Three years ago, when I began a path to healing, I did not get a neon sign from heaven or a magic wand waved over me. In fact, I didn’t even know what God was doing or what plans He had for helping me to address my guilt, shame, addictive tendencies, and problems with relationships. He didn’t tell me where He was leading me at all.
It really began with a crisis in my life: a crisis that unfolded when I stopped teaching, birthed another baby, and attempted to float seamlessly into a role as a full-time volunteer on the worship team and other ministry teams in the church.
Absolutely nothing was working for me in that very dark summer after I left teaching — my son was colicky and never slept. My daughter developed insecurities and issues when my attention had to be shared with an infant. Our money ran dry.
And nothing was clicking with music — the new direction I felt I should be going. I was exhausted, depleted, frustrated — and completely worn out. I kept coming up against a wall that I couldn’t get around; and I didn’t even know what I was fighting against, but it was making me crazy.
In the midst of my crisis, I attended a couples’ retreat. Sitting there listening to our senior pastor and his wife talk about the need for honesty in relationships and life, I was so in denial about where I was really at that I sat through the entire presentation feeling pretty good about myself. My internal dialogue went something like this: This must be for someone else. I am pretty honest with people. I don’t have a problem with this.
However, on the way home I started to feel guilty — and all of these things from the past that I hadn’t even thought about in a long time began surfacing. Even though I wanted to repress them and send these memories back to where they had been hiding, they stuck around in a really annoyingly persistent way — so much so that I was having problems concentrating on anything else.
Suddenly I found it really difficult to get through the day — difficult to sing on a Sunday — and difficult to feel relaxed in my Christian walk. I was having an internal crisis of guilt, anxiety, and fear. My past had reared its ugly head, and it wasn’t going away this time.
And then, as if I didn’t feel stressed enough already, I felt the undeniable nudge to do something about these memories from the past. Not just ask Jesus to forgive me for my past sins — but to actually contact some people, write some letters, and initiate some tough conversations.
Some of the first contacts I made were to a school I had taught at apologizing for some ways I could have been more professional in my demeanor and in the handling of student fees; to a manager and a store I had shoplifted from as a teenager; and to a family of a girl I had been way too involved with in high school. (Yep, you got that right. I did just say that — more on codependent relationships in later posts.)
I was paralyzed with irrational fear. What in the heck did any of these things have to do with my desire to go into ministry? Why was I getting an urge to do this so many years later?
I didn’t realize those contacts were just the first few baby steps Jesus used to point me in the direction I would need to go to find some relief from the weight of my inner chains. Those contacts were the first steps in helping me realize that I had an addiction to others’ approval.
And the pathway out would include a whole lot more conversations and letter writing.
3 Keys to Emotional Healing
The journey for everyone might look a little different, but the first place to start in a quest for inner healing is Jesus Christ. Just like the place of denial I was in at the couples’ event, most people are really out of touch with their real problems and are self-diagnosing and looking in the wrong places for help.
Their physical problems may be the result of emotional issues. While I understand the need to take care of our bodies and look after ourselves, some women focus on their health to extent that they have little time for anything else. They may be going to chiropractors several times a week, specialists for specific maladies, and naturopathic doctors for diagnoses.
While I certainly have faith in the medical community and the wisdom of doctors, I believe that the reason that we sometimes don’t get any better is because we consult doctors without really including God in the conversation. And prioritizing emotional or medical ills above God is a big mistake.
Another mistake is pretending there aren’t any problems and existing in total denial — like I did for the longest time.
Start with God
The Bible is clear that we must “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) before we can expect other things to be added to us. What that basically means is that we should start with Jesus and not the problem. I will be the first to admit that my natural inclination is to do things the other way around.
One of the most beneficial things I did when I quit working was join a weekly women’s Bible study. When I began to get serious about digging into the truth of God, many things in my life started to get some painful but good magnification.
In this process of seeking God, honesty is essential — honesty with God and honesty with ourselves. The Bible says that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword — and it pierces, convicts, and helps us get rid of the junk that weighs us down (Hebrews 4:12). We have all sorts of defense mechanisms — pride, excuses, denial, blaming of others — we use to convince ourselves that we are fine and do not need to change. I am the worst offender in this area! Truly!
Once we pursue Jesus, however, He will bring all of our deeds and actions into the light (John 3:20). Once He does this, we will have the choice whether to allow Him to extract some habits weighing us down or continue to walk in darkness.
