Waiting on an Unknown Future

Waiting on an Unknown Future

Have you ever said no to something when you really wanted to say yes?

I said a hard no this month. There was a new opportunity I really wanted to pursue, and I desperately wanted to say yes. It was something I love doing, something I could justify spending time on, something that would benefit me and others. It had the potential to build my confidence, putting me in a role where my gifts and personality would thrive.

But there was a cost—a high cost to be paid with my time. Doing this new thing would fill up my schedule and my mental space, requiring lots of attention and energy, especially as I learned the role. It would leave no room for the other things I want to pursue, the things that make me my truest self.

Saying yes to that thing would mean saying no to anything else that comes along. I knew I had to choose between something good now or the possibility of something better down the road. As appealing as the opportunity was, I’m just not ready to say no to what may be waiting right around the corner.

Holding space for the unknown may be one of the hardest things for me to do.

My husband and I are planning a much-anticipated vacation together this summer to celebrate our ten-year anniversary. Spending multiple nights in a tropical location without kids? Yes, please. It feels easy for me to keep that week free from appointments and commitments, because time alone with my husband is a rare and precious gift. Why would I say yes to anything else when a romantic getaway awaits?

When I’m deciding between doing something good now and waiting for something better later, holding out for the better thing is a clear choice. But the choice doesn’t seem as clear when the future is unknown.

My soul feels restless. I don’t think it’s the snow, although being stuck inside with my kids for multiple consecutive weeks because it’s too cold to get fresh air is enough to make a person batty. It’s more than just cabin fever—something is stirring deeper inside me. There is this longing, an ache to reach beyond my current reality and fulfill my purpose in the world.

My mind spins most days, dreaming about this cause or that purpose, a new organization I want to support, another need in the world or my community that stirs my heart. I’ve learned not to move forward with every passion-filled impulse that crosses my heart—I would exhaust myself in a second and be unable to sustain enough commitment to make any difference if I said yes to every opportunity.

I’ve said my fair share of yesses born out of impatience and paid the price. This time I’m mustering every morsel of self-control to wait for the opportunity that makes my heart come alive, where the cost is absorbed by the joy of knowing the timing and opportunity are right.

“What purpose does restlessness serve?” someone asked me, as I shared my struggle. I paused, pondering the implications of the question.

“I guess it could go two ways,” I answered. “Sometimes feeling restless motivates me toward action, nudging me toward change.” I paused. “But sometimes it just steals my peace and contentment with my present life.” I considered my words, filtering through examples of how this has played out in recent days.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Restlessness can facilitate change on the inside or the outside.” Hmm. And I had assumed it was a sign something was wrong. Could my desire for change be the catalyst I need to do the hard work growth requires? Could restlessness be my motivation to get myself ready for the next opportunity that comes?

As much as I love to dream about the future, maybe my restless heart just needs to be rooted today in the place where I’m currently planted. Maybe the process of growing deep roots really serves to protect me from blowing away in the winds of change when they come. Maybe I need to spend less time longing for something different and more energy investing where I know I’m called today.

Can I confess that the thing I so desperately wanted to say yes to involved teaching an exercise class? As closing this door forced me to find another way to strengthen my body, I’m already discovering the beauty of choosing what’s best over what’s good. Saying no has birthed greater motivation and joy in exercising alone at home than I’ve ever experienced. It’s also given me more time to pray and prepare and dream about what’s next—all because I chose to hold space for a better yes.

Hard as it is, I choose to wait on my unknown future. I don’t simply want to fill my time, which is the surest way to an empty soul—I want to fill my heart to overflowing. As St. Augustine wisely observed, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  May God give me the grace to hold still long enough to let His love pour in.

 

Photo credit for featured image: Caroline Knott

 

 

On Growing Deep Roots

On Growing Deep Roots

I was having a bad day, when a friend showed up on my front porch with bright pink gerbera daisies, a pop of color that brought beauty into my anxiety-ridden heart. The same day, my husband came home with burnt orange tulips, bidding me with their gentle presence on my table to believe I am loved. (Trust me, I know—my people are the best.)

I didn’t even consider the time it had taken those flowers to grow before I was able to enjoy them. All I noticed were the blossoms.

Beautiful as they are, I know I will only get a few more days out of these bouquets. Blooms just don’t last very long, even for the most proficient gardeners (ahem…not me).

