One of my core memories from childhood was getting rejected in group games. I was flat-footed, chunky, and clumsy. Whichever group I ended up with would get saddled by a slow teammate who would keep falling down and be a hindrance to winning. As a five-year-old, with limited cognitive abilities, the message I received from my playmates was, “You’re not worthy to be chosen.”
That hurtful experience affected my subsequent relationships significantly. I withdrew from my playmates and built a fantasy world with imaginary friends and story books. When I went to school, I realized my classmates valued my intellect. I could be accepted by others when I perform well and help others learn, too. To be part of a friend group, I needed to perform and to be the best.
But there was always an underlying insecurity and fear that when I had nothing more to offer, I would find myself having no friends. So I would hold back in my friendships. I didn’t allow myself to need anyone the way they needed me. I felt I would be protected from further hurt by it. This led me to distance myself from even my closest friends. Consequently, I would find my friendships shallow and reserved. I was missing out on truly intimate relationships.
Withdrawal and Isolation Cannot Heal
It’s true that most relationships in the world are transactional or mutualistic at best, where both parties benefit from each other. But what if you no longer have anything to offer? Does that mean the relationship will end? It’s a scary thought.
Because of our bad experiences with relationships, couldn’t we just heal by ourselves? This way, we don’t have to risk trusting again, to build again, and to potentially be hurt again.
But we’re all created for relationships.
Recent findings among aging people suggest that social isolation and loneliness pose higher risks for several physical and mental conditions: anxiety, depression, weaker immune system, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, etc.
Not only is social isolation unhelpful for healing relational wounds, it leads to sickness, and even premature death.
If withdrawal and isolation cannot heal and if it’s scary to trust that others will accept you unconditionally, how can healing happen?
The Gospel is the Starting Point of Healing
There is a Latin quote stating “nemo dat quod non habet,” which means “you cannot give what you do not have.” This is a spiritual law.
In order to experience healing and restoration in relationships, there must first be an encounter of God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love. When you know you’ve messed up, or you feel unlovable and unworthