Why We Don’t Know What to do With Grief

(Taken from my nursing blog, http://heartofnursing.blog)

In my recent interview for an upcoming NPR TED Radio Hour podcast (9/17) on “Heartbreak,” the host, Manoush Zomorodi, asked a series of insightful questions from many angles about my experiences with grief over the years as a pediatric ICU nurse. Those questions have sparked many thoughts that I believe are worth exploring and sharing in a series here on grief, with hopes that we can take a closer, courageous look at grief and reframe our perspective on it during a time when we are all feeling it perhaps more than ever.

Unfortunately, recent world events give us countless issues to grieve on many levels. Please note this blog series will primarily focus on grief and loss more on the individual/personal level, though I think some of these ideas will be pertinent to broader societal issues.

And with that, the first thought I want to tackle is: Why we don’t know what to do with grief.

Before we tackle some reframing of grief, I think it’s important to consider why we run for the hills from it before we even give it a chance to just be a normal part of our lives.

Denial of its possibility is ingrained into our culture from day one.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard or said myself, “I just thought that happens to other people in other places, not to me, not to us here.” Our blind spots to the assumptions we make about life as people in a wealthy, powerful nation profoundly shape our shaky personal response to real suffering, loss and grief.

We are a culture obsessed with convenience and easy fixes. Any ICU nurse (that’s me) can tell you how much we love our easy fixes to life’s pains and problems (hello, all the medical interventions), but also how powerless and detrimental some presumed fixes can actually be (again hello, all the medical interventions). We just keep assuming we can always find a way out of our grief, if not avoid it altogether.

Grief is too closely associated with negativity.

This is a tricky statement because there is obviously some connection between the two. But sometimes “toxic positivity” is completely out of touch with reality, and grief is more in touch with reality than we care to admit. You can have days of intense grief and intense negativity, but they don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. You can also have days of intense grief and also have solid hope. Because we have such a hard time recognizing this, and we are a fix-it culture addicted to “positive vibes only,” we are strongly tempted to reply to someone’s healthy, normal grief with “At least you…(can still have another child),” or “You should just be thankful that x, y, and z.” This actually ends up invalidating and somewhat shaming what is actually a normal, healthy response of grief to a real loss. We think it’s necessary (and even possible) to somehow cancel out the grief by diverting attention to some more “positive” thing over there, instead of giving healthy space and permission to cultivate and process normal grief.

In other words, we only know how to battle negativity by trying to shut it down, which in most cases is probably wise to not indulge it too much. Unfortunately, because we almost automatically associate grief with negativity, this means we typically respond to grief by trying to squash it as well, even when its manifestation is actually a very healthy thing.

We struggle to be quiet and patient with hard questions.

With Google Search at our fingertips, we are more accustomed than we realize to having all the seemingly hard answers so readily accessible. Will my children growing up in this Internet age really even learn to think for themselves? It is in many ways a gift to crowdsource knowledge and have others do so much of this hard work for us. But when it comes to grief and loss, which are so intensely personal and complicated, we have to do the work ourselves of wrestling with the hard questions grief often raises, and this feels daunting because we simply don’t practice it much day to day. We deeply resist the discomfort of having our worldview and our assumptions of how life “should” operate be so profoundly challenged, and often prefer relief and escape from that discomfort over working towards the building of a different, deeper life foundation.

We don’t know what to do with things that cannot be explained.

Even as we work through hard questions, there remain some things that cannot be fully explained. There may be a medical explanation, coroner’s cause of death, but there are other types of answers we often search for that we simply won’t find in their entirety. Our need for control and power chafes against this. But when I’m suffering, it’s usually not clear and specific answers that actually soothe my soul. As the wise singer/songwriter Rich Mullins once sang, “And I know that it would not hurt any less…even if it could be explained.” When I’m suffering acutely, I find the most comfort in having space to lament, being accepted and embraced as I am by safe loved ones, and being helped to just take the next step forward when everything else about the future seems too murky or overwhelming.

We struggle to see what a good and hopeful life can look like with grief always present.

This, I think, is key, and will be the topic of a future blog post. (Note: it won’t be a blog post with answers, per se, but an exploration of what we do to ourselves and each other when we only define a good life in a narrow way – and what we can do for ourselves and each other when we learn to broaden that definition of a good and hopeful life.)

