My Journey to Freedom: Healing for the Good Girl

(It’s been a while since I posted the previous entries in this series.  If you haven’t read them or need a refresher, here’s the links:

Part One:  Following the Rules

Part Two: Thou Shalt Not Wear Pants

Part Three:  It’s Never Enough )

Do you ever find that it’s easier to draw out a tale than to finish it?  The telling of the event is always more natural than bringing it to a solid and worthy conclusion.  I used to dream of being a writer, once upon a time, as an idealistic junior high student with big hair and even bigger glasses.  I fantasized about a career in children’s literature and wrote dozens of original stories and poems.  Most of them, however, I never finished.  It felt just too difficult to come to a good ending.

For this series “My Journey to Freedom,”  I have felt this exact same way.  It feels like a whole lot has to be crammed somehow into a clear and logical ending, when in truth there is no ending.  It is a journey, after all, and although I live free in Christ, I haven’t arrived.  Not yet. 😉  Still, I will do my best to explain to you just what happened in my life the last year or so that radically altered my thinking and my faith.  Some have questioned why.  Why share this tremendously personal story online?  Won’t people perhaps vehemently disagree with you, or scorn your choices, or even be offended that you have not followed the path of your youth?

Indeed, the reception of the previous posts has not all been good.  I think that it is hard and scary for some people when you start asking questions about the things you were taught all your life.  Believe me, I fully considered that before embarking on the first post of the series last summer.  I balked at doing it at all, knowing it would absolutely cause controversy, but the Holy Spirit kept nudging me to write my story.

In September of 2012, the pot that had been slowly simmering for so long finally burst into a full boil.  I could not handle it any longer – all the rules, the stress of doing everything just right, the frustration at not feeling as if I were ever pleasing God, everything.  So I just quit.  Right then, I talked to Chris, who had been having similar feelings and frustrations of his own, and we agreed together to leave the church we had been attending for eight years.  All at once, everything stopped.  I no longer taught children’s church; there was no more nursery duty to fill more of my church time.  We had no idea of where to go or what to do next.  We attended my in-laws’ church for a brief time on Sunday mornings, but we did not go anywhere else on Sunday evenings or Wednesday nights.  It felt strange to have my entire spiritual world upended, just like that.  I found, to my consternation, that pretty much my entire social life had revolved around church, and now I felt empty and alone.  I worried that we had made the wrong decision and prayed for answers and for peace.

This is when I made a heart-rending discovery.  I prayed, but I didn’t feel connected to God in any way.  I tried to keep reading my Bible, but God still felt distant and aloof.  Without all the rules and the busyness of my former life to masquerade as spirituality, I was left with an empty shell of a Christian life.  My personal relationship with Jesus Christ had suffered dramatically as a result of my focus on outward behavior.  I didn’t know how to fix it, how to draw close to God.  I knew the verse by heart – “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” (James 4:8)  I feared that maybe I wasn’t really saved, that maybe somehow it had all passed me by.  The Bible wasn’t speaking to me, and I was desperate to find out why.  Surely someone else had experienced this exact same dilemma as my own – that of growing up in a Christian home and then becoming disillusioned with it in their adulthood.  I hit the internet and searched for people with stories like mine.  It was difficult to find anything, and the ones I did find had heartbreaking endings of the author turning away from God.  I didn’t want to do that either.

By this time, we had found a new church that we attended once a week.  The pastor there preached through the Bible, verse by verse.  We started attending when he was in the book of James.  After every service, I would go home and search out the things he had said in my Bible, to see if in fact they really were true.  He said then (and has said it many times since, as it’s a favorite statement of his) “Stick to God’s Word.  It has all the answers to life, and it’s the best commentary on itself.”  It was as if the Holy Spirit had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You heard him!  Now get home and get in God’s Word.  He will do the rest.”

