My par­ents did the best they could. Bet­ter than the best they could. 

As a child, I knew I was phys­i­cal­ly safe and pro­vid­ed for. Dad played bas­ket­ball with me. Mom made din­ner. We ate togeth­er as a fam­i­ly. Christ­mas wish­es were granted.

Giv­en the deficits in their upbring­ings — Mom’s moth­er was an orphan, her dad an alco­holic; Dad’s father had severe schiz­o­phre­nia — I see the hand of God at work enabling my par­ents to give to me and my sis­ter far more than they were given.

So what do I make of this great aching void inside of me, the sense that I am unwor­thy and unlov­able? Clear­ly, it wasn’t my upbring­ing. It must be me. 

Stuffed Anger

From child­hood on, I have expe­ri­enced sear­ing inse­cu­ri­ty and des­per­ate long­ing for love and val­i­da­tion. This I chalked up to what Scrip­ture calls the flesh,” the old self full of sin­ful habits for which there is only one rem­e­dy: death.

And how I’ve tried to kill this part of me I labeled as the flesh.”

Through force­ful inner dia­logue, I attempt­ed to silence any long­ing to be seen and known. Such desires, after all, must be self­ish. I berat­ed the part of me that was inse­cure and anx­ious. Saint Paul said, I pun­ish my body and enslave it,” so I fig­ured this was the Scrip­tur­al method for killing — I would pun­ish myself and enslave any desire I saw as bad.” In actu­al­i­ty I was stuff­ing these desires. And, of course, stuffed desires don’t go away. They grow and mutate into some­thing else. Usu­al­ly anger. 

So I stuffed the anger. 

Even­tu­al­ly, that has to go some­where, too. It either explodes exter­nal­ly as rage or sex­u­al sin or the like; or it implodes into anx­i­ety and depres­sion. For me, it was the latter. 

It took a long time to see this because I hid my anger well, at least from myself. 

In my ear­ly twen­ties, through a job doing tech sup­port house calls, I befriend­ed Har­ry, a phys­i­cal­ly dis­abled retired psy­chol­o­gist. Har­ry had spunk. He was rough around the edges and didn’t refrain from speak­ing his mind. Dur­ing one vis­it he spun his wheel­chair around and told me flat­ly: You’re a very angry per­son, Bri­an.” I laughed. Didn’t he know I was in com­plete con­trol of my emo­tions and could stop my anger” before it start­ed? It took me a decade to dis­cov­er old Har­ry was right. Longer still to get to the heart of the matter.

Dur­ing my late 20s through ear­ly 30s, my wife and I had three kids: two girls and a boy. When our boy was five, I noticed I treat­ed him dif­fer­ent­ly than I had his old­er sis­ters at the same age. If he didn’t behave, I went through the right motions to cor­rect and redi­rect, gen­er­al­ly not rais­ing my voice or act­ing harsh­ly. But my heart would dis­con­nect from him in the process. There was a cold­ness in me, an emo­tion­al dis­tanc­ing, as if he wasn’t wor­thy of love and con­nec­tion until he straight­ened up.

I’d heard about hav­ing an inner child,” the lit­tle part of you that holds onto child­hood mem­o­ries and emo­tions. It dawned on me that I treat­ed my son the way I had been treat­ing this lit­tle boy inside of me. In real­i­ty, I was kinder to my son. I didn’t berate or belit­tle him as I did the lit­tle boy inside me. It became clear that I could only love my son to the degree that I loved, and allowed Jesus to love, the bro­ken lit­tle boy inside of me. 

But why was this lit­tle part inside of me so broken? 

Trau­mas of Omission

This brings me back to the start: exam­in­ing my child­hood. And this is where the state­ment, My par­ents did the best they could, true as it was, kept me from iden­ti­fy­ing the wound­ed boy inside. 

Until recent­ly, my inter­nal mono­logue went some­thing like this: 

Some peo­ple have real child­hood issues. They were sex­u­al­ly and ver­bal­ly abused, they wit­nessed mur­ders, they were mal­nour­ished. And what’s your prob­lem, Bri­an? That your mom didn’t have the capac­i­ty to be emo­tion­al­ly present? That you felt like your dad was dis­ap­point­ed in you? Give me a freak­ing break. Get over your­self and grow the hell up.

Because of that inter­nal script, it took an inten­sive coun­sel­ing retreat for me to see that I had trau­mas of omis­sion in child­hood. After I recalled what seemed to me innocu­ous parental short­com­ings — short­com­ings my par­ents couldn’t help but pass along because of their own par­ents’ short­com­ings — the coun­selor asked, Can you admit that this is a big deal?” Three days into my ses­sions, I final­ly said yes. 

