The Emotionally Cancerous Choice and Its Path to Healing

Each of us have been hurt, betrayed, or abused by another at some point in time. This comes with being human, living among other humans, in a fallen world. Nevertheless, the manner in which we handle and respond to our hurts, betrayals, and abuses is vital.  Our immediate emotion is anger. This is a natural response—especially if the wrong done was neither provoked or justified. However, to hold onto anger and the unwillingness to forgive is injurious to one’s own wellbeing.

“Why should I forgive him? He does not deserve forgiveness! I will never forgive him!” How often such words are spoken with gritted teeth. Yet, such words reveal great misunderstanding. Forgiveness is not about letting a person off the hook and acting as though the offense had never happened; rather, it is the freeing one’s own self from a self-imposed prison, and finding healing from an emotional cancer that will grow. As for not deserving, none of us deserves forgiveness, but each of us need it.

The emotional cancer resulting from an unwillingness to forgive can affect a person’s relationship with others—especially if the bitterness towards the unforgiven one is constantly vomited onto others. The refusal to forgive will also strangle inner joy. However, the most detrimental aspect of stubbornly refusing to forgive another is the way it affects one’s ability to hear and relate to God. Here, the pretense of religion can be very deceiving, because a person can believe he is in good standing with God, but completely oblivious to the warnings of the Scriptures.

Jesus says,

But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. ~ Matthew 6:15 (ESV)

Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” ~ Matthew 18:32-35

The apostle John writes:

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. ~ 1 John 3:15

So, as one can see, forgiveness has much to do with the wellbeing of the one who had been offended. But let’s be honest, many of us have permitted the emotional cancer of resentment to eat away at us. Some who are reading this probably still have not had it “treated.” If we would be healed, then we must be willing to forgive. This form of “chemo” is no easier than the physical kind.

So how does one begin to forgive?

  1. Be honest about the offense and the hurt, as well as the possibility of the perpetrator not being honest about the offense. Your healing is not for the perpetrator but for you. Be honest with God about your feelings, anger, hatred, disgust, shame, etc. Be honest with Him about the pain and turmoil you feel, and take the time to cry.
  2. Ask God for the courage, grace, and ability to extend forgiveness. This might need to be prayed several times. Yet, this process will help flush out some of the infection, so to speak. As you experience the anger, ill-will, etc., confess these. John writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
  3. Be open and willing to forgive, and leave any judgment in God’s hands. Allow yourself to heal and to move on.
  4. Try not to dwell on the offense. Living through it is quite enough; there is no need to keep reliving it in your mind.
  5. Repeat the steps as needed.

Forgiveness tends to feel counterintuitive, but it really is for the emotional and spiritual health of the forgiver. To refuse to forgive only permits the emotional cancer to grow and spread. Forgiveness and letting go is the only cure. It seems like a cruel irony: the refusal to forgive will not harm the person the grudge is held against, but will cripple and destroy the one holding the grudge. Your willingness to forgive is not for the benefit of the one who hurt you, the benefit is for you. Do yourself well—forgive. You are worth it!

Be Willing to Be Kind to Yourself

I was sitting there the first week of intensive outpatient therapy for my depression. A lady sitting across from me shared with the group, “Be willing to be kind to yourself, and speak well of yourself.” While I have come across this concept numerous times since then, it was revolutionary to me that particular winter morning.

It almost seems silly, does it not? Yet how many of us are guilty of criticizing ourselves, sometimes echoing hurtful words spoken to us years—perhaps decades—ago? We  are critical of our size, our nose, our smile, or complexion. We make a mistake or fail at something, and our thoughts go to, “Man, I’m so stupid,” or “I’m never going to amount to anything.” On and on the criticisms come.

What is the “Golden Rule”? Jesus teaches us: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). How do we desire to be treated? With honor, respect, mercy, kindness, patience, and love, correct? But why? Because we are divine image-bearers!

Being kind to ourselves is not the same as being selfish or conceited. Rather, it is being humble but not self-abasing; acknowledging our mistakes and learning from them, but not paralyzing our growth by self-criticism and self-fulfilling prophecies. It is acknowledging our strengths and giftings but not becoming conceited.

When you look at others, regardless what you might think of them, each of them have both strengths and weaknesses. Each of them are God’s image-bearers, even though many pay no thought to Him. Nevertheless, each has incredible value God has bestowed on them. Many of them are oblivious to their true worth and purpose, and all the while being quite self-conscious of their weaknesses (even those who appear to have it altogether).

