Formation

How Unresolved Emotional Pain Hinders Discipleship

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The goal of discipleship is to become more like Jesus Christ in his character and quality of life while he lived on earth. Among other attributes, Jesus’ character includes the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), and his quality of life can be summed up in the word shalom: a condition of the heart characterized by feelings of completeness, wholeness, and tranquility.

I like to use the term Christ-formation to describe this process of change because it is descriptive of what is actually taking place. And while Christ-formation is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:18) it involves the believer’s participation (Phil 3:12). How does unresolved emotional pain hinder Christ-formation?

The Problem of Emotional Pain

Emotional pain is real. In fact, both physical and emotional pain are processed in the same area of the brain.1 Simply put, the brain doesn’t discriminate between types of pain, whether it’s a broken arm or a broken heart; pain is pain. And like all pain, how we choose to deal with it will largely determine if the broken part heals properly.

The brain doesn’t discriminate between types of pain, whether it’s a broken arm or a broken heart; pain is pain. And like all pain, how we choose to deal with it will largely determine if the broken part heals properly. Click To Tweet

A few years ago, I fell and broke my wrist. I wish I could say that I did it doing something cool like skydiving or motorcycle racing, but the truth is, I tripped and fell at the dump while disposing of some junk from my garage. The pain from this injury was excruciating, and the injury required two different surgeries and weeks of rigorous rehab. During the early physical therapy sessions, I remember my therapist would bend my wrist so far back that I thought he was going to break it again. When I complained, he told me this was a necessary part of the process in order to regain my full range of motion. Today, I know he was right because I have no issues with my wrist; it is as good as new. All the pain I experienced during my physical therapy sessions was worth it.

Most Christians I know wouldn’t question the need to work through a process of physical therapy to heal a broken bone, but plenty—in my experience—would resist the need to work through emotional pain, including the two most common: depression and anxiety. For some reason, physical pain is socially acceptable but emotional pain often carries a social stigma, even in the church.

A number of years ago while speaking at a young adult leadership conference I shared my struggle with depression and that I was currently taking medication. The feedback I received from the participants was very supportive, and it gave many of them the courage to share their pain with me. I was very encouraged by this experience; that is, until I arrived back at the church where I was serving. The senior pastor had heard about my self-disclosure and pulled me aside and told me to never do that again. It wasn’t that he was unsympathetic about my emotional struggles; instead, he was concerned how people in the congregation would take the fact that one of their highly visible pastors was taking medication for depression.

As a result of this stigma, those of us who struggle with emotional disorders are afraid to share them with others for fear of being judged as lacking in faith or criticized for not being a strong enough Christian. The fear of public ridicule and shame causes us to hide our hurt and suffer alone, making for a greater problem.

Those of us who struggle with emotional disorders are afraid to share them with others for fear of being judged as lacking in faith or criticized for not being a strong enough Christian. Click To Tweet

The Bible’s Mandate to Care for those in Emotional Pain

But why this social stigma when the Bible speaks so directly to the fact that we are to care for those who are struggling emotionally? For example, James urges all believers to pay attention to the suffering of others within the body of Christ when he writes, “Is anyone among you suffering?” (Jas 5:13). The Greek word for “suffering” is kakopatheō, which can refer to either physical or emotional pain. New Testament scholar D. Edmond Hiebert explained the dual meaning of this Greek word:

The term means primarily to endure hardship, to experience some misfortune or calamity. Such suffering what is bad need not be limited to physical suffering; it is a general term that may include trouble and distress as well as sickness.2

Hiebert offers an important insight that validates a biblically mandated and compassionate response to those suffering emotionally. And James 5:13 is not an isolated passage; consider the following verses:

  • “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18).
  • “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26).
  • “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps 147:3).
  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:4).
  • “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7)
  • “Mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15).
  • “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).
  • “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).

The Bible is full of evidence that God wants his people to embrace those who struggle emotionally.