Thanks for reading this far. I would love to hear thoughts, comments, disagreements, as long as they stay civil and productive.

what I wish I could heal as your nurse

Would you give me permission to tell you

without overstepping my bounds, personal, professional

that this is not your fault.

You were only trying to take good care of your baby;

you didn’t know,

you didn’t know.

 

I see the protest in your eyes,

Someone has to be to blame, and that someone is me.

If I had known, if I hadn’t done this, if we hadn’t done that

our baby would still be alive.

 

How can I help loosen the grip that this mistake

threatens to hold over your life?

Would you give me permission to tell you

Can I tell you, you are still a good mama

Can I tell you, you are still a good papa

 

Can I tell you, your baby would forgive you too if he had the words;

of this I am sure.

 

Can I tell you, he knew you loved him to the very end.

Your tears baptize him

and your blessings flow

 

and flow

 

and flow.

 

How a Patient’s Family Heals a Nurse in this Era of Medicine

(Author’s note: Permission has been granted by all parties involved, including the patient’s family, to share medical details that may make this patient identifiable.)

One of the things that feels most unfair about pediatric ICU nursing is that with critically ill children, you don’t get the comfort of being able to look back and say “At least they lived a long and happy life.” You ache that a baby, a toddler, a school-aged child, a teenager, was supposed to have their whole life ahead. But instead, much of their short life was marked by illness, prods and pokes, lines and tubes, sedation rather than play, a sterile environment full of strangers at all hours rather than a home full of time with friends and family. The deep desire in both the parents as well as the healthcare providers to do anything possible to give them a shot at a future – hopefully one that is meaningful and healthy – is in and of itself right and good. Yet the decision about how much to push both medicine, and the child as the obligatory recipient, in the fight for a future that is neither guaranteed in quantity nor quality, can often be wrought with profound controversy and ethical distress. Clinicians do not necessarily find peace with their work just because a life was physically saved; sometimes quite the opposite, as so potently described in this NEJM article.

K was a little girl who came to our unit for PJP pneumonia secondary to an unknown autoimmune disease; she quickly won over the staff with her charm and spirit. Ben became her primary nurse, and she would count down the days when Ben would be back to work. K once told her frightened neighbor in their shared room, “Don’t be scared. You’re okay, and you’re not gonna die because Ben’s your nurse.” The insight, generosity, and pure trust of this statement give only a small glimpse into the extraordinary person that K was at her young age. But we weren’t naïve; the reality of her condition made her statement so very ironic and bittersweet. We knew she had a battle ahead, so we weren’t necessarily surprised when she was transferred out of the ICU to the regular ward, only to emergently return to us a few days later in worsening respiratory distress. We held our breaths and made faltering efforts to hold up our spirits as she finally succumbed to the need for a breathing tube, which took away the ability for her parents or any of us to hear her sweet voice or see her feisty spirit, now sedated by necessary medications.

K wasn’t getting better, and everyone knew it, including her parents. She had asked for everything to be done, and so her parents promised they would give her every effort. But they knew the final effort at a very invasive therapy known as hemodialysis was going to be a Hail Mary. And as expected, once the hemodialysis started, K’s blood pressure did not improve; it became, in fact, incredibly labile. The miracle was not to be, and so the family decided within the hour of starting the therapy that it was time to remove the breathing tube and say good-bye to this beautiful, vibrant soul. Their heart.

They mourned deeply and immediately, with the heaving sobs of parents who loved their child enough to give her every chance, but also respected her personhood enough to not relegate her to a limbo, sedated existence on machines when there was no real light of life left in her. They had been so kind, so brave, so generous in spirit with the hospital staff through all of our time with them. No one would have once blamed them for being angry or withdrawn; yet they held a posture of such open partnership with the doctors and nurses throughout the entire process. Perhaps they saw us as advocates, caregivers, medical authorities; they might have even seen us as heroes. But in the way they treated us? They simply treated us as people who saw, knew, loved, and wanted the best for their daughter the same way they did. We had conversations in this spirit, and it felt like a safe place for everyone. We talk a lot about wanting to rightfully create a safe place for the patient and family. But we talk very little about how families can create a safe place for the healthcare workers, too. This family gave us a safe place.