In the same manner, that person you see each time you look in the mirror also has strengths and weaknesses. That person deserves to be respected and complimented, because that person is also an image-bearer of his/her Creator. That person does not need to be criticized for their appearance or shortcomings. That person deserves to be taught, admonished, and encouraged. Indeed, show kindness to those you meet, Lord knows the world needs more kindness. But remember to be kind to the precious one looking back at you in the mirror. This person deserves some kindness too—not the least coming from you.

The Illusionary Reality of Feelings

The French philosopher, Rene Descartes, once said, “I think, therefore I am.” There is truth to this, as his point is that his existence is proven by the fact that he could think and reason. One could not do so if he did not exist. Such logic is indisputable.

An error many of us make is thinking, “I feel, therefore it is.” That is, the way I feel necessarily reflects reality. However, our feelings truly have an illusionary factor that can be destructively deceptive if we are not careful. This is not to say our feelings are always wrong; nevertheless, our feelings are not always correct in interpreting reality. Mind you, the feelings themselves are very real, but the thoughts that lead to our feelings are not always truthful. Thus, our feelings can project an illusionary reality that is not real or correlating with the truth.

Consider whenever someone stubs his toes on furniture, the pain he feels corresponds to reality. This is no illusion, as anyone can attest who has ever stubbed a toe! Or whenever someone loses a person or pet she loves very much, the loss and accompanying emotional pain is connected to the reality of loss and grief; therefore, the pain is related to a legitimate loss. But what about when a person feels alone, unloved, hopeless, anxious, or worthless? While the feelings are quite real, do they (and the thoughts that fuel them) necessarily correlate appropriately with reality? Mind you, this is not to say that one’s illusionary reality does not contain any truth. However, our minds and emotions can work together like a biased news team, focusing on certain aspects, while jettisoning a lot of facts.

Our minds and emotions are incredibly powerful entities. This is strange, considering both are entirely non-material—seemingly non-existent; after all, neither can be handled, seen, or smelled. Neither are made up of molecules; nevertheless, these seemingly non-existent entities have the potential of erecting and enslaving persons within self-made prisons and hells. Beginning with a thought (often triggered from a hurt within actual reality: for example, an unkind word, rejection, ridicule, abuse, etc), this thought then becomes like a board. This (negative) thought is followed by another, and another—until a structure is formed. Eventually “walls” are built, with the intention of protecting; however, they actually end up becoming one’s imprisonment. While our intention is to protect ourselves, too often we isolate ourselves. In doing so, we tend to condemn ourselves, others, life, and even God Himself. The projected illusion then swallows everything that makes life meaningful—including any purposes for the legitimate pain and disappointments in life.

By nature, I have a melancholy temperament. I am introverted, analytical, conscientious, moody, and introspective. To say the least, I am not the life of a party. At a large gathering I tend to feel awkward, restless, and bored. Awkward, because I desire to fit in. Restless, because I feel as if I do not fit in. Bored, because I am too afraid to “let my hair down” and force myself to interact with those around me (for fear of rejection or appearing foolish). So my mind and emotions conspire against me. Negative thoughts (for example, “I do not fit in” or “no one wants to talk to me”) trigger negative feelings of rejection and isolation. The projected illusion is that I am isolated, rejected, and unwanted. But is this actual reality? My mind and emotions say it is, but the true reality is I am surrounded by people, in many cases persons who are friends and family who love and care about me very much.

Several years ago I resigned from a pastoral position. My family and I were betrayed and deeply wounded by some individuals. Within a month of my resignation my dad died, then several months later my mother-in-law passed. Within the next couple of years my wife and I had several family members and friends pass. Our family had to put one of our dogs down prematurely. This broke my heart in a way I had never quite experienced before. I earned my Master’s degree, but doors were not opening. During this time I felt like a failure as a minister, husband, father, friend—as a person. I felt abandoned by God. I felt as if I was a total disappointment to Him. My thoughts condemned and criticized me ruthlessly, and my feelings projected an illusion as though my mind was presenting truth. My mind and feelings equated my worth and identity with my sense of failure and abandonment.

