I am not a medical professional, but I assume that, if an individual shows up at the emergency room in excruciating pain from some sort of injury, the first order of business is to ease the pain so that the injured party can assist the attending physician in determining the cause and extent of the injury, thereby abetting treatment and eventual healing. The same procedure applies to pain inflicted through psychological and spiritual injury as well.
While the wounding of our psyche and our spirit is as real and as painful as injury to our body, since they are not visible in the same way as a broken arm, wounds in these areas can avoid detection by people around us until they have caused deep and lasting harm to our mental health. They must be diagnosed and treated with care and compassion and intentionality, just like a physical wound. Of the two, spiritual wounding is even more serious than psychological pain. In her new book called Healing Spiritual Wounds, author and pastor Carol Howard Merritt explains why… and how we can begin to experience healing.
The reason religious wounds can cut so deeply is that they carry the weight of God with them. In some way we have felt that God was behind what wounded us. So the first step in spiritual healing is to learn to love God by separating God from our experience of being wounded.
That, of course, is much easier said than done, and that is why, after introducing this idea on page 42, she devotes the remainder of the 232-page book to showing how people who have suffered pain and injury in a variety of areas—from misguided perceptions of God to damaged emotions to distorted views of sex and physical attractiveness to the way money problems reflect spiritual pain—can regain a measure of spiritual health and equanimity.
Of the fourteen books I will be referencing in blog posts like this throughout the season of Lent, this is one of only three titles that I purchased specifically for inclusion in this series. The other eleven were already on my “new books” shelf.
Somewhere along the line, Carol Howard Merritt and I became Facebook friends. I’m certain I must have sent her a friend request, although I cannot recall how I first learned about her andher ministry. We have a number of mutual friends, so that no doubt accounts for it. In any event, it was a fortuitous encounter, at least for me. I have read many of her Facebook posts, and so I felt I knew her at least a little when she, and several other mutual friends, announced the publication of this book.
As with so many books that I read these days, I was particularly attracted to this one by its subtitle or tagline: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church. I thought I would be reading a description of relationships broken and needless pain inflicted by leaders and other prominent figures in the church who misused their positions of authority and influence. There is some of that, for sure, but this book is far more substantive than simply an account of leaders behaving badly.
Much of the pain the author chronicles, whether her own or that of people whose paths have crossed hers in the course of her life and ministry, is the product of changing beliefs and convictions. It points out the frequent failure of the church (or an associated agency or institution) to accommodate, or even acknowledge, the change as well as its inability to assist all parties involved in working through the situation in a redemptive and life-affirming way.
Carol Howard Merritt and I share a similar history in that we were both raised in fundamentalist Christianity (more generously identified as conservative evangelicalism) and both of us attended conservative, dispensationalist Bible colleges. She began to move away from fundamentalism much earlier in her spiritual pilgrimage than I did, however, and so she has devoted her ministry career to serving the church in a denomination more amenable to her spiritual transition. I was in my fifties before I came to embrace a view of life and faith, God and humanity, salvation and the church, like the one toward which she was moving by her senior year of Bible college. When you undergo changes as drastic as those I have experienced late in my career as a pastor and Bible college instructor, the consequences can be severe (and in my case, they were). I know a good deal, from painful personal experience, about the kind of wounding Carol writes about.
She begins by noting how changes in the way we understand and perceive God can liberate our spirits but also confuse our minds and overburden our emotions when people we care about can neither accept nor relate to the changes in our perspective. So many Christians have been damaged by an inadequate perception of God—one that focuses on a God who judges and condemns more than a God who loves and cares and accepts without condemnation. For many of us who have been hurt by the church, the first step to spiritual health involves the healing of our image of God.
From there the author moves on to discuss spiritual wounding she has either experienced or observed in areas such as self-worth, emotional stability, hope for the future, the effects of a patriarchal system of authority in the church and in the home, and the consequences of linking spiritual health to material prosperity. She offers helpful examples and concludes each chapter with a number of exercises and suggestions for incorporating new insights into daily experience.
This was an immensely beneficial book. I read it the first time in just three or four hours, concentrating on the stories she told and the principles she unfolded. I am now working through it again, much more carefully and slowly, with intentional focus on the exercises.
If you have experienced pain and wounding in your relationship with the church or with an agency or institution affiliated with the church, this book will help you regain your spiritual balance. It will provide a soothing balm for your bruised and troubled soul. And it will restore your hope even if you cannot immediately renew your association with an organized church. As I read this book, I felt the hand of God on my shoulder and heard the reassuring voice of Jesus say, “It’s okay, son. It’ll be okay.”
I conclude with the words of a prayer which Carol Howard Merritt includes in the book more than once. It is, I believe, from a Presbyterian prayer book and was written by a man called Howard Thurman.
Lord, open unto me.
Open unto me—light for my darkness.
Open unto me—courage for my fear.
Open unto me—hope for my despair
Open unto me—peace for my turmoil.
Open unto me—joy for my sorrows.
Open unto me—strength for my weakness.
Open unto me—wisdom for my confession.
Open unto me—forgiveness for my sins.
Open unto me—love for my hates.
Open unto me—thy Self for my self.
Lord, Lord, open unto me!
Note: This is the third in a series of fourteen special posts for Lent 2017. Each post references a different book, mostly recent works, that I have found especially helpful and encouraging for my life pilgrimage, especially in light of major changes in my thinking and beliefs in the past decade or so. To read the introduction to the series that I posted on Ash Wednesday, click here. The posts follow the introduction in sequence. Click here to read the first in the series; click here to read the second. Beginning today, the posts will generally be published on Tuesdays and Fridays between now and Good Friday, on April 14.