You see, this family gave us the gift of meeting and caring for their child. But they also gave to us the profound hope that it is still possible, in this era of pushing the envelope with medical technology, to do everything medically possible for their child and still be completely reasonable and respectful of the personhood of everyone involved – the patient, the family, and the healthcare providers. I find this to be deeply healing, because so much of what I do as a pediatric ICU nurse hurts me in ways that I never anticipated. I anticipated hurting with great apology over having to participate in administering painful procedures, but I accept this gladly if it gives the child a decent chance at survival and meaningful recovery. I anticipated hurting with grief over bearing witness to death, but I accept this if it means I can be a meaningful presence in a terribly isolating time of loss. I did not anticipate hurting with such cynicism over a profession that I once thought to be only driven by good, for good. I did not anticipate hurting with such doubt and self-loathing on the days when I felt myself to be the one who would not let a weary soul rest in peace, but rather continued to agitate, turn, feed, clean, and medicate someone in perpetual distress over their over-medicalized nightmare when there was no real chance of meaningful recovery.

This family’s brave, selfless and clear-minded approach to their daughter’s last days showed me that it is still possible for me and my colleagues to heal in the ways we want to heal, hurt in the ways we accept we will hurt, and not harm in ways we never, ever intended to harm.

Ben may have been present when this precious soul died, but he and K’s parents – and the entire healthcare team in close partnership – allowed K to truly live, up until her last breath.

I find this to be so deeply healing in this era of medicine.

No Ordinary Sunday

The readjusting back and forth between intensely challenging nursing shifts and everyday normal life is a real thing to navigate. It still catches me by surprise every time, how hard it really is.
I am in the thick of a full 12+ hours of trying to manage chaos and logistics in a unit full of very sick patients as charge nurse. In the blur, I am stopped in my tracks by moments of seeing family members who had literally just a minute ago received devastating news. A mother weeps, clutching her child’s teddy bear to her chest. The teddy bear is caught in this strange in-between of what was, and what now is. And then just 30 minutes later, I see the next set of family members with the same, but profoundly unique, broken expression.
I don’t want to grow overly accustomed to that expression on the family members’ faces and what it means. Yesterday held neither the appropriate time or space to let the stories sink in, to let me pay respect to the stories by allowing a human emotional response to all that they hold.
They always hit the next day. I work every Saturday, so often it’s Sunday at church. I’m catching up with friends I haven’t seen in a week. I want to hear about their life and their own joys and burdens. In the pit of my stomach I am nauseous with sadness over the stories that are hitting me. I am singing songs about hope, redemption, and joy, and it is in the practice of trying to form truthful words with my lips that I find the rubber hits the road with what faith in a good and loving God really means. This happens every Sunday for me, this small crisis of faith, as I am reconciling everything I have seen just the day before at work with everything my soul aches to sing with conviction on an ordinary Sunday at church.
I am chasing my healthy children in the church courtyard, taking in the gift that these ordinary moments are – to be able to just chase my healthy children at church. In my mind, I find myself reverently asking the parent next to me, “Isn’t it incredible…that we are here, watching our children play?” But I realize how odd that would sound. I am trying to catch up with friends after a week apart. And I am trying to decide whether to speak of my nausea and sadness, my mini crisis of faith, my weekly reconciling at church of what hope and joy look like for me, what they look like for the families with that indescribable expression that I left at the hospital yesterday. Do they look the same, or are they altogether different? Should they?
This is the navigating that I do as a nurse, between ‘work’ and ‘real life.’ They seem so entirely opposed and contradictory to each other, and yet so deeply and profoundly connected.
There is, for me, no ordinary Sunday.

A Strange Gift

Warning: This post is a bit on the heavier side, especially compared to the silliness of my recent conversations with Siri.

Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever done post-mortem care on a little patient, minus the partial experience I had as a nursing student a few years ago. Surreal hardly begins to describe the experience, from cleaning up a messy room that bears witness to the intense activity involved in coding a patient, to making eye contact with parents who are absolutely raw with grief, to bathing the patient in order to restore some small sense of dignity, to wrapping the patient with a shroud and bringing the patient to the hospital morgue.

Surreal. But it is part of my world. Our world, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

I was drawn to ICU nursing because I have a strong appreciation for the depth of issues that we face there, and I see it as an incredibly precious time to be a support for not only the patient but their grieving family members as well, particularly when we are dealing with end-of-life care.

