Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Pursuing God: Reflections After a Car Accident

Seven weeks and one day ago, I was in a serious car accident. God was good and protected me, but it was such an eye-opening experience. Being laid up for weeks and stripped of all the things that give me identity (my job, running, crafting, writing, parenting), I was forced to truly examine myself.

And it wasn’t pretty. I realized that my justifications for avoiding an intimate relationship with God (I’m too busy, I’m too tired, at least I’m serving Him through work and church) were just that. Justifications. Because when I was finally home and had nothing to do, I still only devoted a tiny portion of time to Him. I filled my time with Candy Crush, endless episodes of Top Chef, book after book, far too much Facebook, but rarely did I seek Him.

A wonderful woman texted me and talked about using the time I was at home to draw closer to Him. Her words of encouragement were so beautiful, but I still found myself reaching for anything but the Bible. 

I’ve learned that although I’m often the “pursuer” in relationships - the one that calls, texts, and makes plans with others - I rarely pursue God. For someone that spends a significant amount of time pursuing relationships with those around me, spiritually, I often sit back passively, reading a few Bible verses here and there, and hoping that God will continue to pursue me.

Now the amazing news is that God’s love for us is unconditional, it doesn’t depend on how awesome and fully involved we are. Even when we struggle, He still offers us wisdom when we ask for it (James 1:5), a peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7), comfort in times of stress (Psalm 94:19). However, I cringe when I think about how easily I take His unconditional love for granted.

I am always incredibly convicted by Matthew 22:34-40:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Over the past few weeks, I've had to ask myself: am I really loving God with all of my heart, soul and mind? Stripped of distractions - music, noise, busyness, talking, pride – it became obvious how much I fill my heart, soul, and mind with things other than God to avoid silence. Because ultimately, when I am silent, it is easier to hear the discontentment and self-doubt that often fill my soul, and the guilt that I’m not a “good enough” Christian/wife/mother/social worker. So I fill the silence with noise to drown out those thoughts. The downside is that I also inadvertently drown out His voice too. The distractions I pursue leave little time or room in my life to feel His presence. 

I've concluded that I don’t want to live a life where I expect Him to always follow up on His promises, but avoid time with Him and pray half-heartedly here and there.

Instead, I want to offer Him the firstfruits of my time, not a quick prayer at the end of the day where I fall asleep before I say Amen.

I want to pursue God not because I feel obligated to, but because I want to.

I am not naturally a disciplined person, and I don’t want to boil this down to “simply read the Bible more” or do a regimented one-hour quiet time in the morning because then it can quickly slip into obligation (which breeds resentment or guilt if I am unable to follow through).

I want to live a life where God is the first one I turn to when upset, when happy, when content. When I open the Bible to hear His voice, not just because it’s been a while or I feel like I “should.”

A life where I pray, not because there is nothing else to do, but because I want to spend time with my Father.

A life where I have a vibrant relationship with the Creator of the Universe who loved me so much that He “showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8, NLT).

A life rejoicing “in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God” (Romans 5:11, NLT).

The best part? It starts with a single baby step. To open my Bible before I check Facebook. To pause and pray this afternoon in the middle of my work day instead of waiting until late tonight when I’m exhausted. To examine my heart and write this post that may not be that “flattering” to myself, but is honest and authentic. 

For me, change isn’t about starting with a huge list of “shoulds” (I should pray this often, should read my Bible this much, should do quiet time for this long). Instead, it is spending less time pursuing others, distractions and my own needs and more time pursuing Him, little bit by little bit.

Some of you are much further down the road than I am – you are disciplined and have a vibrant relationship with God woven through your everyday life, but for those of you, who like me, struggle with actively pursuing Him, I pray that this simply encourages you to start, one baby step at a time. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Five Skills Needed for a Healthy Marriage

After years of working as a counselor, I’ve seen couples in all stages, and I am always intrigued by what makes a marriage work. How do couples overcome messy childhoods, unhealthy habits, and constant conflict to have a strong, healthy marriage? What skills or characteristics do we need as spouses to work towards the marriage that God designed for us? There are many important elements, but with God at the center, here are five skills that I believe are needed for a healthy marriage.

*My caveat is that none of these should be used to justify abusive behaviors in a marriage. God does not call us to have abusive, selfish marriages. If you are experiencing high levels of conflict or emotional or physical abuse in your marriage, please seek help from a trained professional. 

1. Humility. Throughout the Bible, humility is a consistent theme. Ephesians 4:2 tells us to, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” James 3:13 says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom,” and 1 Peter 3:8 tells us, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” In Matthew 5:5, Jesus taught that “God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth” (NLT).

Although most Christians would tell you humility is important, we often become so focused on being “right” or “winning” arguments that we become arrogant and unkind towards our spouses. We justify being patronizing or nitpicking because we are determined to prove that we are right and they are wrong.

