Have you ever been blind-sighted by anxiety? Here you are doing something very benign, even mundane, when all of a sudden your pulse quickens and pricks of electricity shoot up your leg and bite at your spine. And you’re baffled. So you close the book you’re reading and search the back cover for some subliminal message that might have bled into the deep recesses of your mind. Nope. It’s a cozy little Christmas romance. So you put it aside and sift through your day planner. Surely you’ve missed something. Only you can’t figure out what it is. There’s no impeding deadlines, no missed meetings. For once in your conveyor-belt life, you’re actually on top of everything. Was it the extra cup of coffee you had this morning? Hormones gone awry? Maybe you’re just weird like all the rest of us neurotic, highly-emotional Americans. Or…maybe there’s something else going on.
Don’t act all spiritual and emotionally stable. You know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve seen the same, “deer in the headlights” look flash across too many faces to think I’m the only one with issues. My emotional dumpster might be a tad bit fuller than yours, but I know you’ve got some moldy orange peels in there somewhere. We’re sinners living in a fallen world surrounded by other sinners. Emotional baggage is part of the deal. Luckily Jesus is the ultimate garbage disposal, turning a fallen, broken sinner into a new, spring-cleaned creation saved by grace. And yet, this transformation—moving from brokenness to wholeness, from garbage-filled hearts and souls to lives illuminated by grace—isn’t a one time event. At least, not for me. It’s a lifetime process of drawing near to God, allowing Him to loving search the deep recesses of my heart and mind, removing those cancerous tumors, until only my true self remains.
I like the onion analogy, even if it is over-used. The top layer, the one we allow most people to see, is covered by this thick outer skin. When this outer layer is first peeled away, it stinks. And burns. Our eyes water as old wounds resurface, wounds we may have swallowed down so many times, we’ve forgotten they’re there. Until something happens—a look, a word, an image—to trigger those buried emotions. Only we’re not ready to dive deeper. We like living on the surface. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. So we wrap that outer skin around us even tighter, perhaps even adding another layer. And yet, all the while, we peer from beneath the skin with childlike hope, desperately crying out for freedom.
Last weekend I went to the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Conference. It was an amazing time of healing, refreshing, and encouragement. A time I almost missed. In my usual impetuous nature, I signed up for the conference right away. I knew it’d be phenomenal. Great speakers, quality classes, amazing fellowship. But as it grew closer, anxiety mounted. This baffled me. I was about to go on this wonderful spiritual retreat, and I was feeling anxious. No matter how many ways I analyzed it, I couldn’t figure out why.
Don’t worry. God showed me, in His perfect timing. He always does.
Fast-forwarding a few days: I loaded everything in my van and headed to St. Louis to meet my carpool buddies. Which meant I had four hours and ten minutes in the car. Four hours of silence, with no one to talk to but God.
Now that’s dangerous. And life-changing. (And even a little embarrassing. You’d be surprised how many concerned looks you get driving down the freeway talking to the air with mascara-filled tears streaming down your face.)
So here I am, listening to praise music and talking to God, and out comes the scalpel. God showed me the root of my anxiety, and it had to do with a wound I had suffered in the past. It was ironic, really. My pastor had talked about this “thing” a month, maybe two, previously. But at the time, I dismissed much of what he said, thinking, “Nope. That’s not me. I’m good.”
And yet, all the while God knew. But He wanted to wait until he had me alone, stuck in a car, where I couldn’t run from the truth, to show me. Where I couldn’t shove those feelings aside and busy myself with laundry or facebook or whatever else I use to drown out that still, soft voice of my Physician.
Before long, my chin puckers like a prune and tears stream down my face as I hunch over my steering wheel in an effort to see the blurred road in front of me. I can’t run. I’m in a van heading down a freeway at seventy miles per hour, scheduled to meet the rest of my party in two hours. So what do I do? I buck up and change my focus, turning my ears to the radio in a desperate attempt to shove the tumult of emotions aside.
But God wasn’t done and in His merciful grace, He would not leave this opened wound to fester. Just like a loving Physician intent on total restoration and healing, He continued His work until all traces of the tumor were removed, replaced by healthy tissue.
On the radio, Frank Peretti was talking about “wounded spirits.” The title says it all. And as I listened to him talk about some deep wounds that had sliced through his heart, leaving thick scar tissue in their wake, the deep wounds in my own heart resurfaced. By now, I was starting to clue in. I’ve walked with God long enough to know that pain is never wasted. Every tear initiated by my Father’s hand leads to increased freedom. So, instead of fighting Him, I surrendered to the pain, and let His loving arms surround me. And suddenly it all made sense. This retreat had very little do with writing or meetings. God had bigger plans. Better plans. Although I wish He would have kept them in my nice, safe little van. But no. He wasn’t done. Once the lie had been exposed and removed, He needed to pour truth in its place.
Friday night, after having spent a nice quiet day recovering from my emotional explosion on Thursday, I walked into worship excited…and apprehensive. I knew God was going to show up in a mighty way. Although it would have been nice if I’d had the forethought to bring tissue. Needing an extra-dose of security, I sat next to a very dear friend, ready to be filled afresh with the Spirit. And God held nothing back. Song after song, He poured His love into me, telling me I was there for Him, that this was our time, and that He loved me.
“I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Again and again those words poured over me. They broke me, and healed me. Speaking to that hurting child peering behind the onion skins. Once again, the tears came. Slowly at first. My eyes blinked fast as my heart prayed, “Please, don’t make me cry. Not here. Not now.”
The first song they sang was Freedom. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And with every note, God’s love poured stronger and penetrated deeper. Then came the next one: How He loves. By now, I’m sitting in my chair, sobbing uncontrollably, tears streaming down my face, chest heaving and snot dripping from my nose. (Pretty picture, I know. Very lady-like.) My friend is sitting on my right. To my left is Joyce Hart, the president of Hartline Literary agency. Needless to say, I’m mortified, and yet, no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop crying. But Joyce didn’t judge me or condemn me. She reached out in love and rubbed my back like a mother comforting a saddened child. Or, more accurately, God reached out to me through her, reminding me that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. There is only love, grace, healing, and freedom.