When people come to marriage (or any other relationship in life) with emotional wounds, we who walk alongside them have many opportunities. On the one hand, we can demonstrate tenderness and gentleness to them. They have faced a variety of kinds of abuse and benefit from people who do not downplay the serious toll such abuse has taken on them. A patient spirit, a willingness to listen, and a willingness to take the time is a wonderful healing salve that contrasts dramatically with the harshness directed toward them by their abuser.
But on the other hand, when people come to relationships with emotional wounds, we can also help them find comfort in an oft-neglected way: by helping them learn to respond to that woundedness in ways that bring glory to God, ways that will also help them to find true peace, comfort, and healing. You see, the scars of abuse and manipulation tend to aggravate the self-centeredness that is in all of our hearts by nature. Perhaps this is intended as a defense mechanism, but it is also self-destructive as it cannot actually bring the peace and contentment it tries to bring.
Timothy Keller’s words in his book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (Riverhead Books, 2011) describe this dynamic vividly:
“Woundedness” is compounded self-doubt and guilt, resentment and disillusionment.
We come to one another in marriage with these things in our backgrounds. And when the inevitable conflicts occur, our memories can sabotage us. They can prevent us from doing the normal, day-to-day work of repentance and forgiveness and extending the grace that is so crucial to making progress in our marriages. The reason is that woundedness makes us self-absorbed.
This is not hard to see in others, of course. When you begin to talk to wounded people, it is not long before they begin talking about themselves. They’re so engrossed in their own pain and problems that they don’t realize what they look like to others. They are not sensitive to the needs of others. They don’t pick up on the cues of those who are hurting, or, if they do, they only do so in a self-involved way. That is, they do so with a view of helping to “rescue” them in order to feel better about themselves. They get involved with others in an obsessive and controlling way because they are actually meeting their own needs, though they deceive themselves about this. We are always, always the last to see our self-absorption. Our hurts and wounds can make our self-centeredness even more intractable. When you point out selfish behavior to a wounded person, he or she will say, “Well, maybe so, but you don’t understand what it is like.” The wounds justify the behavior….
The Christian approach begins with a different analysis of the situation. We believe that, as badly wounded as persons may be, the resulting self-absorption of the human heart was not caused by the mistreatment. It was only magnified and shaped by it. Their mistreatment poured gasoline on the fire, and the flame and smoke now choke them, but their self-centeredness already existed prior to their woundedness….
All people need to be treated gently and respectfully, especially those who have been wounded. They will be unusually sensitive to rough handling. Nevertheless, all people must be challenged to see that their self-centeredness hasn’t been caused by the people who hurt them; it’s only been aggravated by the abuse. And they must do something about it, or they’re going to be miserable forever.
In his newly published book Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love (Crossway, 2015), Edward Welch notes the same thing about suffering magnifying and shaping the dynamics already present within our hearts:
Suffering exposes the sin in our hearts in a way that few things can. When our lives are trouble free, we can confuse personal satisfaction for faith. We can think that God is good, and we are pleased with him, though we might be pleased less with him than we are with the ease of our lives. Then, when life is hard – especially when life remains hard – the allegiances of our hearts become more apparent. Suffering will reveal sin that still ‘clings so closely’ to us (Heb. 12:1), and sin weighs a lot.
But Welch also describes how wonderful is the solution to this innate self-centeredness. We don’t have a God who stands at a distance and waits for us to pull things together, but one who sought us out and drew us near through the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ:
Our picture of kings is that they are cordoned off from the public, like the Ming Dynasty emperors of China living in their Forbidden City. In contrast, our King does not simply leave the castle door ajar, so a brave subject can enter unannounced. He goes out to the people in everyday garb and personally invites them to stay with him. Jesus is God in the flesh, who stepped down from his throne and entered into the affairs of daily life. In doing this, he removed all boundaries and barriers between him and us. God comes to us – that is grace, and it starts cycles of grace through the body of Christ.
May God grant us grace to minister to those who have been wronged, patiently caring for them, and gently guiding them in a better direction, one that will give God the glory due his name and give wounded people the peace and contentment for which they have been searching.
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)