Joy is a Choice
I was born and raised in a Christian home, and for most of my life I’ve followed God similar to the way a four year old follows a grown-up in the grocery store.
I always keep Him in my sight for fear of going down the wrong aisle and becoming lost, but I dawdle, frequently distracted by the shiny boxes and sugary treats strategically placed within my grasp, and secretly curse Him for not allowing me to add these goodies to my cart.
Over the course of my 25 years, there have been times (like most of puberty, my freshman year of college, and the beginning of every new relationship with a boy) when I naively assume I’m wise enough to navigate the store myself. I hip-check God out of the way so I can steer my own cart. Of course those are also the times when the front wheel only seems capable of turning left, thereby limiting my trajectory to mere circles, and eventually I always lift up my arms in frustration and surrender and allow Him to resume His guiding position.
There have been times (like the end of my parents’ 32 year marriage, my year of teaching hell, or when Quinn left for New Zealand for the third time) when I cling tightly to His cart, terribly afraid of what might happen if I let go.
There have even been times when I gleefully hook my fingers around the back of the cart, rest my heels on the rim, close my eyes in perfect trust, and allow Him to take me for a joy-ride. These are, of course, the times when I feel closest to Him.
But there was a brief period of time in my life when I not only stopped following God; I actually began to run from Him.
It began innocently enough. Classic romantic comedy plot: boy meets girl, girl has other boyfriend so boy and girl decide to be best friends, girl gets her heart broken by other boyfriend, boy best friend sweeps in to save the day and casually professes his undying love for girl, girl falls in love with the idea of falling in love with her best friend, and ignores every single Youth Group message warning against the dangers of dating non-Christian boys.
Not that he was a bad boy by any means, but his values were different. I resisted said “different values” for several months, and he respectfully accepted my beliefs. Until one night in February. We were at the beach celebrating his birthday, a trip I had planned for weeks. I wanted so desperately for everything to be perfect.
I can see now how Satan used that to his advantage.
In hindsight, the look of disappointment I got when I whispered “no” was probably not any different from any other disappointing look I’ve received throughout my between-the-sheets life.
What can I say? I played with fire.
But this night, disappointment was the opposite of perfection. I was a failure. Never in my life have I felt the presence of the Devil so profoundly. He deafened my ears to all love, logic, and reason; caused my skin to crawl with self-hatred; and actually convinced me that I had just been fooling myself all along believing that I might have anything special to offer anyone.
Who was I kidding holding out on this boy until marriage? What difference would that make? Obviously we would be together forever anyways, why wait?
So, we didn’t.
I half expected the voices to be silenced by my surrender, but they only grew louder. I was so ashamed, I told no one at first. I felt convicted every day. I began having bizarre dreams. One night I dreamt I found a marble cross. I desperately needed to display the cross for everyone to see, so I tried to bring it to my rooftop. But it was too heavy for me to carry and no one was around to help me lift it.
The next day in church I was so distracted by my conviction, I had to move. I walked to the back of the room and past a table I had never noticed before. Resting on that table was a cross covered in red sharpie signatures, so many signatures it almost looked marbleized. It was THE CROSS from my dream. Located on the center of the table was a small piece of paper describing the table, the cross, and the Message. Curious, I began skimming. And then I read the words: “You are not here by coincidence. You were drawn here by your Savior.”
The signatures on that cross are all from other people who had been drawn there before me. They were so overcome by Jesus’ loving sacrifice they signed their lives in surrender, symbolizing their death to sin and new life in Him.
But I couldn’t sign that day, the voices were still too loud. In fact, I battled those voices for several years. Slowly at first, and eventually bolstered by the inevitable demise of my relationship with that “boy,” I finally found my own voice and an ounce of courage, and confessed my sin to my dearest friends. They all rushed in with many of the same words of love, acceptance, and comfort that I’m sure I would have given anyone in my same position.
Of course Jesus’ love for me extends beyond my sin. Of course He forgives me. There is nothing I could do that could ever separate me from His love. I only need to surrender to His will and allow Him to silence the voices, and I can be freed from these chains of shame.
The thing is, though, those words are enough… unless you’ve done something so horrible you feel completely undeserving of grace. Spiritual warfare is a very real, dark, and terrifying thing. I was so haunted by the voices of self doubt for so long; I truly believed I would never again walk with Christ. I went to church. I led Bible studies. I prayed for others. I went through all the motions of faith. And I would catch snippets of my old self here and there, but still I ran.
I’m not sure exactly what did me in, but eventually I grew tired of running. Through a rather fortunate accident, I acquired my pastor’s phone number and called for help. He connected me with a wonderful Christian mentor who knew nothing of my past or present life. She patiently listened as tears slid down my cheeks faster than the words of my story left my mouth. And then she said the most tremendous thing: “Natalie, Jesus has already forgiven you, and you know that. What you need to do is learn to forgive yourself.”
Then, she made me pray that Christ would help me forgive myself. And she made me do it outloud. There was no escaping this one. And then she prayed that God would give me a word. One word to cling to as I surrendered this shackle I had used to bind myself for so long.
And so, that is how I came to realize that Satan’s greatest weapon in pulling us from the loving arms of our Father is ourselves.
I learned that knowing and believing are two very different things.
And I experienced, for the first time, the all-consuming JOY that Jesus offers in exchange for our sins, if we only just surrender to Him.
Since that day, I have been singing sweet songs of redemption. I am involved in the most Divine Romance with my Savior. He is transforming my knowledge of Him into action for Him and reminding me daily that through Him, 1 Thessalonians 5:16 is possible and I can “be joyful always.”
None of this is to say I’m a saint, I’ve never sinned since, and I blindly and obediently accept everything He throws my way. No, I still fight Him sometimes for control of my shopping cart. But before I leave the store, I’m not ashamed to allow Him to review the contents of my basket and tenderly remove those items He knows are not heart healthy or conducive to the kind of Joy Ride we both desire.