A friend still cleans her adult son’s car when he stops by, and I can’t say I blame her. She always finds a stash of used lunch bags and backpacks culturing food, dirty laundry, and oodles of cash! And it got me thinking, haven’t we all found a bit of ‘yuck’ in our packs?
I’ve heard the analogy that each of us carries an emotional backpack on our life’s journey. Our pack holds the essentials of living a meaningful life, kind of like the ‘All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten’ idea.
What’s In Your Life Backpack?
Unlike the kindergarten credo, our backpack also carries memories, failures, burdens, and misconceptions we’ve picked up along the way. Our experiences, emotions, behavior, relationships—everything goes into the backpack, shaping our approach to life. Before we realize it, the burdens outweigh the essentials and, like dirty hiking socks left to rot, are unknowingly tucked inside and crammed to the bottom.
My backpack became too heavy in my mid-thirties, and I feared the smell of shame would turn others away. A failed marriage and single-parenthood brought challenges I wasn’t equipped to handle but, raised in a detached family, I’d learned to manage life alone at a very early age. I knew better than to ask for help, tell what the neighbor boy had done to me, and certainly didn’t cry. (Apparently, I’m ugly when I cry.)
I longed to ease the loneliness and hoped to lighten my load with church and busyness, but the backpack still hung heavy on my shoulders. I couldn’t shake familiar feelings of low self-esteem, lack of identity and belonging, and even dread as I woke each morning to a new day.
Most of us are aware of our need to grow and find connection; like me, many go to God and His Word. It did help to learn more about God, but my emotional life and relationships didn’t improve; even in that I’d failed, not even God could help me.
That’s when I began to combine my spiritual journey with a focus on relational and emotional issues.
Letting God Clean Out the Dirty Parts
In their book, How People Grow, psychologists Cloud and Townsend explain, “Spiritual growth is not only about coming back into relationship with God and each other, and about pursuing a pure life, but it is also about coming back to life—the life that God created people to live” (pg. 28).
They explain that growth and life change begin when we allow two things to shape us. First is our admission that God is the source of life, and as such, we are to live in submission to Him. Second, He created us to live in healthy relationships where people don’t hide vulnerabilities and are not ashamed of their dirty socks.
The first one was easy; my relationship with God was private. But the second? The thought of unpacking my backpack brought panic, but the image of emptying it in front of someone else invoked terror.
The belief that we’re better off in control of our life is freeing until, in the search for an acceptable version of ourselves, the person God created gets lost.
When we take charge and design our own life and rules, we become the judge in our heads, the controller of all things, and exist only for ourselves. It’s a never-ending cycle of comparison, striving, and insecurity. While my life looked together on the outside, my burdens reeked of spiritual and emotional poverty inside. I couldn’t ask for support (wouldn’t that confirm incompetence?), my needs were too big, and I couldn’t be a burden.
Thankfully, God has saved us from carrying all of that.
“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart thatI might fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).
Tired of uselessly rearranging my backpack to conjure up a new image, I pushed back on the lies I carried and began an entirely new walk with God. I recognized I had one foot in my new life and the other in my old life, which held me back. I humbly admitted He was God and I was not and recommitted my walk with Him, this time including all emotions, thoughts, and opinions. It’s here I began to give God my heart and receive the life He’d created me to live.
Redemption is the act of being saved from error or evil, and it’s the return of something to its rightful owner. In redemption, we agree with God; He didn’t do a lousy job creating us; we’re a sweet aroma to Him! Admitting that God is our source of life places us in a position to receive all He intended for us.
Next, I accepted my need for meaningful connection. Superficial connections come quickly for most of us, but only life-giving relationships help us thrive. There are appropriate times to wear confidence and courage when we don’t feel it, but the mask must come off eventually. I identified trusted friends who saw the real me and provided a place to express my needs and meet them. I had to learn to receive—that is, to internalize, metabolize, and believe the good my support group saw in the real me and accept the truth and comfort when I struggled.
Years have passed since my new journey with God began, and I’m still working through grievous memories and familiar lies, but now I know how to face them. They don’t go into my backpack; I reserve that space for things I cherish. Instead, I’m keeping them out in the open where they can’t stink up my life.
Sometimes I take them on a hike to the river near my home, where I talk them over with God, recognize the sorrow and regret I’m prone to carry, and then find a rock and ceremonially throw them in the water. Other times I meet with a friend. Many women are drawn to deep, trusting connections and long to find a trusting ear. We meet, share, and pray. Then I journal God’s healing words, keeping His answers tucked inside my pack where I can pull them out and show them off.