“I tried and tried to rectify my hopeless situation, but I bought the lie I still had work to do. Now I’m working nine to five like I can earn my own salvation, but there is no condemnation in you.” -Jimmy Needham, “Forgiven and Loved”
My name is Tessa. I grew up with a mom who has always known Jesus and a dad who tried to know Him. My dad has theology, but he doesn’t believe it for himself; he would tell me how much Jesus loved me, and he truly believed it, but if I were to tell him Jesus loved him, too, he’d disagree. It was a unique situation to be born into, and I didn’t quite realize the magnitude of its impact on me until I was older; I never simply pick a side, but instead will always seek the truth in what everyone is saying. My context is two-fold, so I am, too.
C.S. Lewis, in his autobiography, makes a distinction between “childhood” and “boyhood.” For him, childhood is made of innocence and joy and play, while boyhood is made of growing up and hardship and harsh realities. I can so relate to his way of thinking. Let’s say I had childhood and girlhood.
I had a beautiful childhood. I have very few specific memories, but whenever I envision my earliest years, I see myself in gardens and in my yard amongst the fruit trees, playing pretend and creating. There is one memory that my mind chose to keep with absolute clarity: I can see myself in a lacey dress, hands folded, asking Jesus into my heart with a prayer that a story-teller at my church was leading me in. My four-year-old subconscious knew that moment was important, and tucked it away so that I would always be able to look at it.
Clear memories begin to surface at age six, which is difficult for me, because six marks the age that my insides began to change. I began a friendship with a deeply hurt little girl; at the time, I didn’t know, but now I remember the things she told me and ache because of how normal they seemed to her. These painful, ugly things were in her life at such a young age and neither of us were completely aware of how serious they were. What she knew and shared with me hurt her, too. Our friendship fizzled out when I was around thirteen, but some of her hurts had become mine, too. I grew harmful, sinful habits and thoughts as a result of what we talked about and did. I don’t know what caused it for her, and it hurts me to imagine the possibilities, but all I know is that she had been sexually awakened much too early. And because she didn’t know what to do with that part of her brain, she shared it with me. I was then awakened early, too, and at a loss of what to do with this new thing in my brain. I place no blame on her. She was broken, too.
The most pervasive habit I grew from that situation was masturbation. I thought I’d made it up; until I was eighteen, I didn’t even know it was a struggle other people faced, and this so thoroughly convinces me that sin nature is very real. Even though I didn’t know it was an established thing in the world, I knew it was sinful, as a naïve and sheltered child. Once my friend and I parted ways, I would still fall into that addiction once or twice a year. Not a single person knew about it. I also had my own way of causing self-harm, another thing I didn’t realize until late high school. I was burdened with so much shame and condemnation. I didn’t think that I possessed guilt; I thought that I was shameful, as a person. Shame was my identity.
When I was thirteen, I was at a worship service. Everyone was at the front, but I had moved; I was in the back of the crowd, singing a song no one else was. This was the first time I’d actually communicated with Jesus and simply spent time with Him. Before, I would pray if I was nervous or sick or if a friend was having a hard time. But I never really prayed just to talk to Him, and I certainly didn’t expect Him to talk back. In the back of the crowd, we had a conversation I somehow comprehended and we just hung out. I had never doubted God was real, but I also never thought He would be interested in knowing me and being with me. I always just saw Him as the Creator and Savior, who did what He had to do and nothing more.
I went home with a desire to know the one I’d spoken with. I began reading the Bible regularly and started writing to Him, and it was life-changing. I became passionate about obeying Him and showing Him love through how I lived. Still… shame thrived inside me and motivated me. I tried everything I could think of to make Him stop condemning me, but that was the problem– He wasn’t the one doing it. It was me. I didn’t believe that He would love me as I was; I thought I needed to be purified before I could be with Him. And that was what I wanted to be, more and more, every day.
I started going to my church’s youth group when I was fifteen. When we began speaking of a trip to a conference, I didn’t think I would be able to go, but my dad figured out a way to make it happen. I still don’t think he realizes how big a part that plays in my story.
At the conference, I heard the gospel, purely and completely, for the first time in years. Because I knew God personally now, I was able to internalize the truth and the gravity of what He’d done and what it meant for our relationship, and for me as a person. The gospel was no longer just a story or theology to me; it was the reality that the man I knew came to get His family back.
I sang to Him for over an hour that night. He was singing over me, too, of the love and forgiveness He’d always had for me, of grace. It’s never been about how good I could be; it’s always been about how much love He has for me. I am fully loved, no matter what I’ve done to deserve shame. He’s made me pure from the beginning; it wasn’t something I had to earn, because He established love that doesn’t keep records. I finally knew these things in my soul. I finally believed, for the first time in my life, that I was loved.
He gave me a wondrous year of joy and adventure after that; it was almost like a honeymoon in spirit. His love is beautiful.
My struggle with sadness began a year later. The only thing I can trace it back to is the next year’s conference; I began believing that His Spirit wasn’t in me because I didn’t speak in tongues when everyone else around me did. I thought He’d left me out. It took a long time for me to understand that He does not use the same gifts in everyone. I don’t know when He began using the gifts He put in me; He just did. He is in me. He uses me and has given me gifts, even if they don’t look a lot like everyone else’s.
That difficult, crushing time must have been good soil for seeds of sadness to grow. It looked a lot like depression and I’ve become okay with calling it that now. I couldn’t feel anything but pain. It was as if I was in a dark room with walls that almost touched me on every side. No matter what was going on, I was sad, and I didn’t know why. I believed God had abandoned me, that I still wasn’t pure enough to be fully loved by Him; I had to constantly tell myself that wasn’t true, no matter how it seemed. It lasted for over two years, and I remember very few events from that time in my life.
But in the middle of it, something happened. I had been doing service projects with my youth group during spring break, and on the third day, as I carried wood to a pile in someone’s yard, I suddenly realized the joy I was carrying in my chest. I wasn’t looking for it in myself and wasn’t grasping desperately for it in anything else; I was simply living out my love for Him and carrying gratitude for the day in my heart. I was depressed for more than a year after that, but I knew that joy was real and that someday I could have it again. There were times that I was simply fed up with being unfeeling and hurt, but He always gave me the teeniest bit of hope, kept promising it would end and working in me even when I was stone; much of that journey is chronicled here on this blog I began in high school. Later in life I would learn about the power of gratitude and it’s direct connection to joy and abundant life.
There was no specific moment that I became healed. Sometimes I’m still unreasonably sad; sometimes I’m still tempted by my oldest vices; sometimes I still feel too different to be loved. But He has taught me to carry hope in who He is, to live life out of my love for Him, to sing about His love for me. He has given me joy. My greatest joy is in being His and in living with Him every day.
I think life on earth is a continual learning of love. He is love, and He teaches me how be like Him with my siblings in the world. I’m still learning. But I’m also re-learning, every day, the depth of love that exists for me, too. This blog, begun in the depths of one of my darkest places and now living on the other side of that tunnel, hosts many pieces of that process. I’m so grateful to have this space as gift from Him in that way.
I’m so grateful to be His. And to finally believe it.
“Take me; I feared that love wouldn’t take me. I fear that grace was a maybe. I feared the cost of my broken word. Trust me; you took my hand and said, “Trust me, with who you are not with who you were.” I’ve been waiting for things to change in my heart again. I’ve been changing; while waiting, I’ll keep taking steps for you. I’ve been changing, but I’m still learning how to love.” -Colony House, “Learning How to Love”