Cleaning Up the Mess Within
Several weeks ago, I wrote about needing God to clean up the many messes I make (click here to read), and it seemed to strike a chord in many people from the responses I received through texts, emails, and even in passing.
It was refreshing, really, to know that I wasn’t alone and that other people struggle with making messes and needing God to clean them up as much as I do.
And it was telling. It was telling to the degree that although so many of us live such pretty, spotless lives from the outside looking in, we all feel so messy from the inside looking out.
We live in pretty neighborhoods and drive down pretty streets on our way to work or school. We shop from pretty grocery stores stocked full of pretty foods and sit down at pretty tables laden with pretty linens, pretty dishes, served to pretty people. We buy and wear pretty clothes and have ample margin and leisure time to do pretty things or take pretty vacations with our friends or family.
And I’m not saying that any of this is right or wrong – I’m just making an observation about the circumstances and surroundings of many of our lives on a daily basis.
So here’s my question: why, then, if things around me are always so pretty on the outside, do I not feel more pretty on the inside? Why, then, are there seasons that I wake up every morning keenly aware of the feelings of dread and disgrace from the full-blown messiness within that I know no amount of performance, perfection, or repentance can remedy? A messiness that comes from my responses, reactions, and attempts at managing and hustling through the events of my day, trying to keep them looking “pretty,” while feeling frayed, frazzled, and failing from the inside out?
I think it’s because no matter how hard we try to look “pretty” on the outside, we are keenly aware of the broken, tired, spent, messes we are on the inside, no matter how controlled our outside circumstances might be. Especially this time of year. The time of year that represents the holiday time of year. The time of year when “pretty” is supposed to edge out “messiness” on a perpetual basis and define every gift that you give, every event that you attend, every piece of clothing that you wear, and every card that you send.
About a week ago, on a day that I woke up with a heavy sense of dread and an awareness of my inability to maintain prettiness throughout the day ahead with all that was on my plate, I opened up my Bible to Psalm 119 and read this: “Take away the disgrace I dread, for Your laws are good. How I long for Your precepts! In Your righteousness, preserve my life” (Psalm 119:39-40).
And then I read this in the devotional book by Tim Keller entitled The Songs of Jesus: “Christians know that the old self struggles constantly with a sense of the disgrace it dreads (v. 39), a feeling we aren’t good enough. That is a true intuition! But your moral efforts won’t address it. Only in Christ is the disgrace removed and a whole new identity given (Romans 8:1; Hebrews 10:22). Every day is a battle – will you operate out of your old self or your new self?” (Timothy Keller, The Songs of Jesus, November 5th).
I cannot describe to you the relief I felt when I read both the psalmist’s admission and Keller’s words. It was a feeling of, “What?! You too?! You too struggle constantly with a sense of dread over the disgrace and failure you know you are on the inside? You mean, this is a human problem, and not a Susannah Baker problem?”
It was a feeling of knowing and deeply realizing I was not alone. My condition was not abnormal. And rather than pushing me into isolation, my sense of dread could push me into community, a community who is longing, just as I am, for dread to be erased and messiness to be cleaned up, no matter how frayed and fragile we feel.
I spent time peering further into the verses, looking for the remedy and the antidote to my disgrace, the medicine to heal my dread. And this is what I found: the Hebrew word for “laws” in verse 39 is mishpat, a word that actually means “justice” or “verdict.” So the literal reading of verse 39 is this: “Take away the disgrace I dread, for Your verdict is good.”
The medicinal power God’s Word applied to my heart that morning, and many mornings since then, is that no matter what I feel, no matter the disgrace I dread, God’s verdict over me is good.
Because according to my track record, I deserve disgrace. According to my long list of failures as a wife who is irritable, sharp-toned, and demanding, as a mom who never has enough patience, or empathy, and has to apologize daily for letting exacting perfection get in the way of presence and peace, as a daughter and sister who still slips into patterns of self-pity and wounded withdrawal, patterns of self-protection left over from junior high days, and as a friend who struggles with remaining present to everyday needs and concerns instead of numbing and proving myself through work, I deserve to feel dread. Dread of the verdict over me that has every right to be – FAILURE. Broken. Sinful. Not enough.
But, according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I get grace.
The verdict over me is grace. And because of that grace, I get healing for my wounds of fear and self-protection. Balm for my irritability and ungratefulness. Patience for my impatience. Second chances for my repeated stumblings. And restorative thankfulness and significance as the adopted daughter of God instead of the disgrace I dread.
How do I know this? It’s all wrapped up in the verdict of God found in the Word of God, a Word I have access to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is His Word that heals me and cleans up my messes on a morning-by-morning basis. It is His Word that lifts my face out of the failures I have made, out of the frayedness I feel, and reminds me it is God who gets to have the last say in making me whole, not my messes.
I can choose to listen to the dread. A dread I deserve and a disgrace that every human being shares right along with me. Or I can choose to listen to the Word of God that proclaims, every day, my healing, covers all of my wounds, and fixes all of my failures, making me and those around me better than new.
So the real question is not, “Why do I feel disgrace? So ugly on the inside when everything is pretty on the outside?” The real question is, “To what verdict am I going to listen? To which voice am I going to respond? The voice of dread? The feelings of inherent shame? Or the redefining, grace-giving, mercy delivering, failure-covering voice of God?”
So if you see me this week, at the pretty grocery store, or on a pretty street, or in conversation at a pretty table, let us remind one another: “No matter the mess you and I feel within, God’s verdict over us is grace, our mess ups are covered, and His Word testifies to His faithful, covenantal love no matter what we have done. Be at rest, O my soul.”