This post is one that I have mulled over in my mind many a time. It is, no doubt, one of the most difficult things I will ever write because it is one of the most exposed and most personal things I have ever revealed about myself. I have been working on this post for quite awhile, trying to muster the courage to publish it. Truth be told, even after it's published, I'll probably still keep rereading and editing it! As a general rule, I don't reveal much about myself to......the whole world. I have a small, trusted circle with whom I share my deepest feelings, but right now, I am choosing to share this with you...whoever and wherever you are. I am doing so because the whole point of my blog is to share my story in the many facets of my life. The story I am choosing to (finally) share today is one of regret.....shame.....and hope. I know that this story is not unique to me, but I am praying that my experience and my words will be an encouragement to someone out there.....
When I graduated from college, my husband and I married two weeks later, and then a month after that, we moved to the city where I had accepted my first teaching job. We were young newlyweds, excited to begin our lives together. Like many fresh college grads, we were poor! We lived in a modest 2 bed/ 1 bath apartment. We didn't have much. When we moved there, all we brought with us in terms of furniture was our bed frame, mattress, and a black leather recliner. That's it. Slowly, we began to purchase things here and there to fill our small space. I remember one day, finding a table and 2 matching chairs for our dining area. I loved that table and chairs, in fact, I still have the table. Eventually, we purchased living room furniture from a rent-to-own place. I distinctly remember writing out a check for $99.04 each month to pay for that furniture. It was really fulfilling and felt very "grown up" to be able to pay bills each month: furniture, utilities, student loans, etc... Then came the time for us to buy a new car. We went to the lot to see the husband of a friend (and reader!) of mine who worked there. We went with the intention of just looking......and later left the lot with a brand new car. Every month, $466.67 was deducted from my account to pay for it. We affectionately named this car "Betsy," and we still have her today. With just the two of us, we lived very comfortably, only having to pay rent and a few bills each month. We had plenty of money left to do fun things like go out to dinner.....go on short vacations, etc... We lived this way for 7 years......just the two of us. It was wonderful. Then one day, we made Betsy's final payment. She was ours, totally paid off, free and clear!
One of the things we loved to do together was just to sit and talk.....to dream. One of our dreams was to own our own home, and we'd spend time just talking about the things we'd want to fill it with, what kind of floors and wall colors we'd choose......all those things. It was great fun. We were always sort of looking at rental houses, not seriously like we were ready to move, but just sort of as something to do to keep an eye open as to what was available. One day, we came across a Craigslist ad for a rental home. It was on a street we weren't familiar with, so we plugged it into the GPS and drove by. The house had a sign on the front lawn with a phone number on it. We called. A few minutes later, we had arranged to meet the landlord to take a look inside the house. As soon as we opened the door, I fell in love! I loved that house.....I loved everything about it.....the paint on the walls, the decorative ledge in the living room with the vaulted ceiling, the hard wood floors, the tile work in the master bath, the general layout of the house.....I just loved it all! We quickly learned that we were not the only ones who loved this house - there were others who had inquired (in fact, already applied) to rent it. Having just paid off our car, we decided it would be a great time to take the next step, and move into a house now that we had an extra $466.67 in our pockets each month. The rent was about $600 more per month than what we were paying at the apartment, and we figured if we applied our car payment money, we could afford this place. The process went quickly and within a week, we had signed a lease and moved into this gorgeous 3 bedroom/3 bathroom home..... I was in heaven!
I wasted no time hitting my favorite stores to start decorating our new home. Having just paid off our car, and, a few years prior, our living room furniture, my credit was pristine. I had a fantastic credit score, and not a smudge on my credit report. This came in handy when it came time to fill this new house. I opened a Kohl's card....because I love that store....I bought throw pillows for the furniture, art to hang on the walls, dishes to fill my wall of kitchen cabinets, area rugs, bathroom accessories......you name it. If I liked it, I bought it. One of the perks of having a house was that we had a laundry room....in the house.....that was just ours.....that wasn't coin-operated. So, we went to Best Buy where I opened an account and bought a beautiful washer/dryer set. I also bought a Dyson vacuum. As the months went on, I realized that my credit was so good, that I could be approved for any card I wanted, and not only would I be approved, I would be given a very high credit line. I opened an account with Amazon.com, and another with Sears, The Sears card had the highest limit of all, and could be used anywhere, not just in their stores. So I did. I used it. I used it at Pier One and Ross to buy large, expensive decorations to fill that beautiful ledge in the living room. I used it a lot. Then I remembered that when I was in college, I had opened a Capital One card that I kept only for emergencies. When I realized that the card was still active, I started using it, too. Just like that, I had a house, and 5 credit cards with high limits with which to furnish it........and I did. Years later, I would learn that my husband was totally unaware of my spending habits. I did ok for awhile.....when the bills came in, I still felt that same feeling of accomplishment when I sat down to pay them.......until the payments started to become more and more expensive.
