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What to do with "unfinished business"?
The passages below are taken from Bill Hybels’ book “Honest to God?” published in 1990 by Strand Publishing.
She was young, attractive, gifted---a devoted wife and mother and a faithful leader in the church. Then her world fell apart. An inexplicable anxiety suddenly became debilitating. She ended up in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. Months of intense therapy uncovered the horror of childhood sexual abuse. In a complex and desperate attempt to protect her from the pain of reality, her mind had covered up the truth for years. But now the cover-up was cracking, the truth was oozing out, and the pain was too great to bear.
He was a successful businessman, a beloved father and grandfather, a warm friend, a devout Christian. His only problem was his uncontrolled eating. Diets and exercise programs helped for a while but always ended in defeat. His excess weight led to discouragement and heart trouble. Finally, a counselor showed him the connection between his compulsive eating habits and the emotional abuse he had experienced in the home of a harsh and insensitive father.
She was the tough, aggressive type: unemotional and independent, confident and self-assured, competent in business and relationships. Sure, there had been disappointments, but they hadn’t gotten her down. She suffered none of the usual effects of growing up in a broken home. She had faced job loss, miscarriage, and relational disappointments with calm resignation. She was on top of things. Until the tears hit. With no warning, the dam broke. Years of unacknowledged grief consolidated into an overwhelming flood of tears. She thought she had successfully avoided the pain. But in the end, the pain won.
Psychologists would tell us that these people are dealing with “unfinished business”---issues from the past that negatively affect their present behavior because they never properly dealt with the problems. Pain that was submerged. Fear that was denied. Feelings of loss and grief that were ignored. The experts tell us that unfinished business is the source of many of the emotional and relational difficulties we face.
For years the Christian community has disagreed. For the most part, the church has been unwilling to believe that psychological concepts like “unfinished business” have any legitimate relationship to the difficulties Christians face. According to the church, the problem is sin, and the solution is repentance. The key to success, happiness, and overcoming pain is to get your mind off yourself and on to the Lord.
Get involved with worship.
Devote yourself to praise.
Defeat the Evil One.
Don’t dredge up the past. Don’t look inside. Don’t walk around with a sad face. As the great apostle Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4 NIV). Is this the road to an authentic emotional life for a Christian?
Verses like Philippians 4:4---and there are plenty of them in Scripture---have caused tremendous confusion in the body of Christ. More than once I’ve stood by the side of a believer who’s mourning the loss of a loved one and overheard something like this: “Well Mary, we’re praising the Lord with you today. Harold is home with his heavenly Father. He’s rejoicing right now with us. Isn’t it wonderful to be able to praise God even in this? You are praising God, aren’t you, Mary? You’re not losing the victory, are you?” Mary mumbles her thanks, then inwardly chastises herself for not being a stronger Christian. Why can’t she sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” at her husband’s funeral like she’s supposed to?
I mean, isn’t that what Philippians 4:4 tells her to do? Doesn’t it tell her---and us---to rejoice over death, loss, injury, trial, failure, and defeat? Doesn’t it tell the elders of our church, who regularly pray with seriously afflicted people, to rejoice over eyes that don’t see, limbs that don’t function, wombs that are barren, or hearts that are broken? Doesn’t it tell them to meet with the grieving and trembling, the broken and beaten down, and chastise them for not “rejoicing always”?
It does seem to say that. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and if you have any confusion about that, let me say it again, rejoice!” So, many Christians decide to rejoice no matter what---even if that means denying their pain, loss, anger, embarrassment, hurt, or feelings of abandonment. Even if they have to bury their unfinished business one more time. They’ve been taught that the Christian cure for grief is to spiritualize it away. If they praise God passionately enough, the full effect of the tragedy will never take hold. It’s like a Teflon shield. Just pray, and the grief will slide right off.
Some Christians make heroes of people who smile and sing their way through funerals of loved ones. They make role models of those who never crack, never cry, never stop praising God in the midst of deepest valleys. If only other Christians would be like them. If they would just listen to more messages, memorize more verses, and fill their minds with more Christian music, they too could submerge the pain and “Praise the Lord Anyway!”
But in your heart of hearts don’t you sometimes wonder? Is all that rejoicing real? Or does denial play a role? Are valid emotions being submerged? Are pain and anger and hurt being stuffed into a vault that’s going to explode someday?
I have actually heard sincere, godly women say things like this: "Bill, just last night I found out that my husband’s been unfaithful. But it’s okay. I’m sure God has a better plan. He’s going to work this out. My husband may not be faithful, but God is. With your help, the elders’ prayers, and my friends’ support, I’m going to be fine.”