But the weight of it all is substantial. The quiet entrance into a room full of grieving family members is the entrance into a space that has just suffered the most violent of all emotional earthquakes, looking for a foundation, is there one left? A space full of disappointment beyond measure but sometimes also hope, anger but sometimes also peace, and exhaustion… always exhaustion. After all, it takes everything you have and everything you are to say good-bye to the heart of your own heart. It takes all your being to search for light in a very dark place. This is the space that I entered as a nurse yesterday. What could I bring? What could I bring, and would it change anything in this space?

I could bring juice and crackers to parents who have thought very little of their own needs for hours, days, weeks, months, years.

I could clean up the room, quietly, gently, respectfully. There are some parts of saying good-bye that you just don’t need to remember, especially in an ICU. I could reduce the sense of chaos in some small way. I wanted such a clean room for them.

I could bring silence. Of course if they had questions, I would do my best to answer. But in terms of consolation for newly grieving parents, I am convinced that less is more. Maybe I say this out of my own lack of tolerance for pat answers. The movement towards resolution with our suffering is simply not as neatly packaged and bow-tied as some might have us think, and I am convinced we need to learn how to get more comfortable with being really uncomfortable in the gray areas – even as people of faith. I am convinced that the gift of silence to a grieving family is the recognition that they have now been thrust into an extremely uncomfortable, gray area, where they will likely stay for a very long time. Trying to move them out of it with premature clichés is counterproductive and potentially very hurtful.

I was so thankful for the accompaniment of an incredibly tender-hearted, skilled social worker who truly bore the brunt of the family’s grief yesterday. I told her how thankful I was that she was there, and that she did what she did so well. Her response was inspiring, sober, and honest. “Some of us are just gifted for this. And it’s a strange gift to have.” I am not an expert. I am awkward and new and scared as a young nurse facing these kinds of big issues. But by the grace of God, I believe I am gifted and called to this work. And I could not agree more. It is a strange gift to have, but it is mine, and it is what I have to offer.

The answer to a Charlie Brown prayer

The other evening, I received a small but profound blessing, a seed.

We had gone away for a brief vacation, both of us burdened by the sadness of many hearts, and weary from the battle for hope and joy and light when the darkness felt so thick. I asked a dear friend to house-sit for us. Yes, and can my other friend come too? She has been looking for a time of retreat. It couldn’t have worked out better. We prepared and cleaned as hastily as we were able, and I was glad that our time of getting away could in turn allow for other hearts to also find a time of hiddenness and rest. We left a small list of things we needed them to do – gather the mail, water the plants, take out the trash. I wanted their work to be minimal, and their rest to be true. I felt a bit badly for the countertops I didn’t get to clean before we left, though I knew these friends wouldn’t mind.

Our vacation was perfect. Mammoth was my much-needed reminder that beauty did not always require heartbreaking effort to find. That is the mercy of God over me. I hope in His redemption but I rest in His unshakable love.

Returning home from vacation always involves a mix of relief (there’s no place like home) and low-grade dread (I’ve got some work to do). On the long drive down U.S. Highway 395, I began to plan what we would do when we got home. First things first. Wash the towels and bedsheets. Wash the dusty dog. Semi-organize all the stuff we unload from the truck. Wash up. The rest can wait until morning.

Weary, though in a lighter-hearted kind of way, we finally arrived home. After unloading our vacation-in-a-truck, I walked into the main living space, and there it was, the blessing. Clean towels, washed and folded. Bedsheets newly washed, beds remade. A handful of thoughtful gifts, and a note. Everything has been washed. Enjoy your rest after a long drive. I walked into the master bathroom, and saw there was more. The countertops I hadn’t gotten to were now wiped down. Even the jacuzzi bathtub, which we hardly use, had the embarrassing spiders and dust rinsed from it. These friends had served us in their own time of retreat, beyond what we could have asked. They gave us a blessing.

In a profound Peanuts cartoon strip by Charles Schulz, Charlie Brown whispers a prayer one dark night after reassuring a very frightened Snoopy that the sun would eventually come out again. Who comforts the comforter? That was my heart as I wept in my prayers before leaving for Mammoth. God, my heart feels so drained, and so lonely. Who comforts the comforter?

