A Heart Laid Bare

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.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

How Has Grace Changed You?

Most of the time when you hear people talk about Christianity and their new life in Christ, you hear a lot about outward behavioral changes. Maybe they’ve given up drinking, or stopped swearing, or maybe they spend more time with their kids when they used to camp out at work. And those are all good things. But by themselves, they’re nothing more than behavior modification. Before each change took place–each genuine change–there was a change of heart. A healing. A restoration. A breaking free from bondage.

The Bible says that Jesus Christ came to set us free.  Free to live authentic lives. Joyful lives. Peaceful lives. As I look back over all the things God has done for me, that is what I value most of all–the emotional freedom. The soul-soaking peace that comes from knowing you are deeply loved. I’m often amused as I think of all the creative ways He’s changed me. Although, not all of them were pleasant. In fact, the ones that penetrated the deepest and brought about the most healing were painful. But looking back, I wouldn’t change a moment. I wouldn’t take back a single tear.

The biggest change in me, and in my marriage, occurred about four years ago when my husband and I found ourselves without a job living in a five hundred square foot temporary apartment. At the time, my heart broke. In under a year, we’d moved from California to Louisiana to Texas then to Missouri. This may sound insignificant to some, especially those who love to move, but it shattered me. Not just because of all the relationships I would be leaving–attaching to one church, only to say goodbye once again. Watching close friendships dwindle to an occasional email. Watching my daughter long for close peer relationships only to move again the moment they were formed.–The majority of my pain came from the emotional garbage each move stirred up. And perhaps if I hadn’t been a Christian, that painful time would have made me bitter, but it didn’t. To be honest, I’m grateful for every single tear I shed. Because looking back, God did so much in my heart during that time, I’ll never be the same. My marriage will never be the same. Our family will never be the same. And I thank God for that.

Prior to this time, I had quite the collection of baggage I lugged around. It colored my marriage, my friendships, even my day to day. I think fear was my dominant trait. Trying desperately to avoid experiences from the past, I had everything down to an agenda. A plan. As long as we had x amount of money in the bank, went on x amount of dates, and had x amount of family time, everything would be okay.

And my husband had his own baggage he lugged around. As you can imagine, our closets were jam packed! And his driving trait? Fear. Same as mine, only instead of running from his past, he was dodging his future. As long as he worked enough hours, got that next promotion, and came up with enough innovative ideas, he was great.

Everything was just peachy.

And most onlookers probably would have agreed with our superficial assessment. But God wasn’t fooled. As the Bible says, man looks on the outside but God looks at the heart, (1 Samuel 16:7) and no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t hide the dark shadows, the thick cobwebs, and gigantic tears. So what did He do? Like a loving, gentle Father, He began to clear those things away, broom sweep by broom sweep.

If He would have asked me how I’d best like to deal with everything, I probably would have asked for a band-aid. Maybe I’d tidy things up a bit, stack all my luggage in one corner, splashed an extra coat of paint on the walls to go with the smile painted on my lips, and call it good. But God wanted more. God wanted me to be free.

The Bible tells us that Jesus came that we may have life and have it to the full. (John 10:10) I’m not sure if we really understand what that means, but I do know this: A full life is not one clouded with past hurts. A full life is not controlled by fear. A full life is not tainted with bitterness or anger. A full life–a spirit-filled life, a grace-changed life, is a life of freedom, of peace, and joy. That, my friends, is the life Jesus came to offer us.

But sometimes the getting there is hard. I think if we were honest with ourselves, we have this vision of God sitting up in heaven magically twinkling his nose, instantly zapping our heart to wellness. Now, I’m not saying that instantaneous emotional healing doesn’t occur. I’m just saying I’ve never experienced it. My healing has always been the sweat and tears kind–the result of God bringing me to a place where I would experience anew my greatest fears and deepest pains, but with a twist. A twist of grace. Like He did with our four moves. When all else was taken away, and God showed up and held our family together–actually made us stronger, I realized that I no longer had to. And when my husband’s worst fear, unemployment, occurred, and God stepped up and provided for his family, he realized that he no longer had to. Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a husband should not provide and I am certainly not saying that a woman should not maintain her home. What I am saying is that the responsibility ultimately lands on God. We are called to obey. He has promised to take care of the rest. And sometimes it takes Him stripping everything away, bringing us to the place we fear the most, so that we can see His hand.