Listen to Your Heart

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I hate this graphic.

But it’s a Bible verse! What’s the problem?

One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that a spiritually abusive Christian system is always based on Bible verses. I remember when a friend read an early draft of my novel, and came back saying, “I’m surprised that the church in your story uses these verses about grace. I thought they’d just ignore those.”

No, they don’t ignore the verses. They isolate them and redefine them to fit their own ideas (just like they do to the people involved). Then they pile their own teachings on top. That way, when someone notices something wrong, the teachers can always dig up that tattered, smashed, and almost unrecognizable verse and say, “See? It’s based on God’s Word. Your problem isn’t with me, it’s with God.”

The verse in this graphic is the source of a lot of grief to those of us who came through an abusive system. It was used to make us suppress our instincts, give up our passions, and conform to whatever our “authorities” wanted us to be.

It’s actually part of a longer passage in Jeremiah where God is alternately rebuking and lamenting Judah’s idolatry, interspersed with hope that He will heal and redeem them. I can’t give an informed interpretation of the passage in its larger context. Most of us can’t.

All we ever knew was this one snippet: “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.”

We all know that’s true to an extent. History amply demonstrates how wicked human beings can be. Our own friends and family show us greed, manipulation, and anger. In fact, we ourselves know our own selfishness, covetousness, and fear. The problem isn’t that the verse is false, it’s that it’s used as an all-encompassing truth.

Abusive teachers point to this verse and tell us, “See, you can’t trust your heart. God says so. So if you want to do something that I don’t like—you have to give it up. If you feel that something is wrong—you need to ignore your instincts and obey what I say.”

Obviously it’s never presented that baldly. But it permeates the system.

A story:

One of my children exhibited symptoms of Sensory Integration Disorder. From the time she was a baby, loud noises (applause or sirens, for instance) would send her into a meltdown. She didn’t interact easily with other people; they insisted on touching her, looking her in the eyes, and invading her space. Sudden changes in schedule, such as a substitute teacher instead of the one she was used to, sent her into a tailspin. Although it was exhausting, my husband and I did our best to give her an environment where she could be comfortable.

I instinctively knew that she wasn’t being defiant when she couldn’t manage to follow orders. But others in our church at the time didn’t understand that. One woman in particular, who set herself up as a mentor to me, frequently engaged in power struggles with my daughter and was determined to win. The fact that my daughter was so reactive was a judgment on my own parenting—which I felt every single time.

Obviously I should have pushed back. I should have said that as her mother, I understood her needs, and I wasn’t going to stand back and watch this woman cause her grief. Instead, I let it go on for years, hardly ever protesting. Why?

Because my heart, the one that understood my daughter, was deceitful. I couldn’t trust it. It was clearly communicated to me that I was afraid to discipline her properly, so I instead had to bow to the ideas of my “authority” who saw a child’s rebellion where my (deceitful) heart saw confusion.

Eventually, my half-suppressed instincts clawed their way to the surface, and I drew some boundary lines. That was the end of my friendship with my “mentor.” For years I was bewildered and guilty, wondering I’d done so wrong.

Years later, I have a much better view of everything. My instincts were right. My daughter now has learned to cope with the overstimulation and is sociable and happy. She’s very much her own person, but not defiant. And all I did “wrong” in my relationship with the other woman was to listen to my heart, which she didn’t agree with.

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As wicked as our hearts can be, the other half of the truth is that the heart isn’t always wrong. It’s not wrong to explore what you love and pursue the desires of your heart. Obviously that has to be balanced by reason, understanding, and a heavy reliance on God’s grace. But then, doesn’t reason need to be balanced by compassion and creativity? (The answer is yes.)

Another story:

A few years ago, my friend Amy (not actually her name) came to me in tears. Her childhood best friend was getting married, but didn’t ask Amy to be a bridesmaid. However, the bride had asked two other newer “best friends” to be in the wedding. Either the bride didn’t value her friendship with Amy, or simply forgot about her. Both options cut her deeply.

Her head told her that she had a right to be hurt, and she ought to talk to her friend about it. But her heart, bathed in the grace of the Holy Spirit, said something different. It told her not to spoil her friend’s wedding day with any suggestion that she was upset. So Amy listened to her heart. She talked to me and others about how hurt she was, but when the wedding day came, Amy was there with a smile. Afterward, she made a point to see her friend pretty often, and never mentioned anything except good about the wedding. As far as I know, the bride never knew what her forgetfulness cost Amy; and Amy herself forgave and (mostly) forgot.

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For the meme above, I would react less to it if “Jesus” was saying, “You let it serve itself instead of remembering others?” The problem isn’t that we listen to our hearts or even follow them. It’s when we set our own desires above the good of others that things go wrong.

Also—just to mention it—the fangs on the heart really are kind of an overkill.

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3 thoughts on “Listen to Your Heart

  1. My heart told me that my marriage was a sham. It told me that love – the real kind – was out there somewhere. My heart struggled to show me that God did NOT demand that I stay “committed to my commitment”, regardless of the verbal, emotional, and financial abuse. But because I was taught that the heart is deceitful, I ignored it. I was told by my pastor that I “had a problem with biblical submission”. So I stayed until my children were adults and finally I listened to what was deepest within me and broke free.
    Learning to listen to my heart was like a rediscovery of an old friend. Things I always KNEW to be true bubbled up from whatever dark place they had been imprisoned. I found the mystery and magic of faith again. I found a deep peace and joy in living my life. I rest completely in the trust of God’s grace. Pity that it took me 30 years.

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  2. When the power-hungry leaders say, “Don’t follow your heart, follow the Bible,” what they really mean is “Ignore the Holy Spirit and your God-given instincts and your conscience — just do whatever I tell you is biblical.” If the leader can speak well and they know a lot of Bible verses, they can make just about anything sound “biblical.” But if their conclusions don’t line up with the character Jesus — the Jesus of compassion and courage that we read about in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — they are dead wrong.

    I can totally relate to your story about your daughter. When my family and I attended a legalistic church, I was made to feel ashamed that my toddler son could not sit perfectly still and quiet through the painfully long services. There would be a subtle look from a deacon or one of the influential women in the church, or a sermon on spanking. My son was just exhibiting age-appropriate behavior. Sometimes I would take him back to the restroom for a few minutes, just so that others in the church would think that I was a good mother and had taken him back there to spank him. In reality I would just talk to him for a couple minutes until he calmed down. I’m so glad to be out! He behaves so much better at the contemporary, grace-emphasizing church that we have been visiting recently. No wonder. He can feel that his mother is no longer stressed out!

    Blessings!

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