We had recently left Texas, waving goodbye to the dusty, high heat of one state while inching mile-by-mile to the sweltering humidity and palm trees of another. Our children were no longer babies, but still young. After a gazillion hours spent driving, followed by days of unpacking and quartering endless peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches while trying to find the boxed paper plates, I hit pause.
Perched alone amongst stacked boxes in our bedroom, I closed the door and wept. By nature, I am not a frequent crier, but when I do, it comes in a whooshing, quiet rush.
But on that particular day, some thirteen years ago, the crying felt more like a torrential downpour of honest introspection of my lack. I remember catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. You are a wife and a mother and a sister and a daughter, Kristin. People need you. Pull it together.
Pulling it together is my default. I prefer to do hard things alone, and to not be a bother.
But here’s the thing that has taken me forever and a day to acknowledge: it is okay to be broken and fragile, and to ask for help. Self-sufficiency is the noblest of lies, rooted in pride. Our hardships are not meant to sanctify only us: the sharing of burdens is God’s means to also grow others. While we all have our own responsibilities to carry, self-sufficiency can stealthily morph into selfishness.
Plus, there eventually comes a day when our old bootstraps break as we attempt to pull ourselves up, and what then?
While my Pull it together, people need you sounded good, and was true, there was pain swelling in my heart. My husband’s job uncertainty, his new ministry, the financial needs of our family, and the chaos of moving and beginning again invaded and crushed my spirit. I was tired and scared and worn down from being brave under pressure. I was drowning in an invisible puddle of insufficiency, quite unable to handle the large tasks looming, and even worse the lesser things, like cooking a dinner sans pots and pans (which were stuffed in a box somewhere). A dinner consisting of something other than cereal and toast.
My tears eventually stopped, but my heart remained flat and dull and weary. From a reasonable perspective, how would all of these loose ends come together?
I wish that I could twirl back time, and be that person to comfort my younger self, while speaking truth:
Hold on. There is purpose in your suffering. There is goodness in your lack. Be honest with others in the sharing of your struggles. Keep your Bible open, and pray. God loves you, and he is going to lead you directly through situations far worse than this moment. Trust him. There will be years of fiery furnace living, and God is THERE. You will also experience tremendous joys, and God is THERE. Remember: His ways are not ours, and your faith will be tested. Press into him, because you are his. Study Job. Read Jonah. Immerse yourself in the Psalms. Comfort your spirit in the Gospel. Heaven is coming. Obey God and you will grow, as the dross of life melts away in the pain of refinement. God is working. Formation in affliction will cost dearly, but it will also make you.
I had so much to learn but was too busy fumbling with my tired bootstraps.
A few weeks after my crying jag, a friend called and invited me to a women’s Monday night Bible study at her church. It is small but we have a godly teacher, she offered.
The crowd was indeed slim, and we began by singing an old hymn. Our teacher, an older woman, stood and prayed. She spoke reverently to God, sincerely thanking him for another day of life, for his gift of faith, and for blessing us with the Bible. Her words were simple; unadorned and humble. She asked God to soften our hearts, and to guide her teaching of Scripture, that she would be found faithful.
And then she began teaching us from the book of Ephesians. Chapter two. And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…But God, being rich in mercy…
I still have notes from that time, jotted in the margins of my Bible. She walked us through each phrase, step-by-step, teaching us God’s Word patiently and thoroughly. During the following weeks, I learned that she had suffered severe illness, poverty, early widowhood, the death of her son, and betrayal. Every single time she shared of her trials, she gently highlighted two components: her responses to the particular trial and the overarching faithfulness of God. Her words were neither fancy nor pity-laced. She was transparently tutoring us in what she had gleaned through what seemed a life filled with losses, stacked terribly high. We leaned in.
We must never think we are self-sufficient, she warned. God is in charge, and he is always enough, she added, eyes filling. Trust him through it all. He knows what he is doing. We all face pain, but it is our personal response that matters. It reveals our true allegiance.
Her sorrows had become our gold.
Her words were treasures that held sway because of her intense sufferings. There she stood before us, in a simple dress, clean and starched and faded. Her face was wrinkled, surrendered, and content. She radiated peace.
God is our rock. He is the only thing in life that may never be taken. He is solid and unchanging. Anchor yourself to him.
I had been in Bible studies before: power points and videos and expensive clothing and bright lipstick and polished filming. This was not that.
Before me stood an elderly woman with her Bible and her testimony. She treasured God, and it framed her countenance, adorning her words and her life. I hungered for what she had.
Not too long ago, I was introduced to an older woman who had once been a pastor’s wife.
I hated every single minute of it, she spoke bluntly, eyes narrowed, hands on hips. And my former husband did, too. It was a miserable existence. She told me that they had divorced long ago and she was remarried. I had known this woman under two minutes, yet her bitterness was draped like a neon cloak upon her slim shoulders, evident to anyone with a pulse. She went on to share a few more difficulties in her life, her words caustic and cutting and drenched in anger. There was no disputing that her life had been peppered with difficulty. I am not going to pretend that I truly know of her pain, and the stories behind her life. That would be unfair. But it was clear that her bitterness had grown impenetrable. It was a weighty and unattractive beast.
I returned home from this encounter and opened my Bible, which placed me in Ephesians 2. As I studied those worn pages, marked from Bible Study some thirteen years ago, I remembered our teacher.
It is what we do next, after our heartache comes, that matters, she said.
I always have a choice: I can allow my personal hardships and tragedies and pain to become my identity. A stubborn, spoiled pet; chained to excuses and self-pity. Or I can glorify God, gratefully surrendering to his path, which often includes pain. This is my daily choice, an act of the will. Easy to type, and hard to flesh out. This is deeply personal. No one can accomplish it for another.
I am grateful my Bible Study teacher chose the latter. She scattered seeds of gold, treasures born of affliction, now flourishing far and wide. God gave the increase. An imperishable inheritance awaits her.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:3-7