The Greater Problem of Suffering Alone

I mentioned that the fear of public ridicule and shame forces emotionally hurting people into isolation that compounds the problem. Why?

Because we will do almost anything to escape pain, be it physical or emotional. That often leads to sinful behavior and addiction as attempts to cope with or numb the emotional pain. Sin, whether motivated by rebellion against God or an attempt to numb emotional pain, hinders discipleship because it grieves (Eph 4:30) and quenches (2 Thess 5:19) the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the primary agent of Christ-formation (2 Cor 3:18).

Agapē as Tonic for a Wounded Heart

John Lennon was at least partly right when he sang, “All you need is love.”3 The kind of love we need to heal, grow, and thrive is agapē—used to describe God’s unique love because it is unconditional, always available, and focused on the best interests of the other. God created the human heart to run on agapē like a high-performance automobile runs on high-octane gasoline.

God created the human heart to run on agapē like a high-performance automobile runs on high-octane gasoline. Click To Tweet

God delivers agapē through two primary relational sources: divine and human. One aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work is to help you internalize God’s agapē (Rom 5:5) and includes the subjective, emotional sense of being loved by God. This assurance of God’s agapē creates a secure attachment with God and a safe place to expose and process painful memories that are often the root source of emotional problems. Believers provide a human conduit of God’s agapē as brother and sisters in Christ live out the biblical commands to love one another.4

When you know you are loved and believe in the core of your being that you belong, that you are wanted, and that you are accepted unconditionally no matter what you’ve done in the past, no matter what you’re struggling with in the present, and no matter what you could ever do in the future, you will begin to experience an inner healing of the heart that will produce a very different quality of life. God’s agapē delivered by the Holy Spirit and through human agency is the most powerful, healing, life-giving force in the universe.

In 2014 I was terminated as the senior pastor from a church I loved and served for over ten years; the elders decided I no longer had the leadership skills to take the church to the next level. This was a devastating experience for me and my family, and it triggered the unresolved emotional pain of feeling rejected and abandoned when I was a little boy. During the weeks and months that followed my termination, I was not basking in the agapē of God. Instead, I spiraled down into a pit of despair, fear, depression, and anxiety. I just knew my career was over; being fired as a senior pastor doesn’t look good on a resumé.

One afternoon my wife and I were allowed to hang out at the pool of a world class beach resort near where we live because our daughters worked there. As the afternoon wore on, I was feeling terribly depressed. I looked up into the sky and saw the beginning letters of a skywriting message being formed by an airplane. The first letter was “I,” followed by “L-O-V-E,” and then “Y-O-U.” As the pilot prepared to finish the last word, I thought, Oh, that’s nice; some guy is showing his girlfriend or wife how much he loves her by having it written in the sky. But the plane kept skywriting: first a “K,” followed by an “E,” and then—yep, you guessed it—an “N.” The complete phrase read, “I L-O-V-E Y-O-U K-E-N.” I was so startled that I asked my wife to look up to make sure she saw it too.

I don’t know who the Ken guy was, or who the message was from, but as far as I’m concerned, God was telling me how much he loved me by writing it in the sky! Maybe God has never written a message in the sky for you, at least as far as you know. But God is constantly revealing his love and presence to us; we just need to pay more attention. And as we do, we will experience the healing effects of God’s love as he tends to our emotional pain.

I hope you will allow God’s agapē to meet you at your place of deepest need so that you may experience the abundant life that Jesus has made available for you.


[1] See, for example, Ethan Kross et al., “Social Rejection Shares Somatosensory Representations with Physical Pain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 15 (April 12, 2011), 6270, https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/108/15/6270.full.pdf.

[2] D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 316–17.

[3] The Beatles, “All You Need Is Love,” All You Need Is Love (single) © 1967 Parlophone, 45 rpm.

[4] Biblical commands to love one another include Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 13:8; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 3:11; 3:23; 4:7; 4:11-12; and 2 Jn. 1:5.

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