Seven Secrets to Thriving, Not Merely Surviving Part 3

7. Letting go and laying hold

Letting go is harder than you think. For some it is about letting go of the business that for whatever reason didn’t succeed. For others, it may be the letting go of that one person you thought you could never live without.

Some nights, I would have incredibly vivid dreams, occasionally with me waking up absolutely convinced I had heard my ex-wife’s voice very nearby. This kind of uncontrollable scenario made it harder for me to truly ‘let go’.

At the same time as our business was faltering, there were a couple of invitations to submit a tender for a global contract that would have suddenly resolved all my financial woes and resurrected what had been a much loved small business.  But alas, despite a lot of hard work, it was not to be and I eventually realised that I must lay it all down, choosing to stop wondering, “What if I had…”

Letting go is usually a prerequisite to ‘laying hold’.

Therefore, I came to understand that in order to move on, I needed to get some stuff done.

In my situation, in order to let go, I needed to do some forgiving. In truth, I think I probably ended up forgiving some people several times over. We can be sincere in our forgiveness but when the pain runs very deep, I do believe we often have to revisit it and forgive again. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to forgive “seventy times seven.”

Letting go of all that had gone before and everything we had been through together was a huge mountain for me in every respect. All the prophetic words, all the blessings we had seen and been to many people – everything had to be laid down and quietly commemorated. And somehow, trust that none of it had been wasted.

In my experience, letting go comes in waves and takes different forms. I had several occasions when I knew God was doing some very deep work in my heart, healing me from the pain of my loss, helping me to let go and move on. One such occasion was at the end of another Sunday morning service when I found myself surrounded by a group of young children, all laying hands on me and praying. I don’t think any of them knew anything about me and I couldn’t hear anything they were praying but within seconds, I was weeping profusely and knew that my heart was being healed once again.  This was an uncontrolled form of letting go – one that happens almost subconsciously.

Other occasions didn’t look like that at all. After much deliberation, I forced myself to attend a Divorce, Separation, Recovery Course and resented the fact that I was included in this group of people that no one chose to be a part of. I couldn’t bring myself to address my ex-wife as “My ex” like everyone else did. When I arrived on the first evening, and discovered that I was the only man in the group of a dozen or so women, I instinctively blurted out, “Oh, I think I must be at the wrong meeting…” which rather encouragingly, was met by raucous laughter by everyone in the room and immediately broke the ice.  Over just a few weeks of attending the group (another example of the previous point, ‘Get the help that you know you need’), I found that I was disciplining myself to let go.  Sometimes, it can almost feel like teaching a belligerent child… the start can seem like a battle but in the end the peace and stability comes.

Laying hold also comes in waves and sometimes, very specific opportunities. It may be that you get an opportunity to go away with some old friends, or new friends, or a combination of both. A good friend of mine who I had asked to act as a mentor for me – especially during this difficult period – invited me to attend a men’s retreat he was leading. I immediately accepted and instinctively knew that this would be significant.

Sure enough on the first night, my friend led us through a ‘check-in’ where everyone gets to share how they’re feeling at the beginning of the retreat, what they’re looking forward to etc. No one spoke for a few seconds, so I jumped in and told them the headlines of what had been going on in my life and instantly made a deep connection with all of the men in the room.

I have attended several retreats and many evenings at their regular location and it is nearly always the same. Someone will share their situation with brutal honesty and vulnerability and this encourages all the others to do the same. You don’t have to be vulnerable but I have found that in this type of safe environment, the more vulnerable you make yourself, the more healing follows and not just for you but also for the others who follow your example.

It has been through these kinds of experiences that I have made leaps forward in my journey.  I believe that these retreats paved the way for many new things that came along – having the courage to meet my new wife, engaging in new friendships, expanding the horizons of my spirituality and even moving into new areas of work have all been fruits of these ‘laying hold’ types of activity.

It may be that you get invited to a party or you may see an event or conference that sparks interest for you.  Don’t hold back, this may be an opportunity to lay hold of something new.

The Word & the Spirit

In Philippians 3:12, Paul writes, “but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” Is it better to look forwards and not backwards? Clearly, looking forwards is the sensible, more profitable thing to do, almost every time. There are however, occasions when it serves us very well indeed, to at least cast a glance over our shoulder and be encouraged by how far we have come.

As a late teenager, I spent seven glorious months in Israel, living and working on a kibbutz in the north of the country, right on the border with Lebanon, buttressed against the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. I worked in the banana fields and loved every single second of my time there. One day, I was asked to accompany one of the leaders of the ‘banana crew’. He told me to grab a chair and a shovel and put them in the trailer. We jumped on the tractor and drove to a new field that needed some irrigation pipes laid down.

We arrived at the spot and I said to him, “What’s the chair for?” He grinned and answered, “For me to sit on while you dig the shallow trench for the irrigation pipes!” He soon revealed that he was of course, joking and that we would take turns to dig while the other rested. At one point, I said to him, “How far have we got to keep digging?” “Don’t worry about that my friend, just take a look behind you and see how much you’ve already dug.”

That image has never left me and I believe there is a beautiful truth wrapped up in it. We often don’t know how much further we have to keep digging, or how long it is going to take. But if we do take a moment to look behind and see how far we have come, that is usually encouragement enough to keep persevering.

BONUS SECRET (AND THIS IS THE REAL SECRET)

8. Accepting humiliation

Depending on which set of statistics you believe, divorce rates are almost as high in the Church as they are in secular society, sometimes higher.