It is always interesting when I ask couples about conflicts they’ve had and how they resolved it. Even if it’s been weeks (or years!) since the argument, unhealthy couples will continue to point at their spouses and say, “Yes, I yelled, but he/she said this,” or “Sure, I made a mistake, but look how badly he/she treated me.” It takes humility to take responsibility and apologize first, to realize that we are as flawed as our spouses, and acknowledge that attacking our spouse to win an argument is never okay.

To truly resolve conflict, each partner has to take responsibility for their actions and identify ways they can improve their own behaviors in the future. If you are more focused on pointing out what your partner did wrong, then it will be difficult for you to have a healthy marriage.

I have had couples work through addiction, affairs, and high levels of conflict. The ones who are the most successful are the ones who wake up every morning committed to being gracious and humble towards their spouses.

2. Flexibility. Rigidity will destroy a marriage over time. If you or your spouse are constantly focused on how things should be or how he/she should act or should look, eventually, it will drive you apart.

I’ve worked with couples have been married for decades and are still arguing over a statement one of them made ten years ago (“But remember that one fight? You said that you would be one who takes out the trash.”). 1 Corinthians 13:5 tells us that love "...is not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrongs." When couples lack flexibility, they keep getting stuck on the same arguments and fights because they are hung up on how their partner should have handled things or should be treating them instead of reevaluating the situation and moving forward.

While it appropriate to have standards in a relationship, overly rigid expectations are not healthy. Over the years, you will deal with many situations that require flexibility: a cancer diagnosis, the passing of parents, lost jobs or an unplanned job transfer. Flexibility enables us to change our plans, expectations or behaviors in the face of unexpected situations and roll with life’s punches, instead of spending years arguing about what the other person should have done differently.

3. Willingness to try new things. I’m always wary when people say, “He never tries new foods” or “She always goes to the same restaurant.” While routine can be comforting, especially for those with chaotic childhoods, a willingness to branch out and try new things allows a relationship to grow and develop.

When my husband and I were young (before kids), we tried different restaurants, traveled to new places, and tried different types of dates – movies, frisbee golf (which I was terrible at), outdoor activities, and different hiking trails.

Now that we’ve been married for 15 years, our lives have settled into more of a routine, but we still make an effort to try new recipes at home, experiment with different hobbies, and volunteer in different settings. If you or your spouse aren’t willing to try different things, you can get so stuck in a routine that you no longer have things to do or talk about.

However, a willingness to try new things isn’t just related to dates and experiences. It is also about the capacity to embrace new situations, places, and things.

I had friends who were so resistant to trying new things that every “new” situation in their lives caused conflict. Everything from traveling to buying their first house became a source of contention, and ultimately, they divorced. Instead of viewing new experiences as a positive way to grow and learn about each other, change was perceived as something negative and became a barrier in their relationship.

Life is full of new experiences as a couple: buying your first house, traveling, new careers and jobs, and having children. If you or your partner are unable to embrace those new experiences willingly, it can damage the relationship over time.

4. A Heart for Service. A friend once told me that the happiest place in a marriage is when two people are actively serving each other. Unfortunately, many couples become imbalanced in this area. One person feels entitled to be served by the other ("I'm working hard and she's not," "He just doesn't understand that I'm always tired"), and while one person may be okay always serving their spouse initially, this can breed resentment if it continues for years.

Service in a marriage must go both ways. We are all called to serve each other. Galatians 5:13 tells us, “…but do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (NIV) and 1 Peter 4:10 reminds us that, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (NIV).

If you are feeling stagnant in your relationship, ask yourself: am I serving my spouse or expecting them to do everything? Over the years, I’ve noticed a decrease in our marital satisfaction when my husband or I become complacent and expect our partner to do all the work.

Learning to serve each other must be a mutual goal. This means if your spouse asks you how they can help, give them ideas! Sometimes I see couples where the husband wants to serve the wife, but in her effort to be a supermom, she refuses to let him help her. Or the wife wants to serve the husband, but he is so focused on not looking weak, that he won't allow her to help him. 

Helping each other and working as a team is a great way to build better communication and intimacy.

5. Introspection. Healthy couples often have good introspection, which simply is the ability to look inward and be aware of your internal motivations, background, and expectations.

Think of times your child does something wrong. When you ask them why, would you rather have them sullenly say, “I don’t know” or respond with, “I did it because I was mad about _______”? When your child is willing to talk about their feelings and motivations, you can have a discussion about what went wrong and how to fix it in the future.

It is the same in a healthy marriage. The skills needed to sit down after an argument and analyze what happened, why it happened, and ways to resolve it are necessary for a healthy marriage. It is the ability for someone to say, “Hey, I didn’t even realize I was doing that, I’m sorry,” or “I grew up with a family where they did ___________, and I’m repeating that same unhealthy behavior.”

It is having the capacity to say, “I’m sorry, let’s figure out a better way to do this,” or “I'm sorry I've been irritable. It’s been rough at work and I’m taking it out on you, which isn’t okay.”  Introspection is not innate for many people, but it can be developed over time and makes resolving conflict easier.

