You see, these two holiday months-November and December- don’t create warm fuzzy feelings in me. I am not thankful this time of year. I have whole lists (and probably lists upon lists if I am honest) of what I am missing in my life, places that have come up dry and hard, painful and sore. Missing holes that I’ve asked the Lord to fill, but for now He has chosen not to. It’s a hard season to swallow for me. It’s a hard season for me to be thankful.
Holes and wounds and brokenness- they just aren’t things we associate with thankfulness. But this season is about thankfulness isn’t it? Isn’t it about “1000 gifts”, prayers of thankfulness, and acknowledging those we love?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s about those things, or maybe it’s a season in the year to just endure. I can keep my lists of all the things I don’t have that seem profoundly long this time of the year and grow frustrated and lonely. But then there’s this concept of gratefulness that I do have.
Gratefulness: warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received.
Gratefulness reveals a deep warmth of appreciation. It indicates something much deeper than thankfulness. It expresses the generosity of God in his Personhood (good, warm, loving, receptive, attentive, available). Gratefulness is receiving all the things I never knew I wanted but God gave me. I didn’t ask for them. I never prayed for them, but He gave them to me anyways.
Rather than listing all the things I am thankful for (don’t get me wrong, that is a good practice of the heart too!), I want to reflect on all the ways God gave me things I hold so dear now, that I never knew I wanted and never asked for in a few installments over the next few weeks. Check out part one, part two, and part three. Here’s the fourth:
God gave me a softened heart.
I wanted to feel insulated and protected. I needed to create the protection I missed out on growing up, but I didn’t know I needed this or that I had done it. I have wounds, deep, painful, hurting wounds. I did not realize that I had built such an impenetrable wall that no one, and I mean not even one person, could get in. Instead of letting them wounds breath and receive the soothing balm of the gentle and kinds words of those I love and the Lord, my wall kept them buried so deep that I was not even aware of how devastating my wounds were on my body, mind, and soul. Intern, these wounds wreaked havoc and overwhelmed my ministry, my relationships, my life.
Did you know that you can’t self protect and love other people in the real love kind of way- a love that loves for loves sake, not because it needs anything in return-at the same time? I didn’t know I had become so hard.
I never understood why I felt so isolated and alone. I thought it was because I was different, and I am, and it does distinguish me from others. The struggle of learning to embrace all of who I am (differences, similarities, assets, and struggles) is something I will spend my life understanding, laying down before the lord, and seeking support for. But this other struggle, this life sucking, gut wrenching, cry-myself-to-sleep-for-years-and-no-one-knew struggle created an unhealthy gap between me and others. I was the “strong” one. I was the “have a hard life but came to Jesus and found hope” story. I felt like I was glue that held things together in many situations. I did not feel it was a possibility to fall apart or lose control or be sad or even rest. There’s was no rest for my body or my soul. I was so very weary.
The more weary I became, the harder I fought to hold things together and the further I felt from the possibility of human connection. I began feeling unworthy of even the lord. It was a vicious cycle in the darkest places of my heart.
I took a young woman to the hospital a few years ago after she had been raped. I sat there with her. I had been in a place like this before with other women. I always felt destroyed, devastated for them from a deep, personal space. There was always an anger in me for the injustice and disregard for another’s body. But this time, I didn’t feel. I knew the motions and could at least put them forward, but I didn’t feel for her. I wasn’t angry anymore. I was dead. I sat at a hospital with a rape victim and felt nothing for her.
I felt guilty that I couldn’t feel empathy or compassion anymore. I knew something was seriously not okay with me. This was serious.
“The only thing worse than struggling is struggling in secrecy. Every emotion and failure becomes worse when hidden.”-Jen Hatmaker
I had a God complex. I misunderstood scripture that spoke of caring for your neighbor and laying down your life for your friends and forgiveness. I felt a lot of pressure to keep moving forward. To be a “good christian” and obey, follow, and pick yourself up. After all, aren’t Christians supposed to be “self-feeders”? Aren’t I supposed to not “need” anyone? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be enough?
