The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about the spiritual challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis (which is completely representative of all of our conversations; we only ever talk about how we might grow in holiness, and would never, ever spend 30 minutes complaining about the annoying things we saw on Twitter that morning). She asked me what my biggest struggle was, and I came up with this:
Knowing the difference between difficult situations that are crosses that God is asking me to carry, and difficult situations that that are hard and bad because I need to change something.
The example I always think of is of a time back when we had three kids under age three. The baby didn’t sleep through the night, my heavy 18-month-old still wasn’t walking, my two-year-old was going for an Olympic Medal in the Terrible Twos, nap schedules were too critical to my survival to risk leaving the house, Joe was working 12-hour days, and I had no help during the week. Oh, and, to give me a little foretaste of what I would eventually experience with baby number five, our second child spent a large percentage of her waking hours screaming at the top of her lungs. A gust of wind blew her hair the wrong direction? Five minutes of screaming. I offered her green beans and she wanted peas? Eight minutes of screaming. She had been happily drawing on the couch with a sharpie and Mommy No-Fun took it away from her? Fifteen minutes of rolling-on-the-floor, kicking, thrashing, screaming.
Those were some long days.
I think I have told you before about the crazy moment when I was standing in the middle of my living room, begging God for help, and I heard a knock on the door. I answered it, and it was a new neighbor asking if I needed a babysitter. She was in between jobs, and looking for a short-term gig. Also, because she didn’t have a car and needed something she could walk to, she was willing to offer me a ridiculously low, single-digit hourly rate. (And I am not exaggerating when I tell you that she knocked when I was literally in the middle of saying a prayer.)
I stared at her for a moment, trying to take in the craziness of this situation. Finally I caught my breath, and I boldly answered: “I need to think about it.”
“You said what?!” Joe asked when I recounted the situation later. He added a request that “if Publisher’s Clearing House shows up at our door with one of those huge cardboard checks for a million dollars next time you’re saying a prayer, please do not tell them you need to think about it.”
I sighed, and put on my extra-weary voice as I replied (wishing he could see me gazing into the distance like a saint on a prayer card), “Alas, we can’t afford any help.” (I think I actually said “alas.”)
He pointed out that, at that low of a rate, just cutting back on groceries would mostly cover a few hours a week of this lady’s help. We could draw from savings to cover anything beyond that, especially since it would only be for a few months until she found another job. Then I responded that we didn’t know if we could trust her, and he countered that she had friends in the neighborhood and I’d be home while she was here anyway. We went back and forth like this for days, me offering a reason it wouldn’t work and Joe offering a reason why it would, until I finally ran out of excuses. And when I contemplated the prospect of accepting this as an answered prayer, I was mildly terrified.
I hadn’t wanted this prayer answered — not really. Maybe if God had arranged it so that Joe could work from home, or my mom could retire and move in with us and found that she wanted nothing more than to volunteer to watch the kids half the day, that would have been cool. But I didn’t really want help with my situation if it wasn’t help that was on my terms. Though I had been all ready to have a scribe document my sufferings for a future volume of The Lives of the Saints, the reality is that that suffering was easy for me in a certain way. Yes, my days were long and hard and pushed me to my limit. But I was in my comfort zone; it was a kind of struggle that felt familiar to someone of my temperament. It was a safe kind of suffering.
And — most importantly — I was in control. Sure, the kids and I were trapped in a house all day every day and we were kind of starting to lose our minds, but at least there were no unknowns. I was queen of my own little world. Granted, it may have been a little world that had all the vibe of a pirate ship about to teeter into mutiny, but at least I was queen of it.
But the prospect of accepting this answered prayer changed all of that. Accepting someone else’s help would mean introducing all sorts of question marks into my life. I felt almost suffocated under the weight of the unknowns: What if she and I didn’t click?! What if the kids didn’t like her?! What if she judged me for being a terrible housekeeper?! What if she was so shocked at our feral existence that she ran out the door, screaming while dialing CPS?!
One of my favorite writers, Marion Fernandez-Cueto, once wrote an article called Surrender the Choosing that I’ve kept to review often (and possibly tattoo on my back). She says:
Most Christians are willing to suffer a cross, I think, but we want them to be crosses of our own designation, not Christ’s. Thus the saints have always taught that a small suffering imposed by circumstance and embraced for love for God can be worth far more than the strictest voluntary penance. However virtuous the latter, it is often marred by the stamp of self-will. In contrast, the unsought burdens of life present marvelously pure opportunities for grace; our self-will, which recoils from them, is utterly absent from their origin. In the vacuum left by our own designs, God waits to flow in. It is Him alone we must choose.
So I got the babysitter, and everything changed. As an introvert, it was initially a challenge for me to have an adult I didn’t know in the house during the day, but the way that situation stretched me was healthy, needed, and good. Now that I no longer had the excuse that I could do nothing more than survive each day, I looked around and noticed some seriously neglected areas of our family’s lives. I ended up being called to change and grow and carry plenty of new crosses, only these weren’t comfortable and familiar like my old, self-imposed one; with these, I actually had to rely on God since I had no idea what I was doing. (It’s also worth noting that the babysitter was a fallen-away Christian whose relatives had been fervently praying for her, and we ended up having some great, long discussions about religion. Maybe it was an answered prayer for her, too?)
The situation is kind of silly since it didn’t involve any dramatic, life-and-death discernment issues, but I think of it often since it was such a clear case of clutching my own, self-made cross rather than openly following Christ and accepting whatever sacrifices I encounter on the path. As I said to my friend the other day, I think this is an area of discernment I’ll always struggle with: I’d rather suffer more and be in control than suffer less and be out of control.
Unfortunately I haven’t come up with a clear checklist of Signs that You Might Be Being a Control Freak and Not the Glorious Martyr You Think You Are, but I’m learning to be better at discernment in this area. I’m certainly motivated to do so, because I have found over and over again that God’s burden is indeed the lighter one. The crosses he gives us come with the grace to carry them; the crosses we drag along on our own my have worn, familiar grooves that make them fit nicely on our shoulders, but ultimately, they are so much more heavy.