I’m at the bottom of the pit again. My eyes strain to search for light.
At first, I panic. I claw at the dirt and my chest tightens in fear.
How did I get here? Why now? Why am I not strong enough to stay buoyant and light?
My body knows what’s happening, but my mind struggles to rationalize it.
Even though I’ve been here many times before, it takes me a while to realize what I’m doing. I try to scale the sides, only to slide back down. I wear myself out in self-exertion. I grumble and groan, wrestling around in the dark.
And then, a whisper:
Be gentle. You’re fighting so hard. There is grace here.
We are so generous in doling out grace to others, but stingy with grace for ourselves. We snack on it when we’re starving, instead of feasting on it in the full offering extended to us.
As I start to speak the depression out loud, it loses its suffocating grip. I cry to my husband on our way to pick up gifts for our kids. I text it to my best friend. I schedule a quick appointment with my counselor.
They all meet me with so much grace. And finally, bite by bite, I start to taste it.
They hand me light when I can’t find it. They point me towards Truth when all I can hear are lies. And they reach down into the pit to help raise me up, until I have enough grace inside to strengthen me and start climbing.
When we can’t see light, when we’re at the bottom of the pit, when we can’t taste grace, sometimes we need to find it from others. I’m thankful for those who help me chase after the light, climb out of the shadows, and taste what is good and gentle in this world.
If you’re wrestling with darkness right now, my prayer is for you to taste and see the grace of God who meets us when we’re empty, road-worn, and hungry. Be gentle with yourself. And keep chasing after the light. I promise it’s there.
P.S. I’m so thankful for God’s timing. This coming Monday, I’ll be sharing the final Take These Ashes episode of 2020, on chasing after the light when we’re living in shadow. Author and speaker Dorina Gilmore and I had this conversation at a time when I needed it myself, and it may be just what you need as we reflect on this year and prepare for the new year to come. Subscribe to Take These Ashes on itunes or Spotify to make sure you catch this one.
Lord, teach me to be wide awake to
The soft pink petals opening on the magnolia tree
Shifting weight inside my womb as baby dances and grows
Broken hearts around me, even when (especially when) they’re not worn on outer sleeves
When it’s time to say yes
When it’s time to say no
Teach me to be wide awake to
Lengthened days and later sunsets as spring approaches
Hard-wood floor under my bare feet in the mornings
The smells of fresh mulch and mowed grass and March rain
The complex stories of the ones I love
The complex stories of those I struggle to love
May I be wide awake to
Your redemption in Isaiah, in the gospel of Mark, in my own life
The loving hand holding mine as I fall asleep
Greater patience for the seven-year old stretching limits and seeking comfort
Your guidance in this season and in the small moments that make up now
Your guidance in the season to come
Lord, teach us to be wide awake
Our brains and bodies are wired to protect us against threats. But what about when we perceive threats that aren’t really there? Is there a way that we can shift our thoughts to a more loving place, in order to move forward instead of getting stuck in our fear?
When I was younger, I took swim lessons at the township pool. On summer mornings before the rest of the clear blue water filled up with families, a lifeguard took me and my peers through basic strokes and breathing exercises. The hardest part of the summer was the day he taught us to tread water in the deep end. We moved under the rope to the 6-foot section of the pool, my lungs tight with worry. My muscles seemed to spasm instead of gently moving through the water to keep me afloat. I was so scared of drowning, even with the lifeguard in the water right next to me. He kept telling me to imagine my arms as spaghetti, fluid and gentle, but I instead I chopped at the water like a karate kid, and my head bobbed up and down as my legs kicked hard under the water. I couldn’t keep my head above water, and I grew exhausted quickly, tapping out of the exercise. I cried when I got out of the pool, embarrassed that my fear overtook my desire to pass the class.
I took my son to the Y this weekend for his first swim lesson (he did great), and I was reminded of myself as I watched a little girl across the pool. She entered the chlorine-filled room with a huge smile on her face and a swim cap covering her head. She seemed eager and excited, until it was her turn to jump into the pool. The rest of her class jumped in one by one, to the safety of the teacher’s reassuring words and extended arms. But the little girl’s smile turned into a whimper, and she spent the whole class period overtaken by fear.
I’ve been learning to show love to my anxiety lately.
Last week I had an insightful conversation with someone about my anxiety, and she encouraged me with some interesting facts on neurobiology and redirecting my thoughts.