These friends had given us the blessing of meeting anticipated needs. They were God’s answer to my prayer. I know what you need. I know what you need. He moved hearts to be thoughtful in the most substantial form of the word, to be sacrificial, to be incarnationally compassionate down to the most minute details.  I took this blessing, this seed, and put it in my heart. It is growing. Hope. Joy. Light. Life.

The Case for Counseling

At first, I thought it was a copout response. My patient’s mom knew that her child was extremely sick, but she told the medical team that she didn’t want any real “bad news” until the father was able to join her in a week. The overly practical part of me thought, with a shameful lack of sympathy, “So we’re just supposed to keep this poor child in medical limbo, and an expensive one at that, until Dad gets here to make any sort of plan one way or another?” The more that I considered the mom’s position and response, however, the more I saw and respected her self-awareness and her humility. She knew that any decisive family conference would essentially determine the entire course of her child’s life – aggressive but painful measures to try and fight the awful disease with a poor prognosis, or comfort measures that would likely lead to an earlier but hopefully peaceful death. This mom was aware that one set of shoulders and one heart, valiant but frail, was not enough to hold the weight of this burden. She needed the help of another, and not to mention, the dad certainly deserved a voice in the matter. She was wise to advocate for herself, because it would not do her other child, healthy and growing, any good for mom to become consumed by the heartache of a burden too great.

This is my case for counseling. A friend and I talked over lunch about the taboo that still exists with regards to seeing therapists. I understand completely that therapy might not be for everyone, or perhaps only for certain seasons of life. But why do we hold such judgment towards one another for our common brokenness, our need for the help of another?

When a person has a broken leg and cannot walk, the doctor is wise to prescribe a crutch and the patient is wise to lean on it. Unhelpful pressure is alleviated, and healing can happen. The person who tells the patient that he should be strong enough, brave enough, to just keep walking without a crutch is not kind nor wise. It always saddens me when I hear deeply hurting friends say in response to the suggestion of counseling, “I just don’t want to be seen as someone who needs counseling.” I have to ask again, why do we judge one another and judge ourselves so harshly for our brokenness?

I’ll dare to get even more controversial here. Some Christians say that the Bible and prayer should be sufficient for any faith-filled believer to work through his or her troubles. I love the comfort and the direction of the Word of God. My heart has been relieved of many burdens through times of prayer. But does this mean that the Apostle Paul was wrong when he wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in so doing, fulfill the law of Christ”? Did he misunderstand the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, our Wonderful Counselor, when he penned these words? God knows I need my family and friends when life is hard. Why can an insightful therapist not be another tool that God uses to help carry out this exhortation in our times of trial and confusion?

I have not been a parent to a dying child in a pediatric intensive care unit. But I have faced issues in my life that have been bigger than me, bigger than my understanding, bigger than my maturity, bigger than my solitary heart could manage. It is the discernment, the objectivity, the outside, unbiased perspective of a tender-hearted, insightful, truth-speaking therapist that has helped me untangle myself multiple times from the mess of painful circumstances, the twisted lies of Satan, the flawed voices of people too close to the situation, and my own spinning thoughts. I can see situations for what they actually are, and I can breathe again. The outside pressure is alleviated, and I have the space I need to heal.

I am thankful to God for those who have the courage to help bear our burdens this way. It is my prayer that we will be kinder towards one another and towards ourselves when considering the option of undergoing counseling in our times of need.

through someone else’s song

In my high school years, my friends and I were young, zealous, and just a little foolish in our desire to do good for others. We didn’t know what we were doing, but you sure had to give us an A for effort. We would go to Denny’s, the four of us, order one serving of toast, and throw all the little packets of jam into our backpacks, only to call over the waiter and ask for more jam. You can imagine, this only worked so well. It was a miracle we never ended up in the back washing dishes. We then made our way to the market where we bought a loaf of Wonder bread, a container of peanut butter, and bottled water. From there, we would seek out any homeless person we could find and give them their pb&j fixings ad nauseum for the week.

Something else we did quite regularly was visit the local nursing homes with my guitar. We just kind of wandered in and poked our heads into any rooms with open doors, asking if we could visit awhile. It was a slightly disturbing miracle that we never, to my recollection, were stopped or questioned by the staff as to who we were or why we were entering the residents’ rooms.

