Last Monday, I walked in the door at 9pm, weary from a long day in my psychotherapy office. The kids were already in bed, eyelids heavy but holding out for a “goodnight” from Daddy. My wife was tired but smiling and happy to see me.
And I didn’t want any of it.
I stomped around, tearing open mail, griping about food that wasn’t in the fridge, acting like a serious jerk. And somewhere inside—way down in a quiet place that doesn’t even have words—I knew it. Somehow, this only made it worse.
I waited for the reprisal from my wife. The well-deserved indignation and condemnation. But it wasn’t forthcoming. Instead, she kissed me on the cheek, told me she loved me, and went to bed with the same smile on her face.
I stood alone in the kitchen. Well, not completely alone. I had two companions. My bad mood. And my wife’s grace.
Why Psychotherapy Works
A lot happens in psychotherapy. As therapists, we are trained in methods for reshaping behavior, changing patterns of thought, managing acute anxiety, improving marital communication, processing grief, working through trauma, setting better personal boundaries, increasing organization and efficiency. The list is endless.
But there is one thing we cannot be taught, and yet it is the most essential element of healing. We call it by many names: empathy, acceptance, and my favorite bit of clinical-speak—“unconditional positive regard.” But it all boils down to this:
The therapy room is a pocket of grace in a condemning world.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a rip-off. We go to you for change, and the best you can give us is acceptance?! How will anything be redeemed, changed, or improved if we are allowed to stay exactly the way we are?!”
I understand the feeling. I’ve felt it.
But I can tell you now, grace isn’t just acceptance of the status quo. Grace contains the status quo—all of our struggle and pain and mess—and embraces us and values us anyway. Grace demands that nothing be changed for love and connection to thrive.
And that kind of love has the power to change everything about us.
How Grace Changes Everything
In the presence of Grace we are given permission to be our true selves—that “complicated amalgam of mess and beauty, shame and glory.” We can allow ourselves to be fully seen, finally. We reveal our sputtering rage, anguished tears, petrified fear, crudest and rudest sentiment, most bizarre interest, or deepest embarrassment.
And then we look up.
And Grace looks back. It isn’t cringing or horrified or judging or saying in a reasonable tone, “Well, once we figure that out and change it, then you and I can get along alright.” Grace looks back with a calm admiration, maybe even a smile in its eyes, and it says, “There you are, I’ve been waiting for you and you’re welcome here. All of you. You are beloved.”
When Grace grants us this kind of permission to be fully known, we experience our beauty in the midst of our mess, and we no longer have to push our darkness back down beneath layers of shame.
This is the brilliance of the radical embrace that is Grace: it welcomes our darkness, inviting it into the light. And then Grace insists on doing nothing to it, knowing that it doesn’t have to, because if our darkness is not pushed back down into the murky depths, it cannot survive for long in the light.
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
A Grace-Embraced Jerk
I stood in the kitchen with my bad mood and my wife’s grace. And the brilliance of her love quickly became clear. If she had attacked, my defense would have only rooted me deeper in my surly mood. Instead, she had given me acceptance in the midst of my anger, the space to feel it and experience the fullness of my true self.
I still felt grumpy, but I discovered there was something else there inside of me: I wanted to apologize.
I went up to the bedroom and told her I was sorry, and her response was quick and her continued grace was like a bright-hot sun, evaporating the remainder of my mood: “You had a long day, you’re allowed to be in a bad mood, and you’re a good man, I knew you’d apologize.” My wife embraced me as good and valuable, even in the midst of my darkness.
My grumpy night was over.
Finding Pockets of Grace
And the healing power of Grace does not stop there.
It doesn’t just end with the embrace of our darkness.
When we find pockets of grace in this world—and we must find them, in our marriages or friendships or families or churches or psychotherapy offices—when our true self is invited to the surface, we discover all sorts of beautiful things entwined with our darkness. Like dragging the ocean floor and coming up with a bunch of seaweed. And some invaluable pearls.
As grace calls the true self forth, we discover magnificent parts of us, passions built into us, a purpose sewn into our DNA. Our identity is washed clean and we begin to see ourselves for what we are: each one of us potential creators of beauty, order, and abundance.
We take the Grace inside of us, and it becomes our guide:
We no longer dismiss our ability to contribute in loving ways to a crumbling world. And we quit lucrative jobs and risk our family’s financial security to earn a teaching degree. We trade in fear for boldness, and we put our ideas and our creativity out into the world. We quit spending all of our time at the office and we invest in our children. We stop drinking and we start coaching and leading.
We stop waiting for perfection and we start believing we are beloved and we invite everyone else into the embrace. We become gracious losers and merciful friends and grateful servants.
Perhaps it is time to quit seeking change and to begin seeking grace. And when you lean into the embrace, you will discover that your frantic effort to become someone else is replaced by a blessed peace with being you. Finally.
Questions: How have you experienced grace? In what ways did it change you? Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
Dear Reader, If you haven’t had enough of “manifestos,” my new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down is now available. There are two ways to get a copy. First, new blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Second, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly
Preview: This Friday’s post will be entitled, “One Word That Will Transform Your Year”