We all struggle with identity—who we are, why we are, and what we have to offer this vast, broken world. About the time we find a scrap of worth or significance, something happens to make us fully aware of how much we lack. A harsh word. A broken relationship. A blunder or failure. Then, in spite of our best efforts at positivity or affirmation, we can’t escape the insecurity and aloneness we experience as a result. When it comes to this epidemic of misplaced identity, my friend Michele Cushatt understands the struggle first hand. Without giving away her story (which you can read in her books), Michele knows what it’s like to have the feet kicked out from underneath her, and to wonder if she’d ever again be able to stand. But she also knows what it’s like to push through the darkness, to cry out to God for grace, and to discover the miracle of a God whose purpose and presence never fail, regardless of what may come.
Childhood is supposed to be a time of dreams and play, laughter and light. But by the time my dad was five years old, he knew none of those things. Instead, he knew from hard experience that the world is not safe.
He was the youngest of three children, and his boyhood was traumatic. After his parents divorced, Dad found himself pulled between two dysfunctional homes. In one, alcoholism wreaked havoc. In the other, mental illness and promiscuity. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me, it was nothing a child should ever know.
Somehow he stumbled through grade school and high school and made it to college. Then, two years in the army and the Vietnam War. More pain, more trauma.
Until the day his life was spared when it shouldn’t have been.
Somewhere outside of Phu Loi, Vietnam, the companies in front of and behind his were ambushed. His unit was spared. Months later he returned home to his young wife with a Bronze Star, physically unscathed. Less than a year later, I was born.
But Dad was never the same. His experience at war and brush with death had changed him. He was a different man, both for good and for bad. War, especially a politically charged one like Vietnam, has a way of tearing at the fabric of a man’s soul. Even so, a small spark of new life had also taken hold. In spite of a lifetime of pain, he believed there had to be a reason he was still alive. So he started searching for its source, for the God his faith-filled grandma had often told him about.
A year later, a coworker invited him to church.
And that’s when God started rebuilding the broken boy turned man. The world still wasn’t safe, Dad knew that. He faced plenty more challenges, as we all do. But he’d found a refuge. A God who had laid down His life to save another’s.
Some of you discovered that the world wasn’t safe early in life, too. Perhaps you had a parent with mental illness. Or maybe a neighbor who took advantage of you. For some it was a teacher who constantly criticized or a foster care system that failed. The possibilities are so varied and painful, I can hardly write them out. Even beyond the acute traumas, ordinary days can be riddled with the unexpected.
Busy streets, sharp objects, threatening strangers. With each passing year, each step closer to adulthood, a child’s fear is confirmed again and again. Danger is everywhere and hardship cannot be avoided.
This life can be dangerous and terrifying. Psalm 91 gives us a glimpse of the various sufferings we can expect:
- “the fowler’s snare” (v. 3)
- “deadly pestilence” (v. 3)
- “the terror of night” (v. 5)
- “the arrow that flies by day” (v. 5)
- “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness” (v. 6)
- “the plague that destroys at midday” (v. 6)
- “a thousand may fall at your side” (v. 7)
That about covers it, don’t you think? Disease. Conflict. Terrorism. Unrelenting fear. Injustice. Death. At morning, midday, and night. Under the cover of darkness or in the bright light of day.
Pain will come. Period.
The psalmist knew this, which is why he doesn’t leave us in a pit of despair. Instead, he describes a refuge so secure we can rest in spite of the war.
Psalm 91 says, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” (vs. 1-2)
Several chapters earlier, the writer in Psalm 31:2 said something similar: “Your granite cave a hiding place, your high cliff aerie a place of safety” (MSG).
There are seasons, however, when even this comfort doesn’t make me feel better. And then bad things happen, pain comes, loss steals life right out of my hand.
And I wonder, Where is the safety of God in all this?
The truth is I want a life free from pain.
I want a marriage that doesn’t ever struggle, children who always behave, a body that stays healthy, and relationships that are easy and uncomplicated. I don’t want storms or wars or conflicts.
But I’m learning something, even as I fight against the fear.
Safety isn’t the absence of suffering. It’s finding rest in the middle of it.
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” Jesus said (John 16:33).
Choosing God as your safety doesn’t mean the struggles will cease. The cave doesn’t lessen the intensity of the storm outside. It doesn’t still the thunder or cease the lightning or keep the rain from falling.
The cave provides a place of peace. Even when the storm continues to swirl.
This is what Dad discovered as he fought wars both at home and abroad. No, the world is not a safe place.
But there is no refuge like our God.
Pulling from her experiences with raising children from trauma, a personal life-threatening illness three times over, and the devastating losses of identity that came to all members of her family as a result, Michele create safe spaces for honest conversations around the tensions of real faith and real life.
The words of Michele’s most recent book—I Am: A 60-day Journey to Knowing Who You Are Because of Who He Is—were penned during her long and grueling recovery from a third diagnosis of cancer during which she was permanently altered physically, emotionally and spiritually. In it, she speaks with raw honesty and hard-earned insight about our current identity epidemic and the reason why our best self-help and self-esteem tools aren’t enough to heal our deepest wounds.
Michele and the love of her life, Troy, live in the mountains of Colorado with their six children, ages 9 to 24. She enjoys a good novel, a long run, and a kitchen table filled with people. Learn more about Michele at michelecushatt.com.
From the moment a woman wakes until she falls, exhausted, on her pillow, one question plagues her at every turn:
Am I enough?
The pressure to do more, be more has never been more intense. Online marketing. Self-help books. Movies, magazines and gym memberships. Even church attendance and social media streams have become a means of comparing ourselves to impossible standards. Am I pretty enough? Hip enough? Spiritual enough?
We fear the answer is “No.”
When a brutal bout with cancer changed how she looked, talked, and lived, Michele Cushatt embarked on a soul-deep journey to rediscover herself. The typical self-esteem strategies and positivity plans weren’t enough. Instead, she needed a new foundation, one that wouldn’t prove flimsy when faced with the onslaught of day-to-day life.
I Am reminds us that our value isn’t found in our talents, achievements, relationships, or appearance. It is instead found in a God who chose us, sent us, and promised to be with us—forever.