When my brain cycles through anxious thoughts, I can choose to keep surrendering to that fear, or I can pause and choose to surrender my anxiety to love. I imagine that sounds a little woo-woo, but something about this concept is so comforting to me. She asked what it would look like for me to engage with my anxiety, almost as a friend that I would show compassion to instead of judging so harshly for getting to that anxious place. When we talked about surrendering my anxiety to love, I imagined surrendering it to a God who loves me and is always with me; to my community and my people who love me well, no matter what I’m facing; to a narrative of self-compassion instead of judgment and shame (which feed my anxiety).
I am learning to look at my anxiety with love and say, “What are you trying to show me? What are you trying to protect me against right now? Can we step out of this fear place together, and move towards love?”
I pray that this new way of thinking will help me jump in with both feet and stick with the hard stuff. Here’s to more joy, connection, and love over fear.
When we see the world with rose-colored glasses, we see it with a positive outlook, maybe even better than how it actually is.
Are there other types of lenses that color the way we see the world?
Yesterday I realized I’ve been wearing a different kind of lens these past few months– a pair of fear-colored glasses that amplified my anxiety and catastrophized the unknowns.
I started wearing these metaphorical glasses in November. With positive feedback from an agent at a writing conference and the quiet knowledge of a baby in my womb, I went from pure delight and hope to dread pretty quickly. I started to fear rejection with my writing– what if it disappoints those whose approval I seek? What if I’m an imposter and actually no good at this at all? What if this isn’t actually God’s calling for me and I’m just trying to call the shots? I went from a pretty consistent writing routine and schedule to a screeching halt, paralyzed by my own perfectionism and fear.
And with this little one, now eighteen weeks and starting to wiggle around in my belly, I’ve experienced a new kind of anxiety. That “what ifs” started as a whisper and have grown louder, with each story of pregnancy loss I read, or when I wake up in the middle of a night with a now regular nightmare of miscarriage. Last week it hit a breaking point when my anxiety was so bad I realized this isn’t normal. I should be able to enjoy this absolute blessing and thank the Lord for where He’s brought our family. But I can’t.
Ryan gently said to me this weekend something that stuck. “I think you’ve experienced so many hard things that you’re just waiting for the next hard thing to happen.” Oof. Yes. I realized over the past few days that I had picked up these lenses, shaped by the trauma and pain I’ve endured. I tend to hold my breath in anticipation of chaos, or I wait with expectancy for the other shoe to drop. Rather than glasses that I can easily remove, the lenses have become a regular part of my day- more like a pair of permanent contacts. Can you relate?
So yesterday, in the midst of community, with the Holy Spirit’s conviction, and through the loving encouragement of someone dear to me, I realized I’ve been looking at the Lord and my circumstances through the lens of anxiety and fear. In the middle of our time of worship, scales fell from my eyes and I could see clearly once again. I’d forgotten that my God is trustworthy. That He is good no matter what we walk through. I’ve tried to cling tightly to control instead of surrendering my dreams and desires to Him. Again, He is trustworthy to hold these things.
So today I pray, and invite you to pray with me if you struggle with fear:
Lord, remove the scales from our eyes. Help us to see clearly. Give us vision to see this world as You see it, and to see You as You truly are– good, merciful, steadfast, and trustworthy. When we struggle to believe Your promises, Your goodness, Your faithfulness, will you send the Holy Spirit to convict us and bring community to encourage us? When we wrestle with anxiety and trembling over the what ifs, our perfectionism, or our past pain, we pray that You would surround us with Your perfect love. Cast out the darkness of our fear, and help us to walk by Your light.
Three years. That’s how long I let the poison stay.⠀⠀
I once heard unforgiveness is like poison. We drink it, hoping the other person suffers.⠀⠀
After I left an abusive relationship, I didn’t want to forgive. I feared forgiving the years of complicated hurt would give God the go-ahead to send me back. So instead I held on tight.⠀⠀
The abuse broke me down, but the unforgiveness locked in the pain. It wrapped around the memories, hardening them in a bitter seal. It encased my heart in in a self-protective layer that kept me from connection. The poison blurred my vision and I saw the world through the lens of victimhood. It pulsed through my veins, with anger bubbling just below the surface.⠀⠀
The decision to forgive had to start with a renewed trust in God. I trusted Him with small things, but this felt too important to let go. I needed to believe He could protect me and wouldn’t send me back unless it was safe. ⠀⠀
When I surrendered to this deeper trust, He pulled out the poison. He drew the pain from my body and mind. He removed the scales so I could see clearly again. He showed me I could trust, as He relentlessly pursued me and softened my heart. ⠀⠀
When He removed the poison, I was finally free. But I needed to surrender to Him fully. The antidote to my unforgiveness was trust. That’s when the work began.