All five of these skills are needed for a healthy relationship. However, do not expect your partner to demonstrate them 100% of the time, but be unwilling to use them yourself. If you find yourself being rigid, struggling with humility or lacking introspection, seek help. Sometimes just meeting with a counselor or pastor to work through your issues – a traumatic childhood, insecurity or limited introspection – can allow you to grow and become a better spouse.

If you are working diligently and changing, but your partner is still struggling, a few sessions of marriage counseling or guidance from a pastor can be beneficial. The beautiful thing about marriage is that it should always be growing and improving, and although it may be difficult to develop these skills, it is worth the hard work. You will begin to experience a greater intimacy with your partner and move towards the marriage that God designed for you.

Friday, May 5, 2017

{#gracewins series}: Three Lessons Learned from the Thorny Places of ADD

Last week, I shared that I am starting a series titled #gracewins where people share their stories of redemption from mental health and/or addiction and how God's grace helps us be victorious over our struggles. Week one was a beautiful post from Kristen at Beautiful Southern Heart who found victory over addiction.

This week is a guest post from my beautiful and brave friend Lindsey from Walls2Wings. She graciously opened up and shared this with me. Enjoy! ~Hilary

3 Lessons Learned From the Thorny Places of ADD

I grew up in a very conservative church, and saying the “m” word (medication) was frowned upon, especially if it had to do with an “emotional” diagnosis, but I knew it was time to share a portion of my story when stumbling upon sweet Hilary’s request for guest posts.

In 2011, I was officially diagnosed with ADD, and by being courageously transparent I hope to bring awareness and encouragement to others who may struggle.

On a late November morning, I called my sister with tear filled eyes asking, “So, this is what “normal” feels like?” After all, it was a day of many firsts - my first dose of medication, the first time in 33 years it was “quiet,” the first time I could relax, and the first time I could focus and pay attention, despite interruption.

I was accustomed to  living life in constant noisy static with jittery jumping beans having a party in my brain, using tremendous amounts of energy attempting to hold it together, but losing it when “too much was too much.”

I had no idea, nor did I think about the possibility of having ADD, until my son’s doctor mentioned it could very well be hereditary. He jokingly asked, “Okay, which one of you shared”? Pfff…I, without thinking, of course, pointed to my husband.  Me, have ADD? No way.

Reality hit though after I spoke with those closest to me about the possibility. The overall response was “I thought you knew you did.” “I wasn’t serious when I said it,” I replied laughingly.

Although, after thinking about it, indeed I was,the queen of being aloof, awesome at tuning out anything uninteresting, perfect at focusing on what I loved, procrastinating or not doing what was “boring” or “mundane” (a.k.a laundry, and such), easily overwhelmed in chaotic places, and brilliant at interrupting because I had to get it out right then, or I’d forget…the list goes on.

The medical definition given by the American Psychological Association states that ADD/ADHD,” is a behavioral condition that makes focusing on everyday requests and routines challenging. People with ADHD typically have trouble getting organized, staying focused, making realistic plans and thinking before acting. They may be fidgety, noisy and unable to adapt to changing situations.”

As the diagnosis of ADD/ADHD came to fruition, I had other Christians discourage me from discussing it because “God is healer,” and if I talked about it, I was claiming it. I have never been one to doubt God’s healing ability, and I asked, even begged with tears, for God to make my brain “normal” and take the struggles away.

I am reminded though of the difficulty the Apostle Paul endured in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NASB), which says: 

"Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong."

The lessons I’ve learned through the “thorn” of ADD are…

* The calling to write, speak, teach, and memorize scripture demands my brain to function where it is weakest, but relying on HIS strength makes it possible while removing self-reliance and self-crediting. If I desire to fulfill the entrusted gifts of God, the “thorn” is a reminder of humble dependence, which keeps my ears and heart open to his voice.

* The areas of weakness serve as a conduit or passageway for God’s power and glory, in turn, pointing others to Him and away from me. It serves as an amazing testimony of the greatness of our God.

* Identifying with Christ means acquainting ourselves with weakness, insult, and distress. He is the ultimate example and because of his death, burial and resurrection, strength and equipping are available.

The verse, Philippians 4:13 (NASB), also written by the Apostle Paul and one I keep close to my heart marks this truth and states, “I can do all things through Him (Christ) who strengthens me”.

I want to leave something before I go, so please remember this...

There are no mistakes in God’s kingdom, and despite difficulty, it is entirely possible to do, be, and become whom you were created to be, despite a diagnosis or other difficulties. Leaning on HIM, produces a sweet intimacy which makes the prickly stress worth the pain. Hardships are blank canvases set and ready to be painted with a beautiful display of grace and strength by our Heavenly Father.

You are a Masterpiece, ready to display the wonder and majesty of our God.

God is the ultimate healer, and His capability far exceeds any we’ve seen. If healing hasn’t come, seek him and you’ll find him in the midst of your pain. He will provide strength and clarity where you sit because he never abandons one of his own no matter the circumstance.

Be Encouraged with MUCH LOVE and BLESSINGS!

