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What do we do when the Lord breaks our heart? When we feel so utterly ALONE and UNSAFE in this world? TRUST GOD.
I was walking through Walmart the other day with two sweet, happy, obedient little girls in their adorable little outfits and me in my clean, appropriate clothing and shoes … and we walked by a family that FELT SO MUCH like the REAL ME:
A morbidly obese mother with rotten teeth and greasy hair. A child, dirty, in filthy clothing that did not fit, walking barefoot on the gross Walmart floors. Two more kids in tow—one in a diaper (literally, wearing only a diaper), again, dirty; the other an oversized teenager with pants hanging to the floor, baseball cap askew, looking angry while carrying the Pepsi.
It is so strange to me how quickly I default to that view of myself: one in which I live in squalor, fail to care for even the most basic needs of my children, always living as the reject, the failure, the overworked, can’t-ever-get-it-together-to-even-function woman.
I think about this every time I wash out my soap dishes and trash containers in my various rooms of my house. I remember so distinctly when I was living in an apartment in college and I realized that if I wanted to have clean soap dishes and clean trash containers then, periodically, I had to clean them. No one was going to clean them for me. And if I did not clean them, they would simply become filthy. Ditto on the drip pans on a stove. The top of the washing machine and drying machine. Silverware drawers. Under the bed.
This probably sounds so SIMPLE and so OBVIOUS to most of you. You grew up with a relatively intact family and you either saw your parents “keeping up” the home or (more likely), you were trained on how to do so and one of your duties as a member of your family was to regularly clean. Dust. Vacuum. Scrub. Do laundry. There was a pace to it in your life. A routine.
But I don’t remember such a “normal” routine in my own life. A part of it might have been our constant (literally annual) moving to a new state, a new home. I think we got “clean houses” by moving into them. And then when we left them (dirty), it wasn’t really our concern anymore.
I also think that my mother’s genuine (undiagnosed at the time—after all, it was only the 1970’s) bipolar disease (that she was doing her best to self-medicate with Scotch) lent itself to HUGE swings of deep, dark, catatonic depression and HUGE swings of (MANIC) open-all-the-windows-put-Helen-Reddy-on-the-record-player-break-out-the-Murphy’s-Oil CLEANING MARATHONS. (My sister and I still can’t bear the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap.)
So where does that all leave me? Do I use my past as an excuse for my present? NO NO NO. A thousand times NO. I am an adult. My childhood influenced me, but it does NOT control me. The Spirit of God lives in me. I have been born again. I have resources by God’s means of grace to help me in my hour of need.
And I am growing. I am. I know that my Redeemer lives and He is helping me to live in this state of “already-but-not-yet.” I’m already beautiful and beloved. (Even though I often feel ugly and rejected.) I DO have a home—with Fred and the girls, in my church, with my extended family (whom I ADORE by the way) and for sure in Heaven to come. (This is true even though at times, I feel attacked, alone, and abandoned.)
On certain days, I take my eyes off of the cross and look instead at my pants size and say to myself, “See! It’s REALLY TRUE. You ARE the 300 lb Pepsi drinking homeless person. That’s the REAL YOU, Tara. That defines you. You keep trying to ACT a different way, but deep down, you are an unproductive, unloving, lazy member of society and your family and church would be better off without you.”
WHOA THERE! Where is THAT coming from? Certainly NOT the Lord! He is my Advocate. He does not attack and belittle me. Certainly NOT from my church home—even though I have had hurts and conflicts just like every person who has real relationships in every church—as a general rule, I have shepherd-overseers who would lay down their lives for me, their sheep, and I have friends who are NOT forced to be hired-hand friends, but instead who grant me actual, real love. And Oh! My husband forgives not just my “way back then when I was a teenager” BIG BIG SINS, but he is learning how to bear with me in my CURRENT struggles with CURRENT sins.
So that leaves three sources of such condemning voices in my life:
1. Satan. Yes. He hates me and he hates God. So of course he would spew such worthless talk my way. Every mistake I make. Every selfish action. My propensity to overreact. My unbelief. My hypocrisy. Oh, yes. Satan is my enemy and he delights in reminding me what a fool and failure I actually am.
2. The world. Absolutely, the world. Judged by how I look, how much money I have, what kind of car I drive, how I have leveraged my J.D. and M.B.A. to the MAX to be living the “good life” of the power woman who jets from fancy hotels to boardrooms on the top of the Sears tower with people waiting on me hand and foot. (Can you say WOW! That is SO not my live-in-Montana-homeschooling-two-kids-with-my-Golden-Retriever-dog-and-my-husband-working-for-a-nonprofit-making-about-the-salary-he-made-in-grad-school-as-an-R.A.)
3. My flesh. Now we’re getting down to it. My flesh. My heart. Something deep down inside of me that continues to SCREAM “BAD!” when I consider the true me. Could be influenced by childhood memories. But come on! I’m 45 years old At some point, we have to take responsibility for ourselves and stop blaming others (especially our parents!). No. This voice comes from a place that is deeper than any parental rejection, condemnation, or abandonment. It is touched by bosses, church leaders, coworkers, other mothers, even friends—real friends!—and even my husband (at times) who simply by their lives lived in front of me are constant reminders of how far I have to go in this life. Just how much I DON’T fit in because I am so drastically FAILING to live up to even an iota of what I claim to believe. Oh! how alone I feel! Oh. How alone I actually am.
WHOA AGAIN! This spiral down is a) not helpful; and b) not Christianly.
Let’s have a little reminder, shall we? Preach it to us, Pastor D. Martyn-Llyod Jones!
“We must take ourselves in hand and talk TO ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us!
