From the Head to the Heart is a blog series exploring common issues people may encounter that prevent them from experiencing God on a deeper level. The blogs will then dig into strategies for helping make the connection between the head and the heart.
The 80’s classic film, Back to the Future, is a movie about the past, present, and future. As the film unfolds, viewers learn how the past has had a significant impact on the future and present. Marty McFly travels through time to his parent’s past, where he learns how his parents came to be the people they are in the present. In the film, only by revisiting the past is the future, and present, capable of being changed. I am sure many of us would love to travel back in time, as Marty McFly did, to change how we live in the present and future. The concept of Back to the Future is wishful thinking. However, there is one concept the movie captures which is true -- if we re-engage our past we can alter future, and present, outcomes.
When the past is brought up in counseling sessions, people often respond by saying something along the lines of, “I don’t see what that has to do with my current struggles?” or “I don’t see how focusing on the past helps me with my current problems?” Why are we so quick to dismiss the impact our past has had on us in the present and will have on us in our future? People struggle with reliving their past, particular the past that has caused hurt, pain, and sadness. Philosophically speaking, we live in the past and future, i.e., we live impacted by the past, which then affects our future. The present is what we experience in the here and now, which quickly becomes the past in a matter of seconds. The present is here, and now, however, it is also in the future. For instance, in five minutes from now --, i.e., the future -- you will be living in the present, at which point that time will become the past. The present is fleeting, it is lived in the here and now and then gone. Because the present is so fleeting, our lives are continually impacted by our past, which has a direct influence on our future and how we live in the present. Our past has molded and shaped the way we engage the world around us. The past also shapes what decisions we make about our future. If this is true, then our past experiences with God often mold our current view of God. We experience God in the present. However, our past can warp our experiences with God now. We’ll explore how our past experiences may impact our current struggles to feel intimately connected with God.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
The movie Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck, is a story of how one’s past has impacted one’s future and how one lives in the present. Spoiler Alert! The following reveals parts of the movie. Lee, played by Casey Affleck, is introduced at the start of the film as a janitor for an apartment complex doing everyday mundane tasks. Lee gives the impression of someone who simply doesn’t care. The way the audience experiences Lee in the present leads you to ponder why Lee comes across as aloof and not caring. His interactions with various tenants show a man who appears to be drifting through life with no real direction. He seems emotionless and timid. He shows some bursts of anger that reveal he may have something deep within him that he’s seeking to keep hidden and suppressed. The audience is left pondering, “What is wrong with this guy?” As the story unfolds, the audience is shown flashbacks of Lee’s life. In these flashbacks, Lee is expressive, jovial, and engaging with those around him. He’s an entirely different person. The question begs, “What happened to Lee?” As the movie progresses, we see how Lee engages people around him, particularly those from his past. As the film unfolds, the audience discovers that Lee faced a great tragedy in his life, which would forever alter his future, and how he lives in the present. At no point in the movie does Lee address or acknowledge his past, what is known of his past is through the flashbacks. People all around him know about his past, and yet he never once speaks of it. However, the other characters he engages can see the impact Lee’s past has had, is having, and continues to have on him. The only acknowledgment of his past is toward the end of the movie when Lee tells a relative, “I can’t beat it.” “It” refers to the traumatic past event. He acknowledges that his past has beaten him down and left him defeated and helpless. The movie is a powerfully moving film because many of us can relate so closely to the character of Lee. Lee was not even able to name “it” due to the pain and heartache he felt from the past tragedy which had impacted him in the present and the future.
If how we live in the present and future is so drastically influenced by the past then why can’t many of us change? The answer is fear. Fear of re-experiencing pain and hurt causes many people to avoid the source of fear at all cost. Fear derives from the brain over a matter of seconds. An illustration may be helpful. Imagine you are hiking one spring afternoon, and out of the corner of your eye, you see a long slender black object on the ground. Your brain is processing at lightning fast speed through sensory input through a part of the brain called the thalamus. The thalamus quickly processes the experience through sensory input, such as sight, smell, sound, kinesthetics, etc. The information is sent to the amygdala where emotional significance takes place. At this point, your experience is fear due to the object looking a lot like a snake. The hippocampus secretes stress hormones to help you defend against the perceived threat. You may find yourself jumping back or running from the black object. The perceived threat will then pass to the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain where conscious interpretation takes place. The prefrontal cortex discovers that the perceived threat was, in fact, a stick, not a snake. The threat level decreases and stress hormones are no longer needed. All of this happens in a matter of seconds, and we have no control over how the thalamus, amygdala, or hippocampus respond. What does this have to do with feeling distant from God with past, present, and future? Bear with me as I unpack this further.
We just got a quick glimpse into how the brain responds to perceived threats. Our natural, God-given, functions of the brain kick into gear regardless of our ability to control them, and we are reacting toward a perceived, or actual, threat. The brain, through the processing and interpretation of the prefrontal cortex, stores information, and memory in various parts of the brain to remember threats. Pain is recognized and avoided as a function of the brain.
Now, let’s say you have a deep purple bruise on your thigh. Because we are wired to avoid pain and hurt, you seek to position your body, when sitting, to not feel the pain from the bruise. What happens if someone accidentally bumps into the bruise on your thigh? How will you respond? Think about your response for just a moment. You will likely instinctively pull back and avoid further pain. Your brain is already processing the information rapidly before you consciously have time to process what happened. You might even lash out at the person who accidentally bumped into you, which is an act of attacking the perceived threat. Once you have time to process the incident, you may realize the person did not mean to bump into your bruise. Regardless, your brain will store this experience away, and you will seek to protect your wound from any further bumps. Why? We try to avoid pain and hurt. The brain’s response to physical threats that cause pain is no different from emotional threats that have caused us great heartache. Reminders of painful events in your life (the past) have a direct impact on how you respond in the here and now (the present) when you seek to position yourself not to feel any pain. The positioning of avoiding emotional pain is referred to as hypervigilance, which is essentially a state of being on constant alert. Such experiences will set the tone for how you respond in the future to perceived threats.
