To prepare for writing this post I have lit a fire, made a large mug of tea and two pieces of fruit toast. For courage.
Growing up I was taught “the truth”.
Jesus, the gospel, the whole bit. I believed it.
I wanted to live in a way that would make God (and my parents) happy. I strove to do ‘the right thing’.
I was good.
I was taught some strong principles about right and wrong, and, on the whole, I obeyed them.
I knew the answer, and the answer was Jesus.
I did my best to do all the things I had been taught were (and are) good things to do: serving others. Turning the other cheek. Denying momentary pleasure for long term joy. Trying my hardest. Putting others’ needs before my own. Not complaining or questioning (or worst of all quitting) when things were hard – but having ‘faith’. (A bit like in Peter Pan, -I thought that if I just closed my eyes and believed hard enough
fairies would be real God would come through for me and answer my prayers.). I was a good girl. No sex and drugs and rock and roll for me. Married at 20, serving in the church. It all looked great.
And, lots of it was great; I met a brilliant man, and had three beautiful children. I was very blessed.
Through my twenties, responsibilities and children began to pile up, time was limited and sleep elusive.
We were busy.
slightly pretty gobby person, with opinions and a loud voice, I often found myself leading things. And as someone who scores high on empathy and big on community in every psychometric test going, I found myself listening to friends problems and troubles and either offering to help, or wishing I could. I worried about how they were and fretted I was not helping, or doing, enough.
If you didn’t scratch the surface to see the motivation and belief system that drove my actions – my ‘good’ behaviour, it all looked fine. It looked like success.
I was a bit like a swan (although maybe not as graceful). To the outside world I looked like I was gliding through life, but under the water my legs were working hard just to keep myself afloat. I was getting tired. And anxiety often seemed to be knocking at the door threatening to derail me.
Eventually, after many years of maintaining this life, I crashed out.
When you don’t know which way is up and anxiety fills your days. When panic attacks control what you can and can’t do. You know something isn’t working… I have written about some of the ways I have started to regain my mental health. And I will write about more ways… because there are many.
But, I started to realise, with the help of Sam, that my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian, was a major player in my getting ill. The religious life I had been trying to perfect, had made me sick.
I had ended up believing my salvation (and if I am honest, – a lot of other peoples’ salvation) was on my shoulders. At a gut/ subconscious level I believed if I behaved in a certain way… if I prayed enough, read the right books, was obedient, served and definitely didn’t complain (how could I – I had been so blessed?) we would all be ok.
Of course, this meant I also believed the opposite was true – that if I didn’t do the right things, if I didn’t pray or ‘perform’ as I should, we were all screwed and bad stuff would happen.
It. Was. All. On. Me.
Jesus, I believed, ‘worked all things together for the good of those who love him’* . But to this scripture I had added my own mental footnote
*that is – those who proved they loved him by how they acted and the decisions they made.
I (wrongly and painfully) believed I must be good to prove myself love-worthy.
I had forfeited honesty and real relationship for religion; The dry, soulless pursuit of becoming a ‘good’ person.
I am so so glad that the wheels fell off. That I found myself plummeting at great speed down the rabbit hole. Imagine a whole life under that misplaced sense of responsibility.
I started to see that I could not cope with the weight of my own expectations- that told me I had to please God by being perfect. It was impossible.
Did God not see how good I had tried to be? Did He not see how I behaved? I had sacrificed much. I had not pursued passing pleasures. What was He playing at? Why wasn’t I filled with joy? Why wasn’t I experiencing an unshakeable peace?
In a moment of lucidity I decided that IF this was God, and if this was what He expected of me, I couldn’t do it anymore.
Much as it broke my heart. Much as I was terrified of the fall out (both in this life and the next). I couldn’t carry on. I spoke to God (because I still believed in Him) and told Him I was walking away. I was tired.
——-(In the corner of my mind, somewhere-out-west, I glimpsed something. I felt Him say to me, “it’s okay. Go.” So I did.)
I let myself off the hook.
I trained myself to silence that voice in my head that told me I had to live up to a standard that I felt I was never attaining.
And, I was at peace with this. Surprisingly (I had anticipated great guilt) I felt fine. In fact, what I felt was overwhelming relief.
