Wounds That Hinder Worship

Themes: Biblical, Healing, Scholar, Worship

The person who brings a wounded spirit into the setting of worship often finds it difficult to enter into the experience of worship. Paradoxically, it is the very act of worship that offers healing for those wounds, even though the pain may hinder the hurting Christian’s full participation in it.

Worship comes alive when it becomes relational, when through it we encounter both the God with whom we are acquainted and our fellow believers with whom we are united as a body. The corporate encounters with God enrich our personal experiences with him, while our private ones invest the corporate with new life. This level of worship is not an unreachable ideal, but a vital reality to many believers. Unfortunately, there are many others for whom worship is an intellectual and behavioral routine which never rises to the level of relationship.

It is possible for sincere Christians to be limited in their worship experiences because they have, over a period of time, built emotional barriers around themselves to protect wounds they have sustained in the course of personal relationships. A person who has been hurt by a relationship will find ways to protect himself or herself from further hurt. Sometimes these protections are consciously chosen and are appropriate to the situation. But much self-protection is unconscious and serves to restrict and defeat rather than to free.

It is generally true that the height and thickness of the protective fence (i.e., the strength of the defense and its power to control relationship experience) are related to the period of life in which the wounding occurred and the severity of the damage inflicted upon the person’s sense of safety and trust. Wounds that hinder worship can occur in adulthood, but usually the original and most damaging wounds are those of childhood.

Because we are made in the image of God, we are designed as children to be parented as God himself would parent us, as we see him relating to his children, Adam and Eve. No human parent can perfectly follow the model of the Father God, and every parent makes mistakes. In the life of any child, a combination of traumatic events and unhealthy and ungodly relationship dynamics can leave scars which accompany that person into adulthood.

Some of the more obvious antecedents of wounds which carry over into later life are familiar: divorce, physical or sexual abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, abandonment, and neglect. But other, less obvious dysfunctional patterns result in woundedness as well: perfectionism, emotional neglect, conditional love based on performance, marital strife and disunity, emotional abuse, and harsh, inconsistent, or arbitrary discipline.

Early childhood relationships, particularly those with parents, are deeply formative and exert an influence in adulthood long after specific memories have faded or disappeared. Patterns of relating are established early, through modeling and experience, long before we have the ability to be aware of what we are learning. We form expectations of ourselves and others that particularly affect intimacy and authority relationships. These powerful beliefs from childhood can persist in direct opposition to the conscious thought-flow of the adult.

In a sense, the person who has been wounded has two minds: the adult or conceptual/rational mind and the childhood or experiential/emotional mind. For example, the adult mind may firmly believe that God is loving and good, but the child mind has been trained to expect judgment and rejection. The adult may fully understand the concept of grace and agree that worship is a response of joy and thanks, but to the child who has never experienced unmerited favor and radical forgiveness, the emotions of joy and thanksgiving are foreign.

If we approach Christianity exclusively through the intellect, as a compartmentalized belief system alone, we do not encounter our relational wounds and self-protections during worship. A purely cognitive faith presents no challenge to our struggles with anger, fear, and distrust. But Christianity, including worship, is grounded in relationship. If we allow it to touch us, it will touch us fully at all levels, including our pain.

Expressions of Woundedness

A. W. Tozer reminds us in The Pursuit of God that “God is a Person, and in the deep of His mighty nature He thinks, wills, enjoys, feels, loves, desires, and suffers as any other person may. In making Himself known to us He stays by the familiar pattern of personality. He communicates with us through the avenues of our minds, our wills, and our emotions” ([Harrisburg, Pa.: Christian Publications, Inc., 1948], 13).

No intimate relationship can be said to be healthy unless it is so in three aspects of personality: mind, will, and emotion. Since the personalities of wounded people are shaped by their reactions to painful experiences, the results can be expressed as difficulty in any or all of these areas.

Emotional Experience

The fruits or evidence of the presence of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, and so on—involve processes of the mind as well as behaviors chosen by the will. But to be fully experienced as relationship, they must also involve the emotions. Believers whose emotions are numbed by pain and buried under patterns of self-protection miss the emotional component of love, joy, peace, grace, and forgiveness, and therefore miss the vitality and satisfaction of intimacy, both in relationship with God and in the experience of worship.

Some of these Christians look with secret amazement at deep, spiritual experiences in the lives of others. They are envious when people talk of being refreshed, nurtured, strengthened, and cleansed through worship. They are mystified or skeptical about worship being a love encounter—an experience of loving and being loved. Their longing for love, joy, and peace is intense, but their experience could be described as dry, empty, cold, frustrating, or boring.