Such a controlled response in a situation like that makes me uneasy. I want to shake those women and say, “Dear friend, it’s all right for you to be so mad right now that you can’t talk straight. It’s all right for you to feel so violated you want to fall in a pile and cry until someone picks you up. It’s okay to feel that way and to admit those feelings.” I get very uncomfortable when Christians try to prove their maturity and love for God by refusing to acknowledge legitimate pain. I fear they’re not being authentic in regard to their emotions.
But then there’s the other extreme. Some people don’t believe at all in this opium called rejoicing. They can’t find anything praiseworthy in pain. In fact, they leave God out of the picture entirely. Their counsel is to just feel the full force of whatever pain is coming our way. “Own your anger,” they say. “Explore your violated emotions. Plumb the depths of your heartbreak. Come to grips with how unfair life is and how cruelly you’ve been treated. And whatever you do, don’t mix God-talk into your pain. That only leads to deception.”
There’s certainly no denial in that approach. There’s no glossing or “spiritualizing.” But there’s also no hope, no answer to people’s despair. As they abandon their faith in God, they plummet into the abyss of personal agony and eventually become sickened with self-pity and hopelessness.
They take their eyes off Christ, stop reading the Bible, stop praying, and stop listening to the encouragement of Christian friends. They isolate themselves from all avenues of divine intervention and slide into utter despair. And in the end, they quietly whisper, “Where’s God in all this? Does He have no role to play in my attempt to cope? Must I face the rogue winds of life all alone?”
Philippians 4:4 obviously decries that approach. But I believe the spirit of the verse also decries the first approach. I want to show in this chapter that the kind of rejoicing Paul spoke of required no overspiritualized denial of emotional authenticity. His “rejoicing” required a rugged, mature faith that authentically acknowledged both the pains of life and the power of God.
The first chapter of Philippians gives a glimpse into the context from which Paul admonished his readers to rejoice. To begin with, he was in prison. What made that especially distressing was that something terrible was happening outside his locked cell. Hucksters were on the circuit, preaching Christ with impure motives and taking up offerings to fill their own pockets.
It was unthinkable to Paul that people would use the Gospel of Christ to elevate themselves and build personal empires. Besides, it was unfair. Evil men were free to preach, while Paul, who loved the Lord sincerely, was locked in a prison cell.
Certainly Paul had little reason to rejoice. And he didn’t rejoice---at least not about being in prison or about evil men “using” the message of Christ. But read what he wrote in Philippians 1:18: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” What did he rejoice in? That Christ was being preached.
He didn’t gloss over the issue of hucksters. He didn’t try to convince the readers of his letter that everything was peachy in Philippi. He said, “There’s something rotten going on here. And it distresses me deeply.” On the other hand, he didn’t dwell on the damage of the hucksters and drown himself and others in seas of despair. He didn’t say, “The church in Philippi is doomed. We might as well close up shop and go home.”
Paul acknowledged the hucksters, openly lamented their threat, then placed the whole tragedy in the context of God’s overall activity in the world. That freed him to rejoice in the one little part of the whole fiasco that was indeed praiseworthy: that even if it was done for wrong motives, at least Christ was being preached. In that, Paul could genuinely rejoice.
Philippians 2:14—18 provides another illustration of Paul’s style of rejoicing. In this passage Paul challenges his readers to “become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” Why did he want them to do this? So that “I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.” Paul wanted them to remain steadfast in their faith so he could rejoice in two things. First, that his efforts to establish and nurture that little group of believers had leaded to genuinely transformed lives. And second, that someday he would receive a reward from the Lord for his faithful service.
He continued with these words: “Even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice.” In the midst of beatings, imprisonment, and impending death there was something Paul could sincerely rejoice in.
Paul didn’t deny the reality of the situation. He openly acknowledged that he was sitting on death row, “being poured out like a drink offering.” But he didn’t drown in self-pity because of that. He found something in that ugly situation worth rejoicing about: that lives had been changed and someday he would be rewarded for his part in that process. That’s what he chose to focus on.
Paul gives a final, simple challenge to his Philippian readers to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). In other words, “Do what I did. Whatever situation you’re in, find something praiseworthy. Don’t deny the problems. Don’t ignore the hurt. But find some little part of the situation that’s praiseworthy, and in that you can ‘rejoice in the Lord always.’”
A CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLE
Benjamin Welt, a Presbyterian minister, wrote about his struggle to maintain sanity and emotional equilibrium during his sixteen months as a hostage in Beirut.
As the first days of June passed, I began to realize there were two different ways to regard the passage of time. One was to regret each day as freedom lost, twenty-four hours of my life spent without profit. This was true. I did yearn to be active. I also longed to be close to Carol and in touch with my family. However, to concentrate on this kind of regret would only be frustrating and depressing.
Perhaps practical faith and hope and the will to survive required a different point of view. So I chose to add up the days with a sense of achievement, insofar as possible. At day’s end I would say to myself, “Well, you made it through another day. Now you must have strength for the next one.”