Most of our unhappiness in life is due to the fact that we are listening to ourselves instead of talking to ourselves. Grace calls us to DO something regarding our situation, our temperament, our struggles. To run to Christ, lay hold of Christ with saving faith, and to SPEAK TRUTH, biblical truth, to the lies and thoughts and struggles that rattle around inside of us.
You wake up in the morning and the first thought you have is of your FAILURES?! The problems of yesterday? Your horrible inadequacies? The drag that your life has become?
Someone is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you.
RESIST! RESPOND! Rather than allow this self to talk to you, YOU start talking to YOURSELF. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. Your soul has been depressing you? Crushing you? So you stand up and say, ‘SELF! Listen for a moment! I will speak to you.’
Because the main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself.
Take yourself in hand.
Preach to yourself.
You must turn on yourself,
and say to yourself, ‘HOPE THOU IN GOD!’
(Instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way.)
And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.
THEN … defy yourself. Defy other people. Defy the devil. Defy the whole world and say with the Psalmist, “I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God!”
Yes. Yes. It is true! SO TRUE! I am not the 300 lb, greasy haired, Pepsi drinking, toothless woman walking around Walmart with dirty children. I’m not. I’m FAR FAR (FAR!) WORSE. My sin goes so much deeper than outward behaviors and looks. My unbelief rots my soul more than soda rots my teeth. I am that big of a mess times about a ZILLION—but I am loved by God with an eternal love and I have an inheritance that will never spoil or blemish or fade; kept in Heaven! By God Himself.
And so. Today I am desperate because of two thoughts that NEARLY refuse to leave my mind:
- I am utterly alone in the world. There is no safe place for me. There never will be a safe place for me. I have no home. Just when I think that maybe, just maybe, there is a small band of brothers and sisters who are for me? I am struck again by this one, lonely, terrifying, thought: I am alone.
- The people I love—SO DEARLY LOVE—in this world would be far, far better off if I could just disappear. Without sinning, of course, but run away or be run over or in whatever manner that would not bring blame back on me … get as far AWAY as possible as quickly as possible from the people I love! Because their lives would be immeasurably better without me.
Dark thoughts, to be sure.
But that’s where I am at.
Yes, Fred led our family in beautiful devotions this morning.
Yes, I read through and meditated on Psalm 88 which a friend sent me today. (Thanks for that, btw!)
But life still hurts. Unbearably hurts. Acid ripping through my chest wall hurts.
It’s hard to breathe.
It’s hard to not give up.
It’s hard to pray.
It’s hard to believe truth more than feelings.
And it’s really, really hard to let anyone in.
It feels like the option of LOVING just opens me up to even more PAIN.
Ah. Yes. Now we’re getting down to the nut of it, aren’t we.
Because it does.
Love opens me up to even more pain.
To quote CS Lewis:
“The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.”
That’s the deal.
Now I just have to figure out if I want to take it.
- To suffer with my elder brother, Christ?
- To bear the agony and grief of my sister in Christ as she mourns the loss of her beloved?
- To weep and grieve with my single friend, my miserably married friend, my infertile friend, my exhausted by so many littles friend?
- To be judged, maligned, belittled, not just not defended–but outright attacked? AND. STILL. LOVE.
Yeah. That’s a tough one. It’s hard to tell my three enemies to SHHH! It’s hard to remember that JESUS has deprived this world of its power to ultimately harm me. (Because right now–I. Cannot. Breathe! the pain is so great.)
So I weep. I pray. I sit silently and stare. I tell my husband and my sister that I might need help. I reach out to someone I thought was trustworthy. I’m beaten back again with greater shock and greater pain. Oh oh oh. This is the day, the pain, that the Lord has ordained for me.
Please God, please.
Remember your bruised reed this evening.
Lift up my tear-soaked face and turn me to You.
Because right now, at this moment, the Covenanters’ baptismal prayer is feeling just a little too accurate:
“This life really is nothing but a constant death.”
It really is.
But Sunday’s A Comin’!
Ah! Now I know what I’m going to listen to! (Thank You, Lord!) A sermon I have listened to many, many times over the course of years and years—Rev. Dr. E.V. Hill’s sermon at his (beloved!) wife’s funeral:
“A sign of Christian maturity is that when the Lord rains down blessing? We bless him! But when he takes blessing away? When he breaks your heart? When he doesn’t give you what you asked for? Bless him!“
Yes, Pastor E.V. Hill. Tonight? I will BLESS HIM. I do bless him.
He is worthy of my praise.
Thank you, sir.
Amen and Amen.
Your exhausted but grateful sister in Christ,
[Re-post from July 2012]
The other day*, a certain friend “just mentioned” to Fred and me how another woman had said some pretty unkind things about us.
(There’s nothing like “sharing” information about someone that makes everyone involved look bad, is there? This friend was attacking us in a sort of passive way; the other woman was allegedly speaking ill of us to others; and now we were tempted to not think so highly of the other woman either. UGH! Gossip is insidious!)
ANYWAY … since our friend alleged that this other woman was telling people that we had “devastated” (crushed / offended / hurt) her, we knew we were into the realm of Matthew 5:23-24 (“Therefore, if you are leaving your gift in front of the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you. Leave your gift in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.”)
Fred was SO gracious and godly as he (gently & lovingly & respectfully) explained that it was not appropriate for us to talk about the woman (or the offense or the situation) outside of her presence and that we would do our best to speak directly with her and try to work through whatever happened.
Still, Person A tried to press on … she was quite insistent on showing us (what this other person had said about) our many wrongs, pointing out our failures, explaining what terrible people we are.
Again, Fred–SO mercifully and lovingly–gently stopped her and explained that the only way that we could work through this offense would be to speak with this woman (that we had offended) directly.
