“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
Pat and I recently attended a Sunday service at a small church in our town. After a few hymns, an elder stood up and read a list of prayer requests for members of the church and various family and friends. It was a nice reminder that the body of Christ is a community that prays, grieves, and rejoices together. When a church grows; however, there will come a day when the list becomes too long to read in the time available. Even at the service we attended, the number of people needing prayer was impressive. But what really caught my attention was that almost all of the prayers were for physical healing of one kind or another. There were prayers for various cancers, heart problems, injuries, and other illnesses. There were one or two prayers asking God’s comfort for those suffering from the loss of a loved one, but for the most part the prayers were for physical healing.
When it comes physical healing, my thoughts gravitate towards how God works in the natural order of things. For example, I marvel at how wonderfully God has designed us – from “simple” things like blood clotting that prevents bleeding to death when cut, to the way the body fights off infections and heals from injuries such as breaks and sprains. I also believe God heals through the work of doctors and the progress of modern medicine, such as how a highly skilled surgeon replaced my aortic valve several years ago. But when it comes to supernatural physical healings, my faith is derivative from what I hear (or not) from others. The Biblical record is extensive regarding miraculous physical healings performed by Jesus, which occurred with a regularity that in my experience is absent today.
God also provides supernatural spiritual healing, “The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3) Spiritual healing is the healing and regeneration of a person’s soul – a soul that has been so damaged by hurts and/or obsessions that spiritual growth ceases if not regresses. Although modern science has given us a vast array of drugs to soothe over a lot of the emotional turmoil of life, true spiritual healing comes only from the Lord. I have not heard a lot of teaching about spiritual healing, which is too bad because I believe many of us unnecessarily live with spiritual wounds from our past.
Spiritual wounds are different than physical wounds because they reside in the soul as opposed to being localized in the physical body. A spiritual wound can be inflicted by a hurtful word, a broken trust, abandonment, abuse, etc. For example, James spoke of the power of a word to impact a life, comparing it to a fire. “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6) Was there ever a more bogus childhood mantra than “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me?” Indeed, a broken bone may be easier to endure because it will heal and the pain will eventually go away. But unhealed spiritual wounds can be felt for a lifetime, affecting our thoughts, emotions, relationships, and actions and therefore stunting our spiritual growth. In many ways, spiritual wounds are more debilitating than physical wounds because they can damage our relationships, degrade our character, and devastate our soul. This is why Scripture admonishes us to guard our heart, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23) Jesus’s words are stronger, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
I received a spiritual wound when I was six years old that impacted my thoughts, emotions, relationships, and actions for more than fifty years. An apt analogy for what happened to me is given by James when he compared the power of a spoken word to the “rudder” on a ship. (James 3:4) One word (or in my case one event) having the power to steer a life like a rudder steers a ship.
In many ways, when I was approaching 60 my soul was fragmented. On the outside I seemed to be holding things together pretty well. I belonged to a couple of small groups, taught a Sunday School class at church, and was engaged with various friends and family. Yet on the inside I experienced daily turmoil, as I anguished over almost every interaction I had with other people. For I tended to judge social contacts through the lens of my ego. For example, if I met with a group of men and got a bunch of laughs and was affirmed, I felt great. If I thought I was ignored, I felt horrible. I internalized relationships and interactions based solely on how much interest other people showed in me. Even unanswered emails were a cause for consternation, as I often imagined that the other person was angry with me. No slight, perceived or real, was too small not to upset me. And I hardly need to mention that open conflict with others had to be avoided at all costs.
This came to a head at a church picnic one summer day in 2011 when I had a brief encounter with a man I knew. I don’t remember anything about our interaction other than the fact that something was said that made me think he was upset with me. I honestly have no recollection of what transpired, but the matter quickly escalated in my mind. As Pat and I drove home I brooded over the incident, feeling at once both angry and depressed. That evening, fretting and fuming, I went outside and sat on the porch to reflect and pray about the incident. I was totally unprepared for the revelation that the Lord brought to my mind. For he miraculously revealed the source of my distress was a seemingly trivial event that occurred when I was six years old living in Baltimore in 1956.
