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This is not the life I imagined

14 February 2020

Facing our failures can be liberating, finds Sheila Walsh

Marc Romanelli/Blend Images/Superstock

IT STARTED with a photograph. I was cleaning out drawers the other day, and found an old photograph under a roll of Christmas paper. I sat down on the sofa and studied the picture. I’m in a white dress and a graduation gown, 21 years old, graduating from seminary. My hair is short and dark. It had taken about three years to recover from my experiment with a perm that left me looking as if a pack of dogs had assumed my hair was lunch. In the photograph I’m smiling, confident, ready to take on the world for Jesus.

My heart aches. There’s so much I’d like to tell her. If I only had ten minutes, I’d cut to the chase. I’d tell her that this will not be the life she imagined. I’d tell her that she will disappoint people, and they will disappoint her, but she’ll learn from it. I’d let her know that she’ll fall down, over and over again, but, rather than understand the love of God less, she’ll get it more. I’d let her know her heart is going to break, but she’ll survive, and it will change how she sees people — not as causes to be saved, but as people to be loved. I’d let her know that sometimes the night will get very dark, but she will never be alone, even when she’s absolutely convinced she is. I’d let her know that she’s loved.

I’d tell her to get rid of her punishing list of things that she thinks she needs to get right. I lived so much of my life with a list of things to change, to do better at — if not on paper, then in my mind. I think most of us do, and the message is always We Can Do Better. We’ll not only join the gym, we’ll go! This new diet plan will work, and by summer we’ll be bikini-ready. (Note to self: don’t you dare buy a bikini. Even if you’re thinner, things are not where they used to be; and no one but your loving husband needs to know that.)

We’ll start that read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan again. (Last year, I got to 7 May and got distracted; by the time I realised it, I was a whole Leviticus, 53 Psalms, and Romans behind.) We’ll recover from the overspending and be financially responsible. We’ll cook wholesome nutritious meals for our family, and sit down at least five nights a week together at the table. We’ll reduce our television watching and read more books.

Sometimes, the messages carry much more weight. This marriage will work. We will get out of debt. Our children will come back to Christ. We’ll eat better to save our lives, not our waistlines. I don’t know what your internal list looks like, but, if it’s anything like mine, it usually serves to let us know where we’ve failed. Lists are written when the kids are asleep, or you’ve had a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee. The trouble is, the kids wake up, and that impossible woman you work with gets louder and more obnoxious by the minute, and no amount of coffee is going to help.

And what about our spiritual lives? That can be the most judgmental list of all. When we assume that God’s love is based on our behaviour, we’ve set ourselves up for a devastating fall. I’ll pray more. I’ll share my faith at work. I’ll read my Bible from Genesis to the maps in the back of the book.


IT’S Okay Not to Be Okay might sound a bit like a bumper sticker to you, but not to me: these words were fought for. They could sound like the waving of a white flag — six lead words of surrender — but for me they are words of victory. I’ve let go of beating myself up, trying to live a life that Jesus never asked me to live. The life my fresh-out-of-seminary, determined-to-save-the-world, to-love-the-unlovely, get-nine-hours-of-sleep-a-night, and never-let-God-down self tried to live for so long.

I don’t know where you’re at in life as you read this, but, if I could sit down with you for a little while, first of all I’d say, “Take a deep breath in and hold it for five seconds, then let it out. Again. Again.” Then I’d tell you that it really is okay not to be okay. That’s why Jesus came.

I gave my life to Him when I was 11 years old. As I write, I’m 61. That’s 50 years of falling down and getting back up. Fifty years of trying to be worth loving. Fifty years of doing the same things over and over, hoping they’d turn out differently this time. (Yes, I do know that’s the definition of insanity.) Here’s the great news. It’s also 50 years of the faithfulness of God and this beautiful invitation from Christ: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11.28-30; The Message).

What a lovely place to start, side by side with Jesus, learning to live freely and lightly. I read an old Chinese proverb that said, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” I like that. Those are hope-filled words. They say we get to start again, and again, and again. No matter what’s true in your life at this moment, I want to remind you that God loves you, right now, no matter what’s going on around or inside you.

These words may fall flat for you right now if you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, a difficult season. Perhaps you’re facing the end of a marriage, and you either feel like a failure or that you’ve been betrayed and abandoned. You may be facing an empty nest and have no idea what your life should revolve around now. Perhaps you have lost a loved one, and the very idea of moving forward not only seems impossible, it feels wrong.

You may think: I’ve done this before. I’ve tried to start again, and it didn’t work. Or, perhaps, if you’re honest, you are just too tired to try. I understand that. I’ve been there. Can I simply say, gently, you were made for more. You are worth fighting for. Christ thought you were worth dying for. Would you be willing to open your heart to the possibility of moving forward, one day at a time? Life rarely offers quick fixes; it’s a process, and God is in it with us, all the way. He doesn’t look for perfection in us. He sees that in Christ. You don’t need to be okay, because Jesus has made you. He’s paid the bill in full. He’s covered our “not okay-ness”.

Okay doesn’t live here, but a loving Saviour does. All he looks for in us is a willingness to take the next step. We can do that together with Him.


Adapted from It’s Okay Not to Be Okay by Sheila Walsh, © 2019, published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10).


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