It was the t” word throw­ing me off. Trau­ma is for abuse and wars and famine and earth­quakes, I thought, not for peo­ple who didn’t emo­tion­al­ly bond with their mom. 

I learned, how­ev­er, that while trau­mas of com­mis­sion are obscene and obvi­ous, trau­mas of omis­sion are insid­i­ous and hid­den. I want to avoid com­par­i­son — trau­mas of com­mis­sion always seem much worse and this is what kept me so long from seek­ing heal­ing. But down­play­ing trau­mas of omis­sion doesn’t make them go away. Just like trau­mas of com­mis­sion, their untreat­ed effects can wreak hav­oc on the soul. And I also learned that you simul­ta­ne­ous­ly hon­or par­ents while rec­og­niz­ing places they did not — could not — give what you needed. 

Rec­og­niz­ing that I have trau­mas of omis­sion has led to new ways of approach­ing the parts of me I want to change, new ways of treat­ing that wound­ed lit­tle boy inside. 

Don’t Kill What Needs to Be Healed

Here’s what I dis­cov­ered: It’s vital to dis­tin­guish between thoughts ema­nat­ing from the old sin­ful self and those from the wound­ed inner child. This requires help from the Holy Spir­it and often help from a pro­fes­sion­al therapist. 

If a thought is indeed com­ing up from the old sin­ful self, a self that needs to be put to death,” I’m not the one who needs to deliv­er the death blow. Jesus already did. 

Romans 6 deals with this mas­ter­ful­ly: We know that our old self was cru­ci­fied with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to noth­ing.” And while Paul says in Colos­sians 3 to put to death” sex­u­al immoral­i­ty, impu­ri­ty, and so forth, this has noth­ing to do with self-loathing or self-pun­ish­ment. In fact, the best way to kill” these things is not to focus on self or sin, but to focus on Jesus and what he’s done. In fact, one trans­la­tion ren­ders Colos­sians 3:5 as con­sid­er the mem­bers of your earth­ly body as dead to sex­u­al immoral­i­ty…” It’s one thing to slay a mon­strous beast, quite anoth­er to live into the real­i­ty that he’s already slain.

On the oth­er hand, if there is inse­cu­ri­ty, unwor­thi­ness, or shame welling up inside, a lit­tle boy cry­ing out to be safe and known and loved, this is not some­thing that needs to be killed but needs to be healed. 

Some of my biggest spir­i­tu­al break­throughs have come through guid­ed imag­i­na­tive encoun­ters, where Jesus looked at me — as he did in many Gospel sto­ries — with those burn­ing eyes of love. My heart has heard” him say that I am his friend, felt” him hold me. I’m ret­i­cent to write about these things. It’s so inti­mate. It’s also some­what sub­jec­tive, and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty is anath­e­ma for tra­di­tions that focus on doc­trine and under­stand­ing to the exclu­sion of encounter and expe­ri­ence (like the one I grew up in). But it is through our sens­es and our imag­i­na­tion that the wound­ed child inside is healed and secure attach­ments are cre­at­ed. I have much to learn about all this, but already I’ve expe­ri­enced last­ing fruit of the Spir­it from such encounters.

One last thing. With­out a deep and secure attach­ment to a good God, some spir­i­tu­al prac­tices can sim­ply be unhealthy cop­ing mech­a­nisms and attempts to gain God’s accep­tance. Just as train­ing for a marathon on an injured leg would cause fur­ther phys­i­cal injury, train­ing in god­li­ness” with untreat­ed heart wounds can cause fur­ther spir­i­tu­al and emo­tion­al injury. Get­ting heal­ing for our inner wounds and becom­ing secure­ly attached to God allows spir­i­tu­al prac­tices to be means of grace instead of harm. 

As I close, a bless­ing is bub­bling up:

May you not try to kill what needs to be healed,

and may you have wis­dom to know the difference.

May you not apply force where ten­der­ness is needed.

May you not be ashamed to get the help you need from men­tal health professionals.

May you have friends who can walk with you through the Val­ley of the Shad­ow and, when you are sick, rip open the roof to low­er you into the pres­ence of Jesus.

May your imag­i­na­tion be a holy sanc­tu­ary for encounter with the liv­ing Christ.

May your wound­ed inner child find accep­tance and heal­ing in the eyes and arms of Jesus.

And may your heart be secure­ly attached — like an oak — to the Father who loved you before you were, loves you where you are, and is lov­ing you into who you already are in Jesus.

This essay expands upon themes in Bri­an’s song, Wound­ed Boy.”

Lis­ten on: Spo­ti­fy · Apple Music · YouTube

Pho­to by Kim Teves on Unsplash

Text First Published August 2022 · Last Featured on August 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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