A few months ago, my wife made me a lovely meal at home, and I wanted a drink to go with it. As I opened the glass bottle (trust me, it was soda), it shattered and immediately blood came gushing out of my hand. In a matter of minutes, one of our dishcloths turned from white to red, and we ended up going to the emergency room. I had to get a few stitches put in, and I was left with the beginnings of a scar.
Life leaves us with scars. I grew up in a single-parent home. My mentor and close friend passed away when I was in high school. I have experienced hurt and betrayal from church leaders. My grandfather passed away the week before I graduated from college.
This essay is not a pity party and many people have gone through much more than I have. But my point is that we are all scarred, and I am not just talking about the kind under a knuckle of my left hand. I mean emotional scars from wounds that go much deeper.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger right? In church, I was told that trials were for our good and God’s glory—but something did not sit right with me. Scar after scar, I grew more and more numb, unemotional, and inexpressive. I even put a positive spin on my brokenness by labeling myself as a logical thinker rather than a feeler. For more than a decade, I could not recall more than a handful of times that I had cried. What is wrong with that?
However, the more I looked at Scripture, it appeared that there was a discrepancy between my emotional life and that of Christ’s. Tim Keller wrote in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, “Look at Jesus. He was perfect, right? And yet he goes around crying all the time. He is always weeping, a man of sorrows.” There is nothing wrong with being more logical than emotional, but there is something wrong with being emotionless. If Jesus is the One whom I am supposed to imitate holistically, then I must act, think and feel as He does.
Our bodies are incredible. When we receive a deep wound, scar tissue naturally forms beneath the surface as part of the healing process. After the doctor took out the stitches on my hand and my skin healed over, I expected my hand to be fine. But when I bumped my hand even gently, there was still pain. Although the scar had closed, internal damage remained below.
In the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero wrote that “very, very few of us come from families where conflict are resolved in a mature, healthy way. Most simply bury our tensions and move on.” My family was not the exception. I thought that time heals all, but that is not true. On the surface, everything can appear to be fine, but there may still be unresolved problems underneath.
This was the case for me. When these hurtful incidents happened, I spent many hours alone introspecting and sharing with others. Church leaders, friends and family were there for me; Bible verses and prayers were given and lifted up; and I even included these events in my testimony. But simply thinking, talking, and knowing truth on a shallow level does not heal us completely if there is buried tension.
The emotional scar tissue that I had not dealt with distorted my perspectives, my relationships and my ministry. I still felt anger, guilt and frustration every time I thought about my father. I still was confused, sad, and bitter when thinking about people passing away. When it came to God, Christ did not feel like enough and His grace did not appear to be sufficient because He did not seem to be working things out.
My emotional scars had closed externally, but there was still damage underneath.
Healing through Pain
I learned about healing scars when I had dinner with a occupational therapist and his wife. I brought up the fact that my hand was still in pain, and he asked to see it. Immediately he took my hand and began to forcefully massage my scar. At this point, I was trying not to cry from the pain. He said I need to massage it regularly or better yet get someone else to do it for me.
The massaging would help blood flow, remove stiffness and tendon adhesions, and accelerate healing. In other words, true healing comes through pain and actually dealing with the injury. The sharing and theology I had been covering my pain with had only been a gentle touch. What I had really needed was someone else to massage the wounds—the sorrow, loss, shame, fear, frustration and guilt.
In C.S. Lewis’ children story, The Voyage of the Dawntreader, there is a boy named Eustace who had turned into a dragon because of his greed. He tried everything to change back on his own, but he couldn’t. One night, Aslan, the lion-king of The Chronicles of Narnia series, challenged him to peel off a layer of dragon skin by himself, but it was not enough to transform Eustace back to being a human. So Aslan stepped in.
“Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d had done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt… Then he caught hold of me—I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on… And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”
We need true healing that only God can provide, but we must recognize that it comes through pain and humiliation because we, like Eustace, must be undressed.
God heals us through processing our pain. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend in Safe People write, “Many people do not get healed because they never ‘open wide’ to others in the body of Christ, thus gaining the support and new ground needed to stand on to grieve what they need to let go of.”
The safe relationships that I have now have sent me on the process of deeper healing, going beneath the surface. A safe person could be a pastor, a small group leader, a friend, a family member or spouse—and in the event that no one comes to mind, perhaps it is a good idea to seek a counselor or therapist (I am currently meeting with a therapist! You are fortunate if you have one safe person to share with.) We need God to work and often He works through people to bring us healing. We need others to massage our wounds and to rip off the scales.
I thought I had gotten past the traumas of my broken home and the loss of friends and family because I had spoken about these things a million times. But I was being far too gentle with myself. I needed people safe enough for me to be painfully honest with, like my wife and therapist. Without safety, honesty will not come out of hiding; and without honesty, healing cannot begin.
Hope in Christ
As we journey in this process of healing, I know it will take time and it might get ugly. Processing is itself a process. There are emotions, thoughts and actions that are difficult to confess—but press on. Yes, there may be pain and heartache, but there is also joy and hope. David Powlison in Seeing with New Eyes wrote, “God acts first to strengthen sufferers internally. If you ‘suffer in a Godward direction,’ He gives you hope.”
Christ does not just save us from sin but seeks to heal us from all brokenness. He wants to make us like Him but that often comes through pain and through people processing with us. On this side of eternity we will never perfectly think, feel and act like Christ—but let us continue to heal.
Chris Li is the Director of Student Ministries at Living Hope Community Church.