~ Lindsey

Lindsey is Jesus lovin', vintage treasure huntin', turquoise adorin', Tennessee girl! Her passion is to teach, write, and speak into the lives of women the unfailing Love of Jesus Christ,and ignite a passion for God's word within their hearts. She is a wife, mother, nurse, and blog writer for The Walls2Wings Blog, https://www.walls2wings.com.  You can also follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wallstowingsblog.

Friday, April 28, 2017

{#gracewins series}: Sobriety Wins

As I was driving home from the gym today, I heard Matthew West's song, "Grace Wins." It never fails to move me. I think so many of us can relate to the lyrics:

There's a war between guilt and grace 

And they're fighting for a sacred space 
But I'm living proof 
Grace wins every time
No more lying down in death's defeat 
Now I'm rising up in victory 
Singing, hallelujah
Grace wins every time

I think all of us can think of a cringe-worthy time in our past (or maybe even your present!) where you've hurt people, destroyed relationships, or turned away from God. As someone who has made terrible decisions in the past and hurt more people than I can count, there are dark moments where there is a war in my heart between debilitating guilt and overwhelming awe at God's grace. He has taken this broken, sinful person and blessed me beyond belief and I love how that song reminds me that I can rise up in victory and sing out that God's grace wins every time. 

I've felt very strongly that we need to be having more of a dialogue in the church about mental health, addiction and faith and I'm starting a series of blog posts called #gracewins over the next few weeks. I will be sharing other articles and blog posts from others who have overcome mental health and/or addiction and how God's grace has changed their lives! 

To kick this series off, here is a powerful article from Beautiful Southern Heart titled:

"Sobriety wins" matched so wonderfully with Matthew West's lyrics that I knew it was the perfect article to start this series!  Kristen's honesty and vulnerability about her struggles with addiction and her ultimate redemption moved me and offers hope for anyone who is struggling with the chains of sin or addiction!  

Romans 3:22-24 (NIV) tells us that:

"This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 
and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."

I hope that this series will inspire you and give you hope. We don't have to let guilt and shame destroy us, we are forgiven and victorious in Christ. So check out Kristen's article, and remember, grace wins every time. 


Want to share your experience of how you are living proof that grace wins every time?  Email your story or blog post to blessedbyhisloveblog@gmail.com to be featured on this blog!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Embracing Grace: Reflections on Marriage and Good Friday

Over the past week, I’ve been reflecting on the elements you need to have a strong, godly marriage. Today, as I think of Good Friday and the ultimate sacrifice that God made, I have decided that one element is more crucial than the rest.


I’ve read through definitions of grace and I’m always bowled over by this one: “the free and unmerited favor of God.” He loves us even when we are undeserving. Daniel 9:9 (NIV) reminds us that “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.” It always amazes me how we readily accept that grace from God, yet quickly forget to extend that same grace towards our spouse in a conflict.

One of the most effective ways to successfully function in marriage is to be gracious to our partners. God calls us to offer unmerited favor to them when we are angry. Grace means we should be kind on days where they aren’t, to love them when they are tense, to forgive them when they do something that hurts our feelings. To approach our marriages knowing that just as we are forgiven, we need to forgive our partners. Jesus was very clear about the importance of forgiveness and grace. He taught that “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV).

When I am working with couples who are hurting, we often talk about letting go of past hurts and anger. We know that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corin. 13:5), but we don’t know how to actually throw away the ledger. We think that we’ve moved past something, only to find it come up again and again. We act like everything is okay, like we’ve moved forward, like the issue is done and over with, but we secretly seethe about it inside. We stop bringing the issue up, but continue to think I can’t believe we’re dealing with this again, he never listens to me or she just doesn’t get it, she’ll never figure it out.

So how do we move past it? How do we let go of bitterness, anger, and resentment towards our spouses? How do we navigate the tense situations, hurt feelings and less-than-happy moments?


Showing grace isn't pretending to forgive someone with pride in our hearts ("He/she sure is lucky to have a spouse that forgives them every time they mess up"). It is a humble act where we remember that if we make so many mistakes that God had to send his son to die for us, we can swallow our pride and forgive our spouses for being tense before work. For forgetting to put the laundry in the washer. For not remembering that dinner you planned. Grace isn’t about showing favor and blessings because you are better than your spouse. It is about showing unmerited favor and blessings every day because God did the same for you.

Often, we intellectually know this, but the moment we’ve had an argument, that sense of grace flies out the window. We read Psalm 103:12, “God has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (NLT) and breathe a sigh of relief, but then angrily confront/text/call our spouse about forgetting to sign our child’s homework folder. We ignore the fact that God's grace meant that Jesus died on the cross to forgive all our sins (let’s be honest, we all have a lengthy list), and instead use justification and self-righteousness to stew endlessly over the small things our partners do that drive us crazy ("I'm the only one who cares about this in our marriage," "At least I care about our children"). 