If forgiveness is hard for you, you’re not alone. I just did a quick google search for “how to forgive” and pulled up 276,000,000 results. Oof. ⠀
I am right there with Lewis. I love the idea of forgiveness, in theory. ⠀
I am right there with Peter who asked Jesus, “How many times do I have to forgive? Is there a limit?” (No Peter, the limit does not exist). ⠀
And I am right there with you. ⠀
I’m with you in the gut wrenching pain as you try to navigate how to forgive the fresh hurt.⠀
I’m with you as you clench your fists around your desire for justice, fearful that forgiving means letting them off the hook.⠀
I’m with you as you hold your breath and wait for the apology to begin forgiving. ⠀
I’m with you as you shield your eyes in shame, afraid to pray. What if He is tired of forgiving me over and over again, you wonder.⠀
And I am with you with that broken record of your past mistakes playing on a loop in your mind. ⠀
We’re called to keep forgiving. But this is hard work. ⠀
I don’t have better answers than the millions of others who talk about this subject. But I know a God who pours His grace over my wrongs every day. He forgives me seventy times seven thousand. And this month I want to point you towards His truth and His heart as we walk together through this forgiveness work.
What questions do you have about forgiveness?
Freedom Stories are back, sweet sisters! After a summer of refreshing and refining on the focus of this space, I wanted to be intentional about sharing stories that align with our monthly themes. This month, as we’ve been learning about shame I knew we needed a testimony of someone set free from shame and self-condemnation. Immediately, Rebekah came to mind. This godly woman is a writer, podcaster, and all around encouraging person of faith. She frequently encourages me through her own story, which she shares some of here. I pray her words and God’s grace alive in her would encourage YOU today, friend!
This is Rebekah’s Freedom Story.
I grew up in the church, the granddaughter of the sound guy of the church we were attending, and even had my birth announced from the baptistry the Sunday I was born. I was saved at the age of 8 and actively involved in children’s choir, youth choir, church musicals at Christmas time, Bible drill, and mission trips.
But I didn’t truly know the gospel. Not like I do today.
When I was 14, my family and I became involved in a Christian ministry that, looking back, was extremely legalistic. I, as a bibliophile and someone who thirsted for theological knowledge, was ripe for the picking and quickly fell headlong into their very legalistic teachings on God’s supposed expectations for His daughters. I was also ripe for the picking in terms of the shame that is regularly heaped onto the shoulders of legalistic people everywhere.
In the two years leading up to this new season of my life, I had attended youth summer camp with our church’s youth group and experienced those proverbial mountain-top experiences. I returned from youth camp determined to be in my Bible every single day. But what happened both years was that I was good about that for maybe a week. Then I would miss one day of Bible reading, that one day would turn into two, and before I knew it I was right back where I started – only reading the Bible on Sundays at church.
I experienced so much shame as a result of this. Over and over, I would determine to do better, only to “slip up” yet again. I got to the point where I thought it was hopeless – I just could not stick to my commitment of having a daily quiet time, no matter what I did.
It was this shame that my legalistic season followed on the heels of. To add to that shame and self-condemnation were the lies of legalism which will tell you that unless you are dotting all your i’s and crossing all your t’s, then God will be displeased with you. I used to have this subconscious view of God as Him being up in heaven with His proverbial arms crossed, a scowl on His face, as He looked down on me in displeasure any time I fell. In all my efforts to be perfect, I was, in essence, actually drifting further and further away from God’s true heart as my wrong view of God led to my not wanting to be near Him.
The thing about legalism is that, with it, comes a terribly judgmental heart. You adhere to legalistic teachings and then begin to look down on yourself and everyone else who does not live up to them.
The result was that, in my feelings of shame and self-condemnation, I began to view others through that same lens, and put feelings of guilt and shame over onto them as well. It got so bad that I began to think that I could not even interact with, let alone befriend, people who were different than me. I didn’t have any friends who weren’t Christian, let alone friends who were of a differing political viewpoint or lifestyle than myself. What I did not understand is that God’s love is unconditional, and that that meant that my love for others could be, as well – regardless of what viewpoint they held to.