By this time, I was pregnant with our now 3-year-old son and was working 3 jobs. I gave up one of my jobs teaching music part-time, and things were still ok......until I hit 35 weeks, and I gave up my 2nd job in retail to prepare for the baby to come. I kept my job working as Director of Music at a local church, taking maternity leave when our son was born. So here I was, in my new, beautifully decorated house, with my perfect baby boy.......and now, income from one job instead of three........and the bills from 5 credit cards, plus my student loans, and our more expensive rent. And, of course, our utility bills were considerably more expensive living in a house than they were living in an apartment (where we were only responsible for paying for the electricity).
I juggled it for awhile.....making the minimum payment.......not paying one bill each month so I could pay the others.....but eventually, I started getting notices in the mail......calls on my phone. I was getting further and further behind, and these people wanted their money. I even got behind on my student loans.. My parents were even getting mail and phone calls at their house from lenders looking to get their money back. Over time, I just.....stopped paying the bills. I paid the rent, and the utilities, bought diapers and formula, and that was it. The mail kept coming, and so did the calls. I got at least 5 phone calls a day from a bill collector looking for what I owed. The mail for past due bills came so frequently that I couldn't even keep them straight. I knew they were important bills and that they needed to be dealt with, but I also knew that I simply didn't have the money to pay all of them. We just weren't bringing in enough money now that I had become a stay-at-home mom. This financial hole I had dug was getting deeper and deeper. We were bleeding money. . We sat in our lovely home, broke.
I know everyone has financial struggles, and although my situation wasn't as bad as the one in which many others find themselves, this was still fairly extreme. I started looking for things around the house that I could sell off for extra cash. I started a local Facebook group where mothers in my area could get free baby food and formula, because at upwards of $25 a tub, we were spending a lot of money on formula. The stretches of time in between paychecks seemed infinite. On the outside, I seemed fine....I was my normal, happy self. But on the inside......I was crumbling. I didn't know what to do. There was even a time when, after having a distraught, tear-filled conversation with her, a good friend of mine, whose family I know for a fact has considerably less income than we do, came over to my house, and brought us a meal because we were running low on food and payday hadn't come yet. I always made sure the baby ate well, and sometimes that meant we sacrificed for that to happen. Not only did she bring us food, she gave us money. In cash. Although it wasn't a lot by some standards, it was money that I know was a huge sacrifice for them. I don't know that I've ever experienced the love of Christ in a more real way than I did that night. This person.....who had so little....loved and cared for me enough to sacrificially give us what we needed. Now, I'm not disparaging the way people give, in general. Donating money, providing meals and supplies for various charities and ministries, etc....all those things are great, and to be commended.......but most of the time, the people who do those things can afford to do so without any major affect to them, financially. This was not the case with this particular friend. I knew that her giving to me, meant that she was denying herself and her family something. It remains one of the single most humbling experiences of my life. What's more, is that this particular friend used to be a student of mine. I was her high school music teacher. She, who had sat under my tutelage had become my dear friend, and, in this moment, my provider.
