In a recent Bible study at church on the life of Abraham, particularly his near sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac, we were given the assignment to “make a list of five to ten things that mean a great deal to you, and offer them to God one by one.”
My list included some material items that would be difficult for me to part with, and it included some people I would hate to lose from my life. But I also included intangible items such as my image and reputation (what people think of me), and my ambition (wanting to finish my career well and to publish a book), contentment within my marriage, my agenda and my plans (particularly my rigidity over my agenda and my plans), and my health (the ability to do the things I enjoy). I included these items in my list and wondered what it might be like if I would have to give them up.
Wow! Since that assignment many of those items have been seriously challenged.
With such challenges, comes a good opportunity for me to discover whether I trust in God on the basis of things being pleasant for me or whether I trust in God because He is still worth clinging to even when everything else seems to fall apart.
One of the things stirring up the struggles I am presently facing are faults and failures and character flaws from my past that come back to bite me.
Because of the death of my mother and a dear friend this summer, a young woman in our church gave me a copy of Jerry Sittser’s book about grief, A Grace Disguised. I find hope in some things he shares in this book. He writes:
“Regret is inescapable in a world of imperfection, failure, and loss. But can there also be redemption? Can a life gone wrong because of loss be made right again, however irreversible the loss itself? Can people with regrets be set free and transformed? I believe that there can be redemption, but only under one significant condition: People with regrets can be redeemed, but they cannot reverse the loss that gave rise to the regrets. People can be changed by the unchangeable losses they experience. Thus, for redemption to occur, they must let go of the loss itself and embrace the good effects that the loss can have on their lives. They must somehow transcend what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead, directing their energies toward changes they can make now. In other words, they must seek personal transformation, which comes only through grace….
“If I want transformation, I must let go of my regrets over what could have been and pursue what can be….
“Many people are destroyed by loss because, learning what they could have been but failed to be, they choose to wallow in guilt and regret, to become bitter in spirit, or to fall into despair. While nothing they can do will reverse the loss, it is not true that there is nothing they can do to change. The difference between despair and hope, bitterness and forgiveness, hatred and love, and stagnation and vitality lies in the decisions we make about what to do in the face of regrets over an unchangeable and painful past. We cannot change the situation, but we can allow the situation to change us. We exacerbate our suffering needlessly when we allow one loss to lead to another. That causes gradual destruction of the soul.
“This destruction of the soul represents the tragedy of what I call the ‘second death,’ and it can be a worse tragedy than the first. The death that comes through loss of spouse, children, parents, health, job, marriage childhood, or any other kind of death there is. Worse still is the death of the spirit, the death that comes through guilt, regret, bitterness, hatred, immorality, and despair. The first kind of death happens to us; the second kind of death happens in us. It is a death we bring upon ourselves if we refuse to be transformed by the first death.” (p. 98-100)
I find in myself the inclination to become discouraged and to feel defeated and to slide into a shell or a hole. But Sittser’s words challenge me and encourage me to grieve the losses I experience due to the faults and failures of my past but not to cling to my regrets. His words encourage me to cling to God’s grace instead and to look for how God may transform me through it all—even if it involves more loss for me in the present or future.
I was thinking recently about how much I get held back from becoming all that God would have me to be and from all that I would like to become. I got to thinking about the insecurities that get in my way, and the fears that cripple me, and certain habits that drag me down.
As I thought about it, I realized how I tend to react to life often with the mindset of a trained elephant. I once read about a circus elephant that had a rope tied around one of its legs, but the rope was not attached to anything. Someone asked the elephant handler why the elephant did not run away since the rope was not tied to anything except the elephant’s leg. The handler explained that while the elephant was growing up, the rope was attached to a spike in the ground, and the elephant would try with all of its strength to pull against the spike but could not gain its freedom. After a while the elephant got used to the containment of the rope and stopped trying to get away. After that, the handler was able to remove the rope from the spike. It was enough just to have the rope tied around the leg of the elephant.
I realized that in growing up I experienced something like the elephant. There were some things that tied me down or that shrunk my world. In certain ways I felt belittled, put down, and/or shamed. Certain things caused me to feel that I would never amount to very much, or that people were not interested in me, or that I was simply in the way, or that it was better for people when I was not around. Each time I experienced those things, it was like the rope on the chain got yanked. Whenever that happened, I would say to myself, “Whoops, I can’t go very far in that direction. That’s as much as I can make of myself in that regard.”
I am beginning to realize that what often holds me back from becoming all that I can be and experiencing life more fully is the mindset of a chained elephant.
To put it differently, what often holds me back from becoming all that I can be and from experiencing life more fully is a lingering sense of shame.
In an article on “Shame,” Jan Luckingham Fable points out, “Excessive shame is a prison. It keeps a person caged in feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, and even despair.”
Some of the other things she says about shame that I can identify with deeply are these:
“Shamed people fear that if others really knew them, they’d be disgusted or hate them. People who have been shamed also dread being caught in a mistake or any kind.”
“The basic nature of chronic, or excessive, shame is that the shamed person believes, at some level, that she—or he—should not exist, that she is a worthless, defective and empty human being.”
“Paralysis—the ability to do or say anything—is a result of excessive shame and also intensifies it. Another result is diminished energy: shame leaves us feeling smaller, weaker, and less potent. Shamed people build defenses to protect themselves from feeling completely overwhelmed all the time. One defense is escape, a pattern of seeking out private secure places where one can be alone and unseen. Withdrawal is another defense which includes actually running away as well as emotional withdrawal by developing elaborate masks—like smiling, always pleasing others, trying to appear self-confident and comfortable—that cover the real self. The shamed person sometimes thinks there will be nothing to feel ashamed about if he never makes a mistake, and so defends against shame by becoming a perfectionist who can’t allow himself to fall short in anything.”
I don’t want to remain held back by shame or by the mindset of a chained elephant. So what does it take to move away from such a mindset? Jan Fable comments, “Healing the shame requires patience and the courage to uncover and explore those shaming events which created that core concept. It’s also necessary to identify the defenses you have put in place in order to avoid shame…. Healing from shame involves dealing with the wounds of childhood, grief work, giving voice to one’s inner child, and, in Bradshaw’s words, ‘the integration of your disowned parts’…. Finally, the most important thing you can do is to choose to love yourself.”
I would add that the most important thing I can do is to keep taking to heart God’s love, claiming it for myself, and sharing it with others.