Sack Cloth and Ashes/The “R” word
1 Kings 21:27 “It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sack cloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently.”
Acts 2:38 “Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 8:22,23 “Therefore, repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” (NLV says, “Repent of your wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive your evil thoughts, for I can see that you are full of bitter jealousy and are held captive by sin.”)
When I started writing this blog and the stories of my life for everyone to read, I’ll confess I didn’t know what God was going to ask me to write about. Some things I never thought I would put out for public viewing have been the very things that God wanted me to speak most on. God has been good to me and has used the words I write to help others in their own situations and with their own feelings of inadequacy and insecurity and I am humbled that God has taken me from the “pits of my despair” and lifted me up to a place where I can be used to glorify his name.
I will also confess that I have never not once, put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. Up until a few months ago, I had a vague idea of what repenting really meant, and a messed-up view of what it should look like. But, again, God has been very good to me and has delivered revelation to me on what he expects from me in this area.
I talk in “Just Wild; Nobody’s Child” about how I hurt a person 3 years ago that I never met. I cannot talk about the details of that story as it involves more than just me, so I will say that this situation was the lowest point in my life and I learned much about shame and guilt and the infection it causes on your insides. I realize that this breeds much curiosity about the circumstance, but I want you to try to envision your own “albatross” in this picture while I write, instead of trying to figure out what great sin I committed. The only thing I can say about the circumstance of that sin is to say that I stole something from another person that stole their stability, comfort, and joy and robbed them of the happiness that they had spent their adult life building. I was a thief.
This sin caused a lot of my drinking and much of my depression, and although neither of these extracurricular sins started with this situation, this particular situation escalated both greatly. I wrote about the day my son told me that I was good for nobody the way I was and that I cried for three days after that before making the decision to get myself up off my couch, stop drinking and try to put some pieces of my broken heart back together. If it hadn’t been for my son, I wouldn’t have bothered trying. I had lost so much of value myself and now with the burden of my guilt, I was so heavy it was exhausting to move. Being awake was its own sort of torture. With every breath I took, I felt that God was telling me that I didn’t deserve to ever be happy, to ever be loved, to ever be able to put the weight of my guilt down. Every single breath in weighed so much I could almost feel my lungs collapsing. Every breath out felt like a nest of angry hornets and injected every part of my soul with malicious venom. I hated who I was, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God hated me too. Not because my parents had let me down, or my ex-husband, or my ex-boyfriend, or any members of a church, or my “friends”, but because of my own decision. I had finally proven them all right. I had become the disgusting, unforgiveable woman that they had been trying to pound me into. They had all won. The devil had me and both of us knew it.
When I started on the journey to find out why I had been placed on this earth to begin with, this sin superseded all other questions. It was only in looking back that I found any sort of relief from my pain. I was living in condemnation and the most effective person that condemned me lived within my soul. I was amazing at condemning myself.
In the Bible and during my reading I constantly ran into verses that talked about sack cloth and ashes and praying in repentance to the Lord. It never occurred to me to ask God what repentance looked like to him and I didn’t have any sack cloth or ashes anyway. I highly doubt that God has been sitting in heaven this whole time waiting for me to rip my clothes and wipe the black stuff from the bottom of a fire pit all over my face, lay face down on my porch and wail to him about what a pitiful and loathsome person I had become. The only problem was, I wasn’t sure what God wanted from me and I didn’t think that I could do enough to make up for all the pain I’d caused. I’m not sure what made me decide to tell Pastor Doctor all of my story…including what I’d done that drug me down every day. I don’t know why I decided to tell him the things that I did, but somewhere in me I kept hearing God say that I needed to be honest, I needed to live in the truth even though it caused me a great deal of pain, and even though I was vulnerable to being judged and thrown out of yet another church due to what I’d done wrong. It would be months before I heard the reason that made so much sense to me about having to come to terms with my story. I was watching Youtube church and Michael Todd said, “God can’t meet you where you aren’t.” If I had lied to Pastor Doctor or left out that part of my story, God couldn’t have come in and done even half of what he has so far. I surely wouldn’t be in place where I could write a public invitation for people to critique my life after knowing so much about what it looked like from behind my eyes.
