My brother-in-law is a master of trigger pointing. If you find yourself standing next to him at a family gathering, he’s likely to start digging into your shoulders, finding the tension, encouraging you to breathe through the pain. Every time his fingers encounter my neck, he remarks on what he finds there. As he works his way down my shoulder blades, his comments intensify. What is going on?? he asks, clearly concerned. It’s obvious I walk around in a state of constant tension — my jaw tight, my shoulders up to my ears.
This isn’t a new discovery. I began learning last year to identify my “triggers” — those things that set off my anxiety, anger, fear. They always seemed to come at unexpected times, but when I allowed myself to linger there, I realized they weren’t that unexpected after all. And I learned to start noticing my body’s clues — the way I start holding my breath, clench my teeth together, hold my body tight. My body knows intuitively before my brain has even clued in — I need to hold it together or I will fall apart. At least that’s what this fight or flight response tells me. And usually, I’m passively convinced by it.
When I notice my body’s clues, I can consciously release the tension. And instead of holding my breath, I begin to breathe: to breath in grace, breathe out prayer. Instead of letting my mind follow my body’s unconscious response, I direct it elsewhere — to my loving Father who cares for the birds and for my every worry — to Jesus, who is before all things and in whom all things hold together.
The tension in my shoulders reveals so much about the state of my heart. And as I’ve found myself going another round with depression this fall, I’m grateful for this picture of the intricate dance between our bodies and souls. We are whole creatures — not meant to dwell in the purely physical, but not meant to try to escape our bodies, longing for higher spirituality. We groan alongside fallen creation, eagerly awaiting the redemption of our bodies. There is darkness in my mind and tension in my body, and they are not unrelated to each other.
Read any book on mindfulness and they’ll tell you that suffering is caused by resisting pain. Pain is a part of life, but instead of leaning into it, acknowledging it, grieving it, praying through it, I clench my jaw and restrict my shoulders. I hold my breath and hope it will pass.
I hold my breath while my brother-in-law digs into the knots on my neck and he rebukes me. It’ll only make it worse, he says. Relax and breathe through it.
This is not just common grace wisdom, it’s Biblical truth. “Consider it joy,” James writes, “whenever you face trials of various kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so you’ll be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Don’t resist the pain, he says. Your pain is evidence that this world is fallen, yes, but it’s also the means through which God is at work, shaping you more and more into the image of Christ. Relax and breathe through it.
Christine Hoover paints a picture of this in her forthcoming book, Searching for Spring*. She asks if we will wrestle or rest — “Certainly, we must wrestle our hearts into rest, but in continually wrestling without finally resting — and God will give you this option, waiting patiently by — we will ask why for our entire lives. In resting, we don’t escape suffering, grief, or inconsolable things but we stand in a hope that a greater story is unfolding and, in seeing the story arc, we’re able to see our own lives in sharper focus, through a lens of beauty.”
Will I wrestle or rest?
I’m finding that this invitation to rest — to relax and breathe through it — is an invitation to release.
Like many others, I love the idea of choosing a word for the year. It’s this theme God is pressing onto my heart, drawing me to bring before him in prayer, to wrestle with in light of his Word. This year, it came in the form of a friend’s question. As she helped me work through the physical reality of depression and what I need to put in place to heal my body, she wisely directed me to also consider my soul: What do you need to release that is keeping you depressed?
What am I holding onto so tightly? What keeps my thoughts dwelling in darkness, my shoulders up to my ears? Where am I grasping for control, for quiet, for purpose, for attention? Why am I so angry? What is keeping me depressed?
A few months ago, Jordan and I sat on the balcony and talked about the nature of repentance. Do we really repent? I asked him. Do we hate and forsake our sin, or are we just sorry we’re not better people? Is it godly grief or just prideful sorrow?
It’s related to this question of release — Amber Haines gave words to it in her book Wild in the Hollow*: “Repentance is a sorrow toward one’s own sin, a recognized need, and a change of mind. Repentance is the turning point, a place of very active transformation, and also a place of release…Repentance is the opposite of being stuck.”
Repentance is releasing the sin that clings and separates me from the God who gave His Son to make me His. Repentance restores this relationship. His patient kindness leads me there, inviting me to release the sin I’m clinging to — those things I’m using to build a wall around myself, to distance myself from this God who loves me.
That’s what I’m praying for in 2018. Grace to release. To embrace true repentance that I might know grace more intimately. To let go in faith of that which keeps me stuck. It’s a terrifying prayer, to put everything on the table and choose to believe the goodness of the God who gives and takes away. But the point is not that it won’t be painful, the point is that in releasing, He will provide the grace — to relax and breathe through it.