My recollection of the event is that my father had sent my older brother and me to the local market to pick up a few grocery items for dinner. [In the mid 1950’s a parent thought nothing of sending two children ages six and eight several blocks to run an errand.] Somehow I ended up carrying a grocery bag with a bottle of ketchup, which in those days came in glass. Unfortunately, on the way home I dropped the bag on the ground and the bottle broke. I was crying as I stumbled into the kitchen, and remember feeling my Dad’s anger when he found out what had happened. I am sure he didn’t spank me (something that I never remember him doing ever), and I don’t even remember him yelling. But I do remember that he was unhappy with me. In retrospect I don’t think his reaction was out of line, nor do I doubt that my Dad loved and cared for me. Perhaps this is even why the episode had such a lasting impact, because for the first time I felt the weight of disapproval from someone whose love I had never questioned. As a result, something happened to my soul that day that would remain hidden from my view until revealed by the Lord more than a half century later.
For what the Lord revealed to me as I prayed on the porch that summer day in 2011 was that fifty-five years earlier I had believed a lie from the Enemy that I had to be prefect in order to be loved. As the years went by this lie slowly metastasized into a spiritual wound in the form of a deep fear of rejection and an overwhelming need for approval from others. As I realized that this was the root of the turmoil in my soul, I started to weep as I sat on the porch. I wept for the little kid who had dropped a bottle of ketchup a lifetime earlier, I wept for how I had needlessly carried the burden of it for so many years, and I wept for the people I had wounded from my wound. But mostly I remember just thinking over and over again that, “I was just a little kid.” It is not hard to imagine the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” that had been at work on that day in 1956. It was truly a cathartic moment as the Lord miraculously healed me from this wound. For the first time, many events of my life suddenly came into focus. I saw how many of my life choices had been driven by a fear of rejection and need for approval, how they had controlled so much of my emotional life, and how they had impacted most of my relationships.
It is hard for me to write about this incident because it is so minor in an objective sense. When I compare it to the experience of some children who have suffered from broken and unloving homes, mental torment, bullying, and sexual and other physical abuse, it is almost embarrassing for me to relate. Yet it played a significant role in shaping my personality and relationships, far beyond what could have been predicted from its seemingly trivial nature. This isn’t a story about a mean father. Nor is it a story about an overly sensitive child who protected himself by defensive behaviors. Rather, it is a story about spiritual wounds that can only be healed by God.
I write about the pursuit of virtue because I believe it is the only way to follow Jesus. It is not because I am a virtuous person or for that matter even a very good person. Rather, it is precisely because I am not particularly virtuous or good that I feel compelled to reflect on my life and the struggles of my faith journey. In the course of my journey, there have been some victories, but also there have been areas where I have been stuck in patterns of behavior. I suspect that habitual patterns of unrighteous thoughts, words, and/or actions for those who would follow Jesus may be linked to unhealed spiritual wounds. The question for all of us is whether we want to be healed? Jesus asked the invalid by the pool, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6) When we can honestly answer Jesus’ question in the affirmative he will surely hear us, for we have his promise, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
I experienced an amazing spiritual healing from the Lord in 2011. I knew that something deep in my soul had changed and I felt a tremendous relief that I no longer had to live for the approval of others. Jesus words, “the truth will set you free,” (John 8:32) could not have been more true for me. The freedom I experienced gradually affected all of my relationships, but it took some time. When I had open-heart surgery in 2013, I did not immediately jump off the operating table and start to dance. I had many days, weeks, and months of recovery – much of which took effort on my part as I gradually started to exercise and strengthen a torn and bruised body. Similarly, after I experienced spiritual healing from a need for approval, my patterns of thought and behavior did not immediately change. Old habits and automatic responses to interactions with others had to be relearned. But a lie had been exposed, a wound had been healed, and a soul had been set free.