During this tumultuous time, the Lord really worked on my heart. I was in prayer....asking for help....for some relief...... Over time, God revealed to me the real issue at hand. The issue wasn't that I didn't have enough money. The fact of the matter, is that I had brought this upon myself. The issue, he revealed.......was pride. How had I not recognized this demon in my life? I was living outside my means, yet I still wanted everyone to come and see my beautiful house. I wanted to host everything - Pampered Chef parties, 31 Bag parties, Norwex parties, play dates - all so people could see my house. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to plan and throw parties. In my new home, I threw them all the time. Once, as an avid and unashamed fan of Michael Jackson (may he rest in peace), I threw a party in his honor, just for fun. I threw it in August, the month of his birth. We played the Michael Jackson game on the wii.....I made favor bags for my guests, complete with not one but two CDs of his music (one for greatest hits and one for lesser-known songs), and, among other items, the obligatory glittered-white glove. I even had a cake specially made in his favorite colors: red, black, and white, and I had ordered posters to hang all over the house. I went all out.....that's just how I do! I wanted to be the party house, not just for the fun of the party, but because I wanted everyone to see my house. I was proud of it.
I was focusing on all the wrong things, and when that reality hit......the reality that I was overcome by pride.....by materialism.....it hit me hard. It was like a knife in my chest. Was I really this person? I hadn't thought so.....but there I was, being that person. I couldn't believe it.....I couldn't believe myself. In general, I would never label myself as a prideful person, but in this case, there was no denying it. I was disappointed in myself, and disgusted with myself. I was completely convicted. After several months of this financial struggle, we decided we needed to move - we had to. We could not afford to stay in that house, with those expenses, and less income (not to mention all the debt I had incurred that I was not paying). At this point, I was fully aware of this presence of pride in my life. I had faced it head on. I had pleaded with God to forgive me and to change my heart. After a time, I began to notice myself letting go. I remember saying to my husband, "What good is it if we have this big, beautiful house if we sit in it broke and stressed out all the time?" And slowly but surely.....a change began to take place in me. I began to crave simplicity. I didn't need all the bells and whistles......all the fancy things I had spent several hundred dollars on, just so they could literally sit on a shelf to be looked at. I wanted less, not more. I wanted enough, not excess. I have to tell you, and hear me when I say this to you: The mentality of simplicity is freeing! There is freedom in giving things up.....giving them over. Less really IS more!
So, we moved. God worked it out perfectly. We found a simple home that was very small, but offered everything we needed. It wasn't big or fancy...it wasn't new or impressive, but it was enough. We went from 3 bathrooms to 1 bathroom - enough. From 2 stories to 1 story - enough. From an automatic opener in a finished garage to a manually operated door in an unfinished garage - enough. From hard wood floors to worn linoleum and old carpet - enough. When we moved in, we got the ok from our new landlords to change a few things to update the house a little bit and make it our own. Fresh paint, new blinds and light fixtures really added a lot of charm to our new cottage-like home. As this house was considerably smaller than our previous home, we had to get rid of a lot of stuff. Stuff I had spent a lot of money on, I gave away, donated, or sold cheaply, just to be rid of it. I cleaved to my family, and focused on spending time with them and making memories rather than focusing on what our house looked like. I spent more time developing my relationship with Jesus and asking him to help me in all areas of my life. I also started this blog during that time. I took stock of what was truly important to me in my life....and guess what.....what was truly important to me, was not my house, and not the stuff that filled it.
We were now paying about $400 a month less in rent.......but I still had all that debt hanging over my head. The mail and phone calls remained incessant. Then one day.......it came....the thing that hit me in the gut like a power punch - a court summons. I could not believe my eyes! One of these credit card companies was actually going to take me to court to try and get their money back? I was shocked. I texted my husband, in fear - what was going to happen now? I knew I didn't have the money to pay this bill.
What followed next was one of the most real and intense things I have ever felt in my life - shame. Deep, inconsolable, regret-drenched, abyss-like shame. This was all my fault. My pride had grown so large, that I had dug this hole for myself, and now, the proverbial chickens had come home to roost. I cannot adequately describe what I felt. This shame was like a huge secret that I didn't want anyone to know about, and it was eating me up from the inside. I was, what I like to call, in a funk. I didn't want to go out and see people. I was so upset, that I couldn't even speak about it on the phone to close friends who knew something was going on, but didn't know what that something was. There were times when I was weeping so intensely that I nearly hyperventilated. My mind was consumed with this debt that loomed over me, and the dark cloud of shame that engulfed me. I spent time thinking about what would happen if I couldn't pay this debt. Would they sue me? Garnish my (already insufficient) wages? I beat myself up over having put myself in this position, and while I hadn't intentionally kept it from my husband, he was completely unaware of how I had actually acquired all the "stuff." I lamented over how my once pristine and stellar credit had been tarnished in a seemingly irreparable way. I ruminated on how I had made such foolish choices, all for material, aesthetic things. I felt stupid. I knew I wasn't a stupid person, but because of what I had done......I felt stupid.....and so deeply ashamed.