Let me be clear, I believe that God hates divorce. So for me, when I realised that my wife’s decision to ‘come out’ was almost certainly going to result in us getting divorced, I was devastated.

Devastated because we loved each other and – in so many ways – neither of us wanted this. The emotional and relational hit should be obvious to any reader and I am not going to expand on that in this section because I have another aspect of my response to focus on.

I was also devastated because my pride was going to take a massive hit.

My membership of the unspoken – but oh so obviously esteemed – elite of people who have been married for twenty years or more would also be over.

I thought about my fledgling business. What would I tell my clients? Maybe they would leave me as well? I was terrified of all these things. I had prided myself (literally it turns out) on having been married for such a respectably long time.  I was passionate in my commitment to marriage and the fact that my wife and I had been heavily involved in church leadership. Ironically, the primary ministry activity we were engaged in was all things marriage related. We led The Marriage Course, got involved in marriage counselling occasionally, we had loved ministering to multiple couples that we called the ‘newly marrieds’.  We had entertained such couples at our home with food and many of our own stories of married life. We facilitated discussions with them about everything – sex, money, children and in-laws. We loved every minute of it… but now that was all in the past and we would never do it again – at least not together.

Humiliation then, can be a paralysing factor. Who chooses to be exposed as a failure – even if no one blames you or thinks it is your fault? The fact was, I would never be able to say that I had been successfully married for twenty-five, thirty, or even fifty years.

I was embarrassed.

Acutely.

Remember, it was not merely my marriage that was evaporating before my very eyes. The business we had worked so hard to establish was also sliding away from under our feet. In addition to this, things with our children were far from perfect.

What to do? I felt a strong sense that I had two choices.  To hide was an enormous temptation.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam hid from God because he was ashamed; everything in me understood and leant towards that desire to be hidden.  I could avoid social situations and shy away from any kind of exposure that would highlight my failing situation.

But I was also aware of a pull in the other direction; a pull to stand up and be counted, to carry on and to embrace the reality of my situation knowing that, if Christ embraced the cross, and He was the one walking with me, that I could also walk that humiliating path and even – maybe – know some fruit at the end of it.

Thankfully, I chose the latter but it did not happen without pain. That pain is realising that pride has to go completely. It is a lot easier for your pride to be dealt with in this manner – where you have little choice.  I had lived up until this point, weaving around situations of perceived failure, managing to hide and thus keeping a sense of pride firmly intact.

At one point along this journey, I remember speaking to my Mum about the subject of humility. We were in the car on the way home from a joint shopping trip. I was in a season of having no car (major humiliation!) and she would very kindly take me to the supermarket. I loved her for it at the same time as despising the sheer humiliation of needing a lift from my Mum to get to the supermarket and back. I was having nightmarish visions of being a sad, lonely, middle aged man spending increasing amounts of time with his Mum and I hated that idea.

I was telling her about my latest thoughts on humility and it went something like this: “I’ve realised that I now find myself feeling pretty neutral whenever someone says to me, ‘Wow, your story really inspired and moved me Paul!’ It is nice of course, to get that kind of feedback but I don’t feed off it like I may have done in the past. Equally, when I find out that I’ve been rejected for a job I was really hoping to secure, I simply shrug it off and move on.”

It was as if I was finally free from both the disappointments as well as the successes that life could still throw at me.

No longer would I be a slave to either fear of rejection or an insatiable appetite for success and the accolades that fuel that hunger.

Again, it was like the desperate situation that I found myself in, actually served to change me in a way that nothing else ever really could have done.  As I accepted humiliation, the fear of it, lost its power.

If you find yourself in a traumatic scenario, I encourage you to look at the things that most ‘threaten’ you.  It is often the painful path that leads to blessing and to a transformed outlook.  And often, facing the fears head on disempowers them once and for all in our lives.

This, along with many other incidents – blessings and setbacks – helped me to rebuild my life and truly feel like I was no longer surviving but actually thriving.

The Word & the Spirit

Jesus said that those who lose their life will gain life and whilst this can sound pretty harsh, it is something that I have come to realise to be a reality in many areas.  We often have to let go of one thing, to take hold of another.  There are many examples of this in analogies and stories.  One such would be the story of the monkey who has hold of a bunch of grapes through the bars of a cage. He cannot actually pull the grapes through the bars and so he needs to realise that he must let go before he can find another way to actually enjoy that fruit.  People often talk about the need to let go of the good to take hold of the better.

I do not find myself in a game of comparison.  Someone once said that comparison is the thief of joy.  Therefore, I am not trying to compare my life now to what it was before.  However, I would suggest that if you have the apparent misfortune of experiencing major setback, this can be the vehicle for positive and lasting change.  Try to see it that way and trust that just as spring follows winter, new life can come after death.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and he shall direct your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6 NKJV

This is probably my favourite proverb and I love it for the following reason: The Hebrew words used here for acknowledge and direct are very similar. Yada (acknowledge) and yashar (direct) and when they come together in this text, it represents a wonderful promise of God to all of us.

Yada is translated “know” meaning to experience first-hand by observation or investigation. But the highest form of yada is in the life-giving level of intimacy as in marriage.

If we, His people can come to a place of true intimacy with God, then he will birth within us wonderful dreams, blessings and victories by his directing (yashar) of our paths. If we, in “acknowledge Him in all our ways (in Hebrew, derek)” – most commonly in an everyday way (literally) – then we can become all that He has called us to be, as we partner with Him, and make good, wise decisions on a daily basis.

This ultimately is how you can learn to thrive and not merely survive, no matter what comes against you.