God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. — Reinhold Niebuhr
One fateful day in June, I found myself poring over volumes of photos on my computer. I was on a tight project deadline, so naturally, scrolling through the last seven years of photos seemed like the perfect distraction. I flipped through each photo of our kids in the Big Apple. How young they were! Kindergarten, second and third grades. The boys had blond, moppy locks. Kennedy wore a plaid headband and had our toy poodles, Trevi and Flora, in tow. Tiny bodies dwarfed by bulging backpacks, they knelt to feed ducks at our favorite Central Park pond or negotiated a free cupcake on our daily commute home from school.
I savored the memory of those days, how each moment felt like an adventure as I dropped to their level, trying to capture the world through my children’s eyes.
I scrolled ahead to a group of photos I didn’t recognize, a series of scenes set in in the woods of Connecticut where our family had sought respite over a fall break. Our six-, eight-, and ten-year-olds had dreamed up the perfect kids-will-be-kids afternoon: a picnic by the woods on the edge of the front yard. They packed sandwiches, popcorn, and juice boxes, dragged out a patchwork snowflake quilt, Dr. Seuss books, the Rat-a-Tat Cat card game, a Grinch costume, a zebra hand puppet, and a T-ball set. Gabe had captured the entire experience on camera, lurking behind a curtain in the front office window. I’d had no idea.
Frame by frame, photo by photo, I watched the afternoon unfold in slow motion. One of the kids opted for a solo baseball game. Kennedy pitched and batted on her own. She threw the ball in the air and nailed it, her face awash with sheer determination and grit. Pierce examined a leaf up close, picked from a pile on the ground, then jumped up to cheer for his sister. Cade took their distractions as an opening to finish off lunch, sneaking crumbs to the poodles, who circled nearby.
The next photo caught me off guard. It was me. Head buried in my laptop, headphones on, laser- focused on writing my first book. These sacred moments of spontaneity had taken place in the front yard… and me? I had missed every second of it.
I zoomed in to see their facial expressions, pondering their personalities. I was reminded of their innocence and wide- eyed wonder. They would follow Daddy and Mama anywhere, and we certainly
took them up on it. I remember saying in that season how resilient kids were, and the truth is, they really were resilient — until they weren’t.
I looked again at the photo of me, hair wild, rumpled sweatshirt, typing away, all in the name of being diligent. What other moments had I missed, head buried in my work? Year after year, I couldn’t possibly be present for everyone. But this felt different. I hadn’t felt the weight of missing out until I saw it in retrospect, in vivid color from a long- past October day.
Until you get quiet, you can’t know what your heart needs to confess.
In that room, seven years later, I fell to my knees in tears. These toddlers- turned- teens, now taller than I, weren’t in that carefree season anymore, and they never would be. They now carried stress and loads of responsibility: deadlines, social cues, high school transcripts. I wanted to crawl back through the lens, and relive that afternoon. I wanted to change it all, walk away from my computer and pitch to Kennedy, collect leaves with Pierce, and tease Cade for feeding his last bite of sandwich to the dogs.
I suppose most parents live with the question, What more could I have done? And in that moment, the question came calling for me. I’d worked through one memory only to remember others: the nights I skipped tuck- ins and called up from the bottom stair. In my worst moments, I’d ignored my children’s pleas. Stared at my phone. I wanted to feel the weight of these things, to grieve what was lost, to acknowledge my ignorance.
Grateful for this insight, I considered a new question: What can I do now? This is where things begin to change.
HOW TO KEEP A CLEAN HEART
I knew that if we sit in regret too long, if we let it swirl without release, we descend into a rabbit hole of shame. We nurse guilt. So often, our regret, shame, and self-condemnation do not motivate us to be more present, more proactive. Instead, they lead to more anxiety and defeat.
Confession to God, on the other hand, allows us to begin again and make today count. Tonight, even. Every pause is a chance to release and reset. Peace cannot happen without the discipline of self- examination. When we pause long enough to examine our hearts, to confess to God where we have messed up, cleansing happens.
These things are true: You cannot heal what is hidden, but when you confess something out loud, you bring it into the light, where it can be healed.
The power of guilt and shame has no hold on you any longer, because secrets lose power when they exit the dark.1
Here are three questions to ask yourself to kick- start the heart work. They will walk you through confession and toward change (which is the path of true repentance).
- What do I need to confess? Heart work begins with awakening, like what happened to me the afternoon I explored my photo library. When my awareness of moments I’d missed brought deep shame and guilt, I confessed my tendency to allow work time to spill over into family time.
- What do I need to release? Nursing guilt shows a fundamental distrust of God’s forgiveness, healing, and restorative power. Once we confess, we release our guilt to God, and trust that he will work through our failures to bring about his purposes.2
- What do I need to change? Confession and release paves the way for how we can walk forward in new, more connected and present ways. Keep asking God, “What can I do now?” His plans and purposes will continue to unfold.
After we do the heart work and amend our ways, we have a path forward that’s free from guilt, shame, and anxiety. We’ve reflected, confessed, and begun to walk in a new way. A better way. Guilt and shame keep us trapped in cycles of anxiety, depression, perhaps even panic. The only consistent way I’ve found rest from these cycles is to keep my heart clean through confession, release, and forgiveness.
Confession is the gateway to freedom. Freedom is the beauty of forgiveness.
Allow me to provide a word of caution: When you start doing the heart work, you might stumble upon some pretty big things. Old wounds. Deep pains. Perhaps even some dark patterns of behavior. If this is the case, don’t try to carry those burdens alone. Find a counselor, therapist, pastor, or priest to help you carry the load. Though I’d recommend a professional guide to help you navigate these issues, it might not be a bad idea to pull a trusted and willing friend into the mix, too.
The Proverbs writer penned these words: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”3 Let’s do the heart work: examine and confess, forgive and release, then enter our communities and the world beyond as healing agents.
- James 5:16; Ephesians 5:13.
- Romans 8:28.
- Proverbs 4:23.
Excerpted with permission from Rhythms of Renewal by Rebekah Lyons, copyright Rebekah Lyons.
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Sit in a quiet place and take inventory. What causes you guilt, shame, stress, or anxiety? Release it to God and ask Him to bring you peace. Come share your thoughts on our blog!
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