Loving someone does not at all mean you agree with or approve of every single last decision they make or thing they do. But, in all my feelings of shame, I just could not grasp that.
In my head I knew the “Romans road” gospel. I could have shared that presentation in my sleep, but I was not living and walking in light of its truths and implications. I was viewing the gospel as something that was merely good for my eternity, not so much for my here-and-now life.
But that, friends, is the reality of the gospel: it does have amazing implications for our eternal destination, but it is meant to make a difference in our everyday lives, too! It is meant to free us from shame, guilt, condemnation, and wrath. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, yes, but He never condemns us. We are sinners, yes, but Christ took our guilt upon Himself on the cross, and we have no business still carrying it around as a burden strapped to our backs.
I understand this now, but I didn’t then. The Lord had to take me on a journey to, bit by bit, and little by little, come to a full-orbed understanding of the implications of the gospel. And what He used to do that was Paul’s testimony in Romans 7:14-8:1.
I had been familiar with Romans 8:1 (Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus,) for some time. But I had never paid any attention before to the context of this verse, which led me to have the mistaken idea that perhaps the lack of condemnation was dependent upon me doing everything I was supposed to and nothing that I wasn’t. As soon as I backed up and first paid attention to Romans 7, however, this mistaken idea was totally shattered!
At the end of Romans 7, Paul is lamenting his ongoing struggle with sin. He is sharing with the believers in Rome that he knows what he should be doing, and he knows what he should not be doing. And yet, it is those very things he shouldn’t be doing which he is doing. And those things he should be doing? Yeah, he isn’t exactly doing those. And yet! There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.
Praise God, amen? This realization freed me up in more ways than I can even begin to count. I no longer walked in shame and condemnation, because I knew that any shame and condemnation I was feeling were coming from the enemy and were a slap to Christ’s face. I began to grow in my intimacy with God, because I no longer felt like cowering in a corner so that a vengeful God wouldn’t find me and scowl down at me. Instead, I was dancing in His grace, resting in His love, and relishing His mercy. I was at peace, knowing I was forevermore at peace with God.
Do I still sin? Of course I do! Does the Lord still discipline me for that? Yes, as any loving Father would! But I no longer despair when that happens. I no longer mourn in the same way, thinking I have disappointed God. Because you know what? It is absolutely impossible to disappoint Him! We sadden Him when we sin, yes, because He wants what is best for us and sin just doesn’t make the cut. But He isn’t disappointed. In order to be disappointed, He would have to have high expectations of us that we could disappoint. But He doesn’t! Psalm 103:14 says, “For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust.”
The freeing truth is that God is not shocked or disappointed when we sin. He knows full well the sin nature with which we all still struggle on a daily basis. And when it happens again, and we do something we know we shouldn’t (or don’t do something we know we should!), He is still there to love us, pick us back up, and help us walk the right path again.
Friend, I don’t know what part shame may have been playing in your story. But I have a feeling it is there somewhere. And to you, I would share Paul’s beautiful words in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Embrace your freedom, friend! Christ died so that you could have it. Lay down the shame, guilt, and condemnation, and pick up Christ’s freedom, love, and grace instead. Be free, sister, as Christ already made you to be!
Rebekah Hargraves is a wife, mama of two littles, blogger, podcaster, and author whose passion is to edify, equip, and encourage women in their journey of Biblical womanhood, particularly with an emphasis on the gospel and its implications for everyday life. Rebekah‘s first book, “Lies Moms Believe (And How the Gospel Refutes Them)” released the fall of 2017, and the “Lies Moms Believe” Companion Bible Study came out March 30, 2018. You can find Rebekah on her website, Hargraves Home and Hearth, on Instagram, or on iTunes via The Home and Hearth podcast.
P.S. Want to read more Freedom Stories? Check out 35+ stories of other inspiring women like Rebekah here.