As the light dimmed, I would sing to myself, “Now the day is over. / Night is drawing nigh. / Shadows of the evening steal across the sky.” And I would thank God for providing me with resources and stamina beyond my expectation.
In the morning, I would thank God for another day of living, refreshing sleep, sound body, and assurance of his sustaining presence. After my first exercise period, I would do my Bible “reading,” recalling passages that came to memory. I reviewed various psalms and fragments of them. I would choose each day a figure from the Old Testament---Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Gideon, Samuel, Saul---and tell myself his story of faith.
I tried to reconstruct the account of Jesus from his birth to his resurrection. I detailed the travels of Paul, adding with mental pictures those places in the story that I had visited. I was astounded at Paul’s persistence in the face of obstacles and dangers; I returned again and again to Romans 8:28: “In everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” This assurance was the foundation for my grip on sanity and hope.1
Benjamin Weir discovered the formula Paul used. Lament loss. Grieve over death and separation. Get angry about tyranny and inequity. Be saddened by the disappointments of life. But put those heartbreaks into the overall context of the ongoing activity of God in the world, your life, and in eternity. Then focus on the praiseworthy portion of the situation so you can rejoice authentically.
PERPLEXED BUT NOT DESPAIRING
Paul applied this principle repeatedly. He wrote to the Corinthian church, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians. 4:8—10 NIV).
Paul again acknowledged the dreadful reality of living in a sin-stained, evil-tarnished world. He said we’re hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. But true to form, he looked beyond the pain to something he could rejoice in. There may be pain, he said, but it will neither crush us nor throw us into despair; we’ll be neither abandoned nor destroyed.
Why? Because “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14 NIV). In the fiercest storms and the darkest nights, when there’s not one iota of temporal comfort to cling to, Paul rejoices in the eternal reality of heaven. The day is coming when the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is going to raise him to life eternal!
WHAT ABOUT US?
That’s a nice little Bible study. But what do Paul’s words mean to us today? What do we do if we’re neck-deep in marital troubles, or child-rearing frustrations, or financial, physical, or vocational difficulties? What do we do if we’re carrying around unfinished business that bogs us down in an emotional quagmire? How do we get from here to authentic rejoicing?
First, refuse to deny the pain, the frustration, or the heartache. Denying our difficulties or pretending they don’t debilitate us in various ways is deceitful. Thoughtlessly chanting “Praise the Lord Anyway” is not being real. So let’s go beyond that. Let’s drop the hypocrisy and be honest with ourselves.
Sure, it’s hard to give up our Norman Rockwell picture of life, but that’s not reality. Reality is that our parents were imperfect and behaved in ways that brought us pain. Reality is that miscarriages cause grief. Reality is that wayward teenagers can rip a parent’s heart out. Reality is that losing a job can create feelings of fear and anxiety. Reality is that sexual abuse causes devastation. Reality is that there is heartache in this world, and sometimes you and I are caught in the middle of it.
When that’s true, we need to acknowledge our gut-level responses. We need to admit to ourselves that we’re afraid, lonely, disappointed, or angry.
The second step is to honestly tell God how we feel. He can handle our authentic cries of pain and disappointment. He can even help us work through them.
That was a hard thing for me to grasp, because my religious background placed tremendous emphasis on God’s transcendence. I heard over and over again that God was sovereign and holy. That’s true, but it was so overemphasized that it led to a deterministic theology. It said, in effect, “God decreed it, so don’t ask questions. Just be quiet and go along with the program.”
Then I started reading the Bible on my own and was totally tripped up by the Psalms. Repeatedly David expressed his heartfelt confusion: “God, I don’t understand this. How can You treat me this way? How can You allow this? Why do the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper? Help me understand this!” David, “a man after God’s own heart,” certainly had no God-decreed-it-so-don’t-ask-questions mindset (See Psalm 73.)2
What I’ve learned is that often these authentic outpourings of frustration, or even anger, are necessary steps on the path to wholeness. The cathartic process of pouring our hearts out to the Lord, of emptying ourselves of pent-up emotions and unanswered questions, opens the way for insight and understanding.
The same thing happens to us that so often happened to the psalmist. After the outburst comes the renewed perspective. The lights go on. We realize anew that in spite of the heartache or the unanswered questions, God is still God. There is still hope. We still matter to Him. The Holy Spirit still lives in us. The Bible is still true. The church is still intact. Heaven still awaits. And in that we can rejoice.
What does this mean for the sexually abused woman described at the beginning of this chapter? It means she can pound her clenched fists on the table and scream, “God, why didn’t you stop my father? Why’d you let him hurt me again and again? If you’re a loving God, how could you stand to watch it happen? Are you so powerless you couldn’t do anything about it? Or are you simply not there at all?”
