Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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January 22, 2024

Athena Williams

Cultivating Identity is dedicated to exploring the elements that contribute to each person’s sense of identity, including story, song, art, community, Creation, Scripture and more. How do these experiences influence us and help shape who we are becoming? Courage is required to examine our own hearts, so in this column we will embark on this journey together and encourage one another along the way.

Have you ever gazed into a mirror and been unable to look your own reflection in the eye? I have. I was trapped on a path I no longer wanted to choose, despising who I was becoming, with no hope of escape. I had made a binding commitment to a career I no longer believed in, which was about to separate me from my young daughter for extended periods. It took a miracle to create an exit from that road, and I know Someone who can do miracles when we least expect them. An unforeseen medical diagnosis instantly derailed my career, granting me the immediate freedom for which I hadn’t dared to hope.

A few years later, I was in a Bunco group in Florida – about twenty women who got together to play a dice game one night each month. I was young and I thought I was clever. When someone new joined the group, she had questions about the rules of the game. I made some kind of witty remark like, “Well, if you had been paying attention, you would know…” It was actually the second such “joke” I had made that evening. She looked me right in the eye and said, “You’re very rude.”

I will never forget the many lessons I learned in that moment:

  1. Most people do not enjoy the humor of dry sarcasm.
  2. I can, and should, consider what I say before speaking.
  3. People want to be accepted, not teased.
  4. My communication may be misunderstood.
  5. My reputation is formed in community.
  6. I am capable of carelessly hurting someone.
  7. I am not the wonderful person I imagine myself to be.

It took time and deliberate effort to reverse the damage done that night. Overcoming my tendency to blurt out insensitive or inappropriate comments, and more importantly, learning to see others rather than exalting myself, was a long climb out of a deep pit, and I still occasionally slip back into it.

But sometimes, we have to do the hard work of clawing our way out of a pit we did not dig with our own hands, regardless of whether we can see the pinprick of light at the top, or whether we’ve only heard a rumor that light exists. Sometimes we cry out for God’s miraculous, instantaneous rescue, but it never comes. The cold mud crumbles beneath our raw fingers and we slip back down to the bottom of the pit, disheartened and alone. What then?

We are not yet all we will become.

We can climb, or we can give up and wallow in despair in the mud at the bottom of the pit. This is the true test. When we are alone and we face the truth that we do not have the strength within ourselves to keep going, we can give in to self-pity and hopelessness. No one would blame us; after all, the odds are impossible. Or we can reach up into the dark, and grasp for the Hand we cannot see. God may not pull us out of the pit; He may simply provide the scaffolding to allow us to try again. We always have the choice. His hand is always there.

Sometimes His hand is invisible, but often it takes the shape of a friend or a mentor. It can be a poem, a song, a painting, an article, a meal, or a photograph – anything that whispers courage into our hearts. The lighting of the beacons, the words of an albatross, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Handel’s Messiah, a boy with a slingshot facing a giant. Every day God paints a sunrise to remind us:

The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24, NASB)

The truth is, the climb is too hard for us. We cannot make it on our own. We were never meant to, because it’s not about the pit. It’s about the light. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:3-4, NASB)

If the light was so good, why did God merely separate the light from the darkness? Why didn’t He eradicate the darkness? One day He will, as Revelation says: “And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:5, NASB)

So what is He waiting for? Why leave us to grope in the darkness all this time?

Without the darkness there would be no need for hope or faith, no appreciation for the light. We could never experience victory because there would be nothing to overcome. Imagine a photograph of nothing but light, a solid white glossy rectangle. It would not be a compelling image because there would be no contrast to give it context.

Just as a seedling or a butterfly requires a struggle to strengthen its tiny fibers, so our souls require a struggle to develop and grow. Darkness is a training ground for learning to hope, to trust, to persevere. One step at a time, one choice at a time, we are becoming.

I have a jar at home labeled “Stones of Remembrance.” Each stone in that jar represents a milestone I could not have reached on my own. They are markers of God’s strength and presence in my life; His goodness, His provision, and the hope He gives. I need this jar of stones because I easily forget. Without these reminders, I find myself accusing God of being absent, not caring, or not showing up when I need Him, as if He’s a waiter who went on break without refilling my water glass. The stones remind me of the truth, that He is a patient and loving Father, curating my struggles with an expert hand to develop me into what He originally designed me to be. Even when I don’t believe I can make it out of the pit, He believes enough for both of us.

The featured image is courtesy of Ariel Lovewell and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Julie McFarlane says:

    Thank you. What a beautiful glimpse into your heart and story and so clearly pointing to the author and perfector of our faith. I love the reminder of the time coming when darkness will be no more, and for now it helps us learn and grow and value the light.

  2. Thank you, Julie. We all need to be reminded, constantly!

  3. Jennifer Dahlmann says:

    A training ground where I learn hope and faith! I am grateful that God has given me such a lovely partner in ministry. Thank you dear friend!

  4. Thank you, Jen, for your encouragement. I’m grateful for you as well!

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