And so I began to search the scriptures.(John 5:39)  Through a lot of stilted, uncomfortable prayer and heartfelt journaling, I started to see who the God of the Bible really was.  I realized that I had always had this view of a big scary God who was never quite pleased with me, no matter what I did.  But my Bible revealed a God who is a loving Father, full of mercy and grace.(John 1:14)  He is also all-powerful, and we are admonished to fear Him. (Psalm 111:10)  Being God-fearing does not mean worrying about whether I am doing enough to please Him.  It does not mean ending each day in frustration and defeat because once again, I did not live up to what I thought I should.  No, being God-fearing means a reverence for God and the boundaries He sets in His Word, knowing that there will be consequences when those boundaries are crossed.  And yet, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)  Of course, I’m going to fail – I am a sinner that needs a Savior – but when I seek His forgiveness, he removes my sins “as far as the east is from the west.” (Psalm 103:12)

And when I began to see God in this whole new light, my prayers were not so awkward.  I looked forward to meeting with Him every day.  Bible reading was not a drudgery – some days I only read a verse or two, but God spoke in my heart through them just as much as the days I read chapters.  I realized that it was okay to question things, and I took my Bible and went right down my list.  Bible versions?  Proper music?  Dress?  How often to go to church?  As I prayed and studied, it was evident that a lot of these controversial areas were about personal conviction, not scriptural mandate.  The breath of freedom that this discovery brought me was exactly why I titled this series “My Journey to Freedom.”

The journey is far from over.  I still don’t know all the answers.  But now I am living in this new-found freedom, worshiping and following my Savior, rejoicing in the hope that He gives, not the fear of not enough.  I write this for that person who may be searching, just as I did, for someone with the same experience as their own.  If that’s you, run, run, run to receive His amazing grace and unfailing love.  Be encouraged that there are answers and that there is hope.  Most of all, know this: God will give healing to the good girl who just never could be good enough.

My Journey to Freedom: It’s Never Enough

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(For part one of my story, click here.  For part two of my story, click here.)

I memorized quite a lot of scripture growing up.  After the prerequisite “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” and ” Be ye kind one to another,” two verses that were early ingrained in my mind were Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves:  it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.”  It was explained to me that no matter how good I was and no matter how many good things I did, it would never be enough to save me.  I had to accept God’s grace and ask Jesus to save me, knowing that my best efforts here on earth could never measure up to a perfect God.  To a child’s uncluttered, innocent mind, this was wonderful news.  I gladly accepted Christ as my Savior and understood even then how unworthy I was of this precious gift.

After I was saved, I started hearing a lot about “fruit” of salvation.  This teaching explained that you would truly know if someone were saved or not by their fruits, or good works.  I quickly internalized that the more people saw me doing good things, the more they would think of me as a good Christian.  This was reinforced by the adults around me.  I heard things like “Well, you know, Susan only goes to church on Sunday morning so she probably wouldn’t be a good choice to teach Sunday school” or “I’m pretty sure he just keeps his Bible in the car so he won’t forget it for church.  I guess there’s not a whole lot of Bible-reading going on there.”  I still believed that salvation was a gift, but that works were also really, really important.  Maybe salvation didn’t necessarily depend on your works, but if you didn’t have a lot of good works to show for it afterwards, perhaps you weren’t really saved.

Take, for instance, reading your Bible.  I sang “Read your Bible, pray every day” with great fervor in Sunday school class.  I heard quotes like D.L. Moody’s “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”  It quickly became a matter of great anxiety for me.  What if I weren’t reading enough?  What if I missed a day?  It became all about the doing, all about the act.  I read my allotted verses or chapters each day, and that was it.  At college, I made sure that I did my Bible reading in a place where others could see me.  I didn’t want them thinking that I wasn’t spiritual.  Then, I heard a preacher talk about mature Christians.  He said that when it came to Bible reading, you should be reading more and more each year.  He mentioned that he himself was reading ten chapters a day and was hoping to increase that to twenty chapters a day soon.  I felt deflated after hearing that sermon.  Here I was, struggling to read even one chapter a day.  I had babies that were getting up several times during the night and a toddler that certainly wasn’t going to allow her mother to sit and read for even a few minutes unbothered.  I was trying to read through the entire Bible in one year.  If I missed a day, I felt defeated and frustrated and tried desperately to catch up.  It was a losing battle.  At three chapters a day, two days missed meant I was trying to cram nine chapters into one day.  There was no room for the Holy Spirit to speak to me through God’s Word.  I was simply trying to get the work done.

