Emotional Quarantine: Let the Healing Begin
By Malcolm Murdock
June 9, 2009
What does it mean to be healed? The Psalms say that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147), but what does God’s healing actually look like? How do we get there? How do we go from people with wounded, hurting hearts to people healed and joyful, free to love and be loved by those around us as we abide in the intimate mercy of Christ?
The action of God’s spirit upon our hearts is ultimately a deeply mysterious thing, but it often begins with a simple willingness to admit our brokenness before him. A willingness to admit to the pain we so often shove into the most obscure corners of our souls, walling it in with emotional and spiritual callouses until we can hardly even tell it’s there. But the problem with the ever-popular “repress and ignore” strategy is that it renders us incapable of using—and enjoying—those quarantined portions of our hearts. When the part of me that’s able to trust and enjoy intimacy with other human beings has been wounded or betrayed, I may learn to function reasonably well without ever allowing the Lord to heal it, but my capacity for trust and intimacy will be forever crippled.
Un-healed emotional wounds are like a house with a locked and sealed room that’s filled to the brim with poisonous, toxic filth. As long as we stay away from that room (and don’t invite anyone else into that room) we can often get by OK. But to stay away requires that we become experts at avoiding our pain. Sometimes that means avoiding human relationships altogether, cutting ourselves off from the world and desperately seeking ways to hide, to disappear. But more often it’s somewhere in-between. We become like the cowboys in the old westerns, keeping everyone at a distance, never letting any one person get too close, careful to terminate any relationship that threatens to stir up our old wounds.
Of course, we would never admit anything is amiss (after all, denial is an important component of the repress and ignore strategy), so the ways we keep people away tend to become more insidious. Everything might be neat and tidy if we could simply tell people “I’m sorry, deep down I’m an emotionally wounded train wreck, and you’re getting threateningly close to my baggage compartment, so I need you to never speak to me again.” But alas, this would violate our first principle of denial, so instead we lash out at the people we care about, or we inexplicably withdraw, or terminate our romantic relationships out of the blue, or avoid our family, or keep our friends at arms length—whatever form it takes, it’s all designed for self-protection: doing everything in our power to avoid touching our un-healed pain. Sadly, this cycle usually does even more damage, both to us and to those we care about, who can rarely understand our behavior, since we don’t understand it ourselves.
So how do we break free? How do we take God up on his promise to bind up our wounds and heal our hearts? Where do we even begin? As mentioned above, the first step is often just a simple willingness to admit we’re wounded in the first place. After all, if a child has a cut on their hand, no parent can bandage the wound until the child shows it to them. Of course, God already “knows the secrets of the heart” (Psalm 44), wounds and all, but He is also not a God who forces us to come to Him, whether for healing, prayer, or simply to enjoy His presence. Time and again the scriptures show us the portrait of a compassionate and merciful God, eagerly waiting to take us in and heal us and renew our souls, but also a God who does not force, who wants the choice to be our own. As Jesus says in Matthew 23, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
The beauty of a God who doesn’t force the issue is that we can start anywhere. No matter where we are on the path to healing and renewal, the Lord is happy to meet us there. One of my favorite things to do is to simply sit with the Lord in my unwillingness—toward anything: whether healing, growth, or some step of faith—to simply sit with the Lord in prayer and say “I’m unwilling, Lord, but I won’t shut you out. Please sit with me in my unwillingness.” And wouldn’t you know, like sunlight on a block of ice, the mere invitation to sit with Jesus in the presence of my wounded heart, with no willingness to go any further, slowly dissolves my fears, my guilt, my shame, everything standing in the way, and eventually I find I’m ready to take the next step.
But it’s rarely an easy process, and depending on the severity of our wounds, it’s not always something that can be done by simply sitting alone in prayer. To truly seek the renewed and healed hearts that God wants for us, we need to have the courage to recognize when further steps are required on the path to healing. Some hurt may simply require journaling, prayer and time. But often to truly find freedom we need to enlist the help of others. Pastors, spiritual directors and professional counselors can be tremendous tools for God’s healing in our lives. And though we often experience a Molotov cocktail of negative emotions—whether embarrassment, guilt, fear, shame, anger or anything else—at the thought of discussing our wounds with another person, it’s often one of the best ways to throw open the doors to that toxic baggage compartment in our hearts and finally start cleaning things out.
And it’s worth it. Painful and frightening though it may be, the joy-filled freedom of standing on the other side of the healing process, of being able to say that we have “thrown off everything that hinders” (Hebrews 12) and truly “cast our cares on the Lord” (Psalm 55) is worth every step of the difficult journey. To find our hearts free again to love and to be loved, whether in romance, friendship, family or any other relationship; to know the joy of God’s love filling those corners of our hearts we never thought could be healed; to see our past suffering or sin redeemed into merciful gratitude and joy at the God who can take even the ugliest wounds and make them new—these are the things that await those of us willing to seek the healing the Lord so desperately wants to give us.
So maybe this week we can all pray the Lord would show us those areas of our hearts that have yet to be healed, however old or new the wounds may be. And while we’re at it, maybe we can even pray He would give us the courage to take the next step in our journey towards freedom, choosing to trust that He truly is a God who is able to bind our wounds and heal our broken hearts, no matter how impossible it may sometimes seem.