Unlike the believer who flows through cycles of intimacy and distance in the course of developing a relationship with the Lord, this person knows intimacy only as a concept. No matter how hard he or she tries through discipline, study, service, participation, and any other means available, the emotional/experiential aspect of the worship relationship remains remote and unsatisfying.

There are those who experience primarily painful or negative emotions during worship. Sadness, fear, anger, frustration, and irritability seem to be stimulated by the attempt to draw near to God and to fellow believers. The evidence of woundedness is not that negative emotions occur, but that they occur with great intensity and that they persist without relief or are relieved only by periods of emptiness.

Thoughts and Attitudes

People wounded in childhood tend to live with an underlying, uneasy feeling that something is wrong and that someone is to blame. They often flip-flop between blaming themselves as bad or wrong and blaming someone else. As a result, they are critical and faultfinding, either toward themselves or others.

This pattern can be expressed as a habitually critical attitude; the feeling is one of chronic irritation. The focus of attention during worship becomes preoccupation with the shortcomings of fellow worshipers, frustration with those in authority, and dissatisfaction with the way things are being done. It can also occur in the form of persistent thoughts of guilt and unworthiness, a concentration on one’s own failings and inadequacy, and a perception that God and fellow believers are disapproving and critical. The healing, restoring experience of being unconditionally accepted by God and by the members of his body is lost in a sea of self-doubt and anxiety.

The Will and Behavior

When old wounds affect behavior, it is often in the form of chronic struggles with discipline. In spite of volumes of accurate information, heartfelt surges of desire, and many pledges and recommitments, these persons cannot seem to make their wills cooperate. Efforts to bring behavior into line with Scripture, whether stopping the negative or beginning the positive, go through cycles that end in failure and frustration. The experience of worship suffers as self-image is battered and discouragement sets in.

Reactions to Old Wounds

Some believers, unaware that their struggles with worship are a result of woundedness, become discouraged after years of effort and disappointment. They cannot find satisfaction in a relationship with God no matter how hard they try, and they conclude that either God is not real or that he has rejected them. Ultimately, they withdraw completely from the church and the painful reminder of failure and loss. Quietly, with no fanfare, they may simply drift away. Or, in a burst of pain, they target someone or something to blame.

Other unfulfilled believers stay faithful in attendance but keep themselves safe from intimacy by remaining uninvolved and refusing to invest in the life of the community. Intimacy with fellow believers is as threatening to them as intimacy with God. They do not want to risk rejection and disappointment, even though they long to be deeply connected, loved, and accepted. Physically present, they remain in the spectator role, often going unnoticed by those who are actively involved.

Church-hopping can be a manifestation of protective withdrawal. When the challenges of relationship become too intense, wounded people may pull out and move on, searching for a different format, a different philosophy of worship, different leadership, or some other external condition to change their disappointing inner experience. Sometimes a change is helpful and productive, but if personal healing is needed, repeated changes will not solve the problem.

Probably the most tempting and frequent form of withdrawal is retreat behind a mask. Somehow church life, with its high standards and expectations, seems to promote this wearing of facades as a defense against the frightening reality of woundedness. People in leadership roles are particularly vulnerable. As their natural gifts propel them into positions of responsibility, they become increasingly reluctant to reveal their weaknesses. No one reaches in to find out who they really are or holds them accountable for genuine growth and personal healing. Burnout and dramatic plunges into sin are sometimes the result. But an outwardly successful life of service that drags on and on, masking an inner life of spiritual emptiness, can be just as devastating.

Attack

Every worshiping body has had the experience of members who are continually on the attack. Nothing seems to please them, and someone else is always to blame. Often church leaders will handle these attacks by responding to the content, changing or defending policies, procedures, people, or whatever is being targeted. Sometimes, if they become frustrated because the critical person is impossible to satisfy, they will discount him or her and push the individual away. Unfortunately, the pattern of attack is not often understood, either by the church or the individual, as a self-protective defense resulting from old wounds. Because the real problem is not being addressed, no resolution occurs.

Control

When one’s inner life (thoughts, emotions, behaviors) is out of control, it is easy to try to get a handle on things, by attempting to control others. People who have been hurt live, either consciously or unconsciously, with the expectation and dread of being hurt again. They cannot rest or relax in their relationships. They are compelled by anxiety to manage or control other people. Different personalities will choose to control with different styles: aggressive and direct, compliant and indirect, through guilt, by obligation, with kindness, by withdrawal, or through attack.

