Debbie Swindoll

In the fall of 2004, I sat in a hotel room in Solvang, California, in the midst of a meltdown. I had traveled to Solvang, with my friend, Carolann, to speak at a women’s retreat. I had felt bad all night and I was scheduled to speak two times that day.

I wasn’t sick in the traditional sense. I didn’t have a virus or a bacterial infection. What I had was a bad case of anxiety. I was crying and trying to explain my predicament to Carolann. She was sitting across the room, on her hands, as a symbolic gesture of her inability to “fix” my issues. It would have been a hilarious scene if it wasn’t so serious.

But when God invites us to repentance, those situations are always serious. I’m not sure I’ve ever before or since had such a clear moment when I admitted that the way I was doing life was not working. I was exhausted from trying to fix my anxiety and out of options for the future. Contrary to easing my fears, my internal self-help program seemed to be intensifying the anxiety I so desperately wanted to escape.

“I admitted that the way I was doing life was not working.”

That day I threw in the towel. I didn’t know what would happen next. I hoped God had a plan. But even if He didn’t, I was done trying to figure it out on my own.

You might conclude that I had a conversion that autumn day and you would be right. But my journey with Jesus and His church started long before that day. In truth, I entered this world on a Sunday while my dad was preaching. I spent those first few years in the home of a Baptist pastor, the youngest of three children.

The Christian faith has always been my companion. I claimed it personally at a Vacation Bible School event when I was about four. I remember feeling relieved that I was going to heaven like the rest of my family. I understood that I needed to invite Jesus into my heart to receive the gift of eternal life, but otherwise I didn’t experience life changing much. I already went to church and my parents were clear on my behavioral requirements.

When I was eight everything changed. My dad had become involved with a woman other than my mother. I remember the day we all sat in the living room and he explained that he was leaving the church and we were moving out of state. He told us the truth which I am grateful for, but there was also a plan about what we were to tell others. The plan spun the story just enough to create a family secret, one that would not be discussed again for many years. We stayed together as a family and moved soon after.

When I look back I realize that sometimes the things that are not said have the greatest impact on our souls. People looking at our family from the outside might not have noticed a great change. But deep inside my heart, where conclusions are drawn apart from conscious awareness, life had become a much scarier place. Home was scary because the fabric of my parents’ marriage was in tatters. Church was scary because I had to be on my best behavior to stay in good standing. After all, “bad behavior has devastating consequences.”

“Sometimes the things that are not said have the greatest impact on our souls.”

On the surface life moved on. I grew up, attended church and a Christian high school. I got good grades and fell in love. I married my high school sweetheart when I was 20 and we started a life together. Then two significant events happened when I was 22. I gave birth to my first child and my parents finally separated and pursued divorce.

The break-up of my parent’s marriage lifted the lid off of the caldron of family secrets. It felt like a stick of dynamite had gone off in a pond and thrown dead fish all along the shore. I wanted to know the truth but at every turn the truth was painful and disillusioning. It fractured our relationships and although it caused me to reflect superficially on how all of my history had impacted my life, I unconsciously decided it was better to keep a lid on the caldron in my own heart. I had a young family to raise and now that my parent’s marriage had failed, felt more pressure to make sure that my own family stayed intact. I suppose intuitively I thought that my own success might distance me from the messiness of my parent’s lives.

I knew that I could not be successful apart from God. Even though my relationship with the Church was tentative, I became involved in church activities to grow. I attended women’s Bible studies and became a leader and eventually a teacher. The commitment gave me accountability and an opportunity to learn about the Bible and doctrine. I was exposed to books on spiritual formation which became a personal interest. I instinctively knew that whatever God was offering by way of sanctification had to go deeper than the surface of a life.

I wanted real answers and more from my faith. Yet even in the midst of my spiritual activities, I often got tired. A cycle started spinning where I spent the school year in Bible study or Bible teaching and then took the summer off from God. I read novels for escape, not comprehending the reasons why, and I felt guilty. In the fall, I got back on the horse and tried harder to stay engaged and felt better. The nuances of my spiritual feelings were intimately tied to the level of my spiritual activities.

I can’t say that there wasn’t spiritual growth and change. But it felt like change in form rather than change in kind; like water going from ice to steam rather than water becoming fire. I knew I needed something more radical to happen in my heart, but how to accomplish that eluded me. I didn’t even realize how unsafe I felt in church to be who I really was and, under it all, anxiety was growing.

“In the midst of my spiritual activities, I often got tired.”

At first it only happened when I traveled. I would get anxious about leaving home. The actual travel day was the worst. I often felt nauseated and experienced other physical effects. It didn’t take long before I felt anxiety about my anxiety. I developed many strategies to alleviate the situation. I analyzed my fears. I prayed through my trips. I acknowledged that I wasn’t in control. I claimed Scripture. I prayed for healing. And I became very good at holding it together until I returned home.

Over time my world got smaller. Anxiety claimed more space until I could get a stomach ache from simply going to a new restaurant. I was “holding it together” most of the time that I wasn’t at home or in familiar surroundings. My personal coping mechanisms were breaking down and I hadn’t found any way physically, mentally or spiritually to stop the erosion.

I felt very alone…but thankfully, I was not. God was present and unbeknownst to me He had a plan. In the fall of 2004 He revealed a new segment of that plan. Not only did He bring me to the end of myself in a hotel room, He also planted me in a unique seminary graduate program that taught me a new way to live. In a lecture that fall, in a class about our “hidden hearts”, it was suggested that anxiety, rather than being something to be shunned, could be welcomed as a friend. It could be accepted as a wake-up call to the condition of my heart.

Through that semester I welcomed and embraced these new ideas. It was scary, frustrating, painful and exciting at the same time. Befriending my anxiety meant that I had to stop running from it and instead, turn and walk into it. As I did, anxiety became an entryway into the deeper issues of my heart that I had tried to keep covered for so long. I had to recognize and accept that in my caldron lived many sinful beliefs that had the power to control my behavior; the worst of which was the belief that I had the power to change myself through my good works.

Deep habits of the heart die slowly. But then, I guess they are made slowly, too. Mine formed like layers of sediment on my soul from a lifetime of struggling to save myself. That day in Solvang, I accepted that all of my efforts were ineffective. What I really needed was a real relationship with an efficacious Savior. I had the Savior in Jesus but I had little experience in how to live with Him in relationship. In truth, I was ignorant and inexperienced generally about how to have healthy, honest relationships.

The last six years have been a revelation. They have revealed many hidden secrets of my heart, many unfelt emotions and a general tendency to take care of myself internally when afraid rather than turn to God. I realized rather quickly that, although I thought of myself as a truth teller, I was very good at lying to myself. I knew very little about the real me and even less about the real Jesus.

I also discovered that Jesus is not at all like the church of my youth. Rather than turning away from my bad behavior He welcomes me without condemnation and loves me into freedom. Learning to trust Him has been a hard journey. The circumstances of my youth led my heart to the conclusion that hiding was the only way to survive. He has had to woo me many times out of the shadows and patiently wait for me to take His hand.

“I was ignorant about how to have healthy, honest relationships.”

In the past I had to turn away from the undesirable thoughts and feelings that leaked at inappropriate times from my heart. Now I understand them as an invitation from the Spirit who lives within and desires to talk about those very issues. With Him I have no need to spin the truth. He can handle everything that emerges with grace.

I think the most gracious revelation of all was that Jesus connected me with a body of believers that welcomed the truth, even the truth that I was a profound hider and sinner. They loved me and stayed in relationship with me as I discovered myself. They listened as well as talked with me honestly about what they observed in my life. They shared their struggles, too, and together we looked for what God was doing to heal us all. My experience with them gave me a new vision for what was possible in the church.

The last six years have also started a revolution. Facing myself in the midst of a relationship with Jesus and the church has started the change for which I was longing. God is loosening the hold of long standing habits and freeing me to follow the life that He has planned. It is still a daily process. I have to stay open to my heart, to Jesus and to living honestly in community with the church. But for a girl with my story, that in itself is nothing short of miraculous.

I don’t know if I will ever truly think of anxiety as my friend. I do know that, when I look back, I bless the anxiety I felt that fall day in Solvang that brought me to repentance. That day started a journey to true friendship with Jesus and that has been the best friendship of my life.