All this time, I’ve been trying to pluck the dead leaves and prune back the branches of shame. But there comes a time where we need to dig deeper. I have to uncover how the tree might have gotten there to begin with, before these symptoms of shame infiltrated my thinking.⠀
Recently I started thinking about the root system of my shame. I don’t think any one of these factors is the direct catalyst for my struggle with shame. Rather, there are some deep roots that started young, and newer roots coiled in through later interactions and unhealthy patterns of thinking about myself. ⠀
Between the old gnarled roots and the aggressive new ones, this root system became a tangled mess below the surface. I can pull the dead leaves off all I want, but I need help from a tender and gentle Gardener to scoop away the dirt and excavate the deeply woven labyrinth of roots:⠀
•legalism (emphasis of law/rule-following over grace)⠀
•lack of understanding of God’s love for me⠀
•projections of blame/shame from others⠀
•sharing hard parts of my story and receiving judgment⠀
•isolation and running my past failures on a repeated loop in my mind⠀
•fear that my past will define my future⠀
•fear of being unloved by others if I share all of myself⠀
•absorbing the full responsibility from situations where I had only partial or no responsibility (“it’s all my fault”)⠀
•inability to forgive myself⠀
•difficulty accepting God’s forgiveness and the work of Jesus on the cross⠀
Once He pulls back those roots and helps me lift them from the ground, we can make space for soft soil and new seeds. We can plant authentic connection, forgiveness, and new thought patterns in line with Truth. ⠀
Together, we can plant seeds of true freedom from my shame. I’m praying for this freedom for you too, sweet friend, so that we may live like this:
“He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers.” -Psalm 1:3
Earlier this month I announced I would write on the topic of shame. Little did I know that we would be walking through this together. I uncovered a new layer of trauma in counseling and I can’t stop going over the tendrils of shame that still try to sink their way into my thought life, my relationships, and my daily outlook.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to write a Biblical, grounded way to define shame but I can’t quite craft a succinct definition that captures it. Instead let me tell you what it feels like (maybe you can relate).
It’s heavy. Pervasive. Dark.
It feels like an erupting volcano that spills its hot breath and messy lava over everything in its path.
It feels like piles and piles of laundry I can’t quite stay on top of, so I succumb to the pile and just lay there in the mess.
It feels like a knotted ball of string in the core of my gut, growing and getting more tangled as I try to ignore it.
It feels like treading water in the middle of deep ocean waters, with tired arms and legs and no land in sight.
It’s chaotic. Suffocating. Toxic.
While I’ve been wrestling through this place, I’ve thought of you many times, friend. I’ve thought of you wading through the lava mess, trying to untangle yourself, on the other side of this very same ocean. I want to call out to you and say, “we’re in this together.”
Shame doesn’t want us to link arms. It isolates us and keeps us in fear, secrecy, blame, and judgment.
But here’s what Brene Brown says about shame:
“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame…The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too. If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path.”
Ann Voskamp’s words echo Brene’s:
“Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.”
So that’s what I’m doing this week. I’m telling my stories in safe places. I sit in my counselor’s office and tell her these new revelations to my past. She says, “Now it’s not a secret anymore.” We’re unknotting the ball and laying it down string by string.
I cry to my husband about my overwhelm, and then we dig into the laundry pile together (this is actually literal- I can’t stay on top of the dirty laundry ha).
I call my best friend and leave her a long voicemail filling her in, as I step out of isolation and the lava cools at my feet. She responds and says that she hears me and she loves me.
Friend, I may not have a perfect path forward for you to get rid of your shame. I’m just figuring it out myself right now, too. But what I can do is shout to you from my side of the ocean.
You’re not alone. We’re in this together.
“As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” -Psalm 103:12
When we wrestle with shame, we feel like our brokenness is the whole story. Shame says, “Your past defines you. You are too broken to be loved. You will never be whole or healed.” Shame tries to keep us trapped in the dark.
Years ago, after I experienced the most painful parts of my story, I felt like the main character in The Scarlet Letter. I was stuck in that darkness, and thought everyone around me could see my sin, shame, and trauma on display. It made me want to hide from others, and I didn’t feel welcome in God’s presence or with other Christians who seemed to have it all together. I thought I was destined to wear a “V” for victim, a “D” for divorce, and an “A” for anxiety for the rest of my life.
But friend, shame does not tell the whole story.
Your wounds and scars and baggage do not define you. The present struggle you are wrestling does not define you. The biggest brokenness you feel when you think of yourself? THAT does not define you.
As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. He binds up the brokenhearted. He restores the years the locusts have eaten. He brings beauty from ash and brokenness. He proclaims freedom. He sets the captives free.
There is nothing too dark or too heavy or too broken for Him that He cannot redeem. The Bible is full of real people God re-defined instead of letting their brokenness tell the whole story.
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 hiding from God in our brokenness, we instead prayed that He would meet us there and transform the way we see the hard parts of our story? What if we prayed for Him to use our brokenness, 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.
Let’s not give shame the final say.