The variations are endless but have a universal result. Closeness and safety achieved by manipulation and control remain unsatisfying. Fear runs beneath the surface saying, “But what would happen if I stopped, if I let go? They would probably hurt me or leave me, and I cannot take that risk.” When this fear and the patterns of control dominate a person’s relationship with God, the peace of Christ is not a personal reality and worship is hindered.

How Change Takes Place

We have described defensive reactions, attitudes, and behaviors as the protective fence surrounding wounding experiences. This fence serves to hide from others the existence of the painful reality inside. The difficulty is that the fence often hides that reality from the individual as well. The implications and significance of one’s own personal history are unrecognized, and sometimes even the memories of the hurtful experiences are hidden.

As long as the individual and those around him or her are interacting only with the fence (i.e., the self-protective patterns of withdrawal, blame, attack or control) little progress will be made toward deepening the relationship dimension of worship. The beginning of significant, satisfying change is recognition of the real problem. The wounded person must be willing to look at the fence and take responsibility for what is there.

Self-discovery

Healing of old wounds begins by discovering that here is a link between the experiences and relationships of the past and those of the present. A common self-protective attitude in this regard is, “The past is the past; it cannot be changed, so there is no point in dwelling on it.” This statement is both true and untrue. The past itself cannot be changed, but the lingering reactions (attitudes, expectations, feelings, and behavioral patterns) can, if they are looked at and understood in their original context.

The goal of self-discovery is not to dwell on the past or to assign blame. It is rather to erect instead a foundation from which real change can take place. Unhealthy relationship patterns that do not make sense in an adult framework may become clear when seen from the perspective of a child subjected to an unhealthy environment. It helps to discover how the child felt, what he or she perceived, what he or she learned, and how he or she responded.

Decisions or vows are made deep in a child’s heart and remain hidden from the mind of the adult. “I will never get close enough for someone to hurt me like that again.” “People will always leave me, so it won’t hurt as much if I leave them first.” “No one will ever love me.” “You can’t trust anyone.” “There must be something wrong with me.” These beliefs will drive a person’s life until they are confronted as distortions and replaced with a new reality.

In the process of doing that, feelings associated with those early experiences will come to the surface. They are not the feelings of an adult, mediated by the rational mind; they are literally the feelings of the child, living within as if frozen in time. Simply expressing these feelings is not sufficient to bring about healing, but it seems to be an essential ingredient.

Safe Relationships

Self-examination at this level is rewarding, but difficult and painful as well. The decision to begin this journey is deeply personal and occurs in that private place of relationship to oneself. But walking the journey through must take place within safe, committed relationships.

An important part of the healing process is to open up and share deeply with a few people. That sometimes begins in counseling, when a person tells a painful story for the first time. But it can also take place or continue in committed friendships. Christian friendships can be the vehicle by which a wounded person risks being fully known and finally experiences unconditional acceptance. Grace becomes more than a theology—it becomes a healing interaction.

A church that takes itself seriously as a healing community will encourage the formation of committed, supportive relationships in which this kind of sharing can take place. Hurting people find it difficult to ask for help. But it becomes even more difficult, even prohibitive, if structures are not in place that encourage them to ask. Small groups, topical support groups, and discipling relationships can help, as can clergy and leadership who are alert to the need and the opportunities to bring people together.

Wounded people have often had hurtful experiences in churches, either because they initiate them or because they react more strongly to situations than do those people who are not in pain. It may be necessary for them to find a church community or format that does not remind them of either their wounding family or a previously wounding church. Finding a church in which to feel safe is good, but that is only the beginning. That safe environment must then be used to do the difficult work of healing, or the disappointment and hurt will only recur in the new context as well.

Forgiveness and Restoration

When a person moves toward acceptance and resolution of the past, it becomes necessary to sort out the issue of responsibility. Hurt children often assume the blame and guilt that belong to others and then grow up either blind to or confused about the implications of their own attitudes and actions. Christians committed to healing know that they are supposed to forgive those who have wronged them and seek forgiveness for their own wrongs. But they cannot do that in a meaningful way until they are clear about who bears responsibility for what.

Separating one’s own wrongs from the wrongs of others is difficult work but can be greatly aided by the guidance of Scripture and the illumining witness of the Spirit. When people finally see clearly the wrong that was done to them, the world often leaves them with nothing but permission to be angry. It is the church that can take them deeper into healing with the call to forgive, in and through the Spirit of Christ, who was the ultimate victim.

And when people who have been victims finally see that they have at times followed the pattern they were given and have also wronged others, when they are able to cease to blame and to accept responsibility for their actions, then the church must offer confession, forgiveness, and restoration in and through the Spirit of Christ, the ultimate grace-giver.