Why is the past avoided by so many people? Because for many of us the past is full of pain, heartache, and hurt. What do people do when they are reminded of suffering, a perceived or real threat? They seek to avoid the source of the pain. Can you start to see how our past impacts how we live in the present and the future? For many, the past is being avoided at all costs. How does the brain respond to this? Remember that the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain we’re consciously aware of how we are interpreting life events. If a life event is traumatic or threatening, then it is not uncommon for many people to not want to think about the pain associated with the experience. The brain, however, is seeking to process and make sense of the events that took place. In essence, we override the brain and do not allow ourselves to think about the painful past experience. In overriding the brain we do not let new meaning, understanding, and interpretation to be made. Therefore, you remain in a state of hypervigilance when anything that resembles the threat comes into the picture. Your system is on alert at all times, which continues the overriding of the system to avoid thinking about the source of pain, hurt, and heartache. Why do people avoid talking about their past? Fear of the pain associated with one’s past.
GOD SHAPED BRAIN
Dr. Tim Jennings, a psychiatrist who specializes in neurobiology, speaks of the profound impact life experiences have on the brain. He says, “we have power over what we believe, however, what we believe has power over us.” Dr. Jennings is a Christian psychiatrist who focuses on how the interpretation part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is a key player in reprocessing life events that highjack one’s brain. You can watch some of his lectures by clicking here.
The brain is rewired by experiences which mold and shape the way we engage and interpret, the world around us. The more traumatic and tragic the experience the greater the impact on the brain. Dr. Dan Siegel coined the term interpersonal neurobiology, which is the study of how the brain grows and is influenced by relationships. Such research focuses on how relationships have a profound impact on how we see, encounter, and engage the world around us.
If human relationships have the capacity to influence our present and future, then how much more of an impact does a relationship with God have? Wrestling with God through pain, hurt, and suffering is a difficult task. It is even more challenging when you seek to avoid the past events that lead to your pain and suffering. Remember, fight or flight is a standard response triggered by various parts of the brain. It is not uncommon for people to react toward God one of two ways: Anger (fight) or avoidance (flight). When you associate God with your past pains and hurts, then you will likely respond one of these two ways. God wants the chance to speak into the aching wounds of our past. He wants us to trust him as we wrestle with very real and painful questions as they relate to his presence in the midst of painful experiences in our past.
AVOIDING THE WRESTLE
When we wrestle with God, we are likely to be impacted by the encounter. Look at Jacob, who wrestled with God and walked away with a permanent limp. Given pain and hurt is being avoided, or expressed in anger toward God, why would we seek to willingly walk into an encounter with God that might leave us feeling more hurt? Interestingly, we never read about Jacob’s limp post his wrestling match with God. Any time Jacob is mentioned his injury is never the focus. In fact, despite the permanent limp Jacob walks away rejoicing and joyful due to the blessing he received from God. There was a cost to his blessing. However, Jacob did not appear to pay much attention to the cost because the blessing was far greater than the hurt.
God invites us to bring our pain and hurt to him, to wrestle with him. Wrestling with God doesn’t mean you will walk away with a permanent limp. However, it does mean you will likely face some pain. Often pain is felt to experience healing. For example, if a person’s shoulder pops out of joint the shoulder has to be put back into place. The process of doing so is very painful. However, healing cannot take place without experiencing the pain. The same goes for a broken bone that has to be reset. The process of resetting the bone is painful. However, it is through the painful process that healing takes place. To wrestle with God can be a painful process because the ultimate Healer is going to peer into the hurt you feel and reset your heart to set you on a path of healing. The hurt that is felt and faced is the pain and heartache of past hurts. To avoid such past hurts is to avoid the healing path.
When you avoid your past hurts and turn inward to find solace and security, then you are not going to experience an intimate relationship with God fully. Why? Because you are turning to something other than God to find solace and security. You do not see God as safe to turn toward. David says numerous time in the Psalms that God is his fortress, his shelter, and the place of security he turns to in times of trouble. David faced much pain, hurt, and suffering in his life. David provides us with an excellent example of someone crying out to God in the midst of pain and hurt from his past impacting his present and future. David saw God as his shelter, his fortress, his haven. The question begs to be asked of us all, where do you turn to for safety and security when faced with the hurt and pain of your past?
A prayer for you: Abba Father, I pray for my brothers and sisters reading this blog entry, and I ask that you stir within the hearts of those who resonate with what was discussed in this blog. Lord, I know many hurt and suffer due to their past. May these individuals be aware that you, their Heavenly Father weep over their pain and suffering, that You burn with anger toward the sin that has left such a mark on His children. May my brothers and sisters see you as a shelter, fortress, and haven. And may they dare to wrestle with you, the Great Physician, who heals the brokenhearted and sets the captives free. Amen.
NOTE: If you have faced some traumatic life experiences in the past that have caused you a lot of heartache and pain, then I highly recommend you seek support and help. The healing path is not a path we were intended to walk alone.
Exercise: Read Psalm 18 and 23. Make a note of what emotions are being expressed. Be mindful of how the Psalm is being written (i.e., what is in the past, present, and future).
Jennings, T. Come and Reason Ministry (www.comeandreason.com)
The Holy Bible (ESV)
Dr. Ruel Tyer is the Director of Care and Counseling for OneDay Counseling at Portico church. To learn more about OneDay Counseling visit the website - www.onedaycville.org. Dr. Tyer provides counseling services for individuals, couples, and families. If you are interested in learning more about counseling services please contact Dr. Tyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.