My incredible privilege to be present for the birth of my granddaughter, Sweetpea, has led me to some contemplation. You see, I am only 43 years old. I have not yet gone through menopause. I am, theoretically, still fertile. The Handy Man and I could still have another baby….it is not very likely, but it could happen. And the thing is, we would not be unhappy with such a gift. Yes, I know that seems strange in a world where childbearing is treated like a chore and large families are an anomaly.
One of the consequences of having so many children is witnessing how it has marred my body. I have stretch marks crossing my abdomen like road maps showing city streets or topographical maps showing rivers and tributaries crisscrossing the landscape. Some of the stretch marks look like scars from a large animal mauling my midsection…large, wide scars that bear witness to violent skin changes from very large babies. Some of the stretch marks are smaller, more subtle. They all bear witness to the six babies who grew and stretched my body to make accommodation for them; proof that this body was once full, fruitful, giving of life.
Other body parts also bear witness to the devastation of childbearing. My breasts, once something I counted as part of my outward beauty, taut and high, young….now empty, flaccid, stretched. For more than nine total years, they filled and emptied with rhythmic regularity, like the tides of the ocean on fast-forward. Engorged with milk, emptied of milk, they stretched to nourish babies who were wholly dependent on them for life and sustenance. Now, they lie empty, these useless sacs, empty milky containers that served to bring joy and contentment and nourishment to six babies who grew to no longer need them. No longer beautiful by the standards of our warped world, and yet still beautiful to God and to the man for whom He made me, my breasts also bear witness to the lives they sustained.
And then there are the stretch marks that bear witness to the devastation I brought to myself. Thighs and arms and hips covered with lines, proof of the self-contempt I felt and the overfeeding and mutilation of my own flesh with the overindulgence of food in punishment and escape. The mass is disappearing, but the stretch marks remain, reminders…of failure? or of grace? I choose to see in those marks not the failures, but the grace that rescued me me from myself. I choose to let those stretch marks point me to a different set of scars: those nail-scarred hands and feet and sword-pierced side of my Jesus, perfect sin-bearer, redeemer of my sin-sickened soul.
Is there such a thing as stretch marks of the soul? Is there evidence pointing to where God grew me, continues to grow me, sometimes as I kick and scream, proof that He loves me and was not content to let me be? It was only the splitting of my soul, the tilling of my stony heart, the uprooting of thought patterns and untruths that poisoned my well, that the seeds of grace could begin to bloom. What marks are the evidence that God has been at work in my soul, teaching me grace, growing my anemic heart into something that could truly love Him? Could those marks be found in the tears that so easily spring to my eyes now, in the heart that feels and rejoices or sorrows in such great extremes, content no longer to be strong and staid? Can those stretch marks be found in my understanding that I cannot rest in my own righteousness, but in the righteousness of Jesus alone?
I am in good company when it comes to stretch marks of the soul. Peter had them. Don’t you think he grew, painfully and quickly, the night he denied his Savior three times? And then when Jesus restored him and declared that He would build his church on that rock, that Petros, that Peter…don’t you think Peter saw those marks in a different light? No longer failure, but redeemed. I am sure David had them. The psalms are overflowing with emotions–from despair to absolute assurance that he could count on the Living God– David’s words provide ample examples to demonstrate what the stretching of a soul looks like. Abraham had them, I am sure. Commanded to sacrifice the son of promise he had waited until old age to behold, he faithfully climbed the mountain, sure of only one thing: God is faithful. As he hefted the knife above his son, he heard the heavenly voice and caught the glimpse of the ram in the thicket of bushes, and surely his faith grew.
Great growth is often evidenced by the stretch marks left behind. We can mourn them and see them only as scars, or we can rejoice in them and see what has come from that temporary discomfort. Whether I look at my amazing children or at the healing God has given me, my stretch marks are signposts of grace given to me when I least deserved it.