Come travel back with me to one afternoon in April 2016. I’m in my final year studying English literature at university, and I’ve got two weeks to write all 8000 words of my dissertation.
I still have no idea what my actual thesis is. In fact, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to even plan, write and edit essays at all. I’m constantly doubting my every ability. I’m absolutely certain that I’ll accidentally commit plagiarism. I’m so terrified of missing something crucial that I re-read sentences over and over, until the words lose all meaning.
My body is suffering physically because of my mental state, so much so that I can’t eat properly anymore. This morning I tried to eat something plain, but my sleep-deprived mind was already churning with worries, and I immediately threw it back up.
I’m sitting hunched up on the floor by my desk, silently sobbing my heart out. The song playing through my earphones is ‘Just Be Held’ by Casting Crowns, and the lyrics say everything I need to hear. Because I’ve fallen completely apart – I no longer recognise myself – and all I’ve got left is this painful faith that God does love me, that He’s still good, and that He’s holding onto me.
How on earth did I get here?
Even now, almost two years later, I still don’t fully understand the series of mishaps that led to my inner breakdown. In fact, I only really began to recover when I stopped obsessively trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
God’s been gently restoring and re-establishing me, and within that He’s led me again and again to reflect on foundational truths in His Word. There are so many essential messages about Christian life in the New Testament, and I’ve written reams of personal reflections as I wrap my head around them.
It’s an on-going journey (I apparently need constant reminding of simple truths) but slowly all that good stuff is sinking in. Every now and then, I experience little golden moments of clarity.
Back when my mind had become an endless swirl of anxious thoughts, every area of my life was affected – most importantly, my relationship with God. Somewhere along the line, the driving force behind my Christian living became fear:
I worried that I wasn’t giving enough money to those in need.
I was scared that I wasn’t sharing the gospel with people properly.
I worried about all the music, films and books I engaged with – were they holy enough?
I was anxious that enjoying my degree was selfish, because it wasn’t directly ‘serving God’s kingdom’.
I agonised over choosing a dissertation topic that would somehow help me to serve God later in life.
During Bible studies, I often jumped immediately to verses which I interpreted as condemnations of my flaws and failures.
I look now and see that beneath the surface of these worries hid two core aspects of my self which, up to that point in my life, I’d always been able to either manage or repress.
One was perfectionism, and the other was the sense that I just wasn’t good enough.
In the depths of my heart, I believed the lie that I needed to be perfect for God. I needed to be perfect, because if I wasn’t perfect then I wasn’t good enough, and if I wasn’t good enough, then He wouldn’t love me. And if God didn’t love me, then I was lost.
I don’t know how I managed to study God’s Word, or sing worship songs about Jesus’ love, or encounter the Holy Spirit’s presence, and still have all that perfectionist and worthlessness nonsense worming away inside me.
During my reflections, I’ve found plenty of truths in the Bible to combat those core lies in me. I love Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he writes: “We have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law.” (2:16)
For context, Paul’s reacting against Christians who practise Jewish laws to make themselves right before God – like getting circumcised, or observing certain holy days.
And here I am, hundreds and hundreds of years later, struggling with the same sort of mistake. Within my mental mess, I ended up trying to be holy for God (and earn His love) by obeying a bunch of rules. What to watch, what to study, what to give, what to say – on and on.
My relationship with God became all about me, and what I could do for Him. And that ain’t the gospel.
It’s actually impossible to please God by obeying religious laws, because you’d need to obey every single one to be perfect, and no human can do that (Gal 2:16). The law was given to Moses to safeguard people from absolute sinful chaos, and to show us how much we need Jesus (Gal 3:19, 24).
Moreover, there’s no point trying to earn God’s love. He is love. He loved and loves us at our worst. That’s why He sent Jesus to bring us home to Him (John 3:16).
On the cross, Jesus paid the debt for my wrongdoing and made me ‘good enough’ for God, completely and for all time. I didn’t earn or deserve it, but that’s what makes it a gift of grace.
I accept that grace.
My faith in what Jesus did for me is what pleases God. It means that He sees me through Jesus, as pure, blameless, and perfect! (Colossians 1:22)
It’s all pretty epic, and if I’m honest, my little heart can struggle to take it all in. It’s so unbelievable that God loves me that much, and that Jesus’ grace is so powerful that it’s all I need. There’s nothing more I have to do to make myself righteous.
Of course, my mind tries to make trouble. “But what about Christian living?” it asks. “What about all those verses that instruct you on what you should and shouldn’t do as a Christian? You need to worry about those.”
Jesus has got me covered here, too. Paul writes that we shouldn’t use our freedom from the law to live a sinful life (Gal 5:13), and of course that makes sense. That would be missing the point completely. Jesus freed me so that I can walk with God through life, living in His love and dishing out love to others.
But my sinful nature is still going to try really hard to mess that up. Plus, I’m human, so I just come ready-made with flaws and weaknesses. My reaction to this reality shouldn’t be to despise my weakness, try to correct all my flaws and obsess over my sins. Been there, done that, doesn’t work.
It’s been so hard for me to realise that I am not my own personal project. I’m God’s work in progress.
And it turns out Christian living is actually Spirit living. When I chose to have faith that Jesus made me right with God, He gave me the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:14). It’s as if Jesus patted me on the head, saying “this one’s my girl!”, and His presence came fizzling into me.
The Holy Spirit handles how my righteousness unfolds here on earth.
He shows me that, in Jesus, I am God’s beloved child (Gal 4:6). He changes my focus from sinful desires to desires which match up with God’s heart (Gal 5:17). He equips me with the gifts I need to love people in simple and radical ways (1 Cor. 12:7). And He’s transforming me from the inside out, shaping me to become more and more like Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18).
I don’t make any of this happen. It’s still not about my own efforts (Gal 3:3). My job is to let go, to wait, and to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead (Gal 5:25).
It’s so simple – and yet it’s so hard to grasp.
Even writing all this out has baffled me again. It’d be ideal if my breakdown had purged me of all my long-standing perfectionism and feelings of worthlessness, so I could be filled with truth, grace and love. In a way, that is what’s happening, except the whole experience has been a whole lot messier than that.
But hey, life is messy. And I don’t need to worry, because I’m God’s work in progress.
My smile might be rueful as I type that, but I truly do trust in God’s timing, planning and provision. He held me in my darkest times, and He’s holding me now in all the uncertainty of my recovery and next steps.
We’ve come a long way from where we started this article, with the broken girl sobbing in her bedroom. Let’s end with these gorgeous thoughts, true not only for me but for all who believe:
Jesus has made me worthy, God sees me as perfect, and the Holy Spirit is in control of my journey.
Yessenia is a compelling and innovative program and operations manager who uses her 5+ years of experience in operations management and graphic design to determine small business needs in the areas of inventory costs, labor expenses, P&L, COGs, marketing, and graphic design to create and manage profitable plans for small businesses and individual projects. She is the Owner and Founder of Tru.Works.