In those dark months, I thought back to our very first apartment. How small and simple it was....I thought about that dining room table I had bought and how proud I was of it. And the more I pondered it, I realized that my feeling for that dining set was not pride.....it was gratitude. You see, that table..... was a card table. From K-mart. It was a dark colored wood with a black, faux leather inlay. It wasn't really a dining table at all, it was a card table, with folding legs, and the two chairs I had gotten to match were folding as well. But....I loved that dining set because I remembered what it was like not to have a table and chairs......not to be able to afford them.....and I remembered the gratitude I felt about having a good job and being able to purchase a needed item for our new family of 2. That feeling.....the feeling of gratitude....felt so much better than the feeling of false pride. Being happy with something simple that I had earned, was so much more fulfilling than being boastful about something fancy that I had bought on credit and didn't really own......and couldn't afford.
Having received the summons, I knew that I had to contact the collection agency and set up a repayment plan, and I knew that I would need my husband's help. I called, set it up, and the payments began, cancelling out the summons. However, I knew more would be coming...... I did get one other summons for another account, and so I called and handled that as well. Then we proactively called on the other accounts to set up payments on those too. Last, but not least, we made arrangements to repay my student loans. Fast-forward several months, and now 2 of my 5 accounts are paid off, and all others are currently being repaid, and I've even been able to open a new credit card to help me rebuild my credit. I use it to pay one recurrent bill each month. I'm paying off my balance every month - and that looks good - that helps rebuild credit. My husband has been amazing in helping me repay my debt. I simply could not do it without his help and support. It would be a gargantuan task to try and explain how wonderful he has been through this whole process, and how much it has affected our relationship for the better. We have grown in love and respect and wisdom as individuals and as spouses and helpmates. It's no big thing to him - as he puts it, "We're a team." Indeed, we are! Sorry ladies, he's taken.....and he has no brothers. :-)
What I realized, is that I allowed fear and embarrassment to paralyze me. I knew I wasn't the only person in this situation, and yet I was so afraid of what might happen because I didn't have the money to pay my debt, that I did.....nothing. I let the debt sit there....unpaid....for a long time. I ignored the phone calls and mail, and did nothing until I was forced to. This is, unfortunately,not a unique situation, and comparatively, the amounts I owed were far less than most other people in similar situations. But, no matter what the amount, if you don't have the money, you don't have the money - makes no difference if it's fifty cents or fifty thousand dollars. I now realize that there are programs in place to help in such situations. How I wish I had had enough guts to deal with all of this sooner!
In my pride, in my fear, and in my shame - God was faithful. God provided. Always.
We had lived in this simple home for about a year and a half when, one morning, my husband randomly mentioned that he had made some calls and done a bit of research on the possibility of us buying a home. He had learned that, based just on his income and fabulous credit (since, although in repair, mine was still not where it should be) we could qualify for a decent home loan at a very reasonable rate. And then it began.....We were getting contacted by lenders. We started looking online to see what was available, and grabbing real estate magazines. I took a girlfriend and went to open houses on the weekend, making my list of "must haves" "nice to haves" and "dealbreakers" in the car on the way to each house. We crunched numbers with the lender, getting quotes for insurance, figuring utilities, HOA fees, etc... Eventually, we hooked up with the realtor referred to us by a lender. We met with her several times to look at homes. . We made an offer an one house that was humongous......in fact, it had so much room, we weren't even sure what we would do with all of it! That offer was heavily considered, but ultimately rejected after a few counters back and forth. A good thing, in retrospect. Then we made a second offer......and it was accepted. My prayer from then on always contained the phrase, "I remember, Father. I remember the lesson." Whatever my plea was......for patience.....for his will to play out, despite what I wanted.....I always made sure to include the fact that I had not forgotten the lesson I learned about my own pride and recklessness, and that I had no intention of repeating that terrible mistake. If you know anything about the home buying process, you know that it is long and involved, and nothing is final until you've signed on the dotted line. As we went through the process, I was excited at the prospect of owning a home, but didn't allow myself to get too excited just in case something didn't work out at the last minute. I prayed. I asked others to pray with me, and for me. In my prayers, I repeatedly assured the Lord that I had remembered the lesson I had learned. Each time the phone rang, or a new email came, I wondered what document was needed or what news the realtor had for us, and I feared that something would go wrong to kill the deal we were trying to make. It was a stressful time for us, but I was determined to let God handle it, and I determined to be thankful no matter what.