A) To find out if we had offended her;
B) To confess and seek her forgiveness (as appropriate); and
C) For us all to experience the wonderful joy of living out God’s call on our lives (Col. 3) by forgiving one another.
(Oh, and if you’re wondering where I was in this situation, I think my brain completely fried-out in a fritz of, “I can’t believe this!” as my sanctification was set WAY BACK and I had to rest pretty much completely on the godliness of my husband. Hmmmmmm …. nice response by a professional Christian mediator, eh? I hope to do better next time.)
All that to say, as I later reflected on this entire exchange, I was awash in so many teaching points. (Primarily the kindness and patience of Fred shown to this person who was attacking us. Again.)
I was also mindful of my sins and failures regarding both of these people (“Confronting Us Person A” and “The Woman We Had Allegedly Devastated”). I know that I fail over and over again in my effort to edify them and share God’s grace with them.
Lastly (for this blog at least), it struck me again just how true it is that we should NEVER trust a gossip. Not only is gossip a sign of spiritual immaturity, it truly is a destructive force that pits brother against brother and destroys the unity of the Body.
(And we know that the name “Slanderer” is translated 34 times in the Bible as a title for Satan! That alone should have us shaking in our Keds.)
It is simply a truism that if someone is gossiping TO you (about someone else), you can be 100% sure that they are gossiping ABOUT you when you leave.
And how does THAT minister God’s grace in its various forms? Or build one another up according to their needs in Christ Jesus? (Ah, those pesky Ephesians 4 verses!)
How I pray that I will never gossip.
That my speech would be more like the speech of so many women in my church–SO careful. Gentle. Edifying. Loving. Wise.
That God will give me great grace towards people who attack me and I will learn to respond with gentle, God-centered mercy and abiding love.
May your day hit that sweet spot of diligence, hard work, and rest without guilt.
* My notes for this blog article came from some random Monday in 2006 because I try hard to change random facts and dates so that I don’t inadvertently talk about real-life friends in real-life situations when I try to understand better biblical truth by applying its principles to fact patterns.
How DARE the pastor say that I shouldn’t take communion! Just because I’m in this big fight with someone in my church? How dare he! (Or. Dare he not?)
I always enjoy Dave’s posts over at our Redeeming Church Conflicts.com site. But this post was particularly challenging and edifying for me:
I hope you will click through and read the entire post, but for a quick summary, let me just say that Dave reminds us all of the seriousness of coming to the Lord’s Table in an unworthy manner; especially the warning in Matthew 5:23-24 concerning partaking in corporate worship before making any effort to reconcile broken relationships. He then responds to the people who were, shall we say, not pleased with this “fencing” of the Table when it happened recently at his church.
One reason why I think this post was particularly meaningful for me is because I spent my early years in churches that never taught this to me and thus, I have many memories of people (including myself!) taking communion while harboring bitterness and resentment in their hearts towards one another. What a mockery of the Cross! Jesus died to save us from our sin and make us his adopted children; he kisses us through His Supper to grow us all up into him, our Head. And we respond with cursing, gossip, slander, and bitterness? This is surely not the way it’s supposed to be. (And the human wreckage in these churches was great—“friends” who walk away from one another; marriages ending in divorce; even one of my churches splitting due to unresolved conflict. None of this pointing to Christ and glorifying the justice and mercy of God.)
My favorite years as a Christian were the years I spent in a church that fenced the table rightly. Pretty much every time we shared the Lord’s Supper, you saw people abstaining. Holding back. Letting the elements pass. It was a normal thing in the culture of our church and if it were noticed, it was only a call to pray. We prayed for our own hearts (when we were the ones caught in bitterness and refusing to even try to be reconciled). We prayed for wise and experienced peacemakers (laypeople and leaders) who were undoubtedly helping in the process. And we prayed for “the unity of the saints through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3); that the testimony of our lives would clearly demonstrate to a watching world that we are the Lord’s disciples:
Oh! Those Christians! Look at how they forgive and love one another!
May this be true in all of our churches.
In Christ Our Only Hope,
If you haven’t re-read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in awhile, I encourage you to do so. Chapter 5 (“Confession and Communion”) is alone worth the price of the book. Spurgeon also has a sermon that is worth the read (doesn’t he always?): Fencing the Table. The Spuurgeon paragraph most on point to this post (my emphasis added) is:
And, dear friends, once more, there is a necessity for us to examine ourselves, because we must know that there are, among us, some who are, doubtless, partaking of the Lord’s Supper unworthily. We have known, to our great sorrow, of some who have been harbouring an unforgiving spirit, yet who have dared to come to the communion table. When I have really known that this has been the case, I have prevented the wrongdoer from sitting down with us; but, unknown to me, and to other ministers, it must often have happened that persons have come, professing to be Christians, yet all the while not manifesting the true spirit of Christianity toward some offending brother or sister. You remember how even the loving apostle John writes, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
In full disclosure, I found the link to the Spurgeon sermon and the wonderful graphic at the top of this post on JoeThorn.net. I do not know Pastor Thorn personally, but I am in a writer’s group with his (delightful! wise!) wife. I hope you check out his blog—especially if you are one of my many Baptist friends. I think you would enjoy his “byte-sized experiential theology” very much.
[A re-post from 2012]
So today’s Ravi Zacharian International Ministry’s devotional taught me something that I never knew before …
Dr. Zacharias himself wrote the message today. It is entitled, ‘Our Father the Weaver’ and I would post it here if their copyright so allowed, but it doesn’t. Sorry!