And let’s not forget church attendance!  From the day of my birth (literally!) I attended church for Sunday school, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any other special services that might be scheduled during the week.  We were always at church.  The Bible said “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is,” after all.  Pastors interpreted that as “you ought to be at church every time the doors are open.”  I heard my parents and others speak derisively and even condescendingly of those who only attended our church on Sunday mornings.  Worse yet were the folks that went to “that liberal church that only has one service a week.”  There was no good reason to miss church.  If you were sick, you had better be on your deathbed to miss church.  When I became an adult, I was afraid to miss a church service.  What would people think?  If I did not attend a service, almost certainly someone would bring it up at the next service.  In a question masked with “godly concern,” they would inquire “Were you sick?  We sure missed you last week!”  I wondered what they would say if I just blurted out, “Nope.  I didn’t feel like coming last Sunday night.  The Sunday morning service was great, and I just didn’t feel a need to be there again Sunday night.”  But I never had the courage or audacity to say it.

So, if you were reading your Bible faithfully and attending all the church services as much as you could, it would seem that you were a pretty decent Christian.  Sorry, but that was not enough.  Fellow Christians always wanted to know what else you were doing for Christ.  Were you singing lovely Christian songs in the service to bless and encourage others?  Were you serving in the nursery to help some poor, stressed-out mother hear God’s Word that day in church?  Were you witnessing and telling other folks about Jesus every week?  Were you teaching in children’s church, or Sunday school, or VBS, or preferably all three?  Were you tithing and giving at least ten percent of your income to the Lord’s work faithfully?  The Lord really wouldn’t be able to bless you if you weren’t, you know.

It was a truly exhausting way to live.  I did all of the above and still felt like I WAS NOT DOING ENOUGH.  The gospel for me (and a whole host of other Christians around me) had changed from “not by works, lest any man should boast” to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  It would take me a long time to realize that Christ did not suffer death on the cross just for me to continually worry about what I was doing for Him.  Breaking that mindset would be incredibly difficult.  Until then, the frustration and feelings of complete inadequacy while trying to appear to the rest of the world that I was “happy and busy for Christ” would continue to build until I just literally would not be able to take it anymore.

To be continued…

My Journey to Freedom: Thou Shalt Not Wear Pants

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(to read part one of my story, click here)

When I was fourteen years old, I managed to get a paper route to earn some extra money.  It was not uncommon for the neighbors to see my sister and I trudging through the snow each winter, clad in nice modest skirts (with pants underneath, of course) as we made our rounds.  At age sixteen, I secured a job at the local McDonald’s and was the only employee to wear a skirt for “religious reasons.”  I didn’t mind much.  I was used to it.  I knew the rhetoric – dresses and skirts were more modest, more feminine, and they clearly defined us as women, not men.  Still, when fellow employees or curious neighborhood kids asked, I usually answered that my parents made me wear them.  Grand theology there.

It did not change much when I attended college.  There, instead of “my parents make me wear them,” it became “the college makes me wear them.”  That wasn’t so difficult – I mean, all the girls were wearing skirts so I didn’t stand out or anything.  At the local Wal-Mart on any given Saturday, you could easily identify the college girls by the sea of khaki skirts roaming the store.  (Side note: To this day, I refuse to wear a khaki skirt).  I didn’t have a choice in this matter, unless I wanted to rack up some demerits quickly and get myself booted out of college.  The dress code rules were rigidly enforced, but I cannot recall one time when a dean or other authority ever sat us down and explained WHY we had to wear dresses or skirts to our knees all the time.  We did it because we didn’t want to get in trouble.

