of Scripture, I try to preach Truth to my heart instead. The feelings may linger, but I pray, confess my heart out to God, maybe share with a trusted friend or two and ask for their prayers. Don’t want to entertain what is not Truth-based. The gospel is too precious, was too costly, and is too powerful, for me to waste my time investing in things that are not aligned with it.
Yes! Are there any key scriptures, quotes, or books that have been helpful for you on your journey into freedom?
My story of freedom is a story of RESCUE. He rescued me from endlessly trying to build my own little kingdom of self-sufficiency. Clarity on who He is brings clarity on whose I am. God has Lordship over all things and we are utterly dependent on Him. This brings Him glory. It’s a heavenly perspective that helps me to put things in their rightful place – Jesus on the throne, my life in His hands, my heart trusting His. He’s strong, I don’t have to be. He is trustworthy.
“Know therefore today and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above, and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:39 ESV)
“Teach me your ways, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth. Unite my heart to fear your name.” (Psalm 86:11 ESV)
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7 NIV)
“Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6 ESV)
Those are such powerful Truths! And I love what you said about our own little kingdoms. I’ve built a few of my own over the years, and you touched on something I think a lot of people can relate to in your story. I’m so grateful you’ve found freedom. Okay, one last question, because I’m a big believer that gratitude lists help us remain present and fight our battles, tell me 3 things you’re grateful for right now. 🙂
1. God’s Word – It’s made ALL the difference. God’s words have carried me through the painful process of ridding my heart of all previous go-to behaviours and definitions and held me tenderly in the safety and provision of His promises. I testify of His goodness and faithfulness with all my heart!
2. God’s people – My husband and close friends who prayed me through the dark time. For new ones that bless my life and teach me the good fruits of love, gentleness, and patience.
3. New beginnings – He is making all things new. Writing is a hard and humbling activity for me. I’m grateful for the ministry of words that I feel called to learn to steward. It keeps me utterly dependent on God.
– – –
Paola Barrera is a writer who desires to let the Word be the lamp unto our feet it says it is, letting it edit our narratives and words with those that matter most – God’s. She writes regularly at Words Outloud and lives with her husband Gustavo in Montreal, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @Paola_BarreraR and Instagram @paola_m_barrera.
– – –
Special thanks to Richard Lee (with Unsplash) for the image of the birds in flight to accompany this post!
“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.
Elementary school. That was the first time I had that feeling of not fitting in. Specifically, third grade. I was tall and lanky with glasses and a bad underbite. I was shy and wanted to fit in with the group of girls who had emerged as “popular.” I remember feeling embarrassed on the first day of fourth grade that my new outfit, which had been considered “cool” in third grade was suddenly… uncool. Fifth grade, as the other girls in my class developed and moved into a new phase of bodies and boys, I was still secretly playing with Barbies. I was behind and on the outside.
Through middle school and high school, I started to realize that if I modified how I spoke, what I wore, and the jokes I laughed at, I would stand out less and could blend in more. I was consistently insecure that if others saw the “real” me, they would surely reject me. I became a shape-shifter to gain approval from friends, never really showing my authentic self. In actuality, I don’t think I knew who that was. But I knew that I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror, and a large part of that was that I didn’t feel loved and accepted. I thought I had to earn the love of others, and I never quite felt that I made the mark.
Another huge component of this growing lie that I was unlovable and unworthy came through the lens of romantic relationships. When the boy I had a crush on in my fifth grade class openly laughed at me for my flat chest, I went home early with a stomach ache–my first glimpse at rejection and unrequited feelings. But even more than that, I absorbed the internal message that who I was wasn’t worthy of returned affections. Over the years I heard iterations of the a certain message from our culture (from the someday-my-prince-will-come fairytales of childhood all the way to the more mature romantic themes of magazine ads, television shows, movies, and books)– that I would feel complete when finally I found someone who loved me in a big and sweeping way. I came to hope that being accepted by others would fill in the holes of loneliness. During my deepest times of insecurity, I took on heartbreak after heartbreak by opening myself up to relationships out of fear of being alone or thinking that when I finally found “the one” I would finally feel whole.
On the other side of divorce and deep heartaches, I still occasionally hear those old lies of “unlovable” or “unworthy,” and sit with the fear of rejection or abandonment. But the past few years, God has done some incredible work within me to bind up wounds and show me His sweet love. I want to whisper to you some words of encouragement today…
Friend, I don’t know what you’ve been through in your life that makes you wonder or doubt your worthiness in relationships. I don’t know what wounds you carry from childhood, or the heartbreaks, rejection, trauma in your life that have layered lies, insecurities and deep wounds into your soul. I know that at times you may feel lonely and rejected in rooms full of people, and even more achingly so when you’re alone with yourself. That these wounds may have opened you up to lowering your standards, settling for unfair or unhealthy relationships, or even enduring abuse because you didn’t believe you deserve any better.
But sweet friend, here is what I’ve come to know as absolute Truth, and sometimes have to remind myself of even now. Another person will never make us feel complete. If I’m waiting on that “perfect love that casts out all fear” (and casts out insecurity and self-doubt), it will never come through another imperfect soul on this earth. As we sit longing for a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love, we need to recognize that God IS LOVE, and lavishes that very kind of love on us. That He is a good and perfect father who can bind up our wounds. He abides in us and we can love others (and ourselves) more fully once we know that He is the one who fills us up and that we are made complete in Him.
As I’ve read my son the Jesus Storybook Bible this year, I have found myself holding back overwhelmed tears during the stories of Creation and Jonah and David and his small stones, and the mighty but quiet story of Jesus’ birth story. Sally Lloyd-Jones shares in such an accessible and simple form the beautiful and redemptive love story of God in a way that she describes as a “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.” This year, during my own prayer time after Emmett goes to bed, I’ve sometimes pulled his storybook Bible back out to re-read the story from that night and wonder how I’d missed it before. That in one story after another, this Heavenly Father has pursued us, just wanting us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He loves us and will never leave.
Honestly, THIS was the place that my heart shifted from seeking other places of self-worth and love and saw that the Truth of my being as loved and chosen and pursued by God was right in front of me all along.
In those times that we question or doubt our ability to be loved, we have to go back again and again to these Truths, as we up-root the lies of unworthiness:
- “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)
- “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” (1 John 4:7-9)
- “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” (Jeremiah 31:3)
- “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
- “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by his love.” (Zephaniah 3:17, ESV)
- “…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV)
- “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16)
- “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a)
Our emptiness or feelings of unworthiness will never be satisfied entirely in human relationships, even the good ones. If I am seeking a big redemption story in a relationship here on earth, I will end up disappointed again and again. Don’t get me wrong- I believe that incredible healing can come within the context of healthy community and relationships. But until we recognize that the ONLY one who can fill up all of our empty spaces is God, we will always come up short.
In HIM, we can know that we are His beloved, that He chose us, that we are worthy, that He will never leave us. This is different than human love. Humans may reject or abandon us, they may put up walls or turn away. But not our God. This amazing Father, with loving arms, embraces us as His beloved children and fights for us. With Him, there is a precious guarantee- He is a God who keeps His promises and is unwavering in His character (Numbers 23:19).
In HIM, we are purely and perfectly loved.
*This post is part of a series about IDENTITY. 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).