When you’re at your worst, God is at His best. The never changing, always active, forever perfect God doesn't grow tired or weary from working for you. Jesus Himself, who died and was raised to life, is at the right hand of His Father interceding for us at this very moment (Romans 8:34).
It was Ash Wednesday and I was coming down with something. I could feel the sickness spreading as my head pounded, throat throbbed and body ached. I rallied enough strength to get my four girls to school and returned home only to crawl back into bed where I stayed until it was time to pick them up.
The feelings of worthlessness began to set in.
I was grateful that my oldest daughter’s track schedule had changed and she was not participating in the meet that night. We weren’t doing our regular routine of going to church, either, so the evening was clear to stay home and rest – a rare weeknight treat.
The girls went through the motions of homework and play, and I ordered dinner from the couch. I was in survival mode, counting down the hours until bedtime.
As we gathered around the table and began eating our pizza from paper plates, the girls started sharing about their day. Then the conversation turned theological. They wanted to know why people put “dirt” on their foreheads.
“It’s not dirt,” said my oldest girl with her best tween attitude. “It’s ashes.”
“Ashes? Why?” asked the seven-year-old intrigued.
“It’s a symbol,” I said vaguely, trying to quiet them down.
“Of what?” asked the 5-year-old.
“Of how we are dust,” I said, with my elbows on the table and heavy head propped in my hands.
“Duu-uust? What?” crowed the 3-year-old.
Have you ever noticed that your children love to get into the deepest discussions when you’re either dog tired or sick as a dog? This felt more like going to circus than church. Half exasperated but knowing these were good questions worthy of being addressed, I grabbed my Bible and plunked it on the dinner table.
“Let’s look. I know it’s in there somewhere.”
I flipped through the first few pages of Genesis before finding the passage.
“Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
Without God’s breath of life in us, we would be vacant vessels of dry bones and earth dust.
“So why do people put ashes on their foreheads?” asked my still-not-satisfied 5-year-old.
“To show they are sorry,” I said. Today is the first day of Lent, so they burn the Palm Branches from last year and use the ashes to put a cross on their forehead.”
“But why?” asked the same child, adamant for answers.
“Yeah, how does that show they are sorry?” the 7-year-old piped in.
“In the Bible, people like Job and David would put on sacks and ashes as a sign of mourning and repentance. To show they were turning back to God. Some people wear ashes on this day to show they are sorry for their sins.”
At this point the preschooler was singing “Let it go” from Frozen. I was losing the attention of my four girls and was ready to end the conversation. This dinner was taking entirely too long. My body begged to lie down.
“Girls,” I said too sternly. “Do you want to hear about this or not?”
I pictured myself bent over my Bible, in day old hair and a stained t-shirt yelling at my daughters. Not exactly a glowing portrait of grace. It was so tempting to just quit, stop talking and hurry them off to bed.
The girls startled, shifting in their seats. I took a deep breath and exhaled a silent prayer.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t feel well today,” I said exasperated. “Why don’t we read an ‘I’m sorry’ Psalm?”
There are seven Penitential Psalms or Psalms of Confession in the Bible, gut-wrenching accounts of how sin inflicts pain, torments souls, and eats away our peace and sleep and health.
Yet these Psalms are wrapped in immeasurable joy for the forgiveness and healing that God gives when we bring our burdens to Him.
“Create in me a clean heart and renew a steadfast spirit within me … Restore the joy of your salvation to me and sustain me by giving me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10, 12).
The supernatural effects of God’s grace and restoration always far exceed the devastation sin causes.
I turned to Psalm 6 and began reading:
“Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger; do not discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are shaking; my whole being is shaken with terror. And you, Lord – how long? Turn, Lord! Rescue me; save me because of your faithful love … The Lord has heard my plea for help; the Lord accepts my prayer.”(Psalm 6:1-4, 9).
I am always amazed by how God’s living and active Word can quiet hearts and release tensions. The girls sat still and reflective. My chest burned from the virus brewing inside my lungs and the sickness of sin within my own heart.
“Let’s pray, girls” I said weakly. “Do we want to do a popcorn prayer?”
The “popcorn prayer” is lingo in our house for everyone taking turns to pray. There’s no order or formula to it. Sometimes we squeeze the person’s hand next to us or sometimes we just wait for the Holy Spirit to heat up a heart until a pure prayer pops out.
I started the prayer and spoke raw and remorseful. I asked God to forgive my impatience and selfishness that night. The girls had seen those sins rise up all afternoon, like a hot sun blazing down on them, so it seemed fitting that I might as well name the sins and lay them down right before God for their little ears to hear.
Then what happened next infused hope into my discouraged mama heart.
With head bowed, I heard the tiny but mighty sound of my 5-year-old’s voice. She doesn’t always pray with us. She has so many questions and a mind wired with a deep need to know. About a year ago we heard her firmly tell Jesus to just “get into my heart”, but my husband and I explained that’s not exactly how becoming a Christian worked. Plus, we didn’t see any heart change. Just more arguments between her sisters and more questions for us.
But that night – on the day I had basically dialed in mothering and declared myself defeated - came the most honest and heartfelt prayer right out of her little mouth.
“Dear God,” she said tenderly, “I’m sorry for all my sins. I love you, God, and I don’t want to keep sinning anymore. Please come into my heart to live forever. Amen.”
I raised my head with jaw dropped and looked into my little girl’s eyes. She gazed back and smiled. She was different. Instead of a bossy prayer she had spoken a salvation prayer – a beautiful heart cry of humility and repentance.
“Annsley,” I said with tears. “Do you know you just asked Jesus into your heart?”
“I know, Mama,” she said proudly. “I just really love Him.”
It is easy to define days by how we feel. I had done that very thing on that very Ash Wednesday, the day that reminds us of why we need Jesus in the first place. I had defined the day a bust because of the way I was feeling. I had declared myself to be unfit to mother with any bit of value on that day of sickness. I had determined that it would be better to just get my kids to bed and away from me as soon as humanly possible.
But God had other plans.
He had paved the way for us to be home that night. He is, indeed, in the business of making beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3). He's been doing it for eternity. For us to think it somehow depends on us is ludicrous. We just bring Him our brokenness, our need and contrite hearts, and we watch Him work.
The short years and long days of prayer and Bible reading and all the seeds planted by teachers and grandparents and church staff had come to a holy harvest on the day I felt no good.
God wants us to know His power, not our performance, is what changes lives.
“Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair” (2 Corinthians 4:7-8).
Satan wants to defeat us, but God has already won the victory for us (I Corinthians 15:57). His miracles aren’t measured by our ability. Abide in Jesus and walk in the power of the Holy Spirit. When you are at your worst, trust that God is always at His best and can do more than we can ask for or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).