The Lists We Keep

The other night, I stepped out into the backyard with our dogs after dinner. The evening air was still warm, and they romped and gamboled around the grass, barking and nipping at each other’s heels as the sun set behind our neighbors’ houses. I didn’t even hear my youngest daughter slip out the back door.

A sunset in shades of purple and pink silhouettes the rooflines of neighboring houses.

But there she was, suddenly standing at my elbow, wearing her little pink-and-white-striped pajama set. She heaved a deep breath and her words tumbled out like blocks from a toy chest.

“Mom, there’s something I have to tell you and I’m afraid you’re going to be mad at me but I just have to get it off my chest.”

I turned to look at her and give her my full attention. “Okay. It’s okay. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

“I took a book off the downstairs shelf.” She looked at her feet. “I took it up to my room, and Susannah saw it and said it’s one of THOSE BOOKS and I’m too young to read it.” She glanced back up at me and her eyes were glistening with tears. “I didn’t know, though! I thought it was just, like, a science book.”

I was trying to keep up with this revelation, but I had to interject. “What book are we talking about, honey?”

She gulped. “The Girls Body Book.” 

Not Bad, Just Not For Right Now

I smothered a laugh. Okay. So we aren’t talking about anything bad here (because I was wracking my brain when she said “one of THOSE BOOKS.” It’s not like I own smut or erotica that she could have accidentally grabbed. We have a few books with mature themes I’d rather the girls not read until they get a little older, but nothing that would be truly out of line) –but the thing is, she really felt like this was serious, and I didn’t want to blow her off.

I opened my arms for a hug and said, “Hey, it’s okay. Come here.”

She crossed the space between us, and while we hugged I reassured her that she wasn’t in trouble and she hadn’t done anything wrong by taking the book off the shelf. In fact, if she was curious and wanted to read the Girls’ Body Book, she could – I would like to read it with her, or at least discuss it with her after each chapter or so. But there was nothing bad or wrong in that book. It was just meant for older girls, and so Mom kept it on the downstairs shelf so that we could read it together when it was a good time for it.

She was so relieved. And her tears flowed, and she told me, “I have been hiding it in my room for a really long time.”

“Hiding it?”

“Yeah. I took it off the shelf weeks and weeks ago and then Susannah said that, so I didn’t read it. But I was going to sneak it back downstairs and put it on the shelf so you would never know, but I never woke up early enough so I could do it in the dark. And when you helped me clean my room last week, I was afraid you would find it. And I felt so guilty. I had a stomachache every day.”

So we talked a little about guilt. And how guilt and shame are different, and how when we feel guilty then confession is the right thing to do.

What Comes Next

Her little mouth quirked from side to side, lips pressed together, thinking hard. “So. Um. What is my… punishment?”

I took her hand and we went to sit at the patio table. “There is no punishment.”

She started crying again. “I have been trying to come and tell you for days and days. But I was scared of my punishment. Tonight in the bath, I decided, ‘I just have to do it tonight.’ So I told myself, I would put on my pajamas first and then I would come and tell you and I would say, ‘I understand I was wrong and I will go put myself to bed until you decide my punishment.’

That’s when I started to cry, too.

Rehearsing

Do y’all remember the story of the Prodigal? Oh, sure, we know that boy. He wanted his inheritance and he squandered that inheritance and there was a part about pigs. But that’s not what I’m thinking of right now.

When the Prodigal realized he wanted to go back home, he didn’t think he deserved home.

He thought he’d have to earn it.

So he thought of exactly what to say to his dad, and he rehearsed it and rehearsed it. Then he set off for his dad’s house, planning to say it just so and convince his dad to let him in.

But you know what? He never got the chance to deliver his rehearsed speech. 

He didn’t have to earn his place at his Dad’s table.

The minute his dad saw him, he hitched up his robe and took off running to embrace his boy.

That’s grace.

We’ve All Been Prodigals

And every single one of us has, at some point or another, been a Prodigal. We’ve been stuck in the mud of a far-off country, longing for home, but maybe half-believing that home will never let us back in. Thinking we’d have to earn it. Practicing our return speech and hoping if we say it just right, they’ll accept us.

And every single one of us, if we’ve repented and come back home to our Father, has been embraced and celebrated simply because we belong to Him.

Back to the patio on that summer night. I told my daughter that story, how she’s not the only one who ever practiced a speech and thought they had to work really hard or suffer a punishment to get to forgiveness. And then she had another confession, although she didn’t know it was a confession.

“I keep a list,” she said.

“What kind of list?”

“Every day, I keep a list of the things I’ve done bad. And I try to make them right. But this–” the book she took and hid, “has been on my list for weeks and it made me feel really terrible. Every day I would say, ‘I’ll fix that one tomorrow.’”

My heart broke a little, learning that my sweet girl keeps a list of her own wrongs and works so hard to make them right. The way she’s been holding herself to an impossible standard of getting everything right, always, every day – and writing down every mistake along the way.

And I started thinking. . . a lot of us probably do the same thing.

Keeping A List

Your list might not be scrawled in big second-grade printing on loose-leaf paper and tucked under your pillow.

Maybe your list reverberates in your head, in the voice of someone from your past. Or it could sound like your OWN voice, condemning and berating you.

All the things you’ve done wrong. All the ways you’ve let someone down. All the ways you didn’t measure up, dropped the ball, couldn’t manage, said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing or kept silent when you should have spoken up…

So I want to tell you the same thing I told her. Picture us at my patio table, bathed in the pinkish light of sunset.

“If making a list works like a prayer, where you write down the things you want to confess to the Lord, then go ahead and make your list. If some of those wrongs might have hurt other people, and you can go to them and talk or take action to help make amends, then you go ahead with that.”

“But, honey, if making that list only gives you a stomachache and a headache… if that list makes you feel crummy… if that list makes you feel like a terrible person and if it makes you believe lies about yourself, like that you’ll never get it right or that you don’t deserve forgiveness or that you aren’t worth very much around here then, sister: rip that list up. Burn it. If it’s inside your head, you talk back to it and tell it some truth.”

“When the Holy Spirit prompts us, pokes us, convicts us about sin, we feel motivated to confess and to turn and walk away from the sin. But when our Enemy whispers in our ear about our sin, he just wants us to wallow in it and feel beaten up and sick about it. That’s how you know the difference. And if your list makes you feel sick and bruised and yucky and miserable, then the enemy of your soul is using it to torment you, and you have to stop making a list.”

“Jesus said that when we confess our sins, He is faithful and full of justice. He forgives us and cleanses us. He doesn’t look at us and see the stains of the mud and much left behind. He sees us, covered in His righteousness.”

That was in pretty simple language because the first time I said it, I was talking to an 8-year-old. But friend, how I wish I could hold your hand and tell you this same truth over and over until you believe it. 

If you have trusted that Jesus the Christ made the only sacrifice that could ever be enough – that his death on the cross paid the price for your sin and that his resurrection defeated death and offers you eternal life, that his coming return will bring a perfected new heaven & new earth – then PUT DOWN YOUR LIST and don’t let guilt and shame eat you alive one minute longer.

No more impossible standards. No more berating self-talk. No more never-ending list in your head and your heart.

Confess and release, because your Father is waiting with open arms. He loves you just because you belong to Him, and you don’t ever have to earn that.


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MICHELLE NEBEL

I write uplifting women’s fiction woven with threads of faith, grace, and Southern hospitality. My blog is where I share a glimpse of my life, and I hope you’ll find the thoughts here encouraging!

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“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9

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