“Christianity does not set faith against thinking. It sets faith against assuming.” – Timothy Keller
Every now and then, God pulls back a curtain within the heart which shows me that something I thought maybe wasn’t an issue for me anymore still is, or an assumption I’ve made about myself isn’t quite accurate. Typically these revelations leave me with the stark notion that I’m not as far along on my path of spiritual growth as perhaps I thought I might be. And then a sense of disappointment sets in for awhile and I wonder if I’ll ever grow into the person I feel I’m supposed to be and who I want to be.
Usually what I end up seeing after some reflection, though, is that all of this has not been about whatever lack of maturity I initially assumed (although often there certainly is truth in that), but instead it is that recognizing my lack of maturity is in itself a sign, after all, that I actually am further along. After this initial mourning period is worked through, I find I am less surprised by my failings than I was the last time I went through one of these periods. I am accepting more and more of my spiritual poverty. This, I know, is the road to a completely surrendered life.
This latest funk was centered on wounds: wounds within me that I thought had been dealt with enough that they wouldn’t really direct my thoughts and words and actions so much anymore. I didn’t think they would still interfere with the things I know I need to keep at the forefront in how I interact with others, for instance, or what I decide to do with my time and resources. As with this latest round, when the curtain within the heart is drawn back, I can see that these wounds I have still have some life in them, still have power, and still have their own ravenous sense of determination and demand on how to be healed. This serves to remind me that I dare not ever begin to think they are devoid of power over me. I think it was grace that God let me see this about them, even if their sense of entitlement and presence had seemingly lain dormant.
Your wounds speak loudly. They are the reverberating echoes of waves of failure and loss and rejection that have crashed against the shorelines of your soul at some point, shouting of what hasn’t being filled or fixed that your heart, your flesh, your very being tells you must be. They may indeed need to be filled or fixed, but your flesh is telling you it must be done so in a particular way that you have found tried and true in extinguishing the sting…...at least for a little while…….or in a way you’ve convinced yourself will work.
Your wounds come from a variety of experiences: your own sinfulness, how you’ve been sinned against, the pain you feel because of a loss or a deep-seated unmet need that leaves you gasping for relief in how it manifests in your everyday decisions and in conversation with the people around you. They are the arrows that hit a vulnerable place in your heart. And even if you may have very nicely moved on, they will always exist at least to some extent as tender spots, places within you that throb a bit when something draws near. Whether they have outright free reign over you or you’ve devised schemes to pretend they’re not there (through anything from substance abuse to strategic, self-deprecating humor), your wounds have tremendous power over you if they aren’t surrendered to God. Some days you will need to surrender both the wounds and their power on a minute-by-minute basis. They are always there to plant a sign, claiming that you are still under their ownership. Sometimes the greatest act of faith at any moment is doggedly refusing to believe their claim over you, even when all you see in yourself is a wound very powerfully proving its point.
Much of our spiritual growth is about redefining; that is, letting God redefine for us how He wants us to look at and approach certain things. Love, community, success…..our work is in trusting Him as He puts into process new definitions for these things that in our hearts have been skewed because of our tendency to idolatrize or romanticize them. We may think of the perfect spouse, for instance, as one who can always anticipate our needs and then seek to meet them. We may ultimately see community as simply being with others who know us well and who we enjoy being around. We may think of success as that which brings us what we want, whether that is fame, money, or certain freedoms. There are good and accurate things usually within our own definitions, but if you follow their trajectories, they will not end with the desire to see God glorified because that isn’t what we ultimately long for most in our fallen, sinful state. (When we allow God to do His work of redefining, however, and cooperate with His plans, the end result will always be Him receiving the glory.)
Defining what it means to be lovable, for instance, through the prism of our experiences and observations regarding when we’ve felt loved by someone else, when we’ve felt love for someone else, and when we’ve witnessed what we think is love in the lives of others, will most likely leave us with an incomplete definition. Even if we have been loved well by someone, when left to our own selves to define these things, it will be at least slightly warped from the true intent because none of us ever do it perfectly. Our culture, for instance, tends to define love as never hurting someone and/or never making them feel badly. It is based more on a feeling of affection, a passion for someone’s presence and influence, a need to be near, and a sense of agreement. There may be elements of some of these things to various degrees in how love is defined for us in scripture, in all of love’s various forms, but the cultural definition is highly short-sighted and lacking. However, if this is how we define love and how we may think of ourselves as lovable or not, we will be aiming for things that are at best a diluted form of what God wants for us; at worst, outright opposed to His will.