Most growth happens unseen and unnoticed.

Early each spring at our house, green shoots start to poke through the dirt along our front porch. Stalks grow quickly and soon our walkway is lined with beautiful yellow, pink and orange tulips, with a few daffodils thrown in for good measure.

For about two glorious weeks as winter melts into spring, exquisite colors greet me each time I step outside. Then all too soon, the wind blows without mercy, and all that remains are empty stems and a few lonely petals hanging on for dear life. The leaves die and we cut the tulips back until the next year, when their beauty will emerge again in all its splendor.

The rest of the year, though, the bulbs lay dormant underground. Alive, but dormant. With no visible signs of growth. We can’t see that below the surface, life is preparing to burst through.

To fill in the gaps in our landscaping after the tulips finish blooming, we planted a few small rosebushes in our front yard. We carefully placed each root ball into the holes we’d dug, gently protecting the plants’ delicate roots to help them transition from their pots to our soil.

It turns out a plant can’t live without healthy roots. We can’t live without healthy roots either.

Growing deep roots is slow, tedious work. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor is the growth noticeable as it takes place. Root growing occurs slowly, imperceptibly, through the consistent watering and nourishment of our souls.

I often find myself longing for the beauty of life in full bloom but struggling to do the unseen work of tending to what lies below the surface. I want flowers without gardening. I want beauty without discipline. I want security without stillness. I want growth without waiting. I want fulfillment without making space for what brings life.

So what does it look like to grow deep roots?

It looks like noticing what’s going on inside me, underneath the visible realm of activity and knee-jerk reactions and the tyranny of the urgent.

Paying attention to the voice within, the one whispering about what my heart needs, waiting for me to pause long enough to listen.

Allowing my character to be formed in the hidden moments while no one else is watching, valuing faithfulness over recognition.

Root care often feels unproductive, wasteful, and even indulgent. But investing in what is unseen is not optional; we either grow or shrivel. Healthy roots are necessary for hearts to burst into full bloom–and there is nothing more breathtaking than a woman fully alive.

In a moment of quiet during my kids’ nap time, I left dishes in the sink and sat down with Jesus’ words about what it takes to grow. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he said. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Nothing. I can do nothing apart from the vine. No wonder it feels like I’m running on empty when I fill up my schedule without filling my heart. 

It’s so easy to get caught up in doing work that is seen, productive, affirmed by others, comparing myself and hustling for recognition and admiration. But no amount of approval can give me the life I crave. Growth happens in the unseen work of holding still long enough to receive the approval I’ve already been given.

Life flows into roots that hold still. Striving isn’t the key to growth–stillness is. No amount of self-effort will cause my life to yield the beauty I desire, but only resting in the slow, steady, mostly invisible growth that comes from believing I am loved today.

So instead of exhausting myself this year in an attempt to make flowers grow, I am giving myself permission to be still and grow deep roots.

I’m going to keep my days more simple and slow than full and frantic.

I’m going to write when I feel inspired, not when I feel pressure to perform.

I’m going to spend time alone with the Gardener of my soul.

I’m going to read books that inspire my heart and mind.

I’m going to ask God questions and listen for his answers.

I’m going to play with my kids while they still ask.

I’m going to run with gratitude for a body that can.

I’m going to be honest about my needs and limits.

I’m going to celebrate others’ gifts without comparing myself to them.

I’m going to stop striving to feel beautiful and rest in the loveliness of being myself.

And I’m pretty sure that blooms will come eventually. But I hope I will be too busy growing deep roots to notice.

What does root-care look like for you? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!

 

To the Friend I’m Disappointing Right Now

To the Friend I’m Disappointing Right Now

Dear friend,

Let’s just get this out of the way: I need you to know up front that I’m going to let you down. I want to give you fair warning so you won’t be caught off guard when you realize I’m not everything you hoped I would be.

Really, I’m writing to give myself permission to be imperfect. Can we be friends anyway?

This pains me to admit—I really don’t want to let you down. I’ll do about anything to keep you from feeling disappointed in me, even if it means creating undue stress for myself. Just imagining any negative feelings I might cause makes my chest tighten with anxiety. Your happiness means so much to me, and my heart aches to do whatever is possible to make you feel loved.

But I have to be honest—I just can’t keep up. And it probably isn’t healthy for me to try.