The truth is that looking at ourselves as we truly are is painful, but we can be encouraged by the fact that we are forgiven and blameless in His sight. However, our sins have consequences and may affect us emotionally or spiritually if unaddressed. Some important keys to freedom that I have been walking through (touched on in Henry W. Wright’s A More Excellent Way: Be in Health) address our relationship with God, others and self.
Key 1: Our Relationship with God.
The first key to freedom is to understand who we are and what Jesus did for us on the cross. We are fully loved and forgiven — however, His grace does not give us a license to sin, and He must have priority in our life. We must surrender to Him as we learn the truth about what it means to follow Him. If we have had hard things happen to us, we may be angry at God, blaming Him for the bad in our lives.
For me, my greatest revelation in experiencing a release of a major burden was understanding that anger against God is a sin — I needed to forgive Him for the areas I felt He let me down. And say it out loud: God, I was angry when such and such occurred. I felt that you had abandoned me. I forgive you. Help me not hold that against you anymore.
I needed to accept and thank Him for the person He created me to be.
Key 2: Our Relationship with Others.
Once we understand who we are in Christ, this changes how we interact with others. People who are wounded go on to hurt others, however unintentionally.
Becoming free from my chains has meant doing what the Bible says in terms of relationships: forgiving those who have hurt me, seeking peace in relationships, apologizing for past wrongs, and continuing to do this in my relationships now with the full knowledge that I can end up in bondage again if I am not careful.
One surprise I found in this area is that many Christians aren’t following what the Bible says. In fact, they will try to persuade you that it is not really necessary to act in your relationships in these ways because God’s grace covers over all sins.
What they are forgetting is that grace doesn’t exempt us from doing what the Bible says. We are commanded to seek forgiveness and make amends when we do wrong, go to our brother when he has wronged us, and seek harmony if at all possible in our relationships.
Even if I am rejected or my apology is rejected, I am accepted by Christ, and I have the peace of knowing I did the right thing even if the other person did not respond in the way I think he or she should have.
Key 3: Our Relationship with Self.
Another important key to wholeness is our relationship with ourselves. I spent the majority of my life beating up on myself — not realizing that self-rejection can have extremely damaging emotional and physical effects on the body.
A factor for me in my healing has been to understand that I make mistakes, I am not perfect, and I can forgive myself. I had unresolved anger at myself for not being as perfect as I wanted to be. I blamed myself for my relationship failures, for my past mistakes — and I had the misguided idea that I was being humble.
However, I came to realize that a healthy person must have a healthy view of self. Humility is believing that apart from Christ we are nothing — but rejoicing in what He has made us to be and what He has done for us. When I let go of my anger and decided to see myself as Christ does — forgiven, under no condemnation — I could let the guilt and shame go.
Giving up bad habits, addictive tendencies, and unhealthy relationships is tough. I wanted an escape hatch out of my crisis when I left teaching, an easy fix; I didn’t want a journey — especially not a journey that I had to go through without first having all the answers.
Writing letters wasn’t an act I had to do to receive forgiveness from God or earn grace — because that had already been given to me. That process was one that helped to illuminate something about myself to me — something I didn’t know. I felt shame for the bad things I had done in my past, but I didn’t know the reasons for my behavior. But God did.
He revealed to me a truth that was very profound somewhere in that process: I was so dependent on others’ approval that many of my bad choices were made to please others.
In the case of the school, I was extremely reliant on the approval of my classes and wanted to be a well-liked even if it meant laughing when I shouldn’t have laughed or cultivating the worship of my students.
In the case of student fees, I got really overwhelmed with paperwork and didn’t want to admit I couldn’t keep up with all the book money and field trip money kids were throwing at me.
In the case of the shoplifting, I got pressured into it by some friends and couldn’t say no even though I knew it was wrong.
In the case of the unhealthy relationship, I wanted acceptance when I couldn’t find it in normal relationships — and compromised myself to get that.
God knew that — and while the process of admitting my flaws to others was excruciating and is still ongoing in some areas — He had to extract out of me that tendency toward wanting others’ approval more than His approval. While it felt like God really hated me for wanting me to go back to my past, it was because of His kindness that He wanted to help straighten my paths (Hebrews 12:11).
I don’t know where you are in life or what your situation looks like — but start with God. Christ is the answer to all our problems and will lead us to freedom if we will follow Him — no matter how hard or unusual the way.
Getting to that place of freedom means letting Him have access to the dark places we are hiding and trusting Him when the road out is bumpier than we originally anticipated.