The Anatomy of a Troubled Heart
In the Bible it is written, “When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me.” (Ps 73:16) Perhaps you can relate to the Psalmist here, to a time in your life which you would as soon forget, or to a present condition you only wish you could ignore. It is just too painful to think about it, it steals your peace and joy in God, and you find it impossible to be thankful in and for it. How can you be free of this?
Some say that time heals all wounds … but some wounds seem to take longer to heal than others. For those of us who have been wounded very deeply, we might ask, “How long is this supposed to take? How long do I have to wait?”
And what exactly is it about Time that is supposed to heal us anyway? Why should the mere passing of time take away our pain?
Psalm 73 is our window into the heart of a deeply wounded saint working through the healing process. It is rich with instruction and light for those of us who find our suffering too difficult to bear.
The Psalmist was certainly in a miserable state, a state which he describes as too painful for him. The mere thought of his miserable condition was more than he could bear. What does this mean?
To help us understand, we might naturally ask, “Too painful for what?” The expression is evidently making a comparison, measuring and evaluating the level of pain as excessive for a certain context. The pain is so intense that the Psalmist is evidently unable to interact with God and others in a healthy manner; he always finds himself in a turbulent, restless condition, forever unsettled and distracted by his painful situation. He experiences a debilitating, gut wrenching kind of turmoil in his heart, spirit, soul and mind that keeps him from living as he ought. He is not content with this kind of pain … it is … too painful … too much to bear. He is searching for healing, for relief. Are you?
We are all subject in some way or other to the same kinds of losses, injustices and cruelties of life, yet some of us experience much more trauma than others. Our inability to control the amount of pain and suffering in our lives often produces a kind of resentment, helplessness, vulnerability, bitterness and fear that can indeed be overwhelming. If we do not understand what is happening, our lives may become severely compromised, undermined, ineffective. This is the enemy’s plan for us … and it is also our opportunity to overcome.
The very next verse in Psalm 73 seems to provide the key to the entire matter: “it was too painful for me; until I went into the sanctuary of God, then I understood.” (vs 17) The Psalmist recalls that when he happened to turn his thoughts God-ward, when he started to inquire of God and seek divine perspective on the matter, he started to think about it entirely differently: he began to understand something that changed everything for him. This is priceless.
What happened to the Psalmist was this: one minute he was wallowing in despair and turmoil over a situation that was out of his control, and the next he was admonishing himself for having done so and resting in the sovereignty of God in that same situation. Now, certainly, our brother wasn’t necessarily happy about the situation after gaining this insight, but he was able to deal with the pain, he found it tolerable and was able to move on with life and enjoy God again. What changed? The situation? Not at all. The only thing that changed was how the Psalmist was thinking about it. This is evidently the key to deliverance in extreme emotional suffering … we need to see things more from God’s perspective.
What we have before us is actually an anatomy of soul pain; this is an explanation of how it works, its dynamic. Excessive emotional pain is rooted in an imbalanced or incomplete perspective. All emotional pain is not bad, but emotional pain that debilitates, that causes us to disengage from others and from God, the wounding that crushes our spirits and steals our joy in God such that we are rendered ineffective, hindered in our service to God and others, this must be rooted in a kind of lie. Once we recognize the truth, once we come to understand the lie as a lie, then we are set free from the excessive, unnecessary pain and we can begin to live for God again.
In other words, time does not heal: a new perspective heals … truth makes all emotional pain bearable. When we are in unbearable pain, the very unbearable nature of it must be sourced in a lie, in an incomplete or inaccurate perspective. Time does not actually heal this kind of thing; it cannot, for there is nothing about the mere passing of time itself that changes our perspective. The perception that time appears to heal comes from the fact that over time we often develop a better, more complete perspective; more has happened since our wounding and we can often see more of the big picture. We begin to realize that things aren’t as bad as we once thought they were. We feel that time has healed us, but what has really happened is that over time we have begun to think about the situation differently because we have obtained more information about it, about ourselves, and about God.
An Example From Scripture
Perhaps it will be helpful to consider a time of very deep suffering for the twelve Apostles. The night of Christ’s betrayal He tells them ominously, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” (Jn 16:20) As Jesus was being taken from them and crucified, the disciples experienced an incredible level of emotional pain. It is hard to imagine what they must have endured during that time. But what turned their mourning into dancing? A more complete perspective. Once the disciples began to understand the implications of the Resurrection, everything changed. As they began to see the big picture, doubtless, even after the Resurrection they didn’t start to like the fact that He had been taken from them, tortured and crucified, but a new perspective caused them to rejoice about the entire experience as a whole, in its full and rightful context. However, in the midst of the journey leading up to the Resurrection it was difficult, if not impossible for them to see … they had to hang on for dear life, hoping blindly in the basic, fundamental character of a faithful, benevolent God.
