Stale Loaves and Smelly Fish: The Paradox of God’s Redeeming Grace


A friend of mine recently said, “All I want is to have two days of uninterrupted joy. I’m tired of ‘joy in the middle of struggle.’” I could completely relate. It felt like forever since something in life had brought me unmitigated joy.

These days, joy always seems to come intertwined with sadness and struggle. For instance, not long ago I finished a Master’s program I loved...while the person I loved the most was dealing with chronic pain. This year, I have gotten to experience becoming pregnant for the first time, expecting our first child...alongside of admitting that I have been struggling with depression for most of my adult life.

Facing my depression came with an unbelievable mountain of shame. Once I’d understood that reality, I also had to admit that I was still depressed—which has been one of the most difficult things I’ve encountered in my life. Because my depression doesn’t just affect me, it affects all those around me, those I love the most.

In the midst of depression, I found myself drifting further and further from any experience of God, and from any desire to actually pursue him, though I knew (cognitively) he was pursuing me. Instead, I would hunker down in an imaginary cave, hiding from the chaos around me. In that cave—or impenetrable claustrophobically small bubble, as it sometimes seemed—there wasn’t room for anyone or anything but my curled-up body. In that space, how could I possibly be a light to anyone? A help or a gift to those I love, care for, and fight for? I felt useless—or worse, worthless. Like a rag wrung out too many times. I could put on a show, certainly. Pretend that all was well, sugarcoating the truth of my interior life. But that just fed the sad, pained, lonely little beast of depression.

It was in that space that I had an appointment for spiritual direction. I did not want to talk about the same old “blah” that was my life. The struggles and anger of the last few years had turned into dull and bitter tasting words in my mouth. But, how could I champion the cause of self-care and spiritual direction in my own ministry and not receive it myself? So off I dutifully went.

As I spoke, what I had been resisting most happened. I broke down, weeping through all my questions: What am I worth if all I want to do is stay in bed? Or binge on white cheddar popcorn? Or lie on the couch watching British television dramas? What am I worth if I give into those? What’s the good of even telling the truth, it will just hurt the ones that I love?

My director looked at me calmly and asked, “Have you heard the one about the fishes and loaves?” I was slightly taken aback… “Well, yeah… why?” Thinking that feeding 5,000 people seemed like the opposite of what I was talking about.

He went on to describe the story of Jesus multiplying the small boy’s lunch a little differently than I had heard it before. He wondered if the loaves were actually pretty stale, and the fishes perhaps a little...well, fishy. And yet, people feasted. “What if your depression is your fishes and loaves for the day?”

A somewhat slack-mouthed silence followed.

And then it hit me. God can and will use all things. Not just our polished accomplishments and our abilities, but also our weakness, pain, sadness, and brokenness. Perhaps the latter even more so; after all, his strength is made perfect in our weakness, isn’t it? That idea hit me like a ton of bricks. What if I could wake up in the morning and say, “God, all I have today is my numbness, will you still have me?” And his answer is, “Oh child, I can certainly work with that.”

This paradox brought me to my knees and stripped away the last bit of my defense. Instead of needing to fear my depression, I could offer it to God—just like I might my joy or competency—for him to work unbelievable good from it.

This revelation exploded the little bubble of shame around me and, in its place, something clicked into place. Don’t get me wrong, depression did not just go away, but all of a sudden it was right-sized. The chaos that had been circling around me like so many birds of prey was transformed into something more like normal birdsong in the trees.

Now I could peek out from under my arms and say something, instead of hiding. I had always known the importance of not hiding, but there was such a struggle in me to be honest about my depression. This new revelation of the fishes and loaves gave me new perspective on being seen as well: If my depression wasn’t some hideous deformity, but a gift for God to shape into goodness, then there was no reason to hide it or hide from it. I could face it in the full light of day and invite those that I so badly longed to impress to see it as well. It could be a gift to them.

And it was.

Instead of pretending to be somewhere I wasn’t, and thus inviting others to do the same, I was now standing in the full light of God’s merciful redemption and inviting others into that.

Do you see the paradox? If I’m not honest with myself about where I am, what do I have to offer to others? No matter how often I preach the radical love of God, I am really just inviting them to a life of withering hiddenness. But when I offer God my brokenness, without reserve, suddenly my great shame and sorrow become my great gift and freedom. The pieces of myself that I hate become dear friends that lead me and others straight to the arms of Christ.

What About You?

What might your loaves and fishes be? What stale pieces of bread and smelly bits of fish do you have to offer God for his feast?

It might be your anger, your bitterness, your fear, your pain, your sorrow or unforgiveness.

It could just as easily be your competency, your strength, your giftedness. I promise you, those are every bit as stale and stinky as the weaknesses you loathe or even hide from in your life.

Apart from Christ, we are powerless. It is only through abiding in Christ, bringing all of our broken pieces into his light, that any piece of us is formed into true and lasting goodness.

Take time to prayerfully consider these questions. Ask your spouse or closest confidante for their thoughts. Ask Christ to reveal his perspective to you.

What are your fishes and loaves today?

How will God use them to touch others?


Holly Jauregui is a Spiritual Director who serves with Novo on the ReNew Team. She loves journeying with people into the deepest places of their hearts—places they often approach with reluctance for fear of what they’ll find, but which hide a deeper life with God than they could have dreamt of or hoped for. Holly and her husband David are new parents and live in Long Beach, CA.