Drawing conclusions, however, is how we navigate through much of life, how we think through the next step, do our best to make sense of things. But sometimes our assumptions - the personal definitions we’ve arrived at - then cause us to craft narratives we live out every day in our quest for meaning, our quest to protect ourselves, our quest to feel valued, and every other quest our heart directs us towards. It is in our wiring to expect things to feel like what they have for us in the past or what the experiences of others or cultural conditioning have taught us they will feel like. If family feels like “X” for me, then healthy family should feel like “X” then (too or instead…..depending on what you have yourself experienced or what culture in general has conditioned you to believe it will).
Take silence, for instance. We often don’t know what to do with silence. If we’re expecting an answer or an action or direction, silence acts as an obstacle, a thwarting that wrenches a sense of momentum away from us. This usually leaves us marinating in anything ranging from annoyance to agony, depending on the circumstances behind our expectations. There’s a nothingness we assume about silence, that it insinuates a lack of passion, a lack of responsiveness, a lack of ability, a lack of recognition…….a lack of love. Silence, we may believe, tells us that we’re not the priority. We usually then fill in the gaps with an assumption or two or 57, based on our prior experiences in whatever realm our situation falls under, and before we know it our assumptions have given birth to a narrative that we start clinging to as truth because we must have something to cling to. Maybe sometimes these narratives end up proving to be correct. My guess is usually not, particularly if they involve a person or persons we don’t know very well. We can easily forget that silence can also mean that whoever we are waiting on is carefully thinking through his best course of action, has an enormous amount on her plate, never received the initial request…….or is in prayer, desiring that God’s will be done and is waiting for a sense of peace before he or she moves forward. We may indeed be the priority after all, and that person is recognizing his or her enormous dependence on the Lord in order to handle our need exactly as He wants.
We are living these narratives on a daily basis within our relationships in what we read into and assume based on either what we fear is the truth or what we so desperately want to happen. This happens with highly personal issues and with larger, political and/or global matters. Both left and right wing political adherents do this consistently with a variety of issues in the news - the story must be a certain way, for perhaps both noble and selfish reasons, whether there’s anything in their particular chosen narrative that resembles the truth or not. We fear the loss of control we are threatened with if life doesn’t follow the narrative we’ve determined it must. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is a quote often attributed to Gandhi. But this easily morphs into “Force the world to change so that it conforms to what you wish.” In our narratives we either go on the offensive in attempting to force conformity or we turn to the defense of self-protection. Both fail to ultimately provide any healing at the root of our wounds and instead deepen the infection.
For the Christian this is sometimes where we feel our wounds aching the most: what feels like is going unsatisfied and unfilled and unattended to while God redefines our interpretations. He doesn’t seem to be working on the things we feel we must have in order to be fulfilled. They stay there as empty pools, gaps in the earth that we aren’t used to NOT seeking to fill. The pain of our wounds echoes and it can take all that’s within us to turn our attention to what God is doing when instead the blaring siren of an unmet need is begging us to leave what God is doing and tend to what we’ve spent our energy beforehand seeking to salve. For example, if we have always interpreted love as expressing tangible signs of affection, maybe the Holy Spirit is changing us so that we see it means, for instance, the giving up of oneself for the betterment of another. But the Spirit doesn’t usually choose to conduct such spiritual activity in a manner in which our transformation is nicely accomplished within the hour. We are in-process people, always in the midst of navigating through our changing beliefs, because spiritual growth takes lots and lots and lots of time. So we struggle with holding a real truth, a real truth which may be new to us, and how to allow that truth to minister to us while still feeling the old, familiar ache of a wound. This old wound may have deeply-worn treads to it that tell us that this new truth is not giving us the feeling that can counteract the pain of the wound we’re so used to catering to. It’s messy…….very messy……and life continues on.