The difficult thing is enduring the night, waiting out the storm, plodding along during that period of time in which we lack complete perspective. This is the time during which we are suffering extreme emotional pain. The key to healing in this time, the key to getting a handle on our pain so that it is more tolerable, lies in getting more of the total picture sooner rather than later … or at least believing that there actually is a more complete perspective and that there will come a time when we will understand it. “I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” (Ps 27:13)
In order to deal with our present pain in a balanced and healthy way we must believe that there will come a day, in this life, when we will understand once again, experientially, that God is in control, that He is good, and that He is completely just, faithful and trustworthy. (Ex 34:6, Ps 103:8) Whenever we get the full picture in all apparently unjust suffering, God consistently demonstrates this truth. Therefore we must “wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD.” (Ps 27:14) In other words, expecting in faith that the day of understanding will come, knowing that it eventually will come; this is the source of strength for our hearts today, while we remain in confusion, pain and difficulty.
Now, if this insight appears overly simplistic, trivializing the dynamic of personal suffering, let us make no mistake about it: every situation is different, and many of our cases are so complicated, difficult and horrendous that uncovering the lies embedded in our souls may indeed take some time. There are often layers upon layers of lies, and some lies are buried so deep that they seem impossible to reach. Yet let me assure you, both from scripture and from personal experience, that we are on to something here. Every counselor and therapist will ultimately agree: their goal is to change the way we think about trauma. They are not taking the trauma away or altering any of the reality of what has happened to us, they are merely trying to help us see it from a different, more complete perspective.
We can actually prove that God intends for us to think along these lines by looking carefully at Psalms 42 and 43, where the Psalmist is again undergoing a period of desperate suffering: “My tears have been my meat day and night.” (Ps 42:3) There is no place we can be that is so low, so miserable, so awful that such a description as this does not apply. Even so, in the midst of his pain, the Psalmist repeatedly asks himself this penetrating question: “Why art thou cast down, oh my soul, and why art thou disquieted within me?” (Ps 42:3, 11) In the worst of his suffering, the Psalmist challenges the fact that he is disquieted, in turmoil, frustrated and impatient; he seems to believe that he should be able suffer in dignity and peace: he should be able to deal with his difficult circumstances in a more stable and balanced way.
Now, we must carefully note that the Psalmist is not claiming he should never experience grief or sorrow itself. He is not challenging the fact of his suffering. The Psalmist is after the disquieting nature of his pain, the fact that he is cast down about it, the fact that he can no longer rejoice in God. These are the elements of his experience which he finds unacceptable, not the suffering and grief in itself. It is when his soul is in turmoil, when he is contrary to and/or withdrawn from God and others and has turned inward in order to cope with his pain, it is here that the Psalmist objects and instinctively looks to God for help.
Also, we may easily observe that this psalm does not specify the kind of pain and suffering to which this simple prescription applies. There is an intentional kind of ambiguity, an open-endedness that allows us to apply it to any extremely traumatic situation. We may understand that God has done this on purpose. No matter what has happened to us, no matter what will ever happen to us, we can never be so low that this psalm will not be relevant. It will always apply to any kind of intense suffering. This is very good.
Further, the context implies the Psalmist’s awareness of the fact that there is a reason he is unable to deal with his pain in a healthy way, and he wants to discover this reason. This is effectively his mission in pursuing his own healing. In asking himself these questions he is assuming that the mere intensity of the traumatic situation is not the central reason for his failure to handle it well; if it were, asking such questions would be inappropriate or insincere. Rather, he assumes that there is something amiss in his reaction to his painful circumstances and that his behavior is not simply a matter of his will. He actually wants to respond in a more appropriate way, and he thinks he should be able to do so, but he does not know how and is searching for the answer.
In his search the Palmist understands where the answer lies: it is found in a better understanding of the faithfulness and sufficiency of God. So, each time he asks these questions of himself, he answers himself with affirmation and encouragement: “Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise Him.” He believes that a real and complete perspective exists, quite beyond his reach at the moment, which will actually allow him to rejoice in God again. He intends to seek after this truth, pursuing God until he understands it. At present, however, he sees something incorrectly, in an imbalanced, twisted sort of way. In short, he knows that he is captive to a lie, and he wants to be set free.
The Big Lie
Once we understand God’s analysis of the wounded heart, it only makes sense to pursue healing from Him. When a doctor says he has the cure for our dreadful disease, it’s only right to say, “Let’s do this!”