Dr. Zacharias has long been one of my favorite theologians/authors—but other than years of study and growth in grace, I really didn’t have any ‘inside scoop’ as to his biblical precision, humility, hopefulness. Until today.
In today’s devotion, he granted us all a glance into one of the sources of his deep faith in God’s sovereignty even in the midst of terrific suffering. You see … Dr. Zacharias attempted suicide as a teenager. I had no idea.
‘Allow me to share a story from my own experience. As one searching for meaning in the throes of a turbulent adolescence, I found myself on a hospital bed from an attempted suicide. It was there that I was read the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. My attention was fully captured by the part where Jesus says to his disciples, “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:19). I turned my life over to Christ that day, committing my pains, struggles, and pursuits to his able hands.’
Oh! How quickly my heart jumped with a sad and yet joyful leap into remembering that dark night years ago when I seriously considered ending my life. (I have only had this experience once, and like Dr. Zacharias, it was when I was a young person. The pain was so great! I couldn’t breathe. The suffering seemed endless. I couldn’t go 24 hours without weeping to the point of wretching. I thought that I could not bear it—and I couldn’t. So my beloved friends helped me to remember that I was the one BEING held by God. And then they physically held me too. And I survived the dark night of the soul—but I knew then that I would never be the same. And I haven’t.)
As I thought about this dear, precious brother in Christ—now a great man for Christ, then a scared child attempting to end his life—I wondered how many Christians have had their lives touched by suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide, or actual suicide. How many families? Churches? There must be millions and millions. (I can think of many even as I type this.)
How much wisdom comes through suffering!
How much the saints throughout the ages have grown in grace–but through a fire.
This life is so hard!
Suffering in the church, in Christian families, in Christian lives … well … it just rips us to the core.
Emotional pain translates into physical pain and darkness overwhelms.
But God IS good.
ALL the time.
(It sounds trite, but it isn’t. It’s TRUTH. And our Only Hope!)
And He gives us His Body to care for us—especially when we can’t go on in and of ourselves.
The Body comes down to our level and lifts up our hopeless, beaten, broken lives.
Sadly—and I know this first-hand—all too often we are beaten down by other Believers. For who can wound us like a brother or sister in Christ? No one. No one at all. For I expect betrayal and meanness from unbelievers. But Oh! The pain is great when it is you, my brother, my friend. ‘One with whom I walked with the throngs in the household of God’ (Psalm 55) … when our dearest beloved attacks and betrays us? It is a SHOCK. Always a shock.
But God is SO good.
Every moment of every day.
He is with us.
And this is enough.
Yeah, though He slay me … I will trust in Him.
Please, God, please keep my heart fixed on YOU.
And please help us all to carry one another’s burdens–and carry each other!–especially when we are crushed (but not destroyed).
And PLEASE, dear one–if you are having any thoughts of suicide, GET HELP NOW. Tell someone. Dial 9-1-1. Go to your nearest emergency room.
You are not alone. Suicide is not the answer. There is help for you!
With sober concern and much love,
[A re-port from 2006]
Yesterday, I had a wonderfully interesting and edifying conversation about the difference between guilt and shame—and why assurances of forgiveness do not comfort us when we are burdened by ungodly shame. (For more on that topic, I encourage you to read one of the few books I have ever endorsed–Ed Welch’s excellent book, Shame Interrupted. There is also a chapter on Shame in my first book, Peacemaking Women.)
Our discussion reminded me of some notes I took from a specific letter in The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller. In this letter, Pastor Jack was reflecting on a young, gifted leader who seemed to struggle with perfectionism and shame. (Please note: there is much more to this letter than my little notes. Pastor Jack was very gracious and encouraging! As well as redemptive in his confrontation.)
– Mike seems to have many surface worries; he is overly conscientious and overly self-critical in his work habits; he keeps endlessly and restlessly busy in his work; he is intense.
– Underlying his surface worries, Mike seems to have fears about almost everything … appearance, lack of ministry or job success, relationships, acceptance with God, financial concerns. It would be hard to have so many fears and not be angry with people, circumstances, and God.
– Mike is locked in unbelief and ignorance of God’s holiness and love; he is controlled by a completely negative evaluation of himself and his future; his nagging guilt (and fear) often confirm his judgment that his is worthless.
– How can Mike break out of this pattern? Yes, secular psychology might help bring to the surface core elements; but it can offer no real hope because it does not offer the real solutions. Mike needs a foundation of faith: the inward experience and sure conviction that his sins are forgiven (justification deals with guilt) and that he is not an orphan (adoption deals with shame).
– So. Should we preach to him? No. Preaching will only deepen his guilt. He needs to know there is solid hope for him in the Lord and in his salvation. He needs to discover God’s grace and how God gives objective peace as a free gift through faith. And he needs to discover how these truths touch the central insecurities of his life.
– And all of that must take place in the context of affirmation: the knowledge that we love him unconditionally and we accept him as he is. We ourselves have gone through similar dark times in life and eventually we emerged on the other side by God’s grace.
– Inherently Mike’s problem is that in his unbelief, all he sees is his insecurity. His whole mindset plans as though he were an orphan. We must help him to claim his relationship with God as his Father through faith in Jesus Christ.
Oh, how I pray that God’s truth and grace will touch the “central insecurities” of our lives. And that truth and grace will begin to splash over onto all of our relationships as we help each other to reject unbelief and to believe the promises of God in Christ! All in the context of love and acceptance.
(I read a quote yesterday that said something like, “Anyone can be kind to a king. It takes a real man to be kind to his brother.”)
Sending my love!
[Re-post from 2015]
Reading my denomination’s magazine (By Faith), I was struck to the heart and literally brought to tears. And prayer.