When I began this journey to Wholeness as Pastor Toure puts it, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I didn’t know what to ask, what to expect, or even how to ask questions. I wish I could say that I started with an abundance of faith that God would change who I was or how I felt, but that would also be a lie. I had nothing. I had nothing but pain, sadness, and brokenness to give God. Guess what? That was fine with him.
I often wonder what my life would have looked like if I had known what God could do way back in my teen years. When I do this, God often shoves the story of my son, Denver, right into the very front spot in my brain. When Denver appears while I am thinking about what ifs, I know that is my sign from God to remember that his timing is perfect.
When I was about 5 months pregnant with Denver, the doctor’s saw something on his ultrasound that they didn’t like. One of his kidney’s didn’t form the way it was supposed to, and they spent the next few months watching it, and me, with a scrutiny that made me uncomfortable about everything I did. I wasn’t sleeping very much and the more pregnant I got the more worried I became. The verses about the sins of the father being passed down to their children kept pounding away in my mind every time the doctor would go over the scans and test results that I was subjected to on a constant basis. I never bothered to notice that the sins of the mother weren’t a part of those verses. I also never bothered to notice what I think God was trying to show me then.
The events of my life, which you know about if you have been reading, hadn’t been very kind to me at all. I had lived a very unloved, very condemned life and soon I was allowing the devil to use one of his only plays on me. In all my years in Church I had learned that God was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. What I never noticed before a few months ago, is that the devil is none of those things. It never occurred to me that the devil is not omnipresent. He cannot be everywhere at the same time. It also never occurred to me that he is not omniscient. He doesn’t know everything, and he cannot hear our thoughts. He is also not all powerful or omnipotent. I’m not sure how I missed this…except that I had spent so much of my life trying to figure out why God hated me that I hadn’t really explored the option that it might be Satan who hated me instead. If I had stopped and thought about it for just a second, I might have realized that the devil is a lot of things, but he is best at being an Omni Liar. That’s it. His trick was to keep me wrapped up in just enough of my pain that I kept busy hating myself and he could go focus his efforts on someone who was strong enough to cause him problems. I’d still be sitting there at the base of the cross, not bothering to look up to Jesus and being held down from my own pain that he could leave me alone and not worry about me for a solid 20 years. God showed me something years later when I thought about how much Denver had gone through to be the source of quiet strength he is for me today.
When I was pregnant with him, we had ultrasound machines and fancy equipment that could tell my doctors that something was deficient with my son. I worried endlessly over what I could have done to prevent this giant problem and I was in an almost constant state of panic and anxiety over what would happen when he was born. Three days after he was born, I cried years’ worth of tears watching them poke my baby with needles and his tiny face turning purple from crying every time they stuck him, rooting around in his little arms for a vein. I felt helpless and worthless as my son screamed in pain and I couldn’t even hold him to help. They laid him on a table and strapped him down and for 3 agonizing hours I watched Lasik fluid being pumped through his little 7-pound body. When it was finally over, I picked up my baby and went home determined to protect him from everything I could from that day forward. I didn’t even let his dad hold him for a few days. My momma heart was terrorized from that experience.
They told us that Denver might have to be born at Riley Children’s Hospital because his kidneys were not functioning the way they should. We would just have to wait and see. I don’t know what sort of torture this was, but I am still convinced that telling someone just wait and see is against the Geneva Convention. If you ask me it ranks right up there with sleep deprivation tactics or yanking out someone’s fingernails one by one. I told you the story of Denver’s birth, but in the midst of the terrorist attacks on our country, my baby boy was born healthy…. with an 18% kidney function on one side. By his first birthday that kidney had disappeared. And wouldn’t you know it, you could never tell it by watching him. Denver developed a respiratory issue that was a lot like asthma and then they found two heart murmurs. You couldn’t see signs of those things either. It seemed like every time I took him to the doctor, they found something else wrong with him that I couldn’t see.
