Around August of 2000, I went to Chicago for one of my many training classes for work. This was usually a fun time to get away from responsibilities and have fun with friends from all around the continent. But this trip was different.
One night, after I'd been there a couple of days, I woke up with a start. My heart was racing, and I felt a crushing weight on my chest. My breath came in short gasps. I felt absolute panic as I mentally reviewed the mess I'd made of my life.
I was 30 years old when my life fell apart. Funny, I'd always thought that I'd be wise and settled by that age. Instead, my 11-year marriage ended in a messy divorce and a scary custody battle, and everything I thought I knew about myself seemed to be a lie.
This was not the first time I'd experienced a panic attack in the middle of the night. A few times toward the end of my first marriage I'd woken up feeling trapped--I'd think about spending a lifetime in that marriage, and I'd feel such hopelessness, as if there was no chance that I'd ever be happy again. I never dreamed we would get a divorce because I was very opposed to it morally, but the strength of our convictions was not enough to keep us together.
Since I'd felt so desperate to be free, I thought that the divorce would be a relief. So why was I still feeling so trapped? To complicate matters, I was already head over heels in love with the man of my dreams. The happiness I thought I'd been searching for was nearly within my grasp, but now I felt worse than ever. I felt unworthy of love and incapable of loving anyone in a healthy way. I knew it was too soon to get involved, but I was afraid to end it because Bill seemed so perfect for me. I figured it was only a matter of time before I would destroy this new relationship. And I felt powerless to change anything. I realized now that even though I could get away from an unhappy marriage, I could never escape from myself.
At that moment, I just wanted to die. It's not that I wanted to actually kill myself, just that living seemed too hard. If I could have willed myself to fall asleep and never wake up again, I might have done that. Instead, I called out to God. "Please! I need to hear something from you. Help me!"
I turned on the light and opened the night stand, hoping there would be a Gideon's Bible there. I was so thankful when I found it. I had no idea what to read, so I just opened it up at random. I landed on Psalm 139 and started reading. As I read, the tears I'd been holding back for so long--years, actually--started flowing freely. Here's what I read...
1 O LORD, you have searched meMy Response
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
5 You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake,
I am still with you.
19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
and abhor those who rise up against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
I felt so soothed by this passage on so many levels. I realized that God was right there with me, that the darkness of my anguish could not hide me from him. There was nowhere I could go, even to the depths of hell, where his Spirit couldn't find me.
Not only did God know where I was, he also knew who I was and what I was feeling... and he loved me exactly as I was! He had his hand on me, and I was going to be OK. Further, I realized I had no business feeling worthless and unlovable because he had lovingly made me. I marveled at the idea of God skillfully knitting me together in my mother's womb.
Although I didn't hear an audible voice, I was sure God had answered my cry for help. I knew he had a plan for my life, and I could trust him. I went back to sleep, and I woke up feeling hopeful. As he'd promised, God was still with me.
Eight Years Later
I didn't decide to memorize Psalm 139 until several years later, but I returned to it often. Over the years, that passage has encouraged me in many different circumstances. I now consider it my "life passage." Whenever I'm feeling hopeless or anxious (which still happens more often than I'd like to admit), I can quote it to myself; I never get tired of hearing that beautiful message. I'll share more in future posts about what I learned through memorizing it.