My 20-month old daughter got her first splinter last week. It was one of those early spring days in New York, when everyone is both afraid to be overly hopeful and also completely ecstatic. We spent the afternoon at the playground, and I didn’t even notice the splinter until the following day. The shard of wood was long and deeply embedded. The skin around it was red and probably infected. Removing the splinter was awful, and I think everyone in the family cried.
Splinters don’t hurt much going in – they seem to slip under the skin so effortlessly. But removing the wood requires digging deeper into the surrounding area. Sometimes you have to cut open more skin in order to fold it back and grasp the splinter firmly enough to pull it out. In my childhood memories, the removal of a splinter was far more painful than acquiring it in the first place. Sometimes I even purposefully hid them from my parents to avoid it – but in the end, removal was always necessary.
My daughter suffered as my husband dug gently into her hand to remove the wood. This pain was necessary for healing. Without it, the infection would have worsened.
I have had many splinters in my life. Some have been identified quickly and removed without many tears. Others have embedded themselves deeply, and the discovery and then removal process has been painful, filled with struggle and suffering. My deepest, most infected splinters are not splinters of wood beneath my skin,but ugly idols buried in my heart. They have infected my relationships with other people, with myself, with God.
Music has always been a part of my life. I started the violin in a school program when I was five and have been playing ever since (although I’ve switched now to a more superior instrument, the viola – ha). I have two post-graduate degrees in music. My life in New York began when I was chosen for a fellowship program of Carnegie Hall and The Juilliard School. I met my husband in the pit of the New York City Ballet Orchestra (romantic, I know).
During a time of great suffering and confusion when I was a teenager, music became my escape, my solace, my safe haven. Music became the thing that I could trust not to let me down. Music provided a different world – practicing and competitions, youth orchestra friends who attended different schools, summer music festivals that felt lifetimes away. Music gave me a way to escape my thoughts, my school, even my home for a time. I worked hard and was rewarded. For awhile, there seemed to be a simple equation.
While God has given me wonderful opportunities and success in music, He has also closed many doors. I lost competitions. I was not chosen to join ensembles when I longed for membership. And as the stakes became higher, and the institutions, positions, and titles that I auditioned for became more competitive, I experienced less success. And more frustration and depression.
With each failure, my reaction became more severe.
God blessed my pursuit of music. God has also blessed me with many other interests — and opportunities. But I always returned to music, even when other gifts might have brought more fruit. There are many supremely talented musicians, who are naturally gifted in exquisite ways. I am not one of those. I have been gifted, yes. And I am a very hard worker. But I’ve likely experienced less success as a musician than if I had chosen a different path. And I have struggled much. I know many people have wondered: Why is she doing this? Why did she choose to do this?
I have even wondered the same thing.
In the midst of these years – decades, really – I became a Christian. I learned that God is my strength, my stronghold, my rock. My identity should be in Him, in being adopted as a child into His family, His kingdom, His love. If He loved me, any failure that I faced should not be able to tear me apart.
And yet – despite my growing faith and gospel-based belief system – I kept falling apart.
Without my knowing it, music had become a deeply rooted idol of my heart. My success in music began to control my self-esteem, my sense of self-worth, my identity.
Music had become a deep and infected splinter. Music is a beautiful, extraordinary gift from God that points to His beauty and creativity. But my need for musical success had turned music into something ugly, something that had replaced God.
I will destroy your idols
and your sacred stones from among you;
you will no longer bow down
to the work of your hands.
“Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.”
When we removed the splinter in my daughter’s hand, the space where the wood had been was refilled with healthy tissue. There wasn’t an empty gaping hole, vulnerable for all eternity. A hole where anything could come in and start to grow, causing a new infection to pop up. The space where the wood had been was replaced by something else.
The idols of my heart also have to be replaced by something else – replaced by God. I once relied on music to be my escape, my solace, my safe haven. I once allowed it to define and shape my identity and sense of self-worth. I once treated music not as a gift to be treasured, but as my god. Learning to define myself by other means is hard work. Old habits die hard, after all. But if I don’t do the work — I’m setting myself up for more disappointment, and leaving myself open to even deeper infections.
What’s the splinter in your life? How did it get there? And how is God taking it out?