What I learned from this years later, is that we can look fine on the outside and potentially life-threatening diseases can wreak havoc on our insides and we would never know. The only issues Denver ever had was a bunch of ear infections, an extremely long recovery time from colds or the flu and every so often he would have to be put on breathing treatments which he screamed through. I have never seen a kid get so mad and loud just by having air put by his face. My worrying and panic attacks over my baby boy did nothing to heal him. Had I not known that those problems existed, I wouldn’t have over-hawked my son to death and blamed every single thing he did wrong on his brothers. Had I not known those problems existed, I might have never watched for signs that he was hurting or even known what to do when he couldn’t breathe in the middle of the night.
Sometimes, our inside pain doesn’t show…at least not in the ways we think it should look like. If Denver’s doctors hadn’t found those issues, we probably still wouldn’t know that Denver only has one kidney or two holes in his heart. You can’t examine anything if you don’t have the tools to do so. I think that God tells me through Denver’s story is that I couldn’t fix what was wrong with him any more than I could fix what was wrong with myself because I didn’t have the tools needed in either case. I would have to rely on God and his omnipotence to do that. Since I didn’t have the promise of that either, I was weighed down with guilt and anxiety and shame and it ate away at anything good that was inside of me.
How does that correlate to my sin story? I didn’t have some sort of marvelous machine to look around on my insides to see the poison eating away at me. Misery charges interest. So does pain. Sin is sort of the same way, except after awhile it isn’t satisfied with people just being eaten alive solo anymore. Kind of like a tick it isn’t satisfied with sucking all the good out of one victim…it has to multiply and go cause more disease. When you are sick on the inside everything looks like a cure. When you are sick in the heart, things that cause more sickness look like a vaccine. If you inject just a little more sickness, maybe it will stop the disease. Only, sadly, that is not the case. When you inject a little more sickness, it leaks out. You can’t put more water in a full cup and expect it not to overflow.
I didn’t need any more sickness. I needed my system flushed out. I have read multiple stories of people who are addicted to hard drugs talk about their detox being incredibly difficult. I don’t think it was God’s plan to let me overflow with sickness before I could begin my detox. I believe that was Satan. I think that is one of the tricks he used. He has so very few plays that he uses over and over and this is one of them. He just piles a little more hurt and a little more anguish to try to keep people in pain. He tried that with me. Only he messed around and put to much on top of me and I got too full and fell right over the edge. I fell right into God’s hands.
After I hurt the person I never met, I began hurting myself. Not in the way that sounds; I didn’t cut myself or attempt suicide like I had in years past. But anyone who had been watching me knew that I was dead on the inside. I didn’t let anyone get close enough to see that pain though, so it would have been very hard for someone besides my kids to catch. I hurt myself by the company I kept and the choices I made to try to escape the pain that I had caused. I piled more hurt on top of what had been done to me, what I had done to others, and started doing things to myself that added layers of guilt onto what I carried around. I started doing things that I swore for years I would never do. I hung out with men that I never would have talked to 5 years earlier, I slept with some that I never would have dated in a million years and I let myself believe the lies of the devil. I just gave up. For such a strong person to have survived 100% of my worst days, I became my own worst day. Every single day.
When Zeb spoke to me that day and told me that I wasn’t good for anyone, I didn’t even bother telling him that I already knew that. What shocked me was that he could tell, along with the rest of my kids. I didn’t cry because it was a revelation that I was filled with poison. I cried because I had thought that nobody noticed. I cried because I was ashamed. Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have any sack cloth and ashes, but if I had to guess, those three days afterwards would have been the time that I would have used them.
