This deeply ingrained perfectionistic tendency, gleaned through years of watching her mother, led to a deep sense of failure and resulted in a dark depression, which took its toll on her marriage and her health.
The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me. Psalm 142:7 (ESV)
There is a theme that runs through Scripture, one of God’s using broken people as instruments of his love, healing, and rescue.
Joseph, a young braggart-turned-slave-turned-official, rescues his scheming brothers from famine, preserving the family line of his brother Judah--from whom will someday come Messiah.
Moses, a stuttering, excuse-making misfit of a shepherd, leads God’s chosen people out of slavery and back to the land promised them by a promise-keeping God.
Isaiah, a foul-mouthed man by his own assessment, heralds the news of God’s great and surprising means of salvation through a suffering Servant, who will be a Light to the nations and to a people who dwell in great darkness.
Peter, an impetuous and cowardly denier, brings the good news of the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Paul, a murderous hater of Christians, pours his life out for his churches as a loving spiritual father, is imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel, and counts all things as loss in comparison with knowing this Christ whom he once persecuted.
The Bride of Christ, a jumbled-up hodgepodge of backwards, imperfect, baggage-carrying redeemed sinners, is empowered by the Holy Spirit to breathe hope and truth into each other’s lives, to love one another with the stable and unconditional love of Christ Himself.
Elizabeth Ward finds herself a part of this storyline. She is one who has been broken, yet healed by Christ through the love, stability, and acceptance of other broken people in His Church.
But this stability was long in coming.
Elizabeth describes a tumultuous childhood. Financially, her parents struggled to make ends meet, wrenching the family from house to house when she was very young. Her mother was mentally unstable, perfectionistic, seeking to earn love and acceptance from others through her own behavior. And as childhood experiences tend to rub off on a child--rub off and soak in--even during her early years, Elizabeth had a deep-down sense of her own family’s instability.
Then, when Elizabeth was nine years old, her mother tried to burn their house down.
It was a suicide attempt, borne from her mother’s belief that the family would be better off without her. This suicide attempt became a catalyst, jarring the family once again from their home, uprooting and transplanting them in Maryland, nearer to Elizabeth’s maternal and paternal grandparents. The psychiatrists hoped it would help her mother to have the support of family nearby.
“Our society is very individualistic,” Elizabeth reflects. “Most people don’t have house churches who are supportive of them.”
And so life after the move to Maryland progressed. A new home. A new church. A new school. Elizabeth found that the typical difficulties of middle and high school were intensified for her by the move and school change. During the time she attended this new school (from sixth to tenth grade), Elizabeth always felt considered an outsider by the other students, perpetually labeled as the new kid, the one who wore the dorky private-school clothes. The other kids had long since forged enduring friendships; she was left out.
When Elizabeth was in the tenth grade, the family moved again-- “in a flash in the middle of the night”--to an adjacent school district. This move, although another uprooting, allowed Elizabeth to redefine herself in a new school. She left behind the old biases and shed the former caricatures of herself.
The one constant in her ever-changing landscape was the Bible-believing church she attended during middle and high school. It was there that she established a solid belief system, a foundation upon which God would continue to build, one life lesson at a time.
As she finished high school, considering her parents’ abandonment of their college education to be the root of all her family’s financial troubles, Elizabeth determined that she would go and not do likewise. “If I get a college degree, then I’ll be perfect, unlike my parents,” her reasoning went.
She pursued that perfection.
She went to a Christian college, graduated, got married in 2006, and looked forward--in her systematic, black-and-white way of thinking--to life settling itself down into a predictable routine--“like a textbook.” Cause, effect. She would do her part and “have everything together”; life, in turn, would bend and conform to her plans and wishes.
But the year 2007 changed her mind.
During that year, she and her husband bought a new house and a new car; she got a new management job; and her mother made her final--and successful--suicide attempt. All this within four months.
“I was younger then, thought I was resilient.” Elizabeth remembers thinking, “By golly, I’ll just push on like I always have.” But her world was on the verge of collapse.
“When I went into my management job, I thought I had to prove myself,” Elizabeth explains. “If I needed help, then I was obviously incompetent.” This deeply ingrained perfectionistic tendency, gleaned through years of watching her mother, led to a deep sense of failure and resulted in a dark depression, which took its toll on her marriage and her health.
Her perfect plan was not working. Cause, effect, and black-and-white thinking came crashing down around her ears, and she was not able to stand up beneath the weight of it all.
In 2010, braving the social stigma of possibly being labeled and misunderstood, Elizabeth checked herself into the hospital. She was not suicidal but had been seeing a Christian counselor who suggested that she needed psychiatric care. It was the beginning of a change, but a long, hard road still lay ahead of her.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Elizabeth learned some hard truths about herself and about life, and she came to the conclusion that her depression was only partially due to a chemical imbalance (for which medication certainly was helpful); it had a spiritual aspect, as well. Perfectionism, the need to earn favor by never failing, had infiltrated her life, and she hadn’t even realized.
“It’s hard to repent of something if you don’t know it’s there,” she says. “Being in a house church and at Apex allowed me to realize that. Salvation is about grace; if you miss that part, you miss the whole message. But it’s also about love. And you can’t experience Christ’s love apart from community.”
As a loving family, her house church community surrounded her during this dark time and tangibly showed her evidence of Christ’s love. “I had a number of people who just sat down with me for hours on end over coffee or in my living room, questioning who I believed God to be, what I thought my identity was. It was their gentleness and willingness to take time with me that helped me to come around. When I really chose to acknowledge that we live in a broken world, I was able to see the hope in Christ.”
This is the kind of stability Elizabeth is so thankful for, a stability rooted in the constancy and generosity of a God who gives us to each other as instruments of His very own loving care.
“God is good and gracious,” Elizabeth declares. “He loves despite our unloveliness. He pursues us and give us his Bride to help us learn more about Him and to take care of each other. He takes brokenness and restores it into something beautiful and useful.”
The righteous have surrounded Elizabeth.
God has indeed dealt bountifully with her.
Author: Erin Steelman
Photographer: Hilary Tebo