What about the days I felt less hopeful, less loved, and alone? Some days Jesus doesn’t feel enough. Somedays I do need a physical person, a physical hug, a compassionate ear. Nothing replaces the intimacy of presence (I think God understands that. After all, He did say it’s not good for man to be alone). What about when those days became weeks, and then months? Before I knew it, it had been a few years. My prayers to the lord in my journal from those years are riddled with pleading and desperation. I was at my end years before I realized it. Aren’t Christians “supposed” to come to the ends of themselves?
Psalm 13 was a place I cried from far too often:
“How long, O Lord will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”
I yearned to be able to sing the rest of that Psalm, a song of rejoicing.
The more I kept trying to “be okay” and move forward, the more dead I became; the thicker and taller my wall was; the harder my heart became to penetrate. The more bitter and angry inside I felt and the less capable I became of communicating what I was feeling. There was little relief. Darkness upon darkness. Hurt upon hurt. I despaired of even life.
I gave out of what I needed, not what I had received, for much of my Christian life. God honored my trying for sure. I see connections everywhere, in words and writing, in music, in relationships, in people. I can almost feel it in me, this ability to connect people to the “thing” they need, things that bring them relief and joy and love and hope and growth. So often I couldn’t find the “thing” people needed in the resources around me. So I became that “thing”, that resource. I took on too much. I became responsible for other people in ways I could not sustain. I felt guilty I couldn’t do more. I felt ashamed I couldn’t be enough.
I could only give from what I didn’t have for so long. I had not only grown good at keeping people at an arms length and focusing on the other persons life and joy, but I was really good at being in relationships in which the other person felt they were close to me, but realistically, the deeper issues of my heart and the battle in my own soul remained untouched. When I would mention I needed more in friendships, my friends would feel baffled, wondering what went wrong, why I felt unsettled that I wasn’t receiving the emotional and spiritual connection and intimacy with others that I desired when it appeared I was “deep”, “connected”, and “loved”. I felt like maybe something was wrong with me. Maybe my needs really couldn’t be met. I wasn’t even sure what my “needs” were.
“We invite compassion into our lives when we act compassionately toward ourselves and others, and we feel connected in our lives when we reach out and connect.” -Brene Brown
I started to understand that in order to present the truest me, I had to invest a lot of my capacity into understand who I am and who I am not. I needed to bring the real me to the table. This resistant, terrified, hardened-but-want-to-be-soft heart needed to start understanding and practicing self-love by understanding how much God loves me. I can not love my neighbor as myself until I learned how to love myself.
A few years ago I would have judged someone who told me they needed to learn to “love-themselves” and learn “self-love”. I may have even questioned their spiritual state. I was a critique. I was a skeptic. That was a phrase that sent warnings off inside me. Christianity is selfLESS. Christianity is about loving OTHERS. Christianity is about SACRIFICE not SELF INDULGENCE. Christianity is about Jesus not YOU. I didn’t know that the prerequisite for loving your neighbor as yourself was that you had to know how to love yourself, not forget yourself.
I was now on the other end, this spectrum of burn out and burnt up. I got it now. I really started to understand this self love and boundary struggle. I needed time to do less and be less. I needed a season to work on myself, the ministry to my own soul. I had to stop doing what I felt I was “supposed to”. Supposed to is the battle cry in people pleasing and proving ourselves. Who do I have to prove anything to? I should be only focused on walking near the Lord, not pleasing or proving myself to anyone. I was off track.
“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lowly and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distress. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” -Psalm 25:14-18
A couple years later, I’m still in the thick of this, but I am not the same. My story will end much more whole than it started. That’s the thing with the Lord, He is in the business of healing and restoring. He brings back that which was lost. I will finish my life singing:
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love, my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.” -Psalm 13
The lord has softened my hard heart in ways I never new I needed. This change though, this softening, is permanent because I didn’t do it. It didn’t come about because of my striving and persevering. Sure I put a lot of resources and effort into my own soul care, but God does the restoring not me. I am not the Christ. Thank God.
Indeed, I do have a beautiful inheritance. The lines are falling. I hope they will fall pleasantly.
“The Lord is my chosen portion and cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed I have a beautiful inheritance.” -Psalm 16:5-6