I sat with my Bible open on my lap, my heart feeling cold and numb. I saw my notes in the margins and remembered the peace and relief those same sentences had brought only the summer before when I faced a move away from the man I loved. In a season where my heart was filled with grief and fighting to hope, those verse spoke life and hope into my heart. But now, in this season of pain and disappointment, those same Scriptures felt hard to grab hold of. They felt slippery in my fingers and unfamiliar as I tried to plant them in my heart, the way I had before. I felt awkward and clumsy, feeling as though I had forgotten how to ride my bike, and feeling ashamed that I hadn’t realized that I was forgetting until it was too late.
Sometimes days are dark and it feels hard to find what used to feel good and familiar and true. How is that sometimes, on those dark days, those underlined verses that saw me through tearful days of longing, just feel like words that stay in my head, never making their way to my heart? I have whole sections of Streams in the Desert that I’ve highlighted and prayed over, margins filled with my tears and heartfelt prayers. Those same words feel almost meaningless on a day where grief threatens to swallow me up, overwhelming my heart. How can it be that those words that spoke life into my brokenness in days past, now feel like they are medicine for a different ailment?
It is so frustrating when my heart already feels so empty and my prayers feel like they are going nowhere. I put in the time to read my Bible and they just feel like words that float around my head, never sinking in. Like oil floating on the surface of water, I can’t make them mix them into the soil of my dry and weary heart.
I think I’ve experienced a fair amount of shame for not being able to receive truth on dark days. I think back to sermons about the power of Scripture and wonder why Scripture doesn’t feel like it’s working for me today. Do I need to pray more? Have more faith? What’s missing? How can I make those words of powerful truth reach the dark corners of my heart?
I don’t want to just go through the motions of those “right” things to do. Even if others are fooled, I am not. I know when I sit with my Bible open and it doesn’t feel like it helps. I don’t just want to look “okay” to someone who glances at me. I want my heart to be well. The other day I asked people to pray for me on a dark day. On a previous dark day, as those texts and encouragements came bouncing back on my phone screen, I had felt brave and strong and cared for. But this day, they felt hard to receive and I almost felt indifferent to the words I was reading.
There were a few weeks, not long ago, when my heart was weary and tired. Jesus felt far away and I didn’t know how to connect with him in ways that were familiar. I’d get advice from well-intentioned friends, and I could feel my heart pulling away from the things they were saying. I didn’t know how to stop it. I would pray, but it felt hard to believe that Jesus was on my team.
It just so happened that in those dark days, one of the few things I did hear from the Lord was to reread Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist. Shauna has a way of sharing her heart and telling stories that I connect with easily. As I slowly worked my way through the familiar book, her words reminded me of truth in a way I couldn’t hear from most other places. I could hear how she continued to let her “home team” into the pain of her miscarriage and disappointment and fear. I could hear how the Lord can be found in both the bitter and the sweet. I could hear that “doing everything better” was a myth and I needed to give myself the grace to be as fragile as I felt. I could hear that “grace is new math.” Holding myself and others to ridiculous standards never gets the results I want. Grace changes the equation, making a whole new kind of math problem, one where I can make mistakes and fail and still be loved.
I am not suggesting that we never read Scripture or that we avoid prayer or spiritual disciplines because they are hard. I honestly have done that out of laziness in some seasons, by reading Christian books that felt easier instead of doing the work to read my Bible. I don’t advocate for that in the slightest. I am merely suggesting that perhaps, on dark days, we offer ourselves the grace to receive truth wherever we find it.
Instead of saying it only can come from certain places, we allow ourselves to grab the lifeline offered to us through the words of a friend, reminding us that we are brave. We hold onto the words of an author who reminds us that we aren’t alone and that there is a way out of the cave we find ourselves in. Instead of holding ourselves to the standard we could meet when we were healthier or there was less darkness, we offer ourselves grace for the dark days we find ourselves in. If we see something, anything, that points us back to Jesus, we hold fast to that truth until our hearts are well.
I love these words that C.S. Lewis wrote to a concerned mother, in response to her worry that her son Laurence loved Aslan more than Jesus.
Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. If I were Laurence I’d just say in my prayers something like this: “Dear God, if the things I’ve been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don’t like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. . . . And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.” (quotes from C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children, pp. 52-53)
I love the heart behind this letter. It seems to offer more room than I think we are accustomed to, in finding the beauty of grace. In her first few weeks of married life, a dear friend confessed how hard it was to read the Bible and feel it helping her spirit. She said in a dark moment, she might not be able to hear a verse and feel it’s power, but she could hear things I had told her, come back to her heart. “Be kind to yourself.” “You are only responsible for you.” “You are brave.” I’m convinced it was Jesus who reminded her heart of those truths. While I may have been the person to say them, they only get to be helpful because of who is working behind the scenes to care for his children.
I think back to these words that my best friend emailed me, when I was in the midst of a difficult choice. “Alison, you will most certainly will be loved regardless of your decision. God knows what he is doing, even if he leaves us wanting sometimes, and even if we do not feel like it. I know you already know that, but sometimes the voice of a brother or sister is far better than the voice in our head.” I’m so grateful that Jesus provides voices of brothers or sisters to be louder and remind us that we are loved. I don’t think there is any shame in receiving that.
I think Jesus is creative and kind. I also don’t think he works the same ways in every season.
Depending on the day, I’ve found grace in books written by other people who follow Jesus.
I’ve found grace in books written by people who don’t know Jesus, but reflect his truth in the story they tell.
I’ve found grace in a sunset and warm chocolate chip banana bread.
I’ve found grace in a conversation with a friend through a “you too?” moment.
I’ve found grace in a song on the radio.
I’ve found grace in the open-mouthed faces my one-year-old makes, when Jesus whispers to my heart that this was to remind me how loved I am.
I’ve found grace in a field of tulips and hand holding.
I’ve found grace in my tears being wiped away and taking a nap.
I’ve found grace in sermons and prayers.
I’ve found grace in swimming pools and ripe peaches.
I’ve found grace in children’s books and books on spiritual growth.
I’ve found grace in a candle being lit at the dinner table and fresh, warm cookies.
I’ve found grace in soft baby skin and a thunderstorm.
I’ve found grace in coloring books and cookbooks.
I’ve found grace in a hug and a latte.
Sometimes I’m the one showing grace and sometimes I’m the one receiving it. I think Jesus likes to surprise us and meet us in whatever bitter or sweet moment we find ourselves in. He isn’t limited to only speaking through Scripture or a hymn. He has all resources at his disposal and I think he likes to use them on his children, the way a good dad likes to surprise his kids with ice cream after a swim.
These days, I’m trying to look for grace wherever I can find it. Instead of shaming myself for how fragile I feel and how hard it is to believe what is true, I’m working to open my hands, hoping and trusting that the Lord will drop some grace in. It doesn’t always look the way I want it to. In fact, it rarely does. My friend doesn’t pick up her phone when I call, but Jesus sends a baby to smile at me and snuggle me. I don’t have the energy to make myself work out, but Jesus gives me coffee and a book and the grace to believe that I can try again tomorrow. I have a dinner-making crisis and the world seems to fall apart, but Jesus sends my husband to hold me and let me cry. Grace is there. Jesus is on my team, even when it feels hard to believe on a dark day, in a dark season. And he sends grace to his kids in all kinds of ways, conventional and unconventional alike.
Let’s open our hands to his grace.