Confession #1: I have been battling some serious writer's block lately. I've had ideas, but doggone it, they've only all been half-formed.
In fact, much of my life feels only half-formed these days: half-certain, half-focused, half-wondering if things will ever feel like they used to. Like they did before I went to China. Which brings me to Confession #2:
I've been struggling. Big time.
I try to speak positively and encouragingly about my time in China, but the truth is, it was really, really hard. I won't go into the details of why my time abroad was exceptionally challenging; I will simply say that, if any of you have lived abroad or know someone who has, you know that life in a foreign country – especially one as foreign as China – changes you.
I was literally doing the Lord's work in the Middle Kingdom, and yet (Confession #3) I was growing more and more depressed with each day. I had chosen this path to spread the gospel into the far reaches of the earth – so why did I now feel such a strong pull to give up? Was it the devil trying to convince me that I would fail, or was it simply that I was not meant to be there?
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" Isaiah 52:7
It would take a close brush with a dangerous virus to finally convince me that I should go home. But even then I was half-certain. How could I abandon my post? Was I being too proud, or was I being too hard on myself? Would I regret leaving, or would I regret staying in an environment that was clearly harmful to my physical, mental, and spiritual health?
Almost a year later, the uncertainty surrounding that decision still plagues me. Don't get me wrong, coming home when I did was 100% the right decision. But the emotions that were stirred up during that time have more than outstayed their welcome. Some call this reverse culture shock, some call it PTSD, some simply call it introspection... I call it annoying. That part of my life is over; I'm not in China anymore! So why does it feel like I still am?
These days I constantly find myself looking backwards, searching for some logical explanation for why I feel the way I do. And though I might find the culprit for one day's feelings, the guilt, shame, doubt, and uncertainty still linger.
Jesus replied, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." Luke 9:62
The Bible repeatedly tells us to look forward to Christ. To relinquish our shameful grip on our wicked past because, after all, Jesus died so that we may have new life in Him apart from our sinful nature. Through his crucifixion and our baptism, our life of sin is put to death and we are born again in his righteousness.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. 1 Peter 3:18
If I am totally assured of my new life in Christ Jesus, and if Isaiah 43:18 literally tells me to "forget the former things; do not dwell on the past" – then, Lord, why can't I move on? Is it not wrong that I am so mentally, emotionally, and spiritually stuck on things that happened in the past?
A dear friend, mentor, and spiritual counselor recently told me two things in response to these questions:
1. You need to give yourself a break.
"But how am I supposed to—"
2. You give yourself a break by continuing to talk and pray about it.
Which brings me to this blog post.
No, this isn't the story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down. But I'd still like to take a minute – just sit right there – and I'll tell you just how much our dear Lord cares.
Dear sisters, whether it's stress in the workplace, motherhood, societal pressures, loss, trauma, sickness, life changes, loneliness, just a bad day, whatever – I'm here to tell you that it is not trivial. It is not something you are expected to get over right away. It is not something that will make you weak if you need to vent about it. And it is not something that will do you any favors if you pretend it doesn't exist.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:8-9
We may think we are being tough by hiding our struggles, but hiding them will only encourage us to hide our sins, too – and that is a slippery slope. So how can we reconcile these feelings with the assuredness we have in our Savior? How can we make sure to use this introspection for our spiritual good instead of letting it drag our faith down into the murky depths of doubt and uncertainty?
We talk about it.
By making sure to talk and pray about our feelings and examining how they align with Christ's plan for us, we can turn painful memories into sobering wisdom for the future.
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? 2 Corinthians 13:5
The Bible tells us not to dwell on the past, but it also encourages us to accumulate wisdom (Proverbs 4:7). Of course, God can plant whatever wisdom he wants into each and every one of us. But he also gives us the gift of insight and developing wisdom as we go through life. This could be as simple as learning the directions to your new church, or as complex as making a mistake in the past that God will later help you use as a signpost on his holy path.
Folly brings joy to one who has no sense, but whoever has understanding keeps a straight course. Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed. A person finds joy in giving an apt reply— and how good is a timely word! Proverbs 15:21-23
Think of Jesus as a boy. How did he grow in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52)? On a human level, it was by sitting among teachers, listening and talking to them and asking them questions. So too should we encourage wisdom in each other by listening and asking questions, reminding each other to look to God in both the good times and the bad.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16
Don't feel like you aren't allowed to have a bad day. Don't feel like you need to hide your emotions. Remember, even Christ wept and felt sadness as he walked on this earth. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus "was deeply moved in spirit and troubled" (John 11:33).
But also remember that, in his sadness, Jesus looked to his Almighty Father and talked to him.
Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. John 11:41-44
When the sorrows of yesterday seem to linger into what should be our joyfulness in Christ today, we should not dwell on the hows and whys of our past. Instead, let's focus on how to apply the truth we already have: that, just as Jesus called out to Lazarus to rise from the dead, he calls out to us in our darkness and daily brings us back into the light. Instead of shaming you for the days when you just can't seem to shake the sadness and the doubt and the uncertainty, God loves you – and he is using you to benefit his kingdom. He is holding onto his plan for you, even on the days when it feels like you can't hold onto him. He uses your pain to remind you and others that your strength is not in yourself, but in Christ alone. He uses your past to point you beyond the troubles of today – to the cross, to the proof that he has not forsaken you.
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
In the span of two years, I moved from Chicago to China to Chicago to Milwaukee. I came home to changed relationships and friends now engaged or married, moving on to the next phase of life without me. I went from a year and a half of steady discomfort and insecurity abroad to the sudden shock of comfort and ease in America. I went from feeling the strongest, most confident call of my life to wondering why it didn't work out, and what I could have done to make it end differently.
Nothing. Because the past is in the past. What matters now is how I harvest wisdom from my experiences, how I apply the truth of God's love in his plan for me, and how the Holy Spirit daily turns this truth into life and freedom and joy in our Savior. May we richly and daily remind each other of this wisdom through his saving grace, singing to God with gratitude and humility in our hearts!
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25