And this was how it was for a couple of years. I didn’t read my Bible. I didn’t pray (apart from when the kids were ill, or I was desperate and having a panic attack – and that went something like, …”God, help!”) I told my friend LP that I wanted to write a book called “How to not be good” because being good had killed me. I walked by the river, and I ran in the park, I watched trash TV, smoked cigarettes and ate cake.
I stopped offering to help. I didn’t go to church.
And then, the very thing that you would think would sever the ties once and for all, pointed me to the truth.
A friend of my eldest daughter died. A brilliant, gentle boy.
I am not going to go into what happened and how and why because it is not my story. I was only watching and praying and hoping as he struggled in hospital. Reading the emails from his parents as they battled and cried. Meeting with friends to cry and beg God.
And then he died.
And our hearts broke.
Somehow instead of me thinking this proved that God was cold, hard and uncaring in a world of pain, I saw God’s heart breaking too. It was a visceral revelation. That happened somewhere down in my gut.
I watched his family grieve, whilst they continued to love and hope, and their hope ignited mine.
A new thought: Maybe… maybe…., I had been following the wrong guy…
Maybe the God I had been following was one I had created. A God I felt I could control… if only I could be perfect. I had fashioned God into a school teacher tapping His watch, and shaking his head with disappointment. But this did not tally with what I was now seeing.
In the sorrow and grief of that time, I saw, as though out of the corner of my eye, a God of GRACE. Who wasn’t returning to reprimand me for walking away. In fact maybe, possibly, he was proud of me? I chose to let go of my ideas about who God was, and waited for Him to reveal Himself.
Around this time I read this, about Lynne Hybels (wife to Bill Hybels – big time preacher and leader of a huge church in America), in Emily P. Freedman’s book “Grace for the Good Girl” she said :
“‘As the ultimate nice girl, and striver after divine favour, it was no small thing to turn my back on God. I didn’t broadcast the decision. I was still a Pastor’s wife. I didn’t want to confuse people or shake anyone else’s faith, but I was done with a God who daily sucked the life out of me – and I was too tired to search for a replacement.’ What really happened, she continues to explain, is that the Spirit of the true God gave her the courage to let go of the fake one. “
When I read this, I virtually shouted out. This is what was happening to me!
Up until this point I had
thought worried that my pursuit of this new (to me) God was just a figment of my imagination; to make myself feel better about the fact that I couldn’t do the ‘good Christian thing.’
Reading about Lynne Hybel’s experience affirmed the idea that had begun to grow within me:
God was pleased with me. I couldn’t do ANYTHING to gain His love or mercy, because it was mine already. And not because of anything I had or hadn’t done, or would or wouldn’t do. But because what He had done and who He was. I started to see the truth that my acceptance was not conditional on my behaviour, or who I was, but was guaranteed by who He was.
I walked away from fake, ought-to, should and must, Jesus. And as I turned and walked away, I met the real Jesus coming the other way.
I didn’t have to earn His favour, or His love. I began to see He wasn’t and isn’t interested in my ‘should’ and ‘must’ behaviour, in fact I think He hates it.
He didn’t need me to make myself love-worthy. That, I now KNOW is the glory of the gospel.
I still have a load of unanswered questions. But now I see this is the quest, the great mystery. That God would create us open-ended, with free-wills and free minds. Minds designed to ask questions, and to search. God didn’t need me to do His PR – I didnt need to defend Him, or portray a ‘good’ life, where I only experienced joy and peace, and spent my days doing ‘the things I thought Christians should do’.
I had been pretending to be happy being what I thought He wanted me to be. Turns out – He wanted me to be honest.
I have realised it is in the difficult questions, the complexity, the beauty – that God is. It is when I feel fulfilled and stimulated, where I debate and wrestle with ideas that God is really alive. Not in my good behaviour, my attempt at perfection, but in my failure and my mistakes, because there His grace is seen. In my honesty.
I dont need to hide behind my behaviour, I don’t need to manage my image. His grace Has covered it.
ps. This summer, after a very difficult start to the year (of which I will write another time), I was having a shower when three words popped out of nowhere into my head. “A spacious place”. It was at that time I had started thinking of writing this blog and thought – maybe this was the name for it. So I googled it to see if it was in use anywhere else. This is what I found:
He brought me into a spacious place,
He rescued me, because He delights in me.