For a woman as violently abused as that woman was, those are inevitable questions. Emotional authenticity demands that she ask them. And it demands that she ask them over and over again, for however long it takes her to re-establish genuine faith in God. If she doesn’t, she’ll become an inauthentic Christian who goes through the motions of believing in God, but has no inner confidence in His power or His love.
If you were to look in my journal, you would find my frustrations, fears, and questions spilled all over its pages. But you’d also find a written record of the assurances and promises God has given me in return. The day after my father’s death, I poured out my fear to the Lord. I knew I was facing the greatest ministry challenges I had ever faced. How could I face them without the person who had been my greatest cheerleader, the one who had always made me believe I could “handle anything”? God answered my heart’s cry by assuring me that if I would abide in Him, He would become my encourager. He would make me strong.
The third step is to discuss our pain, our disappointment, or our heartache with someone else. I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me at church, with tears in their eyes, to tell me something they’ve “never told anyone before.” Haltingly, they report a childhood incident that still haunts them and makes them feel fearful and insecure. Or they tell how disappointed they are with their marriage and how they’ve been trying to deny the disappointment and pretend everything is okay.
They finish their story and say, “I don’t know why, but I feel better now. Maybe now I can talk to my husband [or my wife, or my friend, or my small-group leader] about this.”
There is healing power in sharing our inner hurts with someone else. There’s a release, a catharsis, that makes the burden seem lighter. Sometimes just having someone affirm the legitimacy of our pain eases it a little. There’s also the obvious benefit of receiving guidance from those with whom we share. Overwhelming issues suddenly become manageable when a friend offers an insight or suggests a course of action we hadn’t thought of.
At times, however, our friends can’t help enough. That brings me to my last point. Sometimes our unfinished business is so weighty and emotionally debilitating that we need to seek professional help.
That was true for each of the people described in the first pages of this chapter. The victim of sexual abuse had experienced such extreme violation that it took years of intense therapy to heal the damage. The other woman had created such a convincing image of toughness and invincibility that only a trained counselor could trace her uncontrollable tears to years of buried grief. And only a person trained to deal with compulsive behaviors could uncover the unmet needs driving the successful businessman to overeat himself into obesity.
God doesn’t ask us to spiritualize these and other painful realities away. Certainly the healing process requires divine intervention and spiritual growth. And often loving family and friends can provide the human support and wisdom we need. But there are times when competent Christian counselors can provide the necessary blend of spiritual and psychological perspectives. They can help us uncover and understand significant events in our past. And they can help us resolve tensions and initiate more positive relationships with significant people in our lives.
A PERSONAL CRUSADE
I am particularly concerned about the issue of sexual abuse because it is so much more common, and so much more destructive, than most people realize. Several years ago I gave a message on sexual abuse and was deluged with letters from women who said, “That was me you were talking about. Please help me!”
The ramifications of childhood sexual abuse are too numerous to examine fully here, but I want to list six of the most significant ones.
1. Hatred toward the offender. This often escalates after the abuse ceases, and the victim reflects not only on what was, but on what should have been. Over time, it commonly expands into a more general kind of rage directed at society and God.
2. Mistrust of other people, particularly male authority figures. These women learned at a young age that when they submitted to men, they were abused. This often causes them to be generally rebellious.
3. Guilt. Even though they were the victims, they often feel cheap and dirty.
4. Poor self-esteem. They feel stained. When they look at others they think, “If you knew the truth about me. . .”
5. Diminished desire for sexual activity in marriage. For years, every such activity was like a branding iron. How can it suddenly be experienced as pleasurable?
6. Dependence on drugs and alcohol. How do you deal with a twenty-four-hour-a-day nightmare? You do whatever you can do to escape from the memories.
It’s obvious why counseling is required to help women work through ramifications like these, and these are only a few of the possible negative results. If you know anyone who has experienced sexual abuse, please encourage them to talk with an experienced Christian counselor.
BACK TO PAUL
Paul’s call to a life of rejoicing doesn’t mean a life of cheap slogans and bumper-sticker solutions. Authentic Christianity gives us room to honestly deal with the heartache in our lives by acknowledging it, pouring it out to the Lord, and sharing it with friends and counselors.
But the last step still remains---to find in every situation, no matter how distressing, that little bit of reality that’s worthy of praise. In that the true child of God can authentically rejoice.
I can’t end this chapter without urging those of you with buried pain to step out in faith. Begin to process the pain in the ways I described in this chapter. Jesus said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 NIV). God wants you to be free from the inner turmoil that haunts you.
Why not decide right now to take steps toward emotional healing? It’s possible your journey will take you through the valley---that you’ll dredge up pain you think is too great to bear. But as hard as it is, it’s a price worth paying. It’s the only path to the freedom of emotional authenticity. (95-105)
Surely the Lord is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills,
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundances.
They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?”
This is what the wicked are like— always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
As a dream when one awakes,
so when you arise, 0 Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
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