Sometimes I carry responsibility for our friendship around like a backpack, filling it with rocks of unrealistic expectations that are too heavy for me to lift. I’m afraid you won’t want me around if I ask you to share the load. Or if I take out some of the rocks. But I know you’re actually stronger than I give you credit for—and carrying the weight together lightens it for both of us.

I want you to know you’re on my mind often. When my brain is filled up with other things—like packing snacks and teaching class and ordering birthday presents and planning an event and listening to kids talk about their day and figuring out what to make for dinner—returning your text message sometimes gets buried in my mental pile. It’s not that I don’t love you and think about you when I’m doing other things, it’s just that my spare moment to reach out usually comes in the middle of the night.

I’d love more than anything to invite you over for chai tea and meaningful conversation. I really would. I want to hear about your life and ask about your heart and be unproductive and present together. I’m just out of chai tea. And my kids are crying right now. And I forgot about my dentist appointment today. So maybe we could take a rain check?

Please don’t give up on me. I’m doing the best I can—and some days my best is better than others. Know that I’m learning to accept myself even when I’m not who I want to be, and I will do the same for you. Thanks for taking the pressure off by loving me even when I let you down.

I have a feeling this isn’t a surprise to you. I don’t think you actually need me as much as I think you do. Maybe I’m a little arrogant to think I can be a better friend than I ever expect anyone else to be, but I really wanted to try.

Admitting I can’t be all things to all people is one of the hardest pills for me to swallow. I know it’s not my job to keep you happy, but it feels like you’ll want me around if I do. Will you still love me if I disappoint you?

I know the answer to the question. My head tells me my worth is not found in the approval of others, but in being chosen by the One who gives me His worth. Yet my heart struggles to believe you can love me when I have nothing to give.

I’m so thankful to have you in my life. I don’t want anything I do to ever communicate anything but how important you are. The problem is, I am a real human. As much as I thought a little commitment and a lot of hard work would be enough to make me the most reliable friend ever, I’m still just a work in progress. I’m learning to be okay with that.

We’re in it together, friend. I promise to do my best, but please don’t expect me to be perfect. I won’t expect you to be either.

Love,

Me

 

Photo credit for featured image: Kandice Halferty Photography

Living a Faithful Life

Living a Faithful Life

Our day started with a tantrum paramount to the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The sun hadn’t even risen, and already our house was filled with stomping and tears and spankings, followed by prayers and tender repentance—then  yet another round of tantrums, time outs and more tears. We were exhausted from the battle before anyone had gotten dressed. All because my daughter didn’t want oatmeal for breakfast.

Parenting is hard. Yes, there are many moments full of sweet cuddles and belly laughter and uncontainable joy, but the work that is required in the day to day training of little humans often leaves me discouraged, frustrated, and wondering if I’m doing anything right.

This year is the last time I’ll have both of my kiddos at home together before my oldest starts kindergarten next fall. I’ve felt a sense of urgency to make the most of this short season, because the cliché seems to be truer than I want to admit in the midst of the longest days of my life: time goes by too fast. More than anything, I’ve felt the weight of responsibility to use this year to pour as much of Jesus into my kids as their little bodies can contain.

My heart longs to dive fully into the work God has given me to do as a mom, but hard days often make me wish I could do anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, I begged God for my children. I longed to be pregnant, crying out desperately for God to give me the desires of my heart, then waiting impatiently through the longest months of my life to see their little faces. I wanted my babies more than anything. Brooklynn awakened my heart to depths of emotion I’d never experienced, and a couple years later, Connley expanded my capacity to love more than I’d even thought was possible.

After months of aching for my longings to be fulfilled, for God to give me kids, life turned upside down when each child was born. Suddenly, my world revolved around the little people God had entrusted to my care.

I threw myself fully into the work of mothering, reading books on sleep training and following all the rules about tummy time and talking to my baby and making myself a bit crazy in the process. I knew I was investing my time exactly where I needed to be—mothering is the most important job in the world, after all—but I felt so…well, so unsatisfied by how I was spending my days.

It was clear from the beginning that God was using my mothering journey to mold my heart into a new shape. It would take me a few years to recognize how He was also forming my children into a protective boundary around my life. Never again would I have the option to pursue a lifestyle of achieving, performing, and striving for my worth—my kids need me too much to spend so much time seeking the approval of others. (Not that I don’t still try, to my own detriment.) They guard me from my natural inclination to seek recognition for myself.