Please understand that if there is a significant issue (addiction, infidelity, financial or parenting issues), I am not advocating simply glossing over the issue. Those issues need to be addressed. I’ve seen too many couples ignoring problems to avoid conflict, and they almost always come up later. A simple argument over an unexpected expenditure becomes an all-out war about who is more financially irresponsible. A small fight about parenting becomes a battle over who is the more irresponsible parent. A disagreement over a visit to a website becomes a fight about who is being sexually irresponsible.

We can’t avoid discussing issues or resolving conflict, but if we come with a spirit of humility and grace (“You're right, I haven’t been understanding about this issue, let’s work on it together”), you’ll find it gets resolved far more effectively than marching into battle with a spirit of arrogance and entitlement (“I work hard for this family and you just spend all of our money,” “I spend the whole day parenting our children and you come in and screw it up”).

Truly letting things go takes grace. It takes the ability to say, “I’m a sinner just like my partner, I make mistakes, I have times where I’m defensive/curt/unsupportive, and God forgives me, so why am I still holding onto this?” If God felt so strongly about grace that he sent Jesus to die on a cross for the world, what gives me the right to act like my spouse’s mistakes are too big to forgive?

As we think of Jesus’ crucifixion today, know that he didn’t go to the cross saying, “I’m going to die for some people, but other people were just too awful for forgiveness.” No, John 3:16 reminds us that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die for us (including you and your spouse!).

If you are struggling today with letting things go, be reminded that the ultimate act of love was one of forgiveness of our sins/mistakes/flaws. Ephesians 5:25 tell us to love our spouses just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Not “love your spouses when they don’t make mistakes.” Not “love your spouses until you meet someone better.” We are called to wholeheartedly, unabashedly, graciously love our spouses. To sacrifice our own self-righteousness and justifications and desire to be right at all costs. To focus on loving our spouses every single day, unmerited or not.

If you are struggling today with resentment over little things, be humbled by Jesus’ march to the cross 2,000 years ago and strive to forgive your spouse. If there are bigger issues in your marriage, be humble enough to seek marriage counseling or meet with your pastor. Life is too short to waste your time bickering and fighting with the most important person in your life. 

It is never lost on me that God uses the metaphor of a marriage to explain how much he loves us. If marriage is that important to God, let us treasure it. Let us embrace it humbly. Let us work to be gracious, just as God is gracious towards us.

Friday, March 24, 2017

How to Explain to Your Children and Teenagers that Pain Can Lead to Compassion

I recently read an article by a woman who confessed that she had “hated” being a teenager, and was now unsure how to both warn her children of the stressors of adolescence while letting them make their own mistakes. She wondered how to get them through adolescence in a positive way when her own past was so difficult. This article sparked a conversation between me and my own mom about the past and regrets. I had an extremely tumultuous adolescence, but I shocked my mom when I told her I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Over the years, I’ve learned to not just move past that difficult time in my life, but to embrace it. As a counselor, my past struggles with self-harm make me more sympathetic to the teenagers struggling with the same issue. My conflicted adolescent romantic relationships make me compassionate towards teens who are trying to find self-worth from the opposite gender. My past experiences with drugs make me gracious towards my clients who struggle with addiction.

Even as an adult, my past is riddled with painful situations that I’ve learned to embrace. My past miscarriage makes me empathetic to my clients who have had one, as well as the family members who don’t know what to say. My struggles with infertility make me sensitive enough that I never say things like, “You’ll get pregnant soon enough, just relax” to other women.

My daughter whose acid reflux meant she screamed endlessly for the first few months of her life makes me sympathetic to moms who are overwhelmed. Wrestling with my bipolar disorder makes my heart tender towards those who are also struggling with mental health issues.

Every difficult situation I’ve been through, whether it’s self-induced or not, has been a way for God to open my eyes towards someone who is hurting. As I’ve grown older, Romans 8:28 has become more poignant: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God has literally taken my hurts, bad decisions, and painful dark moments, and used them for good. When I was in the depths of depression or the crisis of faith that my infertility threw me into, I sure didn’t feel like God was working for my good, but as I get older and the puzzle pieces of my life fall into place, I know that I’ve needed that pain to be a more compassionate counselor and human being.

So, I challenge you as parents, instead of “warning” our children about how awful adolescence can be or trying to erase their hurt feelings that come from broken hearts, bullying or unhealthy friendships, what if we helped our children identify the good that God can do in those situations?

What if instead of getting angry at those who are mean to our children, we encourage our children to use those hurt feelings to assist others? What if we taught them about Natalie Hampton, the 16-year-old teenager who created the Sit with Us app to combat bullying in schools after she was bullied for two years?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t work towards protecting our children and giving them the tools to navigate adolescence. However, in those moments when they run to you crying, validate their hurt and speak Romans 8:28 into their life. Let them know that God can take all of it - the awkwardness, the social stresses, the broken heart of a first love - and use it for good. They may not see it now, but they will someday. I am often blessed when I hear adolescents who have been abused say they want to grow up and help other children who have been abused. They know that this current pain will make them more effective to help others who are struggling, but how often as parents do we discuss that concept?