The illusionary reality was that I was unloved by my family, friends, and God; that I was not needed, and this world would not be missing anything if I was dead. I felt extremely alone, disconnected, and trapped inside a deep, dark pit. This was the illusionary reality. But what was the actual reality? The actual reality was that I was depressed, hurting, and grieving. Although my wife and son were upset and hurt by my angry outbursts, they still loved me. While there were certain persons who, I believe, did forsake me, my family and true friends never did. Furthermore, when the light finally pierced my darkness, I realized God had not gone anywhere, but had been with me and lovingly watching over me the whole time. I did not stand condemned, but my salvation in Jesus Christ remained secure by what had secured it from the beginning—His grace and shed blood. The actual reality is faith, hope, and love had never evaporated, but continued to remain. I felt like I hated life, but in actuality it was the feelings of loneliness and inner turmoil that I hated.

But what about the projection of the world not needing me (or you, if your mind and emotions ever project this)? Most of us will not ever be called “world changers” or be remembered hundreds of years from now in history books. Yet, God places us where we are. The love (or hate) we share, and the choices we make affect those around us. We will have some who like us and others who hate us. We will be rejected by some, while others will admire us. While we will not see it, and might not be remembered for it, we never know how God will use our words and actions to influence another, who will then influence another, etc. With all this said, regardless of the illusionary reality my mind and emotions project, the actual reality is I am needed. I am not here by accident (and neither are you). God was personally involved even during my conception (see Psalm 139:13-16). The world and its communities need the philosophical melancholy to help remind them of the deeper things in life. Just as it needs the animated sanguine to remind them of the joys of life and hope; the dynamic choleric to give them a swift kick in the pants, and to remind them there is still work to be done; and the mediating phlegmatic, who reminds them to keep calm, and who reminds them of the need for peace.

Perhaps the most devastating effect of the projected illusionary reality is that it tends to hide God, seemingly taking Him out of the equations altogether. Even if the world was to hate me, my Creator loves me—so much, in fact, He gave His Son to die for me! My calling is not to be a world shaker. My calling is simply to honor God day by day, striving to love Him with all my heart, and to love others as myself. Whether this ever makes the history books does not matter. For when the time does come for me to die, I will not be giving an account to those of Hollywood, Washington, or even the United Nations, but only to God. As long as my life is honoring to Him in this life, I can be certain that my life matters and is making a difference, whether or not I can see it or feel it. This is actual reality!

The Crucible of Taking Ownership

The issue of accountability might seem unrelated to depression, but bear with me. Shifting and deflecting blame is a universal human tendency. Most people will readily admit that everyone has faults, but owning up to personal faults is not acknowledged so willingly. The problem with blame-shifting is many people’s lives and relationships remain fragmented and broken. Only when genuine ownership and forgiveness (or repentance) take place, can healing and growth take place.

We read that the proneness to blame, versus taking ownership, occurs very soon after the first couple partook of the forbidden fruit:

But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” ~ Genesis 3:9-13 (ESV)

God asks the man if he ate of the forbidden fruit. The man blames God for making the woman, then blamed the woman for giving him the fruit to eat (as if she made him eat). God then turns and questions the woman. She blames the serpent for deceiving her.

Neither person humbly acknowledged their disobedience to God’s clear instructions. Instead, they became defensive and deflected blame. One can only wonder what would have happened had they humbly confessed. Certainly there would still have been consequences, but would the world know the depths of suffering it knows? I suppose we will never know.

Modern American society encourages blame-shifting, deflection, and “victim mentality.” We want to blame our parents, teachers, the “system,” and anything else for our poor and foolish decisions. Oh, many of the hurts are real, for sure. These might, indeed, make progress difficult. However, none of these can force us to continue to make poor decisions.

Some people remain in depression, in part, because they choose to curse the day they were born, blame others for their miseries, and refuse to let go of the past in order to move ahead in the present.

Sometimes real hurts happen to persons. Dealing with this requires honesty about the pain; however, one cannot blame anyone for their own choice to refuse to get better. On the other hand, some people want to blame the “system” or others for their own poor decisions. No one else is to bear the blame if an individual refuses to put the work involved to get to where they want to be.

If you’re dealing with depression, these words are certainly not intended to add to your hurting nor are they to ignore any genuine hurts. However, take an honest inventory: are some of your woes your own doing? Regardless what others might have or might not have done, they are not responsible for your present decisions. Someone’s actions may have angered you, but you choose to remain angry or not. Someone might have deeply wounded you, but you make the choice to remain crippled or not. You might not be in a position to move ahead at this time, but no one else is responsible how you view and respond to today’s circumstances.