Behavior Change

Working with the relationships of the past is important, but it is meaningful only as a foundation for change in the relationships of the present. Healing the past frees a person to engage more effectively in the process of change, including some hard work in the here and now.

The goal of behavior change is to replace problem attitudes and actions with healthier ones: to break old habits, to think differently about self and others, to adopt new beliefs, to learn to trust. But for change to take place, these general goals must be broken down into step-by-step, specific, short-term goals that are connected directly to current relationships and situations. Change cannot occur in the abstract.

Understand the old behavior. Familiarity with the old ways of relating is an unpleasant but necessary first step toward change. Some research may be required. “What exactly happened in that messy interaction with the choir director? What role did I play that caused or contributed to the problem? Is this a pattern in me that has led to problems before?”

Unhealthy patterns of relating that begin in childhood become habitual, a series of actions and reactions that occur automatically, like falling dominoes. Habitual behavior has to be approached systematically, broken down into its component parts so that the progression can be understood. The crucial question is where and how the habit track can be interrupted to insert a new behavior that will lead to a different outcome.

Discover the new behavior. Healthy behavior patterns are a mystery to people who did not see them modeled as a child. They may know in general what healthy is, but they usually do not know how to make it happen. It takes time to discover and experiment with alternatives in real life situations.

In both of these steps—understanding the old behavior and discovering the new—safe, committed relationships are valuable. Feedback about old behavior from caring and sensitive people helps the person develop an understanding of what needs to be changed. It is important to be able to go to someone and ask, “Have you ever seen me do this or react in that way? How did you feel when I did that? Help me understand how I come across and the effect I have on other people.”

Learning takes place best through modeling, that is, by observing and imitating new, more desirable behavior. Close, sharing relationships provide excellent opportunities to discover new ways of interaction. The goal is not to try to become another person, but to find out how a healthier person thinks, feels, and acts in specific situations. This sort of discovery helps to develop a mental model or vision of the new behavior. Without a vision, a concrete sense of the direction of change, the process will bog down in confusion and frustration.

Trial and Error

Learning to change relationship patterns is not very different from learning any new skill. Anyone who has ever learned to ski knows the feeling of being overwhelmed with stimuli. Information and instructions are flying in every direction, but somehow nothing works right. If you could not see people all around you successfully skiing, you would be certain it is impossible to whiz gracefully down a mountain with two sticks strapped to your feet.

New behavior starts out messy and confusing, with many false starts and falls. Trial and error, perseverance, practice, encouragement, and support are the essential ingredients of learning. The difference between relationship change and skiing is that in relationships the stakes are higher and the feelings deeper. The old patterns of relating, though unhealthy and self-defeating, are familiar, and to that extent comfortable. In the process of change a person feels awkward and very vulnerable. Time and a lot of support are needed to enable the person to continue braving those forays into the new behavior. Ultimately, after many dashes back and forth between old and new patterns, healthier ways of relating begin to feel more familiar and natural.

Effects of Healing on Worship

The relationships involved with worship change as healing progresses. Trust in God and fellow believers deepens, and a sense of closeness and belonging begins to grow. The level of energy for living and serving increases, but within an environment of inner calm. Familiar words of worship come alive and take on personal meaning. But the most poignant and powerful result is an overwhelming sense of gratitude to a healing God.

The Father has run with tears of love to the end of the lane to throw his arms around the estranged and broken child. He has removed the old, smelly garments of shame and alienation and has demonstrated unconditional acceptance and restoration in full. The overwhelmed child can only respond with gratitude as the loving Father continues to feed and nourish him or her with spiritual blessing from the riches of his table.

The Son, Jesus, who as a man knew what it was to be abused, and who as the Savior made healing and restoration possible, comes to life as friend. The Spirit takes shape as the ultimate counselor within, witnessing faithfully to the healing truth about Christ and his gifts: forgiveness, grace, hope, and love.

Nothing changes worship from black and white to living color, from routine to reality, and from the head to the heart, like gratitude. The worshiper whose heart is grateful sinks to his knees and pours forth praise and worship and then is grateful all over again for the privilege of doing so. The one who has experienced healing reaches out his or her hands to worship with others who also have been healed, and the unity that flows among them heals that much more in an ever widening circle of fellowship and love.

The challenges and risks of a path of healing cannot be denied. But for the believer, the rewards are beyond the level of human personality: mind, will, and emotion. When we sow to healing, which is by the Spirit, we reap the Spirit, and our rewards are eternal.

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