Not knowing why you do or don’t do something is not solid grounds for a good conviction.  As soon as I graduated college, I ditched the skirts and tried on jeans for the first time in my life.  After having had to wear skirts for so many years, it was strange indeed to put on these “man clothes” (so termed in many fundamentalist circles).  I quickly grew used to the comfort and functionality of pants.  Every so often, I would make the five-hour-drive to my parents’ house over the weekend, showing off my new-found independence in my wardrobe.  They were disappointed in me and made no secret of it.  It shook my confidence a little, but I continued to wear them.  Why?  Well, because I could, of course!

Then I fell in love with a man who could care less whether I wore pants or skirts and was rather confused as to why this would ever be an issue.  We married, and I continued to wear pants for most occasions.  When I got a job teaching at a Christian school, I found out that I would have to wear skirts and dresses for the job.  Not only that, but the school also expected its teachers to dress the same way when out and about so as to represent the school in the best possible manner.  This was no problem – I knew how to play this game.  I had done it my whole life.  I wore my modest knee-length skirts and dresses to school and to anywhere I thought I might run into someone from church.  I wore my pants everywhere else.  It was annoying to have to constantly think about it every day and plan my outfits accordingly.  One of my teaching responsibilities was to help out with “dress check” every day.  The high school girls had to pass by me, one by one, while I checked to be sure their outfits correctly matched the dress code laid out in the guide book. (remember that rule book?) I felt like such a hypocrite writing these girls up for extra ear piercings or skirts slightly too short or shirts slightly too tight.

I was blessed to find out I was pregnant after teaching there just a year.  Our first child surprised us by coming early and by being a girl!  We were flooded with beautiful dresses and adorable pants outfits for her, and I had a blast dressing her up every day.  Our second child arrived just fourteen months after his sister.  At that time, I had an opportunity to go visit my parents so that they would see their new grandchildren.  Chris couldn’t get out of work to go; so I went alone.  It was a great time of staying with my parents and making some memories.  My dad had left a book called Dressing for the Lord on my bed, to read “if I had some spare time.”  Honestly, I was very resentful at first, but curiosity got the better of me and I finished the book in one night.  I thought the Holy Spirit was convicting me through that book that I should once again abstain from wearing pants and instead embrace my femininity by wearing skirts and dresses only.  I tearfully called my husband and told him of my decision.  He was baffled by it but supported me if I felt that was what I really wanted to do.

And so the pendulum swung back.  I got rid of all my pants and filled my closet with long dresses and a collection of denim skirts.  I felt “right with God” after making this decision.  I started dressing my little eighteen-month-old daughter in skirts also and requested that family only buy her appropriate skirts and dresses.  My husband’s family didn’t understand, but I knew it was just because they hadn’t been convicted yet.  That was okay, I reassured myself, they would come to the light sooner or later.

Happily, I continued on in my skirts-wearing life.  If doubts ever whispered in my mind, I quickly pushed them away with the firm thought that this was a conviction from God.  When uncertainty presented itself in questions from new converts or neighbor friends, I rattled off the things I had learned in the book to reassure myself.

And I was happy.  I was happy because I thought I was better than a lot of other people.  It’s shocking even now for me to write that, but it was true.  I felt more spiritual and more pleasing to God in my skirts.  I turned my nose up at the ones who claimed to be Christians but still wore jeans.  I would never have admitted it then, but I rated people’s spirituality on how they dressed.  One day, while waiting to pick up my son from preschool, I chatted with another mom and told her about a fun event that was coming up at our church.  When I extended an invitation to her family to come, she fell silent.  “Oh, are you busy that day?” I asked her.  “No, it’s just that I feel so out of place there, you know, not dressed up or anything.”  I knew exactly what she meant.  She felt judged, looked-down-upon, because she chose to wear pants.  I hurried to tell her that that was not the case, that she could wear anything she wanted, but my words fell flat even on my own ears.  It suddenly hit me that was one of the people she felt judged by!  And, later, when the day settled down and I finally had time to organize and examine my thoughts, I saw it to be true.  My wearing skirts and dresses was not an act of obedience to the Holy Spirit; it was just a way for me to express to the world just how spiritual I thought I was.