When I finally had the mindset that I was going to climb out of this pit, not because I deserved to be loved, or because I deserved any peace, I didn’t start with the question of what repentance was. I started with looking at what was wrong with me. When I finally investigated what it meant to repent, I felt a little stupid. Repenting doesn’t mean you live your life in constant sorrow for hurting someone else. The definition of repent is to change one’s mind. I struggled for years thinking that God was still punishing me for things because I wasn’t sorry enough for what I had become. I was never sure what God wanted me to do, I couldn’t be any sorrier for what I had turned into and the things I had done that hurt other people. But when he showed me what he meant by repent he followed closely with what he means when he says he forgives us. Galatians 5:21 says “I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless, for if keeping the law could make us right with God, there was no need for Christ to die.” Joyce Meyer says in her book “Healing the Soul of a Woman” that “No one is beyond God’s reach, not you and not the people you have hurt.” In another chapter that I found incredibly comforting, she says, “We often try to leap over our problems or find a way to go around them so we don’t have to deal with them but that never produces good results in life. If we hope to see the end fulfillment, we need to go all the way through the things that are blocking our path. We cannot go part of the way then park when life is difficult.”
Part of the reason that forgiveness is such a difficult concept for me to grasp is that I never felt comfortable hanging out in the past to find any answers. I didn’t like it there. So many Bible verses say that when you are saved you become a new person in Christ and that the old sins are washed away. That’s all well and good but what if you don’t feel like they are? I knew I was saved, but how could I get from feeling like a garbage about the things that I had done wrong to seeing myself as God sees me? I can’t without looking at the past and having him walk me through it.
In my last post I talked about my uncertainty of being saved or “born again” before the Pandemic. I am still technically a baby Christian any way you look at it, whether I was saved from my childhood or just now saved during the stay at home order. God is not mad at me for going back into my past with him to ask him to show me what I need to see so that I can heal before I can move forward. He allows me to ask questions and cry over situations that still hurt me. I can tell him that I don’t understand what certain parts of my life have to do with anything or what they were supposed to teach me and he incessantly reminds me that he wants me to see myself as loved as he does. It gives me the courage to look into my sin, into my insecurity, into my anxiety, and into the things I don’t like about myself and show them to him. He doesn’t need me to show them to him because he doesn’t see them. He sees everything. He wants me to show these things to him because he wants to know that I see them and that I know I can’t heal from them on my own. I am a new creation and I understand repenting now. I have changed my mind on so many things from my past it makes my head spin. I am still working on those things. I’ll be honest. It is hard for me to “feel” forgiven in a situation where I cannot ask forgiveness from the person I hurt. It is hard for me to “feel” forgiven for hurting myself and doing things that God told me long ago not to do. It is impossible. I have a shirt that I wear quite often that says, “I don’t exist to be perfect. I exist to be real. To be perfect is a bit too much for me.” (Pierre Alex Jeanty) God knew I couldn’t be perfect and when I made the commitment to just be real with him and with myself He allowed me to find some joy in the real that he created when he made me.
I have learned to repent and if this post speaks to you, understand that it was one of the hardest to write because I don’t really want to talk about a situation that I haven’t all the way healed from yet. Meyer says, “One of the devil’s main goals is to prevent us from loving and valuing ourselves. Replace the devil’s lies with God’s word. Each time you do you are winning a battle that will eventually make you the victor in the war he has launched against your life.” That is the reason why I write about things I don’t have all the answers to yet. If I had waited until I had all the answers I never would have started writing. The devil tries to keep me weighed down with guilt, but God keeps telling me that he took away my sin and got rid of it for me. He CHOOSES to see me as a new creation, because he sent his son to die for what I did wrong. He CHOSE to pay a high price for me even though he knew that I would colossally screw up not only my own life but someone else’s and he thought I was worth it anyway. He loves me because he wants to, not because someone told him he had to. He CHOOSES to love everything about me, and he chose to do that before I ever even got put on this planet.
God knows that there is someone out there reading this who hasn’t healed from a pain they caused and can find their own solace in the way I write my story. If it isn’t you and you don’t like the way I did it, I apologize. Maybe it wasn’t meant for you. Maybe your sack cloth and ashes look different than mine.