Sometimes their neediness feels suffocating, like I am drowning in the inescapable sea of their demands. Sometimes their neediness feels validating, like I have an important role that no one else can fulfill. Always, their neediness strips away my selfishness (or brings it to the surface for examination), as I’m forced to again and again lay down my own desires for the sake of meeting theirs.

I often catch myself dreaming about “someday” when I can do something else with my time, something that fulfills that inner craving for significance. Those moments are clues that I have much still to learn from this season.

My significance isn’t found in being recognized by others, but in being seen by the One who appointed me to this role. The more I look for satisfaction in what I do, the more I’m going to have to do to feel satisfied. And the harder I work to gain the approval of others, the more I will be held captive by a goal that does not exist.

For Connley’s third birthday this month, he suggested that we go on a date to Starbucks while sissy was at preschool. “Yes, son. I will absolutely take you to coffee,” I told him.  As we sat by the window watching cars drive by, Connley eating his cake pop and I drinking my caramel macchiato, I was overcome by the gift of this season. That endearing smile, those twinkling eyes, that precious little boy voice, those soft little hands on mine—there was nowhere else I would rather be, nothing in the world that could bring me such deep satisfaction.

I don’t know what next year will look like. I have dreams of pursuing writing more seriously while the kids are at school, but for now I’m holding them loosely. No matter what tomorrow holds, I’m certain of this: God is calling me to be faithful with the life He’s given me today.

As much as I long to use my gifts and passion in places that are exciting and sexy and fulfilling, God knows my temptation will still always be striving for recognition that will never satisfy. No matter how important is the work that He calls me to do, nothing will ever be as worthwhile as my pursuit of Jesus.

He is using my babies to teach me dependence on Him for all things.

He is using this season to show me how to rest in His approval over anyone else’s.

He is using motherhood to train me to die to myself daily.

He is using my struggle to remind me that He is refining me moment by moment.

He is using my joy to teach me that surrender is the path to abundant life.

God doesn’t ask us to go out and change the world. He simply calls us to live a faithful life, one day at a time. Where is God asking you to be faithful today?

6 Steps Toward Finding Your Purpose

6 Steps Toward Finding Your Purpose

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” –Howard Thurman

A couple years ago, I realized I didn’t know myself very well. I had spent my first thirty-one years filling up my time with things I had to do—school, work, responsibilities—leaving no room to even consider what I loved to do. Especially after my second kiddo was born, thinking about myself seemed like a luxury reserved for those with time to spare.

It turns out, no one has extra time.

There I was, fully immersed in the precious, exhausting, beautiful, tedious season of raising babies, struggling most days to survive the sleep deprivation and monotony, let alone to find meaning in my moments. I knew I was in the thick of my calling for that season, yet my heart ached almost physically for something more, for a place to use my God-given gifts and passion.

It wasn’t until a friend lent me a book that I was able to put words to the tension I felt between embracing my present reality and discovering my unique purpose. I found myself in the first pages of Freefall to Fly, as Rebekah Lyons shared the story of a woman who had sent her last child off to college. “She’d taught her daughter everything she knew. Spilled out everything she had. Fighting back tears, she said, ‘I’m empty, and she’s full.’”

She had lost herself in the midst of her life.

My eyes brimmed over at the realization that my one and only life starts today—not someday when things are easier, not when I have more flexibility in my schedule, not when my kids are out of the house, not when we have more money. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to live fully in the one life I have.

I don’t want to look back at my life and wonder what it could have been like to fulfill my purpose. I want to live the fullest possible life today, tomorrow, and for the rest of my years. I want to use all of who I am to help others become all they were created to be.

So, what makes you come alive?

It seems like an easy enough question—but in an age of frenzied busyness and constant distraction, it can be difficult listen to the heartbeat of our own souls. It takes time, sweet time, to quiet ourselves enough to reflect on how we’re made. And it takes courage to let our inner longings bubble to the surface as we remember the dreams we’ve carried since childhood and the pain that has shattered our hearts.

Many of us chase an elusive goal, searching high and low for that one thing that we were made to do for the rest of our lives. But calling is not a static goal, it’s a constant journey toward our Creator. It is our pursuit of the Maker of heaven and earth that leads us to discover the things we were made to do, one courageous yes at a time.

