We met for lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant. The date is foggy but the content of the conversation is quite clear. I am sure there were many moments that prepared my heart for the shift that took place that day. But the lunch stands as a mark of when I became ready, in a new way, to see if God would actually reach down and change my life.
It didn’t feel like a crisis of faith, but a crisis of life. My finances, marriage and future were in the ditch. My financial situation caused me to feel trapped in my marriage and hopeless for a real future—short of winning the lottery. I shared with my dear friend during lunch that, although I saw no way out of my financial mess, I did see a way out my marriage.
But divorce was down the road. I had seen the effects firsthand on children when parents divorce and I knew I couldn’t disrupt my children’s lives in that way. But, I explained to her, when my youngest turned 18, if things were still in the same place, I fully intended to pursue ending my marriage. I possessed no expectation that things would improve; the state of our marriage felt destroyed, beyond repair.
What my friend suggested is that I consider using this time of being “trapped” to lean into what God might want to do in my soul; that I turn my focus from my circumstances, which I clearly couldn’t change, to seeking the peace that passes all understanding even when that felt impossible. What she was telling me was so mysterious I would have likely dismissed it—it made little concrete sense to me at the time—had it not come after observing her live her life this way. Although I didn’t fully understand what she was suggesting, what was clear was that her relationship with Christ was much richer than mine.
“My image of God was much smaller than my circumstance.”
She pointed out that I had nothing to lose. By my own admission, I wasn’t going to be leaving my marriage for quite a while. My youngest was 8 at the time, so that meant God had 10 years. In any other context 10 years would have sounded like a very long time, but in this case it seemed not nearly long enough, since I truly believed my marriage was unsalvageable and my financial future grim. I had to admit: my image of God was much smaller than my circumstance.
Where would I begin? For years I felt like I had been growing deeper in my relationship with Christ. But nothing in my understanding could help me in this process. What did it look like to “lean into” God? As I turned my focus to my soul, what was I supposed to do about my circumstances? Anything? Something kept telling me to just let go, focus on my interior life, listen and observe.
“Doing things” has always been a much more comfortable place for me to hang out…this other place felt much more vulnerable and so intangible. I struggled a lot. Over time I did get better at focusing on internal change and dreamed less and less about winning the lottery. I began to see that even if I never won the lottery—if I never gained financial stability—God was giving me stability in my soul.
I didn’t believe that was possible when I began. Frankly, I was only willing to try because I was stuck. But as God began to work in me in the face of such little faith, I began to experience, on a much deeper level, what God’s grace really means. This was important, as I was about to discover things about myself that I would need His grace to accept.
I had always thought of myself as someone living life in honesty and truth. I am not talking about the absence of a lie so much as speaking the truth: a truth-teller. As a child, speaking the truth wasn’t allowed, which was very hurtful. So truth-telling became very important to me.
“My efforts were good but my motivation was often wrong.”
One of my favorite Scriptures—one that has always soothed my soul—is James 5:16: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. When I agreed to turn my focus away from the external conditions of my life to my soul, I discovered a deep place where I was not a truth-teller. I had secrets.
To learn I was a secret-keeper rocked me to the core. I was the truth-teller! That was my identity, and I held it in very high regard. But if learning I was keeping secrets wasn’t destabilizing enough, God also showed me my secrets wielded far more control over my life than I could have imagined. He helped me understand how, at a very early age, I had discovered a way to keep the truth a secret—albeit mostly from myself.
You see, life was pretty scary to me when I was a kid. I experienced lots of loss. Raging personalities surrounded me. In looking back, what became clear is I couldn’t tolerate fear or loneliness so I learned to deny them expression. I used distractions to quiet these interior “voices”. Some of my distractions are typical for souls in distress: “read a good book,” “take a bath,” “call a friend,” “listen to music,” and in the spirit of confession, “watch TV.” As I got older, I often used humor to lighten uncomfortable moments.
After becoming a Christian the advice included “read your Bible” and “pray.” These offered greater potential for good in my life but became yet another distraction. I engaged in Bible reading and/or prayer to try and make the uncomfortable and scary feelings go away. My efforts were good but my motivation was often wrong, turning what could have been opportunities to engage in relationship with God into activities to help me “feel better.”
“My habits of self-sufficiency and self-protection obstruct His work.”
In time these activities became automatic, whisking me away from my discomfort to a place where my heart and mind would hardly recognize the discomfort. They required as much thought as I gave to making my heart beat. Eventually, they became a well-honed set of defenses.
God had work to do to disrupt this process as I began my inward journey. I had to begin experiencing the feelings I had tried so long and worked so hard to avoid. God also had to show me why this process was a loving thing to do because I wasn’t too happy about it. I have since come to understand and accept it as the only way to be truly free from being controlled by feelings that scare me, the only way to a deeper relationship with Christ, and the only way to become the truth-teller I long to be. To be honest, I still wish He would choose another way, like miraculously touching my soul and healing my heart. But He is God and I am not. I have accepted this (on most days!) as part of sanctification.
Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Over time God has shown me that my habits of self-sufficiency and self-protection obstruct His work. All over Scripture I read how He charges us to bring our cares, worries, anxieties and fears to Him.
God has lovingly shown me how much I have lived life on my own. I learned at a very early age how to live in my soul as if I was the only one there. The result is that I made a huge mess of my life. In the past several years He has revealed to me that, when I choose to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit lives there with me, my life can be vastly different.
“Today there are two people living in my soul, me and the Holy Spirit.”
I participate with Him imperfectly. Honestly, I’m not sure if my participation will ever become fully cooperative. But even when it isn’t, I have learned that God still loves me and continues to invite me each day into relationship with Him. Through experience, I have come to understand that our relationship doesn’t happen if only one person shows up and does all the talking. Both of us need to be present. Both need to speak and listen. Today I am aware that there are two people living in my soul, me and the Holy Spirit. Both are present, speaking and listening.
He has been faithful to pick up my mess and begin the process of redeeming it. My life, finances and future hold greater promise today than the day I lunched with my friend over Chinese food. All those years ago I truly didn’t see a way out of the various messes that defined my life, and yet I wake up every morning in a home we purchased alongside my husband and two grown sons, the youngest having surpassed his 18th birthday by several years.
While I don’t know what lies ahead, I have experienced the reality that God’s dreams for me are greater than the ones I have for myself. For this reason I desire to lean into His plan in deeper ways and am willing to risk more than ever before. And I no longer have a desire to decide on my own what my life will look like in the future. I have a God who is much better at deciding these things than I am.