One visit stands out in my memory. We found a woman in her 40s or 50s, sitting next to her aged mother, who clearly suffered from a considerable degree of dementia. She was unresponsive to our questions, gazing at us with a confused look through forlorn eyes. We offered to sing a well-known hymn, “Because He Lives.” We closed the door to her room and sang softly.

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow; because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.

The light in the room seemed to grow softer. Peace replaced anxiety. Dare I say, joy came to us. The elderly woman quietly whispered the words of the song. It was as though we had ever so slightly stepped for a moment into that future time and place where sorrow and tears and death will be no more, and our hearts were glad.

Fast forward many years.

I had received an unexpected phone call. A loved one was in a hospital, many miles away. A suicide attempt. Please come quickly if you can.

I had no words for the pain, it ran so deep. I could not utter my prayers, I did not know what to ask or how to ask it. But there was a hymn that a close friend emailed to me. When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul. It was the sung prayer of my soul. For weeks, as my loved one slowly recovered, words continued to evade me, both in conversation and in prayer. I ached, deeply. Did God hear the words I could not find?

One Sunday, I visited a nearby church rather than attending my own. I had no energy to keep up the façade to help others feel less uncomfortable with my pain. The pastor preached on anxiety and trusting the goodness of God because we see Christ, who bore our grief and infirmities, so that we might be healed. I went forward for Communion. The pastor met my tearful gaze. This is His body, broken for you. I returned to my seat, and the very moment I bowed my head, the music team began to play a hymn.

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.

What is this love that comes so tenderly from heaven to earth, to this heart that could not pray but through someone else’s song. He heard my cry. Peace replaced anxiety. Even in grief, joy had come.

Not Yours, but You

There is an aspect of nursing that I thought would come so much more naturally than it does. The listening ear. The emotional support and connection. I didn’t think it would be so hard. My patient came to us in great discomfort, inconsolable. The parents were tearful, scared, exhausted. I introduced myself to them as gently as I could, and then I lost my words. So I jumped into my tasks of getting the patient admitted into the unit, settled, charted. The whole time, I felt the quiet weight of the parents’ emotions filling the room beyond what it could contain. I wanted to say something, ask something, but I had no words. Performing the tasks was so much easier than making the efforts to connect.

This morning, I was reading the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, and this short phrase jumped out at me.

…for I do not seek yours, but you.

Oh.

My.

This is me:

I seek Yours, God, less often than I seek You.

I seek others’ (fill in the blank), less often than I actually seek others.

And in return, I give my (fill in the blank) more easily and more often than I give me.

Rankin Wilbourne recently preached a powerful sermon, “Lord of the Whips,” in which he pointed out that in our times of suffering, when we seek to find comfort in the reasons why God does certain things, we will be then tempted to place our hope in those reasons rather than in God Himself. This is true of me. The more I seek and find comfort in what is His – the earth and all its fullness, His blessings, His gifts, His explanations, even His comfort (just for the sake of comfort), the less I will seek and treasure Him. That’s why I still doubt and question Him when He withholds what is His from me. It’s so hard for me to separate Him from what He gives. What He gives is always a reflection of Who He is. But they are not equal. His gifts are not always required to prove Who He is. When I don’t get this, I am prone to turn my back on Him, when I just want His things and cannot have them.

When we settle for the mere exchange of things, this is dead religion. God, I’ll give You my time, my service, my good behavior, my things. And I think that You ought to give me Your things, dare I say, Your expected behavior, in exchange. We become frustrated when this exchange doesn’t “work”, when God doesn’t seem to keep up His end of the bargain. As if this is all He ever wanted from us. As if He just wanted things from us, without us.

No. He doesn’t just want things from us. He wants to be with us, and us with Him.

This holds true in my relationships with people. The more I seek what other people can give me – validation, recognition, praise, respect, material things – the less I even seek to know, much less love, them for who they actually are. And concerning my own openness, or lack thereof to others, my experiences in nursing, in friendships, in marriage, all reveal to me how hard it can be for me to give of my actual self. To be quite honest, I’m not even sure what that actually fully looks like. I’m much better at just giving my things.

Curiously, the context of Paul writing that short but profound phrase to the Corinthians comes after he is broken of his legalistic, Pharisaical spirit; redeemed and esteemed in Christ; and then deeply broken again by the loving all-sufficiency of Christ. The ongoing work of God’s breaking in our lives is so that we can say,

Not yours, but you.

