The Love of God Incarnated
JUNE 15, 2021
“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden. It is easier to say, “My tooth is aching” than to say, “My heart is broken.”
C.S. Lewis wrote that in The Problem of Pain. Lewis was correct. Trying to conceal a broken heart and the mental pain that came with it eventually led to my downfall and a great deal of hurt for me and for others.
I grew up in a home that was often roiled by alcohol fueled chaos and explosive anger. The chaos and anger hit me like punches from a bare-knuckle boxer. If I reacted and showed I was hurt, I was told that I was just too sensitive. Maybe I was. Maybe for someone else it all would have just rolled off their backs. For me, it didn’t roll off. The pain drilled down deep inside and broke my heart. My heart cracked and cracked again and again. It took a toll. Like a war veteran with PTSD, I stumbled into adulthood wounded, with a pronounced emotional limp.
Leonard Cohen famously wrote, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” But when my heart broke it wasn’t light that got through the cracks. It was shame. Shame seeped deep inside my heart and wrote the internal narrative that dominated my life: “you are ugly, you are dumb, no one wants you.”
I am grateful that while still a teenager Jesus redeemed me. I came to faith in a setting that was rich in great teaching. I learned a lot of Bible and theology. I got to go to seminary where I excelled academically. I became a teacher and pastor.
But the whole time that message from childhood—“you are ugly, you are dumb, no one wants you—” played in my heart in a never ending loop.
Intellectually I knew the truth. I was united with Christ and the Father saw me as his “beloved son” with whom he was “well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17). I knew that God had chosen me to be “his treasured possession” and that he had “set his love on me” (Deut. 7:6-7). But my insides were still littered with the shards of my childhood broken heart.
I talked some about my hurtful childhood. I even went to a counselor. But mostly, I held it in, covered it up, stayed quiet. I held it together, more or less, for many years. As I look back though, maybe I wasn’t really holding it together so well. There was a lot of hurt and a lot anger in me that came out on my wife and kids.
As Lewis said, attempting to conceal the pain increases the burden. It did for me. Eventually I reached the point that I couldn’t bear the pain any longer. Having endured the alcohol fueled chaos of my childhood I should have known better, but I went down that same path. Turning to alcohol, looking for relief, I brought chaos and misery, to my family. My wife and I were divorced. I hurt my church. I was deposed from the ministry. I hurt many people.
Why wasn’t the knowledge that I was chosen and loved by God enough to mend my broken heart? I don’t know. Here’s what I do know. Eventually, God brought me two people, a new wife and a new pastor, who showed me love and acceptance. They never told me my addiction, or my sin, was okay. Just like many people had before, they told me, “This needs to stop.”
But what they also told me, what no one else had told me before, was “we love you and will not let go of you. There is nothing that you can do that will ever cause us to let go of you.” And when they told me that, I finally heard Jesus, not just in my mind, but in my heart.
In her book The Last Addiction: Why Self Help is Not Enough, counselor and seminary professor Sharon Hersh wrote about being in treatment after she relapsed into alcohol abuse. A counselor asked her to imagine talking to “drunk Sharon.”
“What does ‘drunk Sharon’ really want?” he asked. Every time he used the phrase “drunk Sharon.” I cringed. I felt shame and embarrassment, and I wanted to hide this part of me from the rest of the world.
I tied to ignore my shame and answer his question. “I guess she wants love and acceptance, no matter what.”
His eyes shone with warmth. “Yes, that is why I love ‘drunk Sharon.’”
I looked at him for several minutes. I couldn’t believe what he was saying….This was the weak, despicable part of me that needed to be punished and hidden. But I couldn’t dismiss the love in his eyes. It was as if my reality, my aloneness, my shameful behavior, and my hopelessness … had run into something stronger—Love.
Sharon experienced the love and acceptance of Jesus incarnated for her that day by her counselor. Sharon has not had a drink since.
I experienced the love and acceptance of Jesus incarnated for me by my wife and my pastor. They put flesh on the theological truths that I had known for years. When they did, I not only believed the truth of God’s love for me, I experienced God’s love for me. Like Sharon, I also have not another drink.
Lewis was right, the pain of a broken heart is hard to bear. But when it runs into something stronger, the love of God incarnated for us in the love of another person, that’s when the cracks in our broken hearts can begin to heal. At least, that’s what happened to me.