We thus begin a healing journey with God, asking God to show us the lies we have believed, lies that steal our joy and strength in God, and the truths He has for us to replace them. Although every particular context is unique, I have come to perceive that there are some common kinds of lies that are mixed with our suffering. In fact, when we look closely at the foundational lies of a wounded heart, the ones underpinning and supporting all of the other lies promoting and deepening the wounds, we find that they have a common denominator or basis: there is a single basic, fundamental lie on which all of these other lies are built, or toward which all of these other lies point. This single lie is perhaps the most powerful one, and it appears to be the goal of the enemy in every traumatic circumstance of life, as well as every pleasantry. When we allow the enemy freedom to work, he constructs entire networks of lies in our hearts with this single, basic lie. Let us consider this lie, understand how to discover it in ourselves, discern how it supports entire webs of interconnected and interdependent lies within us, and learn how to replace them all with truth from the ground up.
“God Will Not Satisfy”
Just because few people have discovered the secret to healing the wounded heart does not imply that it must be a complicated affair. It is actually, in its dynamic, extremely and surprisingly simple.
As strange as it may sound at first, in a thousand different ways the enemy pursues the same lie in every single soul. From the moment we each took our very first breath, he has attempted to leverage every difficulty, every pleasure, every single experience of life to convince us of this one basic idea: God will not satisfy. If the devil can achieve this, he can wound us and break us down to the point where we will no longer wish to exist. Once we understand that this is a lie, and become convinced that ultimate and complete satisfaction lies in only God, the devil is powerless to torment us. He can cause us pain and suffering, but he will no longer be able to wound our souls or steal our joy.
The enemy aims to alienate and separate us from God, to move us into joyless existence, and this is where he must begin. He must convince us to stop pursuing God and enjoying Him. It does not matter how he accomplishes this, so long as he is successful. In his mind, the ends do justify the means, and he will use whatever means possible, anything at all at his disposal. Evidently, his most effective weapon is emotional pain, and he uses it often.
The Soul Wound
Pain strikes at the core of our being in a way that is easy for the enemy to manipulate. It is difficult for us to understand how God could love someone and not protect them from pain. Therefore, when we feel pain the enemy suggests to us that God does not love us, and in doing so convinces us that God cannot satisfy us because we want to be loved – we need to be loved. When the enemy convinces us that God does not love us, and that because He does not love us that He cannot possibly satisfy the deepest longings of our souls, it is then that the heart wound is formed. We begin to distrust God, to become angry with Him, to turn away from Him, and to seek satisfaction and comfort elsewhere. As we do, the enemy brings more pain, more disappointment, and the same lie over and over again in a thousand different ways, to cement this same lie into us again and again, in layer after layer of pain and lies, until our hearts are entrapped in a vast web of deception and pain and sorrow. This is how the enemy steals and kills and destroys in us, and he does it very well. We must be persistent in rooting out his lies and being set free in the truth.
For example, whenever our sin is exposed in a public manner, particularly sin that is culturally unacceptable, we may feel shame and embarrassment in others’ reaction toward us. In the midst of this pain the enemy will offer us the lie: “God doesn’t love me either,” which deepens and intensifies our shame. We are much more prone to believe this lie during a time of public rejection, but the truth is that God knew everything we would ever do long before we were born. If He ever loved us, He still does. If He has never loved us, then He has never loved anyone: we are all made of the same sinful stuff. He does not love us because we are lovable (Ro 5:8), but simply because He is Love(1Jn 4:16)
Similarly, when someone turns on us, betrays us, rejects and abandons us, particularly someone very close to us, we feel deeply threatened and unloved. It is the opportune time for the enemy to whisper in our spirits: “God doesn’t love me either,” and this makes the sting of the earthly rejection unbearable. The truth is, when someone rejects you … they are more often telling you a whole lot more about themselves than they are about you. Whole people don’t reject others, broken people do that: “hurt people hurt people.” God offers to accept us for Jesus’ sake into His very family, as His own dear child. A child of God can never be more fully and completely received and accepted than they already are in Him. (Ep 1:6, 1Jn 3:1, Ps 27:10)
Likewise in persecution and suffering for Christ the enemy is quick to offer us this same lie: “If God loved me He would protect me.” The truth is whenever we suffer (more or less) innocently in any way, Yeshua is suffering in us and with us. “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Mt 25:40) Allowing such suffering is not a sign that He does not love us, but rather that He does love us. “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” (Php 1:29) God is more interested in our eternal reward than in our temporal pleasure. This is something that should cause us great joy: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Mt 5:11)
Beyond suffering for righteousness, be it sickness, accidents, misfortune, just life in a sinful world … the enemy offers us the same powerful old lie: “If God loved me He wouldn’t have let this happen to me.” Yet the truth is that Yahweh allows sickness, pain, accidents, and suffering for a number of purposes, none of which should be construed as a sign that He does not love us. It could be chastening to bring us to wholeness (Heb 12:6 , a sure sign of His unconditional, fatherly love) or to toughen us up. (Ro 5:3, Ja 1:2-3) It could be a legal consequence of Torah violation in our own lives, which should lead us to prayer, repentance, healing and deliverance, or in our present evil generation, which should lead us to prayer and exhortation.
