by Joe Leavell
It was supposed to be a fun day at the lake with my family, yet when I think back on the memory, it is still haunting.
Enjoying our vacation, my family and I were visiting my grandparents who thought it would be nice to spend a warm day at the lake with a picnic and swimming.
Doing what every young boy does, I thought I would see just how far around the lake I could get while still touching the bottom. As I was moving along the edge of the lake, I saw a couple of teen boys roughly 50 yards away. They were starting to make a climb up the side of a hill, one going up behind the other.
Then it happened.
As the first boy climbed up, he placed all his weight on a boulder about the same size as his body. It wasn’t solid and as he stepped off, the boulder began to roll.
Everything happened in an instant, but in my mind, it was an hour.
In horror, I watched, unable to move or speak as the boulder began to tumble at the second boy below. A moment later I heard the loud “thump” and a cracking/breaking sound. Frozen in place, I heard the boy begin to cry out in agony, “Ahh!!! My leg!!” I stood there staring at the large boulder on top of where his leg should be. What happened next was a total blur. Somehow, I found myself standing on the side of the lake in a towel. People were asking me what had happened and if I was OK. My dad was helping other men get the boulder off the boy’s leg and apply a tourniquet. We then watched the ambulance come and take the boy away while he was continuously moaning in agony.
Did this teen lose his leg? How long did it take to recover? What is his life like today? I have no idea. All I know is I can still hear his bones crush and his scream in my mind. When I think back on what happened, I’m instantly transported right back to that lake. When I remember that day, the emotions I experience are very real. My breath begins to shorten, and even after all these years, the tears begin to well up in my eyes.
Why Can’t you Just Get Over It?
Whether it is the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, abuse, or a memory of some other traumatic event, these memories can usher in a profound sense of emotion. These sensations are very real, can be extremely powerful, and are hard to work through even after long periods of time have gone by.
Yet these moments of emotion of something that has happened in the past can be frustrating to those around who remain unaffected. “Why can’t you move on?” “Why are you still stuck in the past? That was ages ago!” As an example, I have seen several times where a husband cannot understand why six months later his wife is still struggling with so many strong emotions stemming from the affair he had confessed. “What’s wrong with her? I know I hurt her, but how long is this going to take for her to get over this and get back to normal?” Yet even in times when she has committed to forgiveness and reconciliation, the hurt of the betrayal of an affair can often last for years or longer.
Confusion Between Bitterness and the Lingering Effects of the Pain
Well-meaning counselors, and even pastors, have sometimes overlooked the pain and gone straight to, “You have to just look to Jesus and move forward.” Even after dealing with things Biblically, if the hurts continue, these emotions are wrongfully associated with sins of unforgiveness or bitterness rather than the effects of either the sin of others or living in a fallen world.
Scripture however, especially the Psalms, express countless examples of raw and unfiltered emotion that continues for long periods of time. Psalm 42 says, “My tears have been my food day and night.” The words “day and night” constitute an ongoing pain that leaves the Psalmist so distraught that he cannot even eat because of the tears.
Imagine the young teen being given this counsel as he is loaded up into the ambulance. “It’s OK man. They boulder is off your leg now. Why are you still hurting? You need to just move on! Are you starting to get bitter about what happened?” We would never do that! We understand that the road to recovery is going to be a long one for that young man. It will include time in a cast and then months of physical therapy at minimum.
Frankly, with something like forgiveness, rather than being diminished, the pain is often amplified with the commitment to forgive. The emotional hurts of that willful choice to bear the cost of forgiveness can linger on in our emotions for quite some time. With other issues like trauma or PTSD, the frustration of being asked, “Why are you still struggling? Just look to Jesus and move on!” only magnify the hurt and the guilt for struggling.
To be sure, like gangrene, a bitter and unforgiving heart can ruin any chance of true healing and can make any situation much worse. Bitterness shows up when we refuse to process through our painful experiences through the forgiveness of Christ and a large-scale view of God and His character. Bitterness is a form of pride and a twisted sense of justice that wreaks havoc on our relationship with God and others and makes it impossible to heal.
Yet the existence of lingering emotional pain does not necessarily mean the sin of bitterness is present. Take the death of a loved one. How long should that hurt? A person may process through their painful loss biblically, but the hurt of loss could remain for the rest of their life.
Healing Often Takes Longer Than We Want It To
We live in a culture that has such a short attention span! When it comes to pain, it’s even shorter. We are uncomfortable around the hurting. While we understand that there is time needed to heal a broken bone, we often do not give ourselves the time we need to heal from the wounds of the past and the emotional injuries that we have experienced. We get frustrated with ourselves, wondering what’s wrong with us because we continue to struggle. When people become impatient, we simply internalize the pain and are forced to pretend all is well when our insides are wanting to burst open. This, in turn, leads to guilt and frustration, which only makes things worse. Oftentimes the sinfulness associated with our hurts comes from a lack of patience and trust in God’s goodness during the season of pain rather than from the pain itself.
Scripture affirms that “There is a time to heal.” (Ecclesiastes 3:3b) How long does this season last? The Bible doesn’t say. Job’s friends sat with their friend in his pain for a full week before they even said one word. In our culture, we’d be expecting Job to get back to work and moving on with his life by then. We should not be surprised that hurts that have been processed through and dealt with in a Biblical way can take a lot of time.
If you are struggling, please do not look to harmful ways to mask your pain. We want to be here for you and walk you through your pain. We’re not in a hurry and will not shame you even if years have gone by. Whether you need the “bone set” towards biblically dealing with the cause of the pain, or if you need the “physical therapy” to recover, we’re here for you. Through Christ, the Great Physician, you can indeed find healing.
For Further Study:
Putting Your Past in Its Place: by Steve Viars
Be Nice to Me, My Friend Just Died: by Kathi Bishop
Groaning vs. Grumbling: by Joe Leavell
Groaning for Home: by Joe Leavell