Harvest Table

Happy

Today Lesli Slack shares with us a very personal story of how God has brought her to a place of true happiness, and it's not in the way you might expect. We think you'll be able to relate....
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I want to be happy.

I know what I should really be saying is that I want to be joyful. Joy is deeper, more abiding. Joy comes from a place of contentment that is not dependent on the circumstance around me. It comes from knowing God and knowing who I am in Him. Joy is mature and stable. That should be my goal, and it is!

But something inside me still says, “I want to be happy!” Which begs the question, “What is going to make me happy?” or “Why am I not happy?”

I think in my mind, a joyful person looks serene, relaxed. A happy person is animated, excited, and exuberant! I know I’m mixing these words up terribly, but that is how I think, and I think this is why:

When I was younger, say from around 18 to around 28, I was an “unhappy” person, but I would always pacify myself by saying I still had the joy of the Lord in me. People around me would say things like, “You are such a graceful woman” or “You are always so calm and peaceful.” The image I was portraying was someone who was mature and had the joy of the Lord. I can’t say that I didn’t have the joy of the Lord, but I can say that I was not happy.

At 18 years old, I found I had a muscle disorder that put a permanent weakness in my body. Up until then, I was a healthy gymnast who was strong and independent. It was humiliating and humbling. I was ashamed of letting anyone see my weakness, and would usually only go out in public when I was feeling my strongest or when I absolutely had to. On top of the physical weakness, it began to highlight another weakness, relationships. I didn’t know how to be vulnerable in sharing my fears and struggles. I only showed people my best side and kept things shallow. At the same time, the best friend that I had announced that I was no longer fun to be around and began to avoid me. This only furthered my resolve to keep up appearances and try to be as pleasant as possible. Bottom line, I was depressed. Life became one day at a time but with a hope for a better tomorrow.

Things weren’t always terrible. I didn’t avoid people all together and I was regularly pursued by one guy or another. It made me feel good about myself and gave me the hope that I could one day be “happily” married. Well, Prince Charming did come along. He was tall, dark, and handsome and godly to boot! I knew that he was the answer to my happily-ever-after. Our courtship was refreshing and relatively trouble free. Fourteen months after we started dating, we were married and began what we believed would be the happiest and most perfect of lives.

What we failed to realize was that marriage doesn’t change you; it only reveals who you are. We were both proud, self-sufficient, and pretty much, unhappy people. Life came at us fast. We had three healthy boys in three years and my husband lost his job and had to drive a taxi for two years. Like I said, I continued to remind myself that God’s joy was in me and that always comforted me. But I was not happy!

Yes, I was letting the circumstances around me dictate my mood.

Here is where the rubber really hit the road though. Even though biblically I knew the Lord wanted me to have joy, I began to believe that I did not deserve to be happy. Even though circumstances were hard, it was my mistakes, my sin, my inadequacies, my husband’s inadequacies that would not allow me to be happy. Thus began a vicious cycle of rising hope and crippling shame in my life.

I knew God was working in my life and different areas were experiencing grace for change. I was not without hope, but lasting happiness eluded me. I’m not talking about a happiness that revolves around a perfect life with everything going right, but just the ability to stay positive and excited about life for more than 2 or 3 days straight. The cycle would go something like this: I would read a really great book about the love or grace of God, or my husband and I would have a great talk or an amazing date night and it would feel like I was finally free to enjoy life. But then “reality” would set in. My mind would begin to entertain the most guilty and shameful of thoughts.

“How can you talk about the grace of God when you are not allowing it to change you in certain areas?”

“How can you be at peace with yourself when you know how displeasing it is to God that you are in debt?”

“What makes you think you’re a good parent when you can’t even have a meal prepared for your family more than two days in a row?”

“What makes you think you’re a good wife when you say no to him more than you say yes?”

My husband began to see these patterns long before I did. He would often ask me, “What would make you happy? You have to find out what is going to make you happy. I will do whatever I can to make that happen.” I could never answer his questions. I honestly did not know. I think he knew I was having these negative thoughts, but maybe not to the extent that I held on to them.

Of course, God uses everything, every day to bring us closer to Him, but there are a few significant moments that opened my eyes to my lack of happiness.

One was when my children were relatively young. I yelled at my children often and even though I didn’t outwardly nag, my husband knew I was more often than not disappointed in him.

