Everywhere we turn, we compare ourselves—we look, measure, evaluate, and then rank ourselves—with others around us. If we’re honest, we can unfailingly find someone who stirs up our feelings of inadequacy and therefore inferiority. This starts a cascade of problems that, if undealt with, will fester into other issues.
We expect these types of feelings of worthlessness from those who have experienced abandonment, mistreatment, abuse, extreme trauma and so forth, but this can also sprout from
the smaller wounds in our lives—even the thoughtless words of others.
I remember when I was in ninth grade and received a new fall outfit—my favorite at that time. This ensemble included a brown and orange plaid skirt, a burnt orange sweater, and this little brown tie-on leather collar. With it, I wore brown leather shoes with laces and burnt orange leotards. I was cool and felt very confident looking so hip and groovy! So the first time I wore it to school, I strutted my stuff as I walked into the building. I felt secure, maybe even smug, and somewhat envied during my first three classes.
“You look all orangey. You look like a pumpkin!” Donald, a fellow classmate, later announced. The other kids started laughing, and that’s all it took. I felt humiliated, mortified, and from that day on, I hated the outfit. I felt as if everyone had stared and had judged me as “less-than.” My confidence in my appearance lacked at school after Donald made that comment. And I carried a sense of shame that I should have somehow known that I appeared “orangey.” It left me with a nagging question, “What do others really think of me?”
As a therapist, I’ve heard thousands of stories, predominantly from Christians. So I know that none of us are unique in coping with judgments from ourselves and from others. Oftentimes we will develop a tough, “outside shell-self” to protect the true, “vulnerable-self” to survive the threat of potential wounds. The “outside shell-self” can manifest in different ways—it can develop into a persona designed to please others to elicit approval or it can create a tough, hardened persona that ensures distance. Either way, we think both lead to safety.
Some of us may overcompensate with perfectionism or indifference, perhaps running to busyness or other addictions that will help numb and distance the fear, pain, and shame. We will then inevitably feel disconnected from God and people—no longer living authentically, so we hide more—seeking complete isolation from the rest of the world. Our true essence inside starts to shrivel and disconnect completely. In isolation we feel a slow death.
What Happens Next?
If we feel devalued, we oftentimes have little choice but to live in the shadows of our assigned lowliness or to push back. We convince ourselves that only when we’re perfect can we regain that lost security of love. That’s what our deceived hearts tell us, so we try over and over to appear better—perfect.
We follow the directions of the media, the magazines, the advertisers, the trendsetters, and the financial elite. We buy the look, wear the latest trends, and hide ourselves and imitate those who ooze success. We keep our “flaws” secret, and we convince ourselves everything is going well. Meanwhile, the heart secretly collects condemning counterevidence.
The range of woundedness is immense. It goes from insecurity like my “orangey” episode to severe trauma and torture. The damaged ones are not confined to a gender or age, nor to one race, faith, educational or economic level, or country. And I wish it were only the “bad heathens” who perpetrate such pain, but that is just not true.
Abuse happens in good families, communities, businesses, and churches, including by those in leadership. The secrecy of this runs deep in churches because of the added confusion, shame, and sense of betrayal for the victim when the crime is in God’s house or by one of his representatives.
Trauma with the resulting PTSD does not stay confined to military war zones. Sometimes the war is in our home, church, school, or work. The body may survive but the soul can get attacked and mortally wounded anywhere.
We can talk, tweet, post, and protest these things. We can even feel a glimmer of satisfaction when a perpetrator faces justice. But how do we really deal with it all? How do we handle damaged and condemning hearts?
Romans 12 tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (v. 2). That is so true! But when someone has a problem, an issue, or even a deep wound, should we just give them the appropriate verse? Maybe, “Cast all your anxiety on him,” or “He will also provide a way out,” and so on? How would they respond to this? By saying, “Oh good, thank you! I will feel better now”? I doubt it.
Releasing Each Other
Most times, words are just not enough when someone is deeply hurting. Quoting Scripture and hoping that’s enough won’t work. The heart needs repair through an encounter with love. This love may come directly from God in a miraculous way, but more often, God radiates his love through us, his people.
When Jesus brought life back into Lazarus’s decaying body, raising him from the dead (John 11:33–44), he called him out of the tomb. Scripture tells us Lazarus walked out still bound and in his smelly grave clothes—his hands and feet “wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face” (v. 44). Would it have been more difficult for Jesus to have Lazarus come out unbound and smelling good? Of course not. Why the smelly way?
Jesus told the people standing around the tomb to come close and unbind Lazarus, and they obeyed. In doing so they became part of God’s healing miracle.
Today Jesus calls people to eternal life, and he has asked us to get involved in the untying of each other’s “grave clothes.” He wants us involved in freeing each other from the smelly bindings of our histories, our trauma, our abuses, our fears, and our judgments. The condemning heart will always hold tight to those remnants of death. To remove the effects of death, God’s people must see it, get close to it, touch it, and help carry it. In doing so, we take part in the birthing of the new life and our faith grows.
Not too long ago a courageous student spoke to my class. She said that when she arrived on campus she felt as if she didn’t belong—“all the people at DTS are holy.” Deep inside she held a shameful secret. In her past, she had aborted her baby. Her story was a tearful one, but later it also proved one of healing. By letting these Christian women know her guilt and shame, and allowing them to be the forgiving face and loving heart of Christ, she experienced forgiveness, freedom, and belonging. She multiplied their gift of love to her by encouraging those in the class to also risk and let others come close.
Does that sound like a big job to “be the face and hands of Christ”? How are we supposed to know what to do to help others with their shame and self-condemning heart?
For the Good Deeds
Ephesians 2:10—I especially like it in the Moffatt translation—tells us, “God has made us what we are, creating us in Christ Jesus for the good deeds which are prepared beforehand by God as our sphere of action.” In other words, relax! Believe that the Lord has equipped us to do what he designed us to do. Do you realize that all it takes is for us to show up, be us, and remain willing to let Jesus work through us? He made us, and he knows how to use us to accomplish those good deeds that he has planned.
It’s easy for people not to seek help, but undealt-with trauma and grief wounds will fester and spill out in destructive ways. The needed journey is for our mind to again be a reflection
of God’s perspective on our life and worth. Satan attempts to degrade the high value God placed in us, to divide us, steal our peace, discourage us, and weaken our faith by intensifying
hardships and rancor, and to keep us defending ourselves from the accuser.
If our heart condemns, it is a sure sign we lack confidence before God and people, and we need to examine the source of condemnation. We must all stay on guard, first listening to each other, then encouraging and reminding each other that we have a perfect defender in Christ. We need the truth of God’s love through his Word so it can transform our mind.
We need the compassion of God’s love delivered through God’s people so we can experientially know Romans 8:1 where we read, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Christ has called us to help each other and boldly step into each other’s processes everywhere we turn, so that we can unbind each other from the stinky remnants of our brokenness and feel accepted and deeply loved.
About the Contributors
Dr. Marten has over 30 years of counseling experience in private practice, at a university, and in an agency facility. She is a licensed professional counselor and supervisor, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. She began as an adjunct in 2000 supervising students in the master’s-level counseling practicum at Dallas Seminary. Previously she taught psychology and counseling at Dallas Bible College.