You were made on purpose, with a purpose that only you can fulfill in this world.

 What are you uniquely and intentionally crafted to do? Who are you called to love as only you can? Where is God inviting you today to invest the passion and talent he’s given you?

 Start with your story—the unique experiences, hopes, and heartaches you’ve lived that have shaped who you are today. Pen and paper in hand, remembering and reflecting, create space to allow your truest self to bubble to the surface.  Because remembering our story helps us discover who we were created to become.

Here are a few questions (borrowed from and inspired by the resources below) to get you started as you consider how you are uniquely designed—give yourself freedom to reflect on your life over time, asking others for help as you process:

  1. Uncover your passion – What were your earliest dreams? What is the thing you could do for hours as a kid? What makes you feel most alive today?
  1. Remember your story – What is your unique story? What are the most impactful/memorable moments from your life? What themes do you see emerging as you remember?
  1. Find your people – Who are the people you can share your deepest desires/fears/wounds/passions with? Who will cheer you on as your journey toward becoming fully alive? How can you invite them to join you on your journey toward a life of meaning?
  1. Name your gifts – What natural abilities have others commented on? Write down several of your talents. Feel free to ask for help from family and friends!
  1. Identify your burden – What has broken your heart? What keeps you up at night? What are you most afraid of? Where have you experienced the most healing in your own life?
  1. Open your hands – Ask God, where might you be calling me to reveal you in the world? Is there an action step you can take today to follow the nudge of the Lord?

Our calling is not about us and what we are doing—it’s about God and what he is doing in and through us. The journey toward purpose is a gradual discovery of how God is revealing himself through our one life. He invites us to follow him into new depths of joy, freedom, and intimacy by saying yes to the next thing he puts in front of us. One step at a time.  

 

For additional resources, I’ve found these books to be immensely helpful in my own journey:

 Freefall to Fly by Rebekah Lyons and Restless by Jennie Allen

When You’re Not Who You Want to Be

When You’re Not Who You Want to Be

It’s been a hard kind of summer. The kind of summer where you look back and remember more of the struggle than the sweetness. The kind of summer that makes you look forward with hope to a new beginning come fall, to the crispness of a new school year with new rhythms and new energy.

I’m ready for a fresh start, not just for my schedule, but for my heart.

Part of what made summer so hard this year was that I didn’t expect it to be hard. I looked forward to the time we would spend away from home, including five weeks serving as a family at Young Life Camp. I was excited about the change of pace and the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Sometimes the hardest parts about making an eternal impact are the everyday sacrifices required along the way. It’s in the unseen, ordinary moments of surrender that the true contents of our hearts are exposed. And often when my comfort is on the line, what I see in my own heart looks more like selfishness than anything else.

I started this summer’s camp assignment with energy and excitement about what was to come. I was hopeful and prayerful and optimistic about all the ways we would all grow from serving while at camp for the month.

But as the exciting first hours turned into days that turned into weeks, reality set in. I missed my husband as he worked long days to run camp for hundreds of middle school kids each week. My own kids were over-stimulated and over-sugared and I was over-tired from living somewhere that wasn’t my home. After full days of rallying my kiddos to transition from our room to a meal then back again over and over, I had no relational margin to connect with the other women who seemed to be so gracefully navigating the parenting waters at camp. Oh, the familiar deathtrap of comparison—it never ceases to shame me into a sense of utter and complete failure.

I wasn’t the encourager I had envisioned—I felt discouraged. I wasn’t the laid-back mom I imagined—I was frazzled and tired of saying no to all the fun things constantly beckoning my children. I wasn’t the confident wife joyfully supporting my husband—I was emotional and needy and missed him like crazy.

My expectations had created a familiar prison of performance that I couldn’t escape. The gap between who I wanted to be and who I had the capacity to be during those weeks felt like failure, and I was trapped inside.

“I don’t like who I am here,” I told a group of women one morning as we gathered together. The female spouses on our team made it a priority to find time each week to connect and pray. Those two hours became my lifeline at camp, grounding me in the reality that I was not alone. One woman looked at me with understanding. She nodded and affirmed that it wasn’t just me. That’s all it took.