And for those of you parents who have regrets about your past and feel overwhelmed when you watch your own children struggling, remember 2 Corinthians 1:4 (NLT): “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” Those cringe-worthy situations you dealt with in your own adolescence will allow you to effectively comfort your own teenagers as they navigate this complicated, tech-driven, chaotic world. It can be uncomfortable to remember those past experiences, but when they allow us to teach our children that compassion that can arise from suffering, I promise, it is worth the discomfort.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Finding Peace with my Bipolar Disorder

Recently, a friend of mine asked me a simple question, "How do you keep it all together?" As someone who struggles with Bipolar Disorder, there is no simple answer to this question. There are days where it is difficult to get out of bed, to shower, to clean my house, to do simple tasks like get dressed. There are other days where I come home, utterly and completely exhausted, and I beat myself up. How come I am so worn out? I didn't do that much today, I don't have a physically exhausting job, am I just that lazy?
Psalm 139:14
But then I remind myself. When you are struggling with depression, getting out of the house, getting to work, smiling and joking with my coworkers and listening and counseling people is a lot of work. No wonder I'm tired.

I have dealt with Bipolar disorder for the last 17 years, I have been medicated for my entire adult life, I have had up and downs, good moments and ugly moments. So how have I been able to accomplish things? How do I raise children, work as a counselor, support my husband, write, teach and serve at church?

At the risk of sounding cliche, it's one word: God.

There are days where I am worn out emotionally, but the moment that first client steps in my office, I am animated, engaged and present for them. I can see eight clients back-to-back, and feel excited and involved as a counselor. The verse from Phillipians 4:13 goes through my head often as I drive home from work: "I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (ESV). I can literally start my day completely depleted, and leave feeling strengthened and energetic. I know that is God's strength, not my own.

However, I don't want to minimize the struggle. For me, it is not as simple as just being "a good Christian." Any one of us who struggles with Bipolar disorder knows that managing mental health is complicated. To be able to function and live a thriving life is a delicate balance of God's strength, a strong support network, good medication, counseling and tons of self-care. As I pondered the idea of "keeping it together," I was struck by three things that have helped me over the years:

1. Acknowledge your limitations. I almost cringe while writing this. I don't want anyone to feel like I'm implying that people with mental health issues are limited. There are many amazing people who have diagnoses that do incredible things. However, for me, I have learned that due to my mental health, I do have limitations. I have been blessed to be able to work, and I think that my own mental health issues make me a very empathetic counselor. Self-harm? I've done it. Terrible self-esteem? Been there. Poor choices that hurt others? Check. 

When I look at my clients, who are struggling with self-doubt and frustration about their mental health, I get it. However, I have also learned that I can really only work part-time. I am an extrovert, and I love my job, but if I overextend myself, I end up completely shattered. 

I have learned that overextension leaves me depressed to the point of not being able to function, and I end up stuck coping with mood swings and irritability towards my family. I used to beat myself up for not being to "do more," but the reality is I have to work within the parameters that my mental health gives me. There are periods of my life where I can do more, there are other periods where I have to turn down opportunities and practice lots of self-care.

Now, this is different for everybody. Don't run to a family member with Bipolar and say, "limit yourself." Some people can do more, some have limits. However, for myself, I do feel like accepting those limits and asking God to let me be the most effective woman I can be in a part-time manner has been helpful.

2. Accept yourself. I often tell clients that there is a grief process that occurs with a diagnosis. When a client is diagnosed with a chronic medical issue like diabetes or fibromyalgia, there is an acknowledgement that it takes time to accept that diagnosis. Many people with mental health issues have to go through that same acceptance. There is a grieving process, a sense of "I may never be 'normal' again." That is a painful process, one I spent most of my twenties dealing with. I grieved having to be on medications that often have funky side effects, I felt incredible guilt that I took Bipolar medications while pregnant, meaning I also couldn't breastfeed (off my medications, I get incredibly suicidal and depressed, so we decided that the risks were outweighed by the benefits). 

In my twenties, I went through all the stages of grief:
  • Denial. I thought "maybe I'm not really Bipolar" which led to going off my medication, which led to crazy mood swings and my spouse asking me to go back on them.
  • Anger. I wondered "why would God make me this way?" and struggled with a crisis of faith.
  • Bargaining. "Maybe if I just pray more, or am a better Christian, I'll be healed and be fine."
  • Depression. "This is it, I'm always going to be a mess."
  • Acceptance. It took a decade to get here, but I am at peace with my diagnosis. I believe that it allows me empathy for my clients, I love my creativity, and I know that Psalm 139:14 is 100% true: "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." Bipolar disorder is the thorn in my side, but it is who I am. I do believe that whether God created me this way, or it's simply a side effect of bad brain chemistry and a fallen world, I am wonderfully made and I know that God has a beautiful plan for my life.

3. Redefine healing. I spent most of my twenties wanting to be healed from Bipolar disorder. I resented medication, I resented grieving, I resented being terrified through two pregnancies that the medication I take would cause side effects in my unborn babies. I cried out to God to heal me, but still struggled.