The last article was on the relationships between ordained men in the church and women in the church. There were many wonderful, gospel-saturated aspects to those important relationships.
But two quotes broke my heart (especially, I am sure, because I have seen over and over again–across the nation–how true they can be):
– “Men are afraid of women. We’re often content to be at arms’ length from them.”
– “Some women mistrust the men ordained in leadership over them.”
Both statements reminded me of 1 John 4:18:
Where there is fear, there is not love (because perfect love casts out all fear).
How I pray that the love of God would so fill each one of us that we would love one another as Christ loves us.
That we would lay down our lives for one another.
Lead. Submit. Listen. Repent. Confess. Forgive.
Praying for the Bride!
[Re-post from 2006]
Excerpts from Chapter 10 of Peacemaking Women, “SHAME“
When a woman is filled with ungodly shame, her response to her own sin or fallenness is to say, ‘Something is wrong with me and I need to work harder to make this right.’ Ungodly shame is a self-indictment that overrides the truth of the gospel that Jesus Christ loves me and in him I am accepted. Another way to think about godly shame and ungodly shame is to note that while godly shame may have a component of legitimate and appropriate guilt (‘I did wrong’), ungodly shame condemningly says, ‘I am wrong.’ Sadly, ungodly shame directs people away from God and others, effectively trapping them in a lifestyle of shame-based living. Ungodly shame is an unbearable burden …
What is the cure for guilt? What is the cure for shame?
Nearly every believer is able to rapidly answer the first question. The cure for guilt is forgiveness. However, few are able to articulate the cure for shame without a great deal of reflection. And yet, Scripture speaks volumes about how to cure shame. To be women of shalom, it is crucial to understand how the concepts of adoption, intimacy, love, and delight impact our experience of shame. These gifts of grace help us to trust that we are accepted, just the way we are. The acceptance we have in Christ because we are adopted into his family is the surgeon’s scalpel that begins to carve away the festering poison of shame. The intimacy, love, and delight we experience because of our adoption all provide the healing balm that soothes the painful effects of shame.
Adoption. When we know without a doubt that God has accepted us, we come to understand the amazing truth that we are brought into membership in God’s family forever (1 John 3:1). The doctrine that speaks most powerfully to our guilt is justification and the doctrine that speaks most directly to our ungodly shame is adoption. While the cure for our guilt rests only in the forgiveness of God, the cure for our shame is found in God’s loving acceptance through adopting us into his family. Adoption washes our shame away in the same way that justification wipes away our guilt. Adoption says, ‘I love you, you belong to me, nothing will take you out of my hand. Nothing about you will cause me to reject you. Anything wrong with you will not cost us our relationship. I am God and I know you completely. And I love you’ (cf. John 10:29; Rom. 8:15–17; Gal. 4:4–7; 1 John 3:1) …
Intimacy. Intimacy is a biblical concept that permeates Scripture from beginning to end. It is the relational experience of knowing others as they really are and being known for who we really are. The desire for intimacy is strongly related to how God has made us in his own image. Although sufficient in himself, God desires that we know and love him, hence the First Commandment (‘You shall have no other gods before me’) and the Greatest Commandment (‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart . . .’). As people made in his image, we share the same desire to be intimately known and fully loved. Our creation in God’s image assumes intimacy as a normal part of relationships. Yet shame, that lethal disease, eats away at our hearts—especially the place where intimacy is desired and embraced. Shame destroys the desire and ability to be known by others. Shame kills the desire and ability to know and love others.
If genuine love flows out of true intimacy, and if love for God and others is our greatest calling, intimacy is a vital part of our human experience. We will not be vulnerable with people unless we know that we are safe with them because they love us intimately …
It is helpful to note that in this John 10 passage, intimacy is a crucial aspect of loving leadership and ministry. So often, our counseling with believers touches on the topic of how difficult it is to know Christian leaders. The hurts that are experienced by our pastors and elders often make them withdraw from people. The hurts that are experienced by all believers lead us to withdraw from relationships as well. When Christians are deprived of intimate, loving relationships with one another, shame often flourishes because we fear letting others see our weaknesses. Mistrust, bitterness, unforgiveness, and fear stand in the way of deep connection in the body of Christ.
Love. Paul gives the Philippians much to consider about the importance and wonder of having intimate human relationships when he writes, ‘And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God’ (Phil. 1:9–11). Paul uses powerful words—abounding love—to describe a powerful concept. Love doesn’t trickle in when love abounds and intimacy is present. Love surges forward—more and more. And shame flees in the face of love …
Acceptance and delight. We can love many people but delightful acceptance with intimate knowledge is a foretaste of the exquisite grace that awaits us when we are reunited with Jesus Christ face-to-face. Delight is a special form of acceptance that profoundly heals shame …
Delight dispels shame. Shame cannot breathe or live in the flood of loving, rejoicing delight. Of course, the ultimate foundation for our delight is found in Jesus Christ. He is the Lover of our Souls who delights in us and eternally dispels our shame. Even if we do not yet experience delight in earthly relationships, we can rest secure in God’s delight in us.
From Shame to Shalom
Even as I (Tara) have spent the day working on this chapter, I have struggled with shame. My husband is caring for our little baby so that I can concentrate on writing. Shame tells me, ‘If you weren’t such a lousy wife, you would take better care of your husband.’ I look around my home and see my attempts at cobbling our used furniture and old lamps into a warm and inviting home. Shame whispers, ‘If you were a better homemaker, you would know how to decorate and create a beautiful environment. You can’t even take care of a home. There’s dog hair everywhere.’ We are working on having our daughter, Sophia, take naps in her crib instead of in our arms. But as she cries in protest, my shame indicts me, ‘You don’t have any idea what you’re doing with your baby. What makes you think you can be a mother?’