As I explained how I felt stuck in my own struggle, wallowing in the difficulty of my days instead of looking for the beauty in them, something shifted. Admitting I actually wasn’t okay gave me permission to stop pressuring myself to be who I thought I should be. Sharing my struggles out loud released me from the snare of shame, which feeds on isolation and hiding.

I was able to just rest in my reality.

Stop fighting against myself and accept that my capacity this summer was less than in summers past.

Quit putting pressure on myself to perform to a standard that no one else knew existed.

Believe that people could love me even when I wasn’t at my best.

Let myself be known as someone with nothing to offer but my honesty. And let it be enough.

As they prayed for me that morning, and as others prayed from home, something in my heart lightened. I felt more like myself again—loved not because I was functioning at my highest level, but loved just because I’m me. It’s a reminder I need every week, every day, every hour: I am loved, just as I am.

This summer proved that I have nothing to prove. My hope is not in my ability to avoid struggle, but in being loved whether I’m struggling or not.

I learned the hard way that I can choose in every moment to give thanks or to grumble.  And my choice affects my ability to see life as a gift to be enjoyed or as a burden to be endured.

Sometimes the miracle doesn’t come in changed circumstances but in a changed heart. As I focused less on myself and more on the grace all around me, my perspective widened. I whispered more prayers of thanksgiving for the small gifts of time with my kids, for unexpected rest, for the chance to sit in the pool on a hot summer day, for community, adventure, and opportunities to grow through discomfort.

I tend to think that if things are hard, I must be doing something wrong. The truth is, life is just hard. But not a moment is wasted for those who are willing to look for its gifts. Thankfulness draws my eyes and heart heavenward, rescuing me from the bottomless pit of self-pity. I need to be rescued regularly. Hourly even. Sometimes more.

As I enter a new season with a new schedule and new weather and new commitments, I’m choosing a new way of thinking about my moments. I’m going on a treasure hunt each day for the gifts of God’s love all around me. No matter the gift, no matter how big or small, I’m writing them down—keeping track in a “joy journal” of sorts to train myself to see with new eyes.

A two-year-old who loves to cuddle, even at 3 am.

Coffee delivered unexpectedly.

Sun breaks on a dreary day.

Multiple errand stops in a row with no tantrums.

A candle burning in the middle of the afternoon.

A five-year-old who loves to dance when no one’s watching.

Silence. Sweet silence.

Will you join me? Grab a pen. Put your list to paper. Don’t make it easy—stretch your current capacity for thankfulness. Can you find five gifts each day to write down? Ten? Let’s do this together and test for ourselves what all those experts are saying about gratitude being good for our health and happiness. It might just be good for our souls, too.

Eyes on the lookout for bits of grace in everyday moments create hearts overflowing with beautiful gratitude. And that’s who I want to be.

On Feeling Fat and Other Lies

On Feeling Fat and Other Lies

Okay ladies, it’s time to talk about hard things. Yup, I mean swimsuit season. We need to have an honest to goodness heart to heart about what is going on below the surface…or at least below the water line.

I made the mistake of trying on swimsuits in a store last weekend. By myself. With no emotional support. There were three-way mirrors and fluorescent lights and way more cellulite than anyone needs to see ever. It seemed like a good idea at the time…but needless to say, I did not buy a swimsuit that day.

I did, however, spend the rest of the day feeling like the most disgusting woman on the face of the planet. My entire view of myself changed from that point on, and if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve quite recovered.

The downward spiral of self-loathing starts with believing our struggle is what defines us. If you are a woman alive today, you have wrestled at some point with the way you look. All of us have. It’s part of living in a world with a distorted definition of beauty.

Hear this: the world is lying to women about what makes us beautiful. And it’s time we stop listening.

Struggling with body image is not new territory for me. Unfortunately, it’s been the story of most of my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I needed to lose weight.

My height made me naturally heavier than most other kids my age, and I remember crossing the 100 pound mark before most others in my class. As early as elementary school, I would force myself to complete strenuous workouts on my parents’ NordicTrack in hopes of slimming down.

My standard for beauty was always set by those around me—how I compared to other girls defined how pretty I was. When I was young, my classmates would frequently tell me how “big” I was because I stood at least a head above the rest of my class. They meant I was tall, but it felt more like being called fat and unfeminine. I began to think of myself that way.

