When the wounds do not heal

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In my review of “The Wounded Christian” I raised one small point where I felt the author hasn’t quite hit the nail on the head.  I felt that the book whilst rightly talking about how healing happens may have given the impression that it always will or at least should happen in this life time.  I’ve had chance to talk with the author and he and I are in agreement that we may not always see healing this side of glory.  It’s something he is thinking through and may engage with more in a future book.

You see, we know when it comes to physical health that there are wounds and illnesses that we carry through this life.  This includes chronic illnesses and incurable complaints as well as fatal diseases and injuries that happen closer to death.  I have chronic asthma, its treatable but not curable.  I also have written before about how I developed a condition called Keratonus as a teenager. At the time the treatment was to have cornea grafts. The grafts successfully dealt with the condition but did not completely cure my eyesight so I still have significant visual impairment  and there is the possibility as I get older that eventually the grafts will stop working and have to be replaced. There is less guarantee that second and third grafts will take and last. 

In Hebrews 11:21, we are told:

It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.

It is a poignant image and over the years a number of preachers[1] have drawn attention to. The implication is that Jacob dies, in some sense still wounded.  On his return from exile with his uncle Laban, he meets someone who wrestles with him at night. There is no apparent winner. His opponent touches his hip and “wrenched it out of its socket.”[2] Jacob recognises now that there is something different and special about the man, he pleads for a blessing. It is then that God changes his name, for it is the Lord that wrestles with Jacob.  Now, it could be that Jacob is simply leaning on his staff because he is old and frail but I think there is something in the suggestion that the telling of things implies a level of permanent damage, not least the decision to include such an apparently incidental detail

Then of course we have Paul with his “thorn in the flesh”  which could have been an eye complaint, mental anguish or probably difficult opponents or even a nuisance church proving to be a pain in the neck. He begs God three times to take it away but God says “My grace is sufficient.”

Wounds don’t always heal. We often find ourselves ministering and serving whilst suffering. Sometimes we are called to lead with a limp.  We get that when it comes to physical pain and suffering, we know that it is also possible to be pursued by persecutors. When people say that you should be free from those things and if you are not then you don’t have enough faith, we rightly condemn that as prosperity teaching.

Yet we struggle to say and see this when the pain is internalised, caused by mental illness or the anguish of grief, broken friendships and relationships, the wounding of friendly fire or the cruel emotional bullying of an abuser.  One reason for this is simply that despite what is so often assumed, those internal wounds are often harder to bear than physical pain.  Give me the sting of a cut or the ache of a bruise any day over waking up with an aching heart and a grieving soul!

This may all seem a little hopeless at this point.  If you are carrying an emotional wound, the last thing you might want to hear is that you could have to live with it permanently.  The news may be as devastating as being told by the doctor that you are going to have to live with an illness and chronic pain for life.

Yet, often when the doctor says this to a patient, there is the reassurance that it is possible to live with it.  This means that it is possible to receive treatment to ease the pain and that it is also possible to make adaptions to life at home and in the workplace in order to live life to the fullest.  I believe that it is possible to learn to live with emotional pain too.

I want to suggest that this includes the following:

  • Where possible we should seek to see repentance, forgiveness and appropriate restoration where the pain has been caused intentionally or unintentionally by others.
  • Where possible, if resolution is not possible, it may be necessary to remove yourself from a context where others are able to keep inflicting emotional pain.

These actions are in effect examples of stemming the flow of blood and binding up the wound. They do not guarantee complete healing but without them I would say that healing is nigh on impossible.

Then there are spiritual treatments that we can apply to the wounds. These include

  • Readings Psalms
  • Singing songs,
  • Memorising and telling yourself Scripture
  • Finding encouraging brothers and sisters in Christ for fellowship.

It also includes appropriate medication and counselling therapies for those struggling with depression, anxiety of other mental illnesses.

And then, we may want to look at adapting how we minister and serve. This will include seeking wise counsel from others about what capacity you have. It may require you to say “no” to some ministry options and yes to others. It may include thinking carefully about how you set aside time for respite, refreshment and renewal.

My point is this.  Depression, anxiety, other emotional health issues and/or the carrying of deep wounds and pain from service in God’s kingdom should not be barriers to Gospel service, no more than we would accept discrimination on health and disability grounds in the secular workplace today. Rather, in the same way as would be required of the workplace, it is right to look at whether there are appropriate adaptions in order to encourage fruitful ministry. 

One small example might be the way in which we expect people to fit in with our meeting schedules before they can serve in leadership.  How often have you heard someone described as wise, godly and gifted … but would they be able to cope with the time, length and style (i.e. confrontational nature) of our meetings? Better to change your meetings than exclude someone from serving and miss the blessing they have to offer.

So, it is possible to live with, serve with and lead with emotional wounds. Not only that though, but just as physical pain causes me to look forward with hope, no one that God uses it for my good as a heavenly father disciplining his child, so too he can use emotional pain now, to grow me, to teach me and to prepare me. All of that happens as we look forward in hope to the day when we see him face to face, free from physical pain, free from disease and free from emotional pain too.

[1] Most memorably for me, the late Ron Dunn, author of Will God heal me?  When Heaven is silent and Surviving Friendly Fire

[2] Genesis 33:25.

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