Email would be a lousy way to tell someone you have a problem with their writing, but I still thought it was a possibility. My heart started to beat bigger and faster, for there were only two options.
She liked me or she didn’t.
I skimmed, as one does in those situations, trying to find out the intent of the message.
I continue to feel unsure of my voice and chronically doubt my ability and purpose. Yet I’ve had such genuine encouragement from some of the most unlikely places, no deluge for sure, but trickling in, steady enough to confirm my path.
Truth be told, I still look over my shoulder for a few days each time I hit publish. I’m just waiting for someone to say, Okay. That’s enough. Time to stop.
But the email said “…are you interested in speaking…?”
Okay. She liked me. (trickle trickle)
I couldn’t type my YES back fast enough. (It’s an exciting yet strange feeling for me to be confident, not fearful, to walk through open doors.)
She asked me to speak to a group of women at my church and share what God’s been doing in my life. I decided to talk about the how and why of my writing (which was how and why I was being asked to speak). I wanted these women to think about the how and why’s of their own lives, too.
I planned to talk about how fearful I’ve been (and continue to be) in my life and how it’s paralyzed me from living truly purposefully. I wanted to share why those fears were real and valid, but how there has been a change in me these last few years. I wanted to share how I’m learning to trust and obey, even when (especially when) I’m scared.
I wanted to tell them why. But it’s hard to talk about your past. Especially the part of the past you really had no control over. You want to be gracious and objective. You want to be honest, but without pointing fingers.
I wanted these women to understand how a born and raised “church girl” had so much trouble understanding the true character of God. Why she struggled to shake off legalism. Why she was so hesitant to take any steps of faith in her adult life. Why fear had such a hold on her.
I wanted to explain the trauma of death and near-death that made her want to live protected and safe and insulated.
I wanted to explain what happens when a woman stops trying to be what she’s not, and starts to move forward as she was created to be.
Friends of mine advised me to steer clear of the details my church life growing up, like how we weren’t allowed to wear jewelry or go to dances, how women wore head coverings, and how we sat segregated.
“They’ll get stuck there—and never hear what you really have to say,” one friend told me.
Is there a way to say it without saying it, another one asked?
A long time ago, as a friend and I were walking along a beach, she asked me, “How do you see God?”
I smirked and shrugged my shoulder at her. What kind of question is that?
I knew she was a christian even though she was raised differently than I. She hadn’t lived under the same rules and structure. But still, God’s character is not subjective. There is no room for personal interpretation.
Shouldn’t everyone see God the same way?
Not necessarily. She pressed me, How do you see God?
I started in with all the church words: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, holy, righteous.
I took a breath and gathered some steam: He’s ever faithful. Untouchable. Unchanging. Unknowable. Scary. Overwhelming. An all-consuming fire. A perfect judge who will one day take account of every word said and unspoken thought, and cast any unconfessed sin or unrepentant heart into the Lake Of FIRE!!!!
Hearing it from my own lips, I realized how damning this view of God sounded.
Her lack of a Me too! response made me wonder – am I wrong?
How do you see God? I asked.
I see God as super loving and merciful. Gentle and gracious. Infinitely compassionate and forgiving. His love is beyond anything I could ever do or say. He loves me unconditionally. No matter what.
She went on, “I think, because of how I grew up, with this idea that I can’t ever do anything for which God wont forgive me, I’ve not taken holy living and sin seriously.
I think I need to balance things and see God a little bit more like you do,” she said.
“…And maybe you need to see Him a little more like I do.”
It took me over a decade to really begin understanding God a little more like she did.
From as early as I can remember, I knew God is Love and God is good. I teach my own kids this and sing them Jesus Loves Me almost every single day. So how did I end up with such a one-sided, lopsided view? I could say God is love. But did I live in the freedom of His love?
Was it because I grew up with a heavy blanket of rules and expectations? Ones that, even though I rubbed myself raw against them for years, still gave me the framework that I carried with me for years: my acceptance and the proof of my belief was in doing…not being.
My doing came from me. My doing dragged it’s feet, because it wasn’t motivated out of love.
I knew they were traditions, mostly. I knew God didn’t care if I wore bright red nail polish to church or what I wore or didn’t wear on my head. But I also knew there were people who did care. And who thought rules were not just traditions.
Instead of seeing and knowing God’s overwhelming love, legalism allowed fear to take root. Fear I would be in trouble for doing the wrong thing. Then my mom’s death and Chris’ brain surgery later gave me legitimate reasons to be scared. I knew I didn’t cause either, but I had first hand experience that God and his plan for my life can be hard, painful—even devastating. And instead fearing man, I began to fear God himself.
It’s hard to accept and understand the enormity of God’s love if you’re mindset is one where you see God as punitive.
Because many of the rules were purely outward, performanced-based, the gift of salvation, which is given freely without any doing of our own, weighed heavy on me. For I was never fully confident of my hope. It always felt I was coming up short.
When you think salvation depends on something you do, it’s always out of your reach.
So much of my relationship with God was motivated out of fear, not by love. By not wanting to do the wrong thing, rock the boat. I felt conditioned to want to avoid punishment. (And I couldn’t shake this deep seeded thought: that getting it right could somehow made me righteous.)
Guess what? You can’t get it right. You’re never righteous enough.
I was afraid being out of God’s will, of losing my salvation, and not having assurance of it in the first place… none of which are even possible, based on God’s word, if He has given the gracious gift of saving faith.
I ended my talk with the church ladies telling them about a journal I found from when I was 19, about a year after my mom died.
“I want to write,” it said. “I want there to be purpose from this pain.”
I didn’t for so long, because I was always scared. Motivated by fear. I’m still scared to do it. But my motivation is different.
I ended my talk with this:
I feel broken but made whole. Empty, but full.
Tender, vulnerable, but strong.
I am both sad, and spilling over with joy.
This is how I can admit my fears, yet move forward in faith.
It’s this intersection of opposites within myself helps me understand the how and the why it’s possible for God to be both a loving father and a righteous judge. A gentle shepherd and the King of Kings. A Lion and a Lamb.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.