Last week I offered to pray for people every day for the next 30 days, and asked you all to send in your requests. So many of you took me up on the offer, and I feel so privileged! As I read through dozens of notes, one theme became very clear: a lot of you are struggling to accept, love and be kind to yourselves. Many of you feel worthless, unlovable, unloved, ugly or less-than.
This weekend I spent a lot of time fasting and praying, asking God about the lies that keep us trapped in false, negative identities— and the truth of who God says we are.
As I prayed and listened, five words came to me. Five things that God says we are as his daughters and sons: KNOWN, LOVED, WANTED, PRECIOUS and FREE.
In the next few posts, I want to explore what these words mean for each of us, and how we can live into them to become healed, joyful and whole.
But before I get into that, let me just tell you that I have been where many of you are. So from one sister to another, please know that I deeply understand and empathize with the struggle.
I had a hard time accepting my weepy self and scarred body after I finished cancer treatments.
I moved from Connecticut to Portland and started working in an E.R. there. I didn’t want anyone to know I’d had cancer, because I didn’t want to deal with their questions and sideways glances, and I didn’t want anyone to treat me differently.
I wore a wig to work to hide my bald head, and I wore large (or even extra large) long-sleeved t-shirts with my scrubs to hide my chest, because I was so self-conscious of my body after my mastectomy. I had to wait a year to have reconstruction done on the right side of my chest, so in the meantime I wore an ugly mastectomy bra and stuffed the right cup with a sock because the silicone prosthetic was heavy and uncomfortable. My chest looked normal under my clothes, but I hated it, and I wanted to hide.
On my days off, I wore the large t-shirts with baggy jeans. I decided that the less people saw of me, the better.
During my first week working in the ER, I met a nurse named Stephanie. She was funny and energetic and kind. After working several shifts together, we started hanging out. One day we were having lunch together when she said, “You know I love you, right?”
Uh-oh, I thought. Because when someone starts a sentence with, “You know I love you, right?” there’s usually a “but” coming. And sure enough, there was.
“You know I love you, right?” she said.
“But your clothes are terrible,” she said.
“What’s wrong with them?” I asked.
“Sweetheart,” she said. “You are tiny, and your clothes are huge. You look like you’re wearing a tent. I’m going to take you clothes shopping.”
“Okay,” I said, in spite of my anxiety. We came up with a simple agreement: I had to try on everything she picked out for me (but I didn’t have to buy it if I really didn’t like it.)
The following Saturday, she picked me up and we went to Ross. She spent half an hour picking out an armload of shirts and pants and dresses, and then we went to the dressing rooms.
She sat on a bench outside my door while I tried on the clothes.
After fifteen minutes, she asked, “How’s it going?”
“I don’t like anything so far,” I said.
Ten minutes later, she asked again. “How’s it going?”
“I don’t like anything,” I said.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I just don’t feel comfortable in anything,” I said. I didn’t dislike how the clothes looked as much as I disliked how they made me feel. These clothes were actually my size, so there was no extra fabric to hide behind — or drown in.
“Okay!” she said finally, in exasperation. “I’m coming in!” And with that, she barged into my dressing room.
I was trying to take off the pair of skinny jeans and the purple long-sleeved shirt with a scoop neck she’d picked out for me. The shirt felt too low-cut — not because you could see cleavage but because you could see the port scar under my left collar bone. When she came into the dressing room, I instinctively covered the 3-inch horizontal scar with my hand.
“Stop,” she said.
I dropped my hand down and looked at her.
“Sarah, it’s time for an intervention,” she said. “Turn around.”
She took me by the shoulders, and turned me to face the mirror. Immediately, I looked down at my feet.
“Look at yourself,” she said, putting her fingers under my chin until I was making eye contact with myself in the mirror.
I immediately started to cry. My crewcut-short hair, the dark circles under my eyes, the port scar under my collar bone, the outline of my fake breasts under my shirt….I despised seeing all of it. I wanted to hide again, to crawl back under the security and ambiguity of my extra-large clothes. I wanted to disappear.
“Look. At. Yourself,” she said firmly, coming behind me and putting her hands on my cheeks so I couldn’t look away from my reflection.
“Look at yourself. You are a beautiful girl. Why do you hide under clothes that are way too big for you?”
“I hate my body,” I said, openly weeping.
“Why?” she asked gently, still not allowing me to look away.
“Because it reminds me,” I said.
“Of everything,” I said.
My reflection reminded me of how much I hated my body, which had betrayed me. How much I hated my chest. How much I hated that I had almost died. How much I hated that my boyfriend Ian had left me. How much I hated that I’d had to drop out of journalism school.
I felt lost at the thought of starting over. I was discouraged that I was going to have to be on anti-cancer medicines for at least the next decade. I was angry that my cancer treatments had left me infertile. I was terrified that my cancer would come back. I hated that I was still so fragile, and so desperate to remain invisible.
I turned away from the mirror and sank onto the floor. Stephanie knelt next to me and rested her hand on my shoulder while I wept all the pain, memories, anger and fear into the sleeve of my unpaid-for, long-sleeved, scoop-necked shirt.
“Well,” she said, pointing to my tear-and-snot-soaked shirt sleeve as she helped me off the floor fifteen minutes later. “I guess we’re buying this one.”
Grace is a lot like my friend Stephanie.
Grace barges into the dressing room where we’ve locked ourselves away in hurt and fear and shame. Grace finds us in our secret hiding places — under the addictions and the distractions and the lies we’ve believed for so long, they feel truer than the truth. Grace gently cradles our face, lifts our gaze, brings us before the mirror of Divine Love and says, “Look at yourself!” Not the way we often say that phrase to each other — to evoke shame — but to make us reconcile the distorted views we hold with what God says is true about us.
When we look into the mirror of grace, we find that we are more known by God than we even know ourselves, more loved by Love than we could ever dare to be, more wanted by our heavenly Parent than we could ever imagine, more precious to our Creator than we could ever understand — and more free than we, when left to ourselves, could ever dream of being.
So, my friend. You, there in the dressing room, crying over jeans because you’ve gone up four sizes since last year.
You there, trying to stay busy with emails and TV shows and online shopping and Candy Crush so the memories don’t catch up with you.
You there, creeping towards the pantry in the dark to binge the ache away.
You there, with empty arms, crying on the bathroom floor over a pregnancy test that tells you “no” for the millionth time.
You there, in your dorm room on a lonely Friday night, fighting the urge to cut those beautiful, scarred arms of yours.
You there, drinking your “water” glass of vodka because it’s the only thing strong enough to numb your pain.
You there, too stunned to breathe because your husband just told you you’re not the only woman in his life.
You there, buried under a mountain of debt that will take you a lifetime to pay off.
You there, with a chronic disease that slowly consumes your body and your dreams.
You. Yes, YOU — beautiful, beloved child of God.
You are known. You are loved. You are wanted. You are precious. And, when you come to accept the image of yourself reflected accurately in the mirror of Divine Love, you — yes, you — are going to be free.