There once was a boy who played with fire. One evening, while his mother was cooking dinner on the stove, he became curious about the little, yellow, flickering light that was coming from under the pot to which she was attending. For a few moments, she turned her back and stopped paying attention to him. He seized the opportunity. Reaching up over the top of the stove he groped towards the flickering flame. His hand laid hold of the metal frame of the burner. It took a moment to register, but the boy felt heat, then burning, and finally pain. It seemed like a lifetime to him, but only a moment had passed. He jerked his hand away and cried out in fear and terror. His mother whirled around and swooped him up, gently cooing him and trying to calm his fears. It took him a him awhile before he could hear his mother’s voice, but her calm reassurances eventually assuaged his fears.
As the boy grew, the memory of that pain stayed with him. He made many assumptions about that pain. In fact, every time he was around fire he would become uneasy. When he was old enough to light the elements on the top of the stove for himself, he always leaned back and kept plenty of distance between himself and the flame. Every way the boy interacted with the fire was shaped by his initial experience. From the distance he had to keep to feel safe to the intensity of the pain that it could cause, all he knew began forming during that one interaction when he, in his immaturity, burnt his hand.
We react to pain and trauma in our life much the same way as the little boy reacted to the pain of physical wounding. We build our responses to others based upon the pain of the past, lashing out when others cause us pain or reacting to the pain that we cause ourselves. After being hurt we make assumptions about people and about ourselves, we say things like, “I’ll never do that again.” We begin to distance ourselves from others, developing defense mechanisms in order to avoid the pain of being hurt. Soon, our very identity becomes wrapped up in pain avoidance. Eventually we find it difficult to trust, to open up to others, to love and be loved as we truly desire. The very desire to love and be loved is hindered by our own ingrained responses.
The deeper truth we often fail to recognize is that the areas where we have developed pain response and avoidance are areas that God desires to occupy within us. The pain of hurt from a father mars the image of God as father. The pain and hurt from a lover deny a portion of our love to God as lover. The pain and wounding from a mother hinder a portion of ourselves from fully experiencing the nurture of God. These assumption we make about people because of hurt actually affect our relationship with God. Often we think if God would just remove the difficult people in our life it would just get easier, when all along God may be using that person to challenge a perception you have that hinders your experience of him as father, mother, brother, lover, friend, etc…
Our spiritual formation, or the formation of our spiritual journey, can be helped or hindered based upon whether or not we have processed our painful memories. Pain can be a great teacher, but is always a terrible master. This series explores the deep path of true spiritual formation, “exercising Godliness” as Paul writes to Timothy. How do we grow in Christlikeness when we are still stuck in pain and trauma? The first step in embracing the character of Christ is embracing the healing of Christ.