This changed a few years ago. I was driving home on a beautiful night from my job where I had been able to help others who were struggling, and Chris Tomlin came on the radio singing, "My God is healer, awesome in power, my God, my God." And it hit me like a stack of bricks.

I was healed. No, I wasn't free from my disorder, but I was a functional, happy, blessed human being who God had allowed to do some pretty awesome things. If someone loses a limb, we don't expect healing to be that they grow a new leg. Instead, we view them with awe that they have been able to get through something incredibly difficult, then do awesome things!  I realized that instead of waiting for complete healing, I could view it as I was doing incredible things with Bipolar. 

And just as someone who is an amputee runs a race inspires us, I hope that even when I have days where I can't get out of bed, where my irritability makes me prickly, or I can't sleep because I'm hypomanic, my peace, acceptance, encouragement and empathy for those who are hurting inspires others.

I've learned to shift my focus from feeling resentful and angry to incredible joy. God has given me great medication, an awesome psychiatrist, the most understanding husband ever, a support network beyond my wildest dreams, a beautiful home, wonderful children and incredible life. One that is rich  and in spite of my mental health, or maybe because of my mental health, I don't take it for granted. 

It is only because of my limitations and weaknesses that I can appreciate God's work in my life. Paul (who struggled with a "thorn" in his side as well that kept him humble), wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV), 

"But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

It is when I am "weakest" that God allows me to be strong. Some day, God might heal me completely, and I would not complain. However, for now, I am just incredibly grateful and can proudly say, "I am wonderfully and fearfully made." Bipolar and all.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Finding Stability: What Are You Building Your Life On?

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a recurring theme in the worship songs I’ve listened to, the Bible verses I’ve read, and the sermons I’ve listened to: what is the foundation you are building your life on? 

Recently, I’ve been pondering the section from Luke 6:46-49, when Jesus is preaching to the crowds, sharing the beatitudes and guidance for our lives. At the end of Luke 6, Jesus shares about the man who built his house upon the rock:

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:46-49 ESV)
If you grew up in the church like I did, you have heard this set of verses numerous times. You’ve probably sang the song, “The wise man built his house upon the rock, the house upon the rock, and the rains came tumbling down.” But over the last few months, as I’ve begun to evaluate how I spend my time and energy, these verses have taken on more depth for me.

At any given point in my day, if you ask me what foundation I have built my life on, I would easily say, “Jesus.” In my heart, I believe that everything – my ministry, blessings, gifts, and faith – are all from God.

However, when I am really honest with myself, I realize that I'm so quick to forget this in the face of adversity. Yes, my faith and belief in Jesus are an ongoing part of my life, but what is the foundation I am building my sense of security and hope on? Is it in Jesus’ promises? The hope of eternal life with Him? Am I half-heartedly building a foundation on the identity of being a Christian, but not actually doing what He calls me to do?  

When I have (yet another) unexpected car repair, is my foundation rooted in a strong sense that God will provide for my family?

When I am passed over for some opportunity through the church, is my foundation built on the knowledge that my identity is in God, not the success of my ministry?

I do often find a sense of peace in God's provision and sovereignty eventually, but it takes a while. My initial reaction is often one of panic. Of stress. Of worrying about our finances and the future. Of hurt or frustration. Of feeling like I’m not good enough. Of feeling that God is absent or uninvolved.

When Jesus was sharing the parable of the men who built their houses on the rock and sand, he shared that both houses were covered with flood waters.  It wasn't that one man's life was easier than the other man's life. Both men knew that the floods would come and they had to make a choice about where they would build their homes. The man on the rock had to “dig deep," but it was worth it. When the flood waters came, they “could not shake [his house], because it had been well built.”

There will be flood waters in this life. Jesus said that, “…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45 ESV).  The question can’t be “what if something bad happens?” It has to be, “when adversity comes and I'm rocked to the core by life, what is my foundation built on?”

Do you find that when the flood waters come, is your foundation built on prayer? A deep sense of peace in God's plan?

Or is your foundation built on your own success, your own financial security? Is it built on what others can do for you or what they think of you? Is it built on fear? Worry?

Are you living a life built on the all-encompassing, gracious love that Jesus calls us to? Or is it built on bitterness? A sense of injustice or resentment?

Intellectually, I can tell you that I want my life to be built on Jesus, but when I'm too distracted or lazy, and digging deep into the Word and prayer seems like too much work, it is easy to shift to more "worldly" foundations. And as I am getting older, I realize how dangerous and unstable those foundations are.  I’ve seen too many people around me build their lives on weak and shaky foundations, and ultimately fall “to ruin” as Jesus warns us will happen.

Over the past few months, I’ve become more aware that I want to have a secure foundation in Him. Not in myself, not in my successes, not in how good my marriage/children/house looks. Those are the things that the world tells us will make us happy and secure, but they aren’t long-lasting. They are unstable and weak. You will be secure until you lose your job or your marriage, or you gain fifty pounds, or your church falls apart.

Life is too unpredictable and difficult to have a weak foundation.