Can you imagine? Even as I am here meditating hour after hour on the many truths of Scripture as to how the gospel speaks directly to my shame, I still struggle. Some of you reading this will not be able to relate to what I’m saying. I thank God for that! I am always refreshed and blessed to share fellowship with people who do not struggle with the foreboding, horrible, vague sense that they are not good enough. Their confidence and trust in the Lord is like a refreshing breeze or a sweet melody. To not live in shame is a glimpse of heaven.
But others of you know exactly what I am talking about. You know what it is like for your shame to condemn you. You, too, struggle with horrible thoughts of your own unworthiness, dirtiness, and inadequacies. Dear sisters in Christ, there is hope! Let us run to our saving, forgiving, adopting, and accepting God. The Prince of Peace knows our hearts, our pasts, our futures, and our every deed—and he delights in us. God delights in you! He, in his awesome act of love, offered himself as a sacrifice, that we might live eternally as righteous children of God. Forever.
To know that Jesus knows us, loves us, accepts us, and has declared us righteous, is the first step toward seeing shame forever washed away. Being known, loved, and accepted by others dispels that shame even more. When we, as fallen sinful creatures, can view ourselves with the eyes of Christ, shalom abounds richly. In the light of the love of Christ, shame gives way to shalom. In grateful and humble response we cry: ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ (2 Cor. 9:15).
[A re-post from 2009]
I recently received an encouraging note from a real-life friend from grad school. She references a telephone conversation we had years ago, but most of you will, I’m sure, recognize in her story that ALL I did was share with her the exact same love and counsel that a friend had shared with me years ago. Plus, ironically, even though she credits me with this conversation (so apparently I did have it with her), I was actually really REALLY convicted when I read what she wrote! I’m a little lacking in the love department for certain people these days. Oh, I can try to justify it all I want. But mostly, I’m just a selfish person who would prefer to spend time with people I enjoy (i.e., people who don’t criticize, judge, and attack me. Regularly.) But many of us have certain, ummmm, challenging relationships in our lives—a neighbor; fellow mom in a sports league, music ensemble, church group; your mother’s third husband (some may call him your stepfather, but you prefer “mother’s third husband”; boss at work; church leader; daughter-in-law … I could go on and on.
But instead, I’ll share my friend’s testimony below. (I trust she won’t mind a few emphases and editorial comments added in by yours truly.) And I’ll also encourage you to always keep at the ready the classic CCEF article on dealing with difficult people in your church. I need to staple that one to my HEAD I need it so often. (Says the difficult person in her church …)
Hope you enjoy! Happy Monday to you all—
Hi again, dear Tara,
Here is my story that I would like to share with whoever would like to hear how God uses my dear friend Tara for His peacemaking purposes in my life …
When I called you almost a decade ago now, I wanted to tell you how hard I had tried to get along with a very significant person in my life. I wanted you to hear how I had done everything a Christian should do. I wanted you to hear how hard it was to try to get along and tell me that isn’t what God wanted for me. Which is exactly what you did, just upside down and backwards from what I expected! Where I expected to hear you tell me I had done all I can do, you told me I really hadn’t even started (offer your bodies as living sacrifices? You mean this is SUPPOSED to be HARD?!?).
I had gone to a Peacemaker Seminar with this person (supposedly to benefit a different relationship and I was just being supportive, but of course I secretly hoped this person’s heart would soften and ways of relating with me would change as well). I had done all the steps I learned at the conference; I was done, right?
When I called to ask for your help, you suggested we read Romans 12 — backwards. As we talked about not being overcome by evil but overcoming evil with good, I wasn’t sure calling you was going to go quite how I had in mind. We moved on to not taking revenge and giving the thirsty a drink — I remember a sense of bewilderment beginning.
This was real conflict! This person had really hurt me, over and over, stomped on my heart and left it for dead. And you’re telling me I’m supposed to be nice? [EDITOR’S NOTE: My friend, A., and I can have a good chuckle at this comment now because OF COURSE I would NEVER tell ANYONE they have to be nice in this situation. NO WAY. Lay down your life, bless, do good, pray for, and LOVE this person? Ummmm. Yeah. That I’d say because, well, Jesus said it. But I’d NEVER say you have to be NICE. Who could ever do that? 😉 ]
Tara, I couldn’t put on a happy face, but not in the middle of such heart-wrenching, core-of-my-soul anguish! I admit that my ears did perk up a little at the “I will repay” part. Finally, we were getting somewhere. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I can TOTALLY relate to liking that verse too. A lot. But isn’t that so telling about my stinkin’ ol’ heart? When I think about MY sins and weaknesses, I cry out for MERCY. I am grateful for God’s LONG-SUFFERING and KINDNESS. But when I think about THAT’S PERSON’S sins and weaknesses, I demand JUSTICE. Vengeance. I am graceless and impatient. SHIVER! It really creeps me out to see my heart.]
Even now as I re-read the “next” verses, I remember feeling how my strategies and selfish desires became exposed one by one: Bless those who persecute you… Live in harmony… Do not be conceited… Love must be sincere. Sin-cere. Without mask. Without hypocrisy. What would sincere love for this person look like?
Oh, my friend, it has taken years to begin to acknowledge the depth of manipulation of which I am guilty in this relationship! Over and over I look for the good I can cling to and see how short I fall of true brotherly love for this person. Somewhere around “Keep your spiritual fervor” and “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer”, I think it started dawning on me that you were telling me I was nowhere near done reconciling.
