|| wres*tle (verb): : to move, maneuver, or force with difficulty; to combat an opposing tendency or force; to engage in deep thought, consideration, or debate ||
Friends, if you have ever wrestled through darkness, depression, anxiety, or questions about your faith, you’ll likely recognize the thoughts and feelings in the story below. My friend Thelma does a beautiful job of sharing how she found freedom through her wrestling, and I pray her words will bring hope to you if you find yourself in the midst of the mud right now.
Here is Thelma’s Freedom Story.
I sat on the brown leather loveseat in my counselor’s office, my shoes in a heap on the rug, legs tucked beneath me. I was nervous, fighting back tears. I didn’t want to be here, despite knowing something had to give. A month ago my doctor had threatened to make me take leave of absence from work until I could get a handle on my circumstances, and I had avoided her office ever since.
“Find a counselor,” she said. With reluctance and trepidation, I did as I was told.
I was drowning. My circumstances had heaped up giant mounds of burden and responsibility and I felt wholly inadequate to respond. And I was angry. Very angry. All the time.
Angry at God, mostly. If he was a good, able God, why was my life an endless storm? I had a laundry list of grievances and I wanted answers. Was I missing something? What lesson was I supposed to be learning I was missing out on?
“Look, God, this is me losing my mother at fifteen. This is me having to live in foster care for two years. Here is our struggle with infertility. This is my husband’s chronic pain, diagnosis, and surgeries.” And here I was, fighting a losing battle (it seemed) trying to maintain or improve my husband’s declining health, gaining no ground, and swiftly losing interest in a God who seemed pleased to wreck me.
I was drowning. I was pretty sure God did not care.
“I still believe,” I insisted to my counselor, trying to wrestle through the darkness towards some fumbling light of hope. “I believe Jesus died for me, but I am so angry right now.”
We dug deep together, my Christian counselor and I. I was instructed to journal. She assigned me the homework of moving through the Psalms at a snail’s pace, to highlight words that jumped out at me, themes that surprised me. I found myself underlining everything about safety, security, refuge. I scrounged a pink highlighter to capture the words ‘help’ and ‘listen’ and ‘rescue’. The word ‘trust’ was underlined in purple. After six months I barely made it to Psalm 25.
Digging deep, I uncovered some hard truths. A Christian since childhood, I knew many truths about God, only I wasn’t responding in faith to anything he said about himself. Since the age of fifteen, when my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm and we found her on the couch, I believed God wasn’t trustworthy. I did not trust him. Sure, he hadn’t actually dropped me yet, but I wasn’t convinced he wasn’t going to.
I believed he took great delight in wrecking me. Breaking me down as though to teach me an elusive lesson I couldn’t master. Each new circumstance left me shattered and breathless and reminded me of how useless I was to grasp whatever it was God was trying to teach me.
I had allowed my circumstances to dictate my definition of God. I believe him to be capricious, cruel and elusive. Oh sure, I could drum up the appropriate words in the right moments… a writer and a Christian, one does not simply declare, ‘God is probably good, but I don’t have a lot of evidence to support such a claim. Sorry.’
This compilation of learned beliefs (each of them with no basis in Scripture) left me crippled. I was fighting for my life, choked by anxiety, and drowning in a perpetual storm. I was forced to admit these beliefs would no longer sustain me. I would need to replace them with truth.
I recall being alarmed the truth was so accessible. My wounded, hungry heart slurped up the overwhelming evidence of God’s nearness, presence and safety. I hungered for safety. I craved refuge. But could I trust him?
I went back to the beginning of the Psalms after finding a prayer in Psalm 25… the only prayer I uttered for the next six months:
“Turn to me and have mercy,
for I am alone and in deep distress.
My problems go from bad to worse.
Oh, save me from them all!
Feel my pain and see my trouble.
Forgive all my sins.” (Psalm 25:16-18 NLT)
I have no light bulb moment of surrender that made all things well. I worked feverishly in counseling. I tested and rehearsed coping techniques to manage my anxiety. I built help into my life, opening new streams of communication with people I could trust. I journaled several pens dry. I marked those first twenty five psalms until I could barely read the print. I prayed those three verses over and over in the tightest, most private corner of my heart because it was all I could manage.
My circumstances didn’t change. My husband’s health continued to be a challenge, and I still struggled to balance his care with my other responsibilities. At some point, however, I realized I was no longer drowning. Instead of being thrashed by relentless waves, I found myself waist-deep in mud. I was damp and cold and uncomfortable but there were moments of calm. I wasn’t alone anymore. God was there, and I knew it.
I could almost hear the Spirit whispering as I read those psalms for the hundredth time: “Here, look. Read this part again.” Throughout the day, Scripture and hymns would flow through my heart, and I knew the God of everlasting love was purposeful in his comfort.
I no longer believe he wants to wreck me. I have accepted this world is a messed up broken place, and difficult circumstances happen; not just to me, but to everyone. Though new pain may find me somewhere down the road, God is not trying to break me. He is the God of restoration and wholeness. As the apostle Paul assures us: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” (I Thessalonians 5:23-24 NIV, emphasis mine) His faithfulness endures forever.
I no longer believe he is going to drop me. Daily I marvel in this freedom. Believing him at his word as a place of refuge and safety has irrevocably changed my life. The writer of Hebrews writes, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16 NIV)
Through his grace I can claim this confidence now: he sketched the details of his goodness and mercy into my heart so I could lean it, believing in faith that he is the best, the softest and safest place to land.
My circumstances have not changed, but I am free. His faithful mercy and grace have made me confident in the Lord’s goodness and trustworthiness. As much as I would love to take credit for my newfound ability to surrender, I know I am a new creation because of Jesus only. To him be all the glory, forever and ever.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32 NIV
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Thelma Nienhuis writes at thelmanienhuis.com, pouring out grace and encouragement when life turns upside down. She is a lover of Jesus, coffee, donuts and naps. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, Len, and far too many four-legged children.
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Many thanks to Zach Reiner on Unsplash for the perfect muddy boots photo to accompany Thelma’s story!