In eighth grade, my club volleyball team wore spandex shorts as part of our uniforms. I would pull the shorts down to my knees and up to my belly button to cover as much as possible. Believe me, I looked really cool.

I just wanted to hide. I was ashamed of the way my body looked and felt exposed in anything tight or revealing—like spandex. Or bathing suits.

Awkward as middle school was, high school was not much better. My insecurity was crippling, and my relationship with food only increased my self-disgust. I started binge eating to deal with anxiety I didn’t recognize, which caused me to gain weight and hate myself even more. I tried to purge every once in a while, but I knew too much about the negative effects of bulimia so I talked myself out of it.

I hated the way I looked and felt out of control to change it.

Going to college catapulted me into a whole new level of stress eating. Unlimited desserts, late night Taco Bell runs, and more loneliness than I knew what to do with added about twenty-five pounds to a frame that was not petite to begin. I started Weight Watchers that spring and tasted the addictive power of weight loss for my sense of self-worth. When the scale was down, I was a success—but when the scale went up, I felt like a total failure all over again.

The number told me if I was disciplined, motivated, self-controlled—it told me how much the world thought I was worth. I hate how many lies the scale has told me over the years. I associated my value with how much I weighed on any given day, and I assumed other people did the same.

After college, extra weight started to fall off in the busyness of my new, grown up life. Teaching, coaching, and leading Young Life didn’t leave much time for anything else, including regular meals. I didn’t even notice that I had accidentally returned to a healthy weight until people started to comment on how good I looked. I had never gotten attention for my body before, but now it was a source of validation.

I felt like the fat girl pretending to be thin. I was sure it would just be a matter of time before the overweight version of me came back again.

She didn’t, for the most part. I’ve gained a few pounds here and lost a few pounds there, but my body has mostly stayed in a healthy, normal weight range since college ended. But the way I see myself hasn’t changed much. I still look in the mirror and struggle often with what I see.

I have come a long way in this journey of seeing my body through the lens of love. I know my value doesn’t come from my weight, my pants size, or how many calories I consume on a given day. I exercise mostly regularly and eat more foods that make me feel healthy than not. I’m even learning to ask myself what’s really going on emotionally when I find myself digging for comfort food. Most days I’m at peace with the way I look.

Yet seeing myself in a swimsuit up close and personal often throws me back into the downward spiral of self-loathing I thought I’d lost with my extra weight.

I’ve been asking several girlfriends recently about their perception of their own bodies. It seems to be pretty universal: beautiful women of every size are more aware of their imperfections than their radiance. Even my most fit, slender, and breathtakingly beautiful friends struggle to see themselves the way I do.

Our critical eyes so easily focus on the parts of ourselves we wish we could change instead of the beauty that comes from our hand-crafted uniqueness.

A stunning neighbor who is pregnant with her second baby told me recently how relieved she is to finally be gaining weight. I did a double take. “Did you say you’re happy to gain weight?” I asked her in disbelief. She told me how self-conscious she’s been her whole life about her body—thinness has been her struggle as unknowing comments from strangers have made her wish she could put on a few pounds.

No matter how our bodies look on the outside, every woman carries the burden of living in a world that distorts female beauty.

Some of the most breathtaking women I know are not the ones with flat stomachs, thighs that don’t touch, or legs free from spider veins and cellulite. The most beautiful women are the ones who give life where ever they go—they inspire beauty in others through their words, their sacrificial love, their whole-hearted commitment to God-given passions.

The most beautiful women I know are secure in their identity as imperfect humans who are perfectly loved by the One who made them just the way they are. They are the ones who train their eyes to look for beauty all around them and inadvertently discover it within.

Today, I’m thankful for a body that is strong enough to do hard work, healthy enough to run and play, limited enough to tell me to rest, dependent enough on food to remind me to nourish myself regularly, and resilient enough to rebound from the harmful choices I’ve made in the name of comfort or beauty. My imperfect body reminds me that I am still a work in progress in every area of my life.

Struggling with the way I look offers me a choice to either focus my eyes inward or upward—I can obsess about what I eat or how much weight I “need” to lose, or I can focus my energy on believing that I truly am fearfully and wonderfully made. All of me.

Stretch marks won’t last forever, but a heart overflowing with the love of God will radiate his beauty for eternity.  Let’s give others permission to embrace their imperfect bodies by living thankfully in ours. Let’s make real the new pretty.