By then, I was ready to hear that I had been thinking of myself more highly than I ought, according to how I saw myself. I could see no use in the Body for the person I was in conflict with. I had been hoping you would tell me I could, in good conscience, completely eliminate contact and put that relationship to death. One of the most annoying things about that person is/was giftedness in a specific area. I felt that because those gifts seemed more like an anomaly in an otherwise bad person, I could write that person off as useless and the gifts as not valuable, even nauseating. It continues to shock the socks off of me that God uses gifts to accomplish His purposes, even in people who do bad things. Thank goodness, because part of this journey has been discovering that I, too, do lots of bad things and often the good I do through the gifts God has given me seems like an anomaly, too.
As we concluded, I began to see how seeking to actively love this person despite continued failings and hurt was truly a living sacrifice, yet completely warranted because of God’s mercy toward me. What a relief that God doesn’t require me to change this person for Him to be pleased with me, that simply the offer of myself is enough.
I began to see how wildly God’s mercy diverges from the pattern of the world. [EDITOR’S NOTE: And so sadly, how wildly God’s mercy diverges from the pattern of the counsel you so often receive even from Christian sources: “God wants you to be happy!” “You don’t deserve this!” “She’s an antagonist— God doesn’t expect you to be around her!” “What do YOU get out of this relationship? He’s dysfunctional / an addict / a “toxic person”—cut him off!” Don’t get me wrong, of course, certain situations ABSOLUTELY require strong, careful responses—I’m thinking of truly destructive and dangerous behaviors related to addictions, sexual and physical abuse, mental illnesses, out of control rage. Believe me. I know. But what does it look like for the resources of the entire church (and sometimes the civil authorities and medical helps too) to be brought to bear for WISDOM to combine with LOVE? Not for fences or boundaries to be erected solely to protect US, but to minister God’s grace in its various forms to unbelievers (evangelism) and believers alike (discipleship / discipline). Oh, A! You have totally nailed this and I am so, so convicted by what you wrote.]
Tara, I began to long to be transformed so that I could test what His will for me was (even in this awful relationship). I’d love to sit down with you and tell you about the journey that began with that conversation; it is transforming how I do that particular relationship, and transforms every close relationship I have. Do you know that conversation came in a season of miscarriages, where God was telling me how He was going to put together our family, instead of me telling Him? [EDITOR’S NOTE: I didn’t know, A. I’m so sorry! I see photos of your amazing family and I have to be careful to not covet my neighbor’s adopted daughter. Oh, I didn’t know, A. Such sorrow!]
I am a completely different kind of mother for having begun that journey at that time.
Many more opportunities have come along since to look at my grotesque sin and how it has ravaged my relationships. I am so grateful for your kind, gentle look at my sinfulness; my heart has been encouraged many times over that you were willing to look with me at the reality of my heart and not turn away in disgust. Once (hopefully more?) after that, I was able to listen to the story of sin in another dear one’s life and respond in grace instead of discard the relationship in disgust. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Oh oh oh. But isn’t this just SO true? The more we see how wretched we actually are—the doctrine of total depravity is not just an interesting theological idea!—the more we can hear of our brother or sister’s vile sin without shock or rejection because we are overwhelmed with this thought: “I’m just like her. I’m just like him. Yes, my sin may look different. I may not struggle with this exact sin, but I definitely struggle. We both need the Savior. Let’s run to Him!”]
Thank you, my friend, for the encouragement and example. [Thank you, A. I love you!]
[Re-post from 2010]
One of my workshops at next month’s 2018 Women’s Leadership Conference (“Sticky Ministry: Word-based and Relationally-driven Women’s Ministry”) is on this topic of extremely difficult relationships. Here is the descriptive paragraph for the workshop. Hope to see you in Atlanta!
Our Stickiest, Murkiest Relational Quagmires (Tara Barthel) – How do we adhere to God’s Word in our most difficult relationships? Do our covenantal vows require us to “stick close” to everyone? What about when inter-generational differences, personality clashes, and social media mishaps make it so much easier to simply run away? Do we ever get to push back and defend ourselves when the relationships involve addiction, physical and emotional abuse, and huge violations of trust? In this workshop, we are going deep into the murkiest of relational quagmires with the hope (and confidence!) that God’s Word is sufficient to guide us.
Why was I so afraid? I had forgotten about the overlapping spheres of Authority, Power, and Responsibility
The other day, I was extremely anxious about a certain meeting I had to have. It was strange to feel so anxious, because the meeting was really about something fun and relaxing. And yet, I was obviously stressed—more and more stressed as the meeting time approached.
And so I prayed. I journaled. And I called a friend. Her patient listening, insightful questions, and wise counsel were just what I needed to see more clearly what was really going on in the depths of my soul:
I was keenly aware that this person was involved in a number of conflicts and stressful situations that were hurting people I care about. Honestly? I knew he was well-meaning, loving, and trying hard to love God and neighbor. But for whatever reason (immaturity, blindness, emotional and relational cluelessness?), he still left “a wake of hurting, bleeding people” behind him (just as my first coauthor and I did when we were in our 20’s).
And I was afraid to meet with him because I couldn’t fix him. I couldn’t fix the situations or resolve the conflicts (that really had nothing to do with me). I couldn’t protect myself from being hurt by him. And most frighteningly, he reminded me WAY TOO MUCH of my 20-something-self.
So how did I respond to this insight? I repented. I repented of my over-fixation on SELF that was really at the heart of my inappropriate emotions. (Ididn’t want to be hurt. I wanted to protect the people I care about. I wanted to fix things. I wanted him to stop doing this!)
I also remembered that just as God had brought wise and mature Christians around me to help me to grow, God was faithfully bringing wise and godly men and women around this person too. God is sanctifying us! And He will complete the task of conforming us to the image of His Son.