Not mine, but me.

what denying oneself is not

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and processing with certain people about some of my deeper heart issues that have been arising from my counseling sessions and from some of the current life situations I find myself in. Tonight, I feel that some clarity is finally starting to emerge from the vast swarm of thoughts and emotions and issues that I’ve been trying to sort out. And I think, no, I know, that God is doing something deep and profound in healing my heart in ways that I have needed for a long, long time. I think a great deal has to do with unlearning certain things about the denial of self that I used to label as “Christian,” “godly,” or “Biblical.” That is what this post will be about. What denying oneself is not. Hopefully, as I continue to process this under the authority of God’s Word, I can get a better sense in time of what true Biblical denial of self is.

Denying oneself is not being ignorant of one’s inner desires, passions, or preferences in the name of being God-centered or other-centered.  For example, consider the basic and common question of, “Where do you want to go for dinner?”  It is not somehow more godly to say, “Umm…I don’t know…wherever you want is fine” in comparison to “I would love to eat Afghan food right now.” Sometimes I think that we confuse dying to ourselves with losing ourselves and our God-given uniqueness completely. To apply this to a more important scenario beyond choosing a place to eat, I would say this also applies to how one feels about things such as large, loud conferences and ‘cold-contact’ evangelism. It took me so long, and so much deprogramming, to realize that not every godly and mature Christian ought to love and be passionate about those things. I am an introvert. I do enjoy conferences a great deal and have gained invaluable treasures for growth through conferences. But they make me very tired, and there is always a point during the conference where I deeply crave solitude. I don’t want to be in a loud crowd, 24-7. I don’t want to be jumping from session to workshop to small group to workshop to session. At some point, the introvert in me becomes completely saturated and I need to be away from conference activities and people so that I can actually take in on a deep heart level what God wants me to take in from the conference. I am an introvert. I am terrible with chit-chat, small talk, in-your-face conversations, i.e. cold-contact evangelism. I thrive on trusting, established friendships where I can share about my faith and my relationship with God in a way that is much more me. Generally speaking, outside of times when God, (not another person, mind you) has clearly asked me to step beyond my comfort zones in faith, I am doing everyone a disservice by trying to be something other than who God has made me.

Denying oneself is not a self-righteous disregard for healthy boundaries in oneself and in others. Between Mary and Martha, Mary set boundaries for herself by saying no to the chores, the busyness of hosting, the running herself ragged, so that she could say yes to sitting at her beloved Savior’s feet and receiving all that He had to impart to her. Jesus said that between the two sisters, Mary had chosen the better thing. Jesus Himself had boundaries. He moved on from town to town even though there were plenty more crowds clamoring for His attention, His touch, His miracles. He loved them without doubt; after all, He would eventually go to the cross for them. But He also set boundaries with them and said no to many requests from a deeper place of wisdom than most people could understand, much less accept.

Denying oneself is not a lack of self-care. There is something very wrong when we find ourselves saying, “I don’t have time to exercise because I’m involved with this non-profit organization and that church committee and this mothers’ group and that support group.” Denial of self does not necessarily mean that we completely disregard our own selves as persons just because we are so fixated on caring for other people. The apostle Paul asked for a little wine to soothe his stomach while he was in prison. He didn’t say, “Oh, heck, I’m already wasting away in prison. Give that wine to someone else.” I think at some point, I became a bit invisible to myself and I forgot that I too was actually a person who needed care and attention. As a result, I would ignore or invalidate internal red flags trying to warn me when my own spirit was being sorely neglected. Tonight, as I was going on a much-needed long run, I suddenly had a moment when I sensed the Lord just telling me how much I mattered to Him. That all this counseling and the active steps I’ve been taking towards better self-care has not been so much about me becoming overly self-indulgent, but it’s been about Him wanting me to finally understand that HE. LOVES. ME.  He knows me. I matter to Him too, just as much as everyone else that I’m seeking to serve. And He delights in me.

And so I believe this transforms how we then approach what it does mean to deny oneself for the sake of glorifying Christ and loving and serving others. That will require more musing and more time in the Word. And quite possibly a few more tears of both conviction as well as freedom. I am hopeful.