This is my article that was published the Joyful Life magazine for their Summer Rest Issue 2021
TITLE | Learning to Be Content in the Story that God is Writing for You
AUTHOR | Ashley Carrel
Four years ago I stood in the living room of my house, took a big deep breath, and felt the presence of God near to my broken heart as my life crumbled down around me. Everything I owned had now either been boxed up into a moving truck or dropped off at the local Goodwill. Hours earlier, the house had been buzzing with women who had shown up with rubber gloves and buckets, ready to lend a hand to their friend who desperately needed it.
Now the house was quiet and still, and I stood alone, my mind filled with the memories that lived in each nook and cranny of this house. In one room, I heard the giggles of my two young boys and imagined the messes that followed behind them. In the kitchen, I imagined my husband and I making coffee each morning and stealing kisses before the kids woke up. So many memories of the beautiful life we were making together. Yet in this same house, trauma had reigned down and left the stains of its memories as well. It was here that my husband confessed to sins I never would have imagined him capable of—sins that would bring devastation and consequences to our family forever. Those confessions were just six weeks prior, and I was still reeling from how much life had changed in such a short amount of time. Overnight, I had gone from being the wife of a beloved pastor to the wife of an accused inmate—one big identity shift I was not prepared for. With one final glance at the barren space, I walked out the door, turned the key in the lock for the last time, and realized that was the end of life as I had known it.
That weekend I got on an airplane and flew back to my small hometown and a new life I never signed up for: I was now a single parent with hardly a dime to my name. Just a few months before my move, I was serving the caretakers of children whose fathers were in prison as part of one of the ministries of our church. I had spent several hours with these women without ever thinking for a second I would become one of them. In a twist of what seemed like cruel irony, their tragic story had become mine as well. I went from being the one serving to the one served. I had spoken to them of the amazing grace of Jesus in any and every circumstance—now I was forced to live it. I wanted to argue that Paul’s call to contentment in Philippians 4:11-13 did not apply to my circumstances. His grace may be sufficient for others, but I was not sure it could cover the darkness I was walking through.
As I’ve navigated this new season, there have been so many days where I have been guilty of arguing with God, telling Him the best way for Him to get glory. I was convinced I was a much better minister of the gospel when I was a pastor’s wife or a missionary. I struggled with feeling completely disqualified from serving and was frustrated I could no longer function in the church in the ways I wanted to. I was now living in real poverty, fully dependent on Jesus to meet my daily needs. I often found myself in counseling, crying and pouring my heart out, wishing my life was different so I could do all the things I used to do or had dreamed of doing. I wished for the family I once had to be repaired. I wished for the reality I was living to be fiction. I was never supposed to be a single mother.
My therapist gave me a great illustration for how I was living my life. She compared me to someone sitting in a canoe in the middle of a lake saying on repeat “if only I had a paddle, then I could get somewhere.” Yet there was no paddle available and wishing for those circumstances to change was doing absolutely nothing to help me. It was only when I accepted the reality I was in that I could begin to make the necessary choices to move forward. The ideal choice, such as a paddle, was not available, so I was going to need to think of alternative solutions for getting where I needed to go. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I was stuck looking at how it should be or how it used to be instead of what it really was. This mindset was holding me back from experiencing peace and contentment in my life.
We all have areas in our life that we wish were different—circumstances we never would have chosen for ourselves, yet God has allowed them to be written into our story. Maybe you’ve dreamed of filling your home with children, yet you still do not have any of your own. Maybe you are grieving the loss of a loved one who you always thought would be there. Maybe you have received a diagnosis that leaves you weak and in bed. Whether it is a failed marriage, infertility, the death of dreams, or the loss of loved ones, many of us find ourselves questioning God and denying the reality of what our life looks like now. We sit there wishing for things to change, but nothing ever does. How can we be content when life goes the opposite of what we hoped for?
LEARNING TO BE CONTENT
One of the first things I had to learn was to not walk in my own strength, rather go straight to the Source of all strength. Countless nights awake, caring for a sick child by myself while still caring for a toddler during the day and working at night, left me exhausted and struggling with anxiety. There was not much I could do about the situation I was in, but I could change my response to it all. I did not need to put all my time, energy, and resources into changing my circumstances—that only bred more exhaustion. I needed to bring all of myself to God—to give Him my disappointment, weariness, and heartache, so I could find rest in the truth that His power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
I also learned to be faithful and obedient in whatever season I am in. I have a tendency to reminisce over the past and daydream about the future, neglecting the present. Instead of dreaming and wishing, I have learned to look for opportunities to love those God has put right in front of me. Even though I may not be leading ministries anymore or serving on a mission field, I can love and serve my own children at home. I can strike up a conversation with a mom at the local park who looks lonely. I can teach Sunday school classes at my local church. I can bring a meal to someone going through chemotherapy. There is something extremely healing in looking outside of our own circumstances and serving others, even when we don’t feel like it. There is a reason Jesus said “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Giving brings joy even into the darkest places and joy brings sweet, godly peace and rest.
Lastly, I have learned to take God at His promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I do not always understand why God allows suffering to come our way, but I can be certain He always uses it for our good and His glory. He will always take our pain and put purpose to it if we will allow Him to do so. I have watched God use my very messy story to minister to others walking through similar hurts and brokenness. I have sat with women in my living room and been able to look into their eyes and say, “me too.” I have seen how my children ask deep questions of God in their prayers and connect the dots from their story to the gospel more than they might have done in our traditional life before. We often cannot see God working and are left confused when He doesn’t intervene to stop this chapter of our story from continuing. However, we must trust in His character, knowing that He is good and kind and is always at work in our lives. We must speak the truth over ourselves—especially when we do not feel it. Truth does not waiver, it sets us free.
Scripture gives us many examples of being content in dire circumstances. Paul tells us that he learned to be content whatever his circumstances, even when those circumstances included beatings, imprisonment, and shipwrecks (Philippians 4:11-13). We see Joseph, a victim of human trafficking, using his talents for God’s glory and saving nations from famine. We see Jesus, condemned to die a gruesome death on a cross, yet praying “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Let us learn from their examples. Contentment in a difficult season can only come from a life centered on Christ.
My eyes still fill with tears when I think about the heavy weight of heartache that was upon me as I walked out my front door and closed that chapter of my life. Grief is still very much present in my life today. I spend many nights drying my tears and those of my children, and there are still days that feel like the darkness is overcoming the light. Yet today, when I look around my new home that we have filled with new memories, I cannot help but be filled with gratitude. Family photos of my boys and me laughing together hang on the wall. Preschool artwork and first grade book reports are proudly displayed. Memories of wrestling matches, dance parties, and Friday family movie nights are frequently being made. I am daily fighting for joy and by His grace, I am learning to love the life I never wanted.