And in one of those, “I’ve said this to other people a THOUSAND times! Why did I forget to tell MYSELF this too?!” moments, I also remembered:
- I have no authority over this man. Other people do (workplace, church). But I don’t. So why I am getting myself into a lather over trying to protect others from him? The leaders are on it. I can pray, encourage, love, and trust that God has put those authorities in place for His purposes. And I am not in authority in this situation.
- I really don’t even have much power in this situation. I have maybe a little bit of power, a little bit of influence. I have some opportunities to reflect on the situation and share a little counsel or encouragement (like this meeting). But I’m not a close friend of his. I’m not formally being brought in by any of the conflicted parties to assist as a mediator. So really? I don’t have much power.
- Which would totally freak me out if I felt I had RESPONSIBILITY. Yes. There it is. I was taking on the responsibility for these situations even though I have neither the authority nor the power to “fix them.” Feeling responsible and not having what you need to do anything about it? This is a recipe for stress and misery. (It’s why so many people quit their jobs! They are given tasks to do without the authority or power to do them and then they are blamed when things don’t get done. It’s just awful to feel that way.)
But in my situation, even a cursory review of the fact that I don’t have any authority in this situation and I have only a very SMALL amount of power, QUICKLY showed me that I was taking on responsibilities that were not mine. Oh, sure, I have a certain level of responsibility—to love God and neighbor, to work hard to protect the unity of the saints through the bond of peace, etc. But beyond that, these conflicts were not MY conflicts and I didn’t have to pick them up and carry them as though they were. (“Not my table!” as the waitresses say.”)
And so. I went to the meeting feeling happy, content in Christ, eager to enjoy by brother … and everything went just fine. Whew! This relational stuff is HARD. But really? It’s not even about the relationship with this person, is it? It’s about my heart-orientation and whether I live out what I believe—that God is God; I am not God; God is in control of everything and He is good; I am neither in control of everything nor good. But I am His. And this is His world.
“This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I ope my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, His Only Son,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.
This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth Christ trod.
No place but is holy ground.”
[A re-post from 2012]
Fred and I had a weepingly hard conversation last Sunday. (Weeping for me, not him. Fred’s not really a crier although he does sometimes leak “sad water from his eyes” to use Ella’s term.)
There were many aspects to our conversation and I may be sharing some of them with you in future posts, as appropriate. But today I wanted to mention just one … the real impetus for our hard conversation:
I realized that recently, I was much quicker to share my truest, most vulnerable, heart with my close girlfriends (really just one friend and my sister) than I was with Fred.
This is not a good thing for the marriage relationship (and that is a massive understatement).
If you had asked me during our courtship or even our first few years of marriage if I would ever be tempted in this way, I would have said you were crazy. Fred was my closest friend, my truest protector, and I had never felt more free around any person to be the real me. But recently, even though I hadn’t realized it at the time (or hopefully I would have changed sooner!), we had begun to “miss” each other a bit communications-wise. I was probably overwhelming him a bit with too many words and too much emotion. (Who me? Can you imagine?) He was probably not engaging enough and not really pushing in enough to hear me, draw me out, and understand me. (One of his greatest strengths is his ability to just “roll with it” and not be upset or ruffled by things. But our strengths are almost always our weaknesses too–and laid-back, Type-B, phlegmatic people can sometimes need to be a bit more proactive and purposeful in certain areas of life. Just like we Type-A, choleric people often need to chill out and learn to be quiet.)
So there we were … not in any sort of obvious marital crisis; not regularly fighting; not tempted to stray sexually. But still in need of some marital guarding:
I needed to engage with Fred (more than just with my friend and sister) and he needed to engage with me.
I remember once, years ago, when Fred and I were going through a particularly dark and trying time in our marriage, a blog reader emailed me a private note letting me know she was praying for us and that she was concerned for us, but still hopeful. She said something like this:
“I know this is a hard time for you, Tara, but I want to encourage you that at least you’re still fighting. I’m married (we would never divorce!), but I knew my marriage was really dead when my husband and I stopped even fighting. He just checked out emotionally and after decades, I have given up trying. We live in the same house, but we do not really share our lives. Don’t be like us. Get help. Keep trying. Keep fighting if you need to. But please, don’t give up. You don’t want to end up like us.”
In thinking back on that horrible, painful, despair-filled time of life, I really believe that her email to me was a big part of the momentum for Fred and me to go in for pastoral counseling. Our pastor sat across from us as we were the perfect example of the stereotypical estranged couple sitting a foot apart from each other on a couch, not touching, not making eye contact. Hopeless. And in response to our despair (“Things will never change! We’ve tried. Nothing works. We can’t fix this marriage.”), he gave us this really encouraging word:
“You’re right. You can’t fix your marriage. You do not have within yourselves, by your own strength, the resources you need to change. But you are forgetting the resources you have outside of yourselves. You are despairing because your eyes are fixed on yourselves and on each other. But Christ lives within you and He gives you what you need for life and godliness. You have resources far beyond yourselves. The means of grace are real.”
And then, just as he has done a thousand times for us and for our entire church family, our pastor helped us. So did other friends. And most of all, so did the Triune God.
Are you struggling in your marriage? Or (God forbid!), have you gone ’round the bend into the dark place of not caring any more? Please. Get help. There are resources beyond yourself to help you.
And even if you are not in a serious marital crisis, please consider a gentle warning to be careful in how you share with your friends. Of course we should be honest, vulnerable, and prayerful. But we may be straying into marital danger when we are closer to our friends than we are to our husbands.
Hope your day is a blessed one! I’m in day two of a killer migraine, but other than that, things are nice a summery-quiet around here.
[Re-post from 2012]