I call heaven and earth to testify against you today! I've set life and death before you today: both blessings and curses. Choose life, that it may be well with you—you and your children.
- Deuteronomy 30:19
I woke up in a fog this morning, dark thoughts already pressing on my body. I had gone to bed the night before with a heavy heart. A text from one family member and an email from another were both full of accusation. Whether I meant to or not, I had disappointed, disturbed, and offended both of them. I did the very best I could to honor their feelings and share an apology and still get a good night's sleep, but the self-recriminations continued overnight.
Can you relate to this? I am quick to offer understanding and forgiveness to another person but can rarely or easily offer it to myself. Despite feeling integrity and peace about the intention of my comments, it was disruptive to know they landed poorly on and hurt people I care deeply about. Even after a heartfelt response, I still felt out of sorts with prickly skin and a desire to hide in my shell. I sat silently in the car on the way to morning mass, swirling in my inner mess. My husband noticed my withdrawal and tried lovingly to draw me out.
"Do you have any words for me?"
My ugly inner feelings emerged as ugly outer words not directed at, but certainly landing on, my loving husband. The cherry on top was my declaration that I didn't even want to tell him any of this because all he ever says is "I'm sorry" and that just makes me mad. I am grateful that Ralph and I have had a great deal of experience wading through each others' inner swamps. As I slammed the car door in the church parking lot, he reached for my hand. I stuck them both deeper into my pockets muttering, "I can't."
I knew the name of the emotion that was now bubbling over and stinging the corner of my eyes with tears, that prickled my whole body and made me want to get small and smaller, that made it feel next to impossible to walk embodied into a church and sit under the lights in a pew for all to see: shame. Shame and I are well-acquainted. I could write a whole book on shame, or at least several powerful chapters. It helps immensely to finally know shame inside and out, to understand its unique symptoms in my body and how I am programmed to respond. Shame seeks to isolate and antagonize. I needed to hide.
I have hidden in church before -- desperate for Jesus but equally desperate not to be seen. I have curled up in the pew, head down and handkerchief pressed to my eyes willing myself to be invisible. I have hidden in the bathrooms. Once I sought refuge in the furthest back corner of the empty choir loft tucked small between the extra chairs and the organ pipes. In the safety of the hidden nook, I could cry and pray.
Shame tells me I am bad. It is the hissing voice of the enemy of my soul whispering perfectly crafted lies to derail my self-worth, dignity, peace -- anything it takes to convince me I am NOT the beloved daughter of God. It thrives on my history of self-rejection. It feeds on my tendency for self-condemnation. It relies on the fact that for most of my life I lived under the curse. Henri Nouwen writes about living under the curse in his book Life of the Beloved. (p.97) “When we have cursed ourselves or allowed others to curse us, it is very tempting to explain all the brokenness we experience as an expression or confirmation of this curse.” [Read more about my struggle with the curse of shame here.]
Living under the curse means my default is that the voice of the critic, the voice of the enemy, the voice of my relatives saying I was out of line or offensive all feel true. I have criticized, rejected, and condemned myself for so long that it is very familiar, really second nature, to look for and agree with criticism, rejection, and condemnation from other people.
Shame storms can be fast and furious (and frequently masquerade as a dozen other emotions). As Ralph and I walked into church, mass was already starting. I was desperate to hide but also keenly aware that I had hurt my husband by rebuffing him and didn't want to make things harder by leaving him while I hid in the choir loft alone. I grabbed tissues from the bathroom and we entered the sanctuary and sat in the back pew, my head down on my lap.
One of the hardest parts of my shame attacks these days is that I am now building a ministry around the very thing I was currently unable to do: let myself be loved. In addition to its regular ammunition, my shame storms now hailed down hypocrisy. Who did I think I was to proclaim a message of freedom and joy in the love of Christ when I was curled up in a ball in the back of the church?
The battle waged in my head and heart and body. Unhealed trauma and decades of trauma-conditioned responses colluded with the enemy of my soul to tear down the foundation of my identity as a beloved daughter of God, abundantly loved and delightful to the Lord. I knew that nothing I could say or do, no sin large or small, could EVER separate me from the love the Lord held for me. And yet the battle waged on.
It was a gift of the Holy Spirit that I heard clear as day the words Father Barnes read from Deuteronomy during the 1st reading, words I had recently quoted in a talk I had given: "I have set life and death before you: blessings and curses. Choose life that it may be well with you." (Deuteronomy 30:19) I knew the truth. I knew the lies. My skin crawled with the all-too-familiar slither of the enemy's tactics as they tried to gain ground.
For decades there was not even a battle in my soul. I was a POW in a war I didn't know about. The details of my healing journey could fill another book, but I am finally in a place where I recognize the enemy's attack, have learned its sly but predictable maneuvers, and am equipped with TRUTH in my soul to knock that ******** out of my heart.
But I still needed to choose. Every day, every attack, every shame storm -- I have to choose. Will I falter and fall and give in to the lies of the enemy of my soul? They are insidious and crafty and feel oh-too-true. Will I live under the curse?
Or will I claim the victory that is already won? Will I CHOOSE the blessing? Will I haul myself off the floor of the church and reach for my husband's hand and lift my eyes to the cross at the words of the priest and choose life, that it may be well with me. It doesn't take much. Just a small whisper of his name on my lips - Jesus. A tiny act of faith. Jesus is powerful and faithful and merciful and kind, but He also lets us choose. We have the awesome responsibility of our own free will. Some days it takes heroic faith to believe that the still, small voice of God is true. (If I am honest, most days I can't really hear it unlike the enemy who is SCREAMING in my head!) I have faith, great faith even. I want to be brave. I want to be a warrior. I want to have courage to stand boldly and proclaim in freedom and joy that we are abundantly LOVED.
Every day I inch closer to living more in the blessing than in the curse. Trauma takes a long time to heal and old ruts from old stories and old wounds involve a slow, tender process of restoration from a kind and merciful Savior. But it is so worth it.
This is letting myself be loved. This is knowing the truth and preaching it to myself everyday. This is living in freedom -- not that there won't be battles, but that I know the victory is already mine. Some days, the bravest thing I will do is making the choice to choose the blessing.
I pray God's blessing on each of you as you learn to let yourself be loved.
PS -- the Inaugural workshop of the Journey of the Beloved is coming up on March 12th. I would love to have any women who want to learn more about freedom, shame, lies, and JOY join me and my amazing collaborators. You can find more information and registration at www.journeyofthebeloved.com.