Hurts hurt, no doubt about it. Yet, we do not have to be defined, hindered, or paralyzed by them. To forgive, let go, and move on is each person’s choice to make alone. No one can make this choice for us. Taking ownership is difficult, but necessary. Mind you, doing so will not necessarily take away the hurt or depression; however, it will begin paving the path leading to freedom and living.

“But they don’t deserve forgiveness!” some will defy. No, I do not suppose they do. Then again, none of us do. “But I can’t forgive!” some will argue. Pray! Ask God for the willingness and help to forgive. And remember, forgiveness has little to do with others but more to do with you. Forgive, because you are worth it!

The UN-selfish Need for Self-care

In my last post, “Stranger In a Strange Land,” it would appear I despised every moment of being a pastor, but this is not the case. There were times of joy, times of seeing the Lord move in certain situations, and friendships made. There were also lessons learned that seminary did not prepare me for.

One of the lessons I have learned is the need for self-care. Typically “self” comes with negative connotations of selfishness or self-centeredness; however, there is the part of “self” that represents our personhood, that God created in His image. This part of our being ought to be taken care of.

Self-care is important, whether you are a pastor or not. It is not selfish to take necessary times to rest/relax, to say “No,” time to grieve losses, to spend with family and friends, and to spend in healthy, reflective solitude.

Our society, as well as church culture, views busyness as a virtue—a true mark of spirituality. Rest and relaxation are considered frivolous and lazy, as though God’s kingdom is dependent on us and will collapse if we dare take time to rest! I once read of a pastor who was going to take some time off. A lady quipped, “The devil never takes a day off.” The pastor wisely responded, “The devil is not my example to follow.”

Certainly the Bible condemns slothfulness and being unproductive. However, what does Jesus say? Religion often produces restless activity. Jesus bids the people:

All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” ~ Matthew 11:27-30 (ESV)

There are times Jesus sends us out to minister to others. However, He also calls us to rest.

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. ~ Mark 6:30-31

Everything we do is to be in relationship with Christ:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. ~ John 15:4

Jesus does not call us to busyness, lighting the candles at both ends. He calls us to abide in Him. Our lives can only bear fruit by abiding in Him, otherwise we are simply spinning our wheels and wasting precious fuel.

There are many times it is not only okay, but one must say, “no.” There are individuals who will either suck the very life out of you, or else constantly have you on the go. Certainly there are occasions you must allow the lives of others to intrude (e.g., emergencies, hospitalization or loss of a loved one, someone talking about suicide, etc.). However, there are many non-emergencies that can wait until another day. For example, you get a call from a friend one night and they tell you their spouse was in an collision and is in intensive care. This is a time to drop everything to be with your friend in a crisis. Another day a friend calls because they have been having “bad dreams.” Depending on the situation, this might be appropriate to schedule time for coffee over the weekend. Still, someone might want you to get involved because their sibling is having marital problems. I would say in most cases, this would be an appropriate time to say, “no.”

Take time to grieve. Especially someone in a caretaking profession, one can be so busy trying to take care of others, he fails to take time to grieve his own losses. Instead, he stuffs his feelings and hurts somewhere within. In due time, however, (as I experienced the hard way) these will eventually cause a person to either explode or implode.

Take time to be with your family. Your spouse and children need to know you love them, and that they are valuable to you. When I was the senior pastor of a church, I was told by a lady that sometimes God will have a minister sacrifice his family for the sake of a church. This not true. No where in the New Testament is a person called to sacrifice his family for the sake of ministering to a church. As one pastor correctly advises other pastors, “If you save the whole world but lose your family in the process, you have lost it all.”

Finally, take the time for healthy solitude. Note, there is a difference between this an unhealthy isolation.  Healthy solitude is necessary time to get away from people, noise, and distractions in order to pray, reflect, and listen. Throughout the Gospels we read of Jesus numerous times going off by Himself early in the morning or in the evening to get alone with the Father. If Jesus felt the need to do this, we had better recognize our need!

I suppose there will be some who will not be convinced that self-care is not selfish. Let me ask, how will you be of any use if you are sick? When I was in the pit of my depression, I was of no use to anyone. It was not until I received help from others, then becoming more intentional about self-care, that I began of being more help to my family and others.

Take care of yourself. You are worth it, and your loved ones are worth it! By taking care of you, you can then be better at taking care of those you love and care about.