With permed hair, fringed scarves draped around bulky sweaters, and high-waisted, stone-washed jeans, we were closing out the 1980s in high style as we entered our senior year of high school. At 17, I was a people-pleasing performer with a competitive spirit who worked hard to excel in school. Tests were sometimes fun for me. Essay contests were my jam. And to me, grade point averages were just as competitive as batting averages were to my baseball-coaching dad.
For my family, the question was never if I would go to college, but rather where I would go. Though a box in my closet brimmed over with college brochures from all up and down the East Coast, I only applied to one college. And it wasn’t the small college in my quiet hometown. And it wasn’t the affordable state school most of my friends planned to attend. Nope. I applied to a very small, Christian, liberal arts school five hours away in another state. At the time, it was a rather expensive school, several thousand dollars more each year than the average cost of college. (Though let’s be real – today, we’d laugh at what seemed so expensive back then!)
Since the local coal mines had shut down, my dad had worked lower-paying or part-time jobs with the hope he’d get something better. But with so many miners looking for work, good jobs were scarce. Between the work my dad could get and my mom’s secretarial job, we still qualified for free lunch at school and did our school shopping at Gabriel Brothers outlet of factory rejects and overstocks. One time, I excitedly found a sweater I loved at Gabe’s – until I pulled it off the rack and realized one sleeve only reached my elbow while the other fell past my fingers nearly to my hip.
As you can imagine, my parents were a wee bit concerned that my expectations weren’t exactly realistic. They certainly couldn’t afford the one and only college I had chosen. And I stubbornly refused to apply anywhere else. One night, my mom came into my room and gingerly asked if maybe I should apply to a state school as a back-up plan. Bless her!
I recently lived through my third go-round with the whole child-going-to-college stress. This third child is the most laid-back, it’ll-all-work-out kid on the planet and was finalizing college plans two weeks before the semester was supposed to begin! Suffice it to say — if I could hop in a DeLorean and time-travel back to the spring of 1990 and hug my mom, I would!
Instead of listening to her very reasonable request, 17-year-old Me, who’d gone to church my whole life and sang along to Amy Grant cassettes and wore sweatshirts that said things like, “My foot is on the ROCK and my name is on the ROLL,” looked up and with complete calm and assurance answered, “No. I know I am supposed to go to college at King. It’s where I belong and where God wants me. God will provide the money, and I’ll go there.” And I went to sleep, completely confident that what I said was true. How could a parent who’d raised her kid to have faith argue with that?
By the way, I did go to college at my first (and only) choice. God and Pell and Sallie Mae provided the money for tuition and room and board. Not once did I ever doubt that it would work out. I felt completely certain deep in my soul that I belonged at that college, that God wanted me there. And I had faith that God would get me there.
Other times in my life, I have had that same certainty, that same faith. I had no doubt in my mind that God would provide for the six babies I had in seven-and-a-half years while I was a stay-at-home mom and my husband received a middle-class paycheck. Later, I had no doubt at all – exactly zero doubt – that God would provide everything we needed when my husband quit that job and gave up that middle-class paycheck so we could sell practically everything we owned, pack up our six little kids, and join a Christian mission organization to live on whatever donations churches and individual people sent us each month. Insane? Perhaps. But filled with faith that God had a plan and would work it out.
So to some people who don’t live inside my head, it might seem like I had this supernatural faith. Like maybe I should be invited to speak to your women’s ministry group about living in faith and trusting God. Because obviously I had been given some gift of faith or I had figured it out and should share the secret with everyone else. Right?
I accepted those invitations and I did speak to groups of other young moms or to women on church retreats. And I meant every word I said. But I often felt like this lady with cropped gray hair I knew from a Sunday School class I’d been in once. She would laugh and say, “I always trust God. Except when I don’t.”
You see, I tend to be a walking, talking dichotomy. For instance, I am the most hopeful fearful person you’ve ever met. Someone once told me that I’m the most confident insecure person he’d ever known. Or maybe it was the most insecure confident person. I’m not sure.
Yes, I do have this relentless faith that God is in control and things will always work out for good. And yes, I also tend to be extremely afraid. As much as I want to live in a Faith Over Fear way, it’s usually this jumble of faith and fear all tangled up and I’m not sure whether the faith thread or the fear thread is going to be on top of the ball of emotions and thoughts.
Fear and self-doubt can brood in my mind, incessantly flapping their wings like crows hungrily hovering over a deer carcass. I can lie awake in the middle of the night remembering that time when this child was thirteen and I said that thing that might still echo in her mind and necessitate some extra therapy sessions or the time that other child did that wrong thing and I responded too harshly or maybe it was not harshly enough. Have I inflicted wounds that will take a lifetime to heal? Or I’ll replay conversations over and over in my mind – Should I have said this instead? Did my face make the right expression? Was my tone of voice too snippy? When my kids are driving on highways, the knot in my stomach doesn’t go away until they safely arrive wherever it is they’re going. Decisions exhaust me because I overthink every option, afraid I’ll make the wrong choice.
Sometimes faith frees me, emboldens me, assures me. But just as often, fear convinces me I’m not enough, that I’m not worthy. Fear paralyzes me.
I am both faith-full and fear-full. But the more I confront Fear and demand evidence for its claims, the less power it has over me. When I hear Fear’s voice, I’ve learned to ask, “What evidence do we have for this? Has this or something similar happened before? What was the outcome then?” I’m telling you – nine times out of ten, the evidence demonstrates that Fear’s voice is wrong. And if – by that tiny one percent chance – Fear does have a point, an examination of the evidence shows me that even when the worst happens, we can live through it. It might be horrible. Awful. The absolute worst ever. But we survive; we endure. And usually, we grow in those times. We get stronger and better and smarter and more compassionate – if we let ourselves.
And so Faith can then take over. I can choose to trust God, believing that what’s supposed to happen will and that I’ll have strength and love and wisdom to handle whatever that is. I can be filled with faith – until I’m not. Then I can do the whole process over again.
But the thing is — the more I do this, the better I get at quieting Fear. So Fear has much less power over me than it did ten years ago. In the moment, it seems like one step forward and two steps back; but little by little, I have made progress. In the jumbled ball of emotions and thoughts, the thread of faith ends up on top more often than not now. — Except for when it doesn’t.