Today, as I write this post, I am sitting on my couch, in my new house. The deal has been made, the papers signed......the lesson learned. And, let me tell you how faithful God is.......this house is the exact same layout of the very first house we lived in - the one that I loved so much....the one where my son had taken his first steps, and had his first birthday,...the one where I had made my mistakes and had discovered a spirit of pride in myself that I detested. There are a few differences here and there, but......it's the same for all intents and purposes, and even has a few things that the other house didn't. Not only did God give us a house we love with pretty much everything on our "must have' list, he gave us a mortgage payment that is unbelievably affordable, and lovey neighbors who also have small children,
Am I proud of my new home? You bet. But I'm not proud in the sense that I want to show off what I have, because, let's be clear, even though I own it, it isn't really mine. What I'm proud of is the transformation of my heart and the faithfulness and loving-kindness of God. He revealed to me a problem that I didn't even know I had.....a problem that I probably would have been quick to diagnose in others. He brought this issue to light, led me down a path of recovery and healing both financially and spiritually, and, in the end, blessed me with the very thing I wanted from the beginning. He was faithful in giving me the desire of my heart, but it required me to take a really honest look at myself, evaluate my situation, and make real, substantial, conscious, and difficult changes. I couldn't simply pray away the pride and the debt and the shame....I had to get on my knees, beg his strength, and actually DO something about it myself.
I went from the gratitude of a cheap, K-mart card table, to the pride of a gorgeous rental home, to the despair of mounting debt, to the shame of legal action.........to the hope and redemption of seeing all those things - the pride, the despair, and the shame, melt away, and be replaced by peace in my spirit....joy in my heart....gratitude in the deepest part of my soul.....and awe at an amazingly good, forgiving and gracious God, who so perfectly knows me and loves me and provides for me..
So there you have it - one of my deepest, darkest secrets, and one of my greatest testimonies and life lessons, all parts of the same story. A story, by the way, that is still being written. The take away is this: Even in its enormity in my life, my sin still came as a surprise to me. It took me realizing it and actually implementing real change before redemption came. I had to make sacrifices, assume responsibility, and accept help. I had to admit my sin, and my part in creating the situation in which I found myself. Asking God to take it away wasn't enough - I had to change my heart, and in doing so, I saw the desires of my heart change to reflect the heart of God.
Many of you reading this may be struggling financially. As I said earlier, this isn't uncommon, though the reasons behind it are varied. In my case, the struggle was self-inflicted, and at the root of it was sin. Sin to which I was completely oblivious. Why do I share this story? Well....I'm certain that because God has given me this testimony, there is someone that needs to hear it. I am praying that this story will be of some value to someone. Another reason I'm sharing, is that we are all sinners, but our sin is not always evident to us. This was a bit of a surprise to me.....I just had never thought about it all that much, but I'm encouraging you now - think about it. Pray about it. Search your heart and examine yourself and your life.....is there hidden sin? Is there something that is coming between you and the will of God that you may not even be aware of? Is it camouflaged as something else? It may seem a silly thing to ask, but it is possible.....trust me..
Father, I thank you for being who you are. I thank you for being good and merciful and just. I thank you for the blessing of a lesson learned, however hard it may have been. I thank you for the blessing of going through a difficult situation, and being able to see you transform it into something beautiful that glorifies you. I pray for all those reading these words that you would bless them in their walk with you, and reveal to them any camouflaged sin in their lives. I pray that they would take comfort in knowing that in all situations, you are in control, and you have a plan, even when we don't understand it.......even when we don't like it. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of your spirit. May it guide us as we genuinely seek you and your will. Amen.