There is a sense in which Yahweh allows tremendous amounts of injustice, abuse and suffering in this world, much of which seems cruel and senseless, as part of His ultimate response to sin. Particularly, He evidently allows much sin to be inflicted through the wickedness of Man in anticipation of His final response to it … which will make all earthly, temporal suffering pale in contrast. This is something we may not be able to fully comprehend now, but we can be confident that when we see things from His perspective, as they really are, we will “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (1 Pe 1:8) If we do not find grace to begin to see these kinds of things from God’s perspective, the enemy will be relentless in destroying us through his lies and alienating us from our God.
Once the enemy is successful in planting this lie in our hearts, the lie that God will not satisfy us, strategically leveraging pain and suffering in a variety of forms, he then continues to alienate us even farther from God by leveraging the very gifts God has given us to enjoy. The love of mother for child, the romantic love of husband and wife, pleasure and wealth and power … these things are not wrong in themselves. Yet once the big lie is firmly entrenched and we are looking outside of God for satisfaction, looking to the love and acceptance of others or to personal comforts and pleasure and power, then we are pursuing something other than God as our ultimate satisfaction and we are doing this out of a soul wound.
Often, as we do so, we do find some comfort and become content in our pursuits, determining to control our environments and protect our hearts from further loss. It is at such times that God will often intervene in the lives of His elect and allow even more wounding, bringing more pain into our lives in order to stir us out of a shallow comfort so that we will pursue Him again and find Him. He wants to get our attention, and He will use pain, as C.S. Lewis said so well, as His megaphone if He needs to do so. God exposes the soul wound again so that we will return to Him and let Him heal us with Himself. God, of course, is using pain to help us seek deliverance from our wounds and so speaks truth to us when we are in pain. Yet the enemy is also there in the pain, as always, speaking his lies again and again to us in order to destroy us.
These insights help us understand that knowing the love of God is at the core of our spiritual health and will be the enemy’s relentless point of attack. It is no wonder then that Paul wrote: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … that he would grant you … to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man … that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ep 3:14 – 19)
One of the key sources of emotional pain, which happens to be the focus before us in Psalm 73, is the desire for justice and the sense that wicked people will never be judged for their crimes. Fearing that someone who has wronged us will “get away” with it can drive us to bitterness and resentment towards God. Not finding God’s perspective here can destroy our spiritual equilibrium very quickly. This may at first seem unrelated to the “big lie” that God will not satisfy, but a careful consideration shows that it has the same basis of discontent with God.
An ongoing feeling of discontent, resentment or anger resulting from perceived injustice is called bitterness, and it robs a person of their joy and peace. When the wicked appear to get away with their crimes, not being properly punished or getting their due, we resent the inequity and find a complaint in our hearts about it, and this complaint is essentially against God for allowing the injustice. Bitterness moves us away from God and others, encouraging us to withdraw from God and brood over how we or others have been treated and ways in which we might see harm come to our enemies to “make them pay.” Bitterness is an emotion directed towards God because of what He has allowed others to do and how He has treated them.
The root of bitterness is a lie that God is unjust, which is a significant way in which we might find God unsatisfactory. Yet when we accuse God of being unjust we are redefining justice on our own terms, requiring a kind of retribution or vengeance which He does not require, and in this we are putting ourselves in the place of God. The cure for this lie is to humble ourselves and ask God to help us believe and be “sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.” (Ro 2:2) We must be convinced in our spirits, deep in the bedrock of our souls, that no one ever “gets away” with anything. Once we understand that God will right all wrongs, in His perfect time, and in His perfect way, we can once again have peace … even in the midst of our suffering.
It is time to get up and get going, to move on from the soul wound and find healing in God. Don’t just wait around expecting to heal through the passing of time; get a new perspective — the sooner the better. When something is troubling you to the point of destabilizing your balance and peace in God, when you are not giving thanks to God in and for it, ask God to give you His mind on the matter; understanding and appreciating that this is indeed a struggle in spiritual warfare in the enemy’s war with the saints, and seeking to be renewed in your heart and in the spirit of your mind. Don’t stop grieving or being angry, but learn to grieve and anger with God while you are rejoicing in Him … and in how He is going to handle whatever is troubling you. Enter the sanctuary of God, the cathedral of His Word, and let Him overturn and destroy all of your lies; hold nothing dear that does not come from Him. Saturate yourself with His light and life. Learn to find contentment and joy in God Himself, joy unspeakable; rest not until you are enjoying His beauty and nature again, continually walking in priceless fellowship with God, in spirit and truth.