Rocked by this realization, I dropped to my knees and begged my heavenly Father’s forgiveness.  Then I faced my dilemma.  What was right?  I had vacillated from skirts to pants and back to skirts again, swayed by the people around me instead of rooted in His Word.  I returned to the Bible and studied what it said regarding how to dress.  I was surprised to see that it didn’t say much on the issue.  The more I studied, the more I realized that it wasn’t an issue at all.  It was not an issue of skirts-versus-pants: it was an issue of the heart.  If my heart was filled with self-righteousness and pride, it didn’t matter what I was wearing on the outside.

I stopped worrying so much about what I was wearing.  I stopped judging others on what they were wearing.  This gave me the freedom to realize that I could be perfectly modest and feminine in pants and in skirts.  When the focus was moved from my CLOTHING to my HEART, it changed everything.

Well, almost everything.  We still went to the church where the majority of women wore skirts and dresses constantly.  If you served in any kind of ministry at the church, you were required to wear them.  Every Sunday, I agonized over what to wear.  Sunday mornings became a unpleasant time of trying to be sure my daughters’ clothes and my clothes were acceptable.  Were they modest enough?  Were they the right style?  At church, it was said that they welcomed everyone, even if they dressed differently.  Of course, as soon as someone accepted Christ as her Savior, church folks worked very hard to show her that changing the way she dressed was an “act of obedience to God.”  Those that refused and continued to wear pants became outsiders, excluded from the inner circle at church.  It was exhausting to try to keep up with it all.

We left that church last year.  Since then, we have found a new church home where the focus is on Christ, not on what you wear.  It took quite a bit of time for me to break the habit of taking a lot of time in choosing my outfit and getting ready for church.  Now, I get to focus on the beautiful worship music and the amazing truths from God’s Word, and I don’t think twice about what I am wearing or what anyone else is wearing, for that matter.

Come to think of it, this was just one of those many rules that bound me to a Pharisaical life of trying to please God.  Once I broke free, I had to focus on my heart.  Following a man-made rule on how to dress was a lot easier than facing the pride and self-righteousness in my heart.  Thank God for grace and mercy and for complete freedom in Him!

My Journey to Freedom: Following the Rules

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We sat in two uncomfortable folding chairs across from the pastor and the Christian school principal.  I glanced over at Chris, my hand gripping his nervously.  We had just been married a few weeks before, and I was there interviewing to be a teacher in the elementary school for the upcoming school year.   My anxiety stemmed from not knowing what to expect from these people I barely knew.  I was new to the state, new to the church, and new to my husband’s family.

I disliked not knowing what people expected of me.  I wanted it all laid out in black and white.  I wanted to know exactly what I could and could not do.  And here, waiting to hear their decision, I was not going to be comfortable until I was able to see the do’s and don’ts clearly.  The pastor cleared his throat.  “It certainly seems you are over-qualified for this job, but we would love to have you on staff this year.  We need a fifth-grade teacher, and you seem just the right match for the job.”  Chris high-fived me under the table to show me his excitement that I had finally found a teaching job.  I was excited, too, but I had so many questions.  Before I could find my voice to ask the first one, the principal slid a thick paper-back book across the table.  “Here’s the guide book for the staff,” he informed me.  “It’s got all the rules and regulations that teachers need to follow, at school and around town.  Remember that whatever you are doing or wearing in public reflects on the school now.”  I flinched a little at that but received the book gladly.  Aha!  Now I knew what was expected of me.  No more guessing, no more agonizing whether I was doing the “right thing” or not.  I just had to follow the book.