Our wounds, however, are not things to simply move past. To pretend and force ourselves to never deal with them, never speak of the wounds, never share the wounds, is what I think sometimes we feel like we’re supposed to do as believers, as if in being new creations in Christ, our wounds and past sins will no longer dictate any part of our words or actions. We repent of our sins, we turn from them. We rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to not be under the authority of sin anymore. Yes, we are commanded so! But we should never think we haven’t been shaped by sin or that sin no longer has any residue in us; we should never assume that upon conversion our sin residue will no longer affect us at all and that we will no longer ever have to wrestle with old thought patterns and temptations. Some people do have such dramatic conversion experiences where they are simply no longer drawn to a particular temptation anymore, but of the people I know, this is the exception and not the norm. It certainly isn’t my experience and it isn’t the experience of many others whom I know well and who have shared such preciously true parts of their journeys with me. Indeed, the most maturing Christians I know are the ones who are well aware and deeply sorrowed by the darkness remaining in their character. They long for the days they are ultimately, completely freed from it. It is one of many aspects of heaven that they can’t wait for.
Your wounds serve to remind you that spiritual growth is not a graduation exercise where you complete certain stages, aiming to exist finally in a place of arrival where you just know that your weaknesses have been conquered in Christ so you can now move on with His full cooperation in the pursuit of your dreams. Spiritual growth is not a linear journey of pressing ahead into the “higher” work of whatever defines popular Christian successfulness at the moment, henceforth freed from spiritual struggle, a life now objectively based on doing good works and saying good things in exchange for a lifelong holy feeling and a “get out of hell free” card.
But your wounds can be surrendered. They can be released. They can be denied authority in your life. They can be dethroned. There is Someone there at the center of it who can reorder all things in your life around Himself, so that while the pain and scars of your wounds may still be present, they will no longer be your center, your gravity, dictating the rest of your decisions. Allow Jesus, instead of your wounds, to be the prism you are seeing things through in your world. Your wounds will still inform and give shape, for instance, in how you may communicate, but with Jesus as the center, you become part of His truth, which is so much bigger and powerful than any narrative you can possibly craft on your own.
Your wounds may be of rejection, of shame, of loss. These are all components of the all-encompassing wound we are all walking around with, and that is what we have all lost due to the broad reality of man’s sinful nature, and what we have all lost due to our own personal sin. All things must be reframed around this knowledge, but wondrously, all things also are reframed around the staggering belief that Jesus offers newness and a breaking of the cycle to us. The wounds may take a lifetime to heal. But Jesus can and will heal a lifetime of wounds, if we cooperate. So many of our dreams and desires have to do with people being who we want them to be. Whether we put someone in our life on a pedestal supported by expectations that are much higher than he or she can possibly ever reach, whether it’s a group of people in the populace at large who we so want them to see things the way we ourselves do in regards to politics or faith or whatever else, our wounds often come when those people haven’t acquiesced to being who we want them to be. Even if our dream is about doing something specific or having something specific, there are people who will need to play a role in this in some form or another, even if it is simply one of affirmation and recognition. It is of immense challenge to allow people to be who they are, only wanting for them what Jesus wants for them. And we can only know what those things are by being close to Him in prayer, in worship of Him, in authentic fellowship with other believers, immersed in scripture.
For me, I begin to see change when I decide against needing to always feel a certain way to believe something is what God says it is; when I let go of demanding that things fall in line with my definitions before I move forward into the work God has for me; when I release the strong desire for people to be who I want them to be. With the power of the Holy Spirit at work in me, I continue to cooperate with this work as needed, whether on a weekly basis or every 15 seconds. The power of the Holy Spirit conforms me to His truth and brings healing to my own woundedness, in His own time and in His own way.
“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” - Isaiah 55:8 (NIV)
***Note: I had some trepidation in writing this post for fear that my words about assumptions and what we desire other people to be would be interpreted in ways I do not intend. None of this is to suggest, for instance, that we are to merely tolerate abusive behavior or the like or not address things like oppression and injustice. This is not a call for passivity in the face of such things but instead a call for submission to the higher ways, higher thoughts, and higher sovereignty of the Lord.