A movie came out about a housewife with three teenage daughters. One day her husband disappears and she tells her girls that he ran off with the secretary. As the girls navigate their way through their teens and twenties, their mother becomes a very bitter and angry woman. Her daughters have to work around her bitterness, and trying to remain in good relationship with her is like hugging a cactus. The kicker is that at the end of the movie, they find out that the father actually fell down a well in the back yard and died. What an eye opener for me! I thought, what a waste of a life being angry and bitter about nothing! I realized that I was that woman! I needed to wake up before it was too late.

Unfortunately, even though this story caught my attention, the roots of shame and bitterness were still too strong to make much progress.

The next event sent the course of our lives in a direction we never imagined. Within a four-month period we were faced with the reality that one of our sons had been lying to us for months, and to a lesser extent, our other two sons as well. My husband also lost his business and we were looking at financial ruin. The next five years were dark and seemingly endless. We realized that our parenting never was and would never be what we had hoped. My husband’s desire to lead and provide was ripped out from under him time and time again. But this was such a strategic time from the hand of God. He never left us, never remained silent. He allowed us to see our utter bankruptcy before Him. He was making it abundantly clear that He wanted to be our everything: our Provider, our Sufficiency, our Righteousness, and our Strength.

Peace was taking hold, but happiness? Not quite.

It was during this time that my husband introduced me to some online videos of a woman named Brene Brown. Her two videos addressed shame and vulnerability. When I first watched them, I didn’t know why my husband wanted me to see them. He said, “Because I know you struggle with shame.” I didn’t even see it. I had to watch them again to begin to see how they related to me. My eyes began to open as she relayed certain statements like, “Everyone has shame, and those who deny it are the ones who struggle with it the most.” “Guilt is saying I did something wrong, but shame is saying that I am wrong.” No wonder the happiness never stayed! How could I be happy when I was such a wrong person? Hope began to show through like a sliver of light. Maybe I wasn’t as wrong as I thought; maybe it was all in my head.

As I connected these thoughts about shame to the good news of the gospel, I began to see what a stronghold I was trapped in. I knew it was only a matter of time now that I would be free from these vicious cycles. God used a very special time to put the nail in the coffin.

I went on a six day retreat with eleven other women in a cabin in North Carolina. Before the retreat, I had decided in my mind that I would be very vulnerable with all these women. I would share my struggles with relationships as well as the offenses I had harbored over the years. On arrival though, the Lord made clear to me His plan. I was only to focus on positive things and on His love for me. I was not allowed to share worrisome thoughts with others, not even the Lord Himself! What a wonderful time it was! He spoke to me in such tender and encouraging ways. He showed me how excited He was to spend time with me every time we were together and how my worrisome and negative thoughts only clouded my view of His loving face.

He did address one negative issue with me. My guilt over our financial debt. He made it clear to me that this was part of His plan all along. Our debt was not something that was keeping us from going out and accomplishing His will, but it was actually anchoring us to Him as He worked on our hearts.

It finally dawned on me that this is how he wants me to be all the time! I am so excited to say, that that vicious cycle has ended! Those negative thoughts, though temptations rise at times, no longer hold sway over my ongoing happiness.

This is not the end of the story. I am happier than I have ever been in my life. This is a happiness that is expressive and excited! There is something else I needed to learn and I am still working on it. It’s like a person who has lost a lot of weight. They had to break the inertia of bad habits and go on a strict routine to get down to that ideal weight. But now that they are there, they need to maintain that lifestyle. The diet and daily exercise will look a little different.

For me, I have been set free from a tremendous weight. I don’t necessarily have to rehearse the self-talk of shame all the time. But I do need to replace my thought life with something else. That something else is gratitude. Through the help of another book, I have been able see that everything in my life is a gift, specifically given to me by God; not just the big things like a loving husband, wonderful children, a comfortable home, and meaningful relationships, but also a cool breeze, a good parking spot, or a stranger’s smile. Nothing is too small to acknowledge as a gift from God. As I have been learning from others and personally, “When I am in the presence of God, He treats me as if I were His favorite!”

So if you asked me today, “What makes you happy?” I would say, “Being free from shame and therefore, free to love others. Knowing that not only does God love me, but He treats my like His favorite, and I could show you thousands reasons why I believe that!” Do you know how happy it makes me to be able to tell others that I am truly happy? It makes me very, very happy!

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