Last year (or was it two years ago? Now that we’ve entered a new year, I can’t keep my 20-teens straight.) my church read through the Bible chronologically. As we traveled through the desert with the Israelites and watched them make the same mistakes, over and over and over, I wondered if maybe we’re all programmed to repeat history. I wondered if getting stuck in a crazy cycle is inevitable, if it’s possible to avoid the experience of looking at a hard situation and realizing that you’ve been there before, that it’s not as new or surprising as you intitially thought.
Those Old Testament stories and my wondering made me think of Taylor Swift.
Wait! Just stay with me here.
None of it reminded me of her as a person; it reminded me of her song, “Out of the Woods.” The catchiest and most-repeated lyrics ask, “Are we out of the woods yet?” and “Are we in the clear yet?” Over and over, she sings those words, making it clear that though she’s desperate to be finished with this struggle, she isn’t. She’s not out of the woods. She’s not in the clear. Trouble is coming up again in 3…2…1…
The video for this song is like a mini-movie, showing a determined but, again I’d say desperate, Taylor running from wolves, finding herself barefoot on top of a frozen mountain , falling into a deep lake, and crawling through mud in a rainstorm. As she escapes one dangerous situation, she’s immediately thrown into the next one. No time to take a breath, no time to process or regroup, no time to get in the clear.
When I first watched this video, it literally took my breath away. I’d never seen that video, but I knew that story. I’d felt what she’s feeling. I’d wondered those same words she sang.
Have I ever been chased by wolves? Or run barefoot on a mountaintop? Or looked that good in a blue dress? Nope. But have I ever crawled to the end of one race only to be tossed into the middle of another one? Have I ever faced trial after trial after trial until it feels like I’m crawling through mud, like I’m dragging myself through the miry clay? Oh yeah.
Sometimes I’m there because I’m an Israelite at heart, returning to the same fear and pride and anger that got me in trouble in the first place. When that happens I’m almost always slow to recognize the pattern of my own sin, the responsibility I own for my stress. And even once I do, figuring out how to break the cycle can seem just as difficult and exhausting as sitting and suffering in the sin.
Sometimes I find myself [metaphorically] in a Taylor Swift video because this life is hard, because circumstances are out of my control and, seemingly, out to get me. And sometimes saying, “when it rains, it pours,” doesn’t even come close to describing the mind-numbing weariness that comes with one hard situation after another, with a season determined to illustrate Jesus’ claim that we will certainly face tribulation in this life.
And sometimes, we face a situation that is unlike our previous experience but shares enough characteristics with something that’s hurt us or something we’ve struggled with in the past that it brings it all up again. And we find ourselves thinking: Aren’t we out of the woods yet? Aren’t we in the clear yet? Aren’t we over this thing?
So, what do we do when that happens? When this January feels suspiciously like last January, when our loved one breaks our trust — again, when we find ourselves having the same arguments or slipping into the same habits, when another job falls through or another pipe bursts or another friend stops calling, when this diagnosis sounds an awful lot like the last one? What do we do then?
- We push pause. When you find yourself on a merry-go-round of misery, for whatever reason, it’s time to take a moment. Stop and ask how you got there, and figure out what part of that is in your control (and what part is not).
- We lean on God. Going in circles makes you dizzy, right? And if you do it long enough, it might make you sick and disoriented. I think that’s prime time to lean on the Rock who never moves — and the Father who promises He is close to the brokenhearted.
- We let God work in us. Not only does the Lord promise to give us fresh mercies each morning, He will cleanse us and remove our sin completely when we ask. So when we find ourselves stuck in a cycle of our own making, we don’t have to keep spiraling down into the mud. He’s holding out his hand to help us up. We just have to take it.
- We remember what God has done before. If we’ve faced this same battle before, that means we made it through. That means God got us through. So we must remember the times God has walked with us and protected us and held us — and then trust that He’ll do it again.
Friend, if you are facing something that feels achingly familiar right now, you are not alone. Whether it is a bad habit you can’t kick or what seems like infinitely bad luck, this thing that has become your personal demon, your curse, your battlefield? It is not bigger than God. It might seem enormous, especially if it’s gained traction and grown like a snowball rolling downhill. But I promise you it is not bigger than our God, and it is not stronger than His love for you.
Are you wondering if you’ll ever be out of the woods? I don’t know. Sometimes a thorn in our side really does last a lifetime. But what I know for sure is that whether we are in the woods or at the beach, in the mud and rain or running through a field of flowers, God is with us. God is with us, and He is going before us. He is with us, and He is making a path for us. I know that He is offering fresh mercies no matter where we find ourselves, no matter how many times we turn in a circle; and I know that just like He’s saved us from the wolves before, He’s going to do it again.
Wherever this season has you, I pray you remember the Truth that doesn’t change whether or not your scenery or situation does: God is with you. And He will be never leave you, woods or no woods.