I was a rules girl through and through.  I believed in rules.  I liked the solid, steady boundaries that they set.  The rules helped me to be a better Christian.  I believed that with all my heart.  After all, didn’t God set down the most famous rules of all on Mount Sinai?  Surely, the Ten Commandments were enough evidence of the importance of rules and laws.

Not to mention, I was more than familiar with rules.  Lots of them.  I had attended a Christian school growing up where I had to dress a certain way, act a certain way, have friendships in a certain way, and basically live my life in that certain way, directed by my parents and the heavy-handed school.  I went from there to a fundamental Baptist college, where the rules just increased and became even more detailed.  Don’t go off campus with a member of the opposite sex.  Your skirts must come to the top of your knee, whether sitting, kneeling, or standing.  Don’t listen to music that isn’t approved by the institution.  Don’t talk or fellowship in church.  There were a whole lot of don’ts, but the do’s were just as prevalent.  Do Christian service every weekend – it makes you more spiritual.  Do read your Bible every morning – and make sure you’re sitting in a place where multiple people can see your act of holiness.  Do enforce the rules and turn in anyone who isn’t following the rules.  Do date – you want to marry a good Christian guy, after all!  Do attend every class, even if you’re sick.

At first, I handled the college thing like a pro.  I had done this rule thing my whole life – it was easy.  I just squelched the voice deep inside that was protesting the absurdity and legalism and followed that rule book to the letter.  Then, close to the end of my junior year, something happened that shook my sense of spiritual well-being and awakened feelings and thoughts that I had been pushing down all those years.  I got in trouble for possessing some illegal music (the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing).  The deans took action by kicking me out of my room and putting me in another room where some stellar, rule-abiding roommates could keep an eye on me for the last two weeks of the semester.  I was humiliated and angry – but not at the school.  No, I was angry with myself for slipping up, for not being committed to the rules one hundred percent.  My senior year consisted of me doggedly trying to obey the rules while completing an intense teaching internship and a heavy load of classes required before graduation.  I worried every day that I might mess up and ruin my chances of graduating.  College was no longer fun – I just wanted to get through that year in one piece.  The “real world” would be much easier and much better, I thought.

It wasn’t.  I secured a teaching job at a small Christian school on the East Coast.  I was in charge of an eighth grade class of fourteen boys and seven girls.  I felt liberated there because the women teachers could wear pants outside the classroom and because we sang some contemporary Christian music in church.  Those rules, though, reared their ugly head again and dominated my life.  I equated my spiritual life with how well I was following the rules.  There wasn’t any rule I could find about reading my Bible all the time; so that practice quickly fell by the wayside.  I told my students God loved them, and in the same breath, I chastised the ones who had failed to follow the many, many laws of the guide book.  I clearly remember one afternoon in junior high detention.  I was supervising four boys who were scrubbing the floors as penalty for a variety of offenses – not doing homework, talking back to the teacher, violating dress code, etc.  I overheard one of the boys mutter under his breath, “Where’s that grace you’re always talking about in Bible class?”  I quickly admonished him for speaking disrespectfully to a teacher, but inwardly my soul was cut to the core.  Where, indeed, was the grace?  It felt like we were setting ourselves up for dismal failure each time we increased the number and the intensity of the rules.

I was exhausted from trying to follow all the rules and from trying to keep up on the nuances of each of them.  I desperately longed for freedom from these rigid life guidelines, but I was afraid to leave their familiar, solid comfort.  That is why I sat there that day in the pastor’s office and once again embraced the solace of the law.  I didn’t know then that it would be eight long years bringing me to emotional and spiritual exhaustion before I would finally consider the grace of God and dare to leave the security of the rules.

To be continued…