Instead, I want a foundation where I am unshakable in the face of persecution, instability and fear.

One of my favorite worship songs (“Build My Life”) has a bridge that says, “I will build my life upon your love, it is a firm foundation. And I will put my trust in you alone and I will not be shaken.”

Do you feel that way? Or does your life feel wobbly these days? Do you find yourself defining yourself by the size of your savings account or the number of social media followers you have?  Do you find your emotions constantly shifting when the foundations you’ve built your house on start to shift and shake?

I hope that you find comfort and direction in Galatians 2:19-21 (ESV):

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
I want that - to have my life be built on the firm foundation of Jesus, where I am joined together with the body of Christ.

So let’s dig deep, my friends, and build our lives on the only foundation that can withstand the crazy, torrential rains of this life - Jesus Christ. 

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Living a Life of Graciousness

This morning, as I was driving my daughter to school, I was reflecting on the idea of grace. I've recently started a Bible Study by Beth Moore called, Entrusted - Bible Study Book: A Study of 2 Timothy It is a powerful look at ministry and discipleship, and she is focusing on Paul and Timothy.

Last night, as I was going through 1 Timothy 1 as part of the homework, I was moved by verses 12-14:

"I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." (~1 Timothy 1:12-14, ESV)

I think many of us have people in the Bible that we can relate to, and I've always related to Paul. Not because I am some great orator, but because he had a shady past, just like I do. Before his conversion, Paul was not a good dude. In Acts 9, right before the Bible talks about Paul's conversion, it says that,

"Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:1-2). 

God didn't forgive Paul over say a few nasty things Paul had said here and there. He literally persecuted Christian, threw them in jail, all while breathing "murderous threats."

Paul knew about God's incredible grace. He had devoted his life to persecuting and imprisoning Christians, and yet, once he had an encounter with God, his life was transformed. It wasn't an easy life (he ended up imprisoned numerous times), but Paul knew that God's grace had transformed him and he devoted the rest of his life to witnessing and sharing the gospel.

Paul knew how powerful God's grace was. He watched it in his own life, and made sure that he continually praised God for it. In Ephesians 2, he reminds us that: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5, ESV)

It is so funny how God's grace and love means we are saved and forgiven of all of our nastiness - our less-than-pretty pasts, our unkind words, our road rage - and yet, in the day-to-day, we are often so ungracious to others.

Sure, we might feel loving and kind at church on Sunday, and prayerfully tell God we want to be kind and loving this week. But by Thursday, we are short-tempered, burned out, or ungrateful. We are critical to our spouses, frustrated with our children, resentful of our job or finances.

How easy it is to take God's gracious forgiveness of our sins (and I have many) for granted. To praise him for forgiving us, yet do the exact opposite to others during the rest of the week.

When I teach my marriage class through my church, I often share that if God can forgive our sins (addiction, anger, jealousy, gossip), the least we can do is be gracious to our spouses. If God can forgive all of our sins, we can forgive our spouses when they are occasionally short-tempered or snippy after a long day. We can forgive them after a tense "discussion" about money or parenting or finances or any of the things that we bicker about in marriage.

As I was reflecting on grace, something awful happened. I dropped off my daughter at school, with the words "grace wins every time" (I love that song by Matthew West) going through my head, and I witnessed a car accident.

Not a little one either. One where the bumper was ripped off, the woman wasn't moving, and police cars, a fire engine and an ambulance all showed up.

It was literally breathtaking.

Life is incredibly short, y'all.

One moment, you are driving your child to school, the next, you are in a potentially life-changing (or ending) accident.

A routine mammogram shows breast cancer.

A spouse decides to take their life.

As a therapist, my office is full of people whose lives were changed in an instant.

And it got me thinking, if I died tomorrow, would people at my funeral say, "Hilary was such a gracious person. She knew how to let things go, she was giving and kind"?

Or would they say, "Well, Hilary was pretty intense, she was definitely not a kind mom to her kids, and we had some intense run-ins over the years."

Whew. It literally made me teary.

This year, my husband and I have chosen words to represent our goals. I've waffled from "prioritize" to "focus," but after seeing that car accident, I think it needs to be "gracious."

After all of the sins I've done over the years, the people I've hurt, the ungracious, unkind, unholy things I've said, I am forgiven because of grace.

So I need to forgive others and be gracious to those who bug me, anger me or cut me off in traffic. It is literally the least I can do.

2 Peter 1 describes several powerful qualities we need to have as Christians, "...make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love" (2 Peter 1:5-7, ESV)

Ouch. I struggle with all of these sometimes. My words and actions are not always virtuous, full of self-control, steadfast, or loving.

It goes on to warn us, "For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins." (1 Peter 1:9, ESV)

I don't want to ever forget that I am cleansed from my former sins.

I don't want to forget that God's grace has covered all of me.

I don't want people to one day remember me as awesome and successful in public, but testy and ungracious behind closed doors.

I want my year to reflect a constant striving towards graciousness.

With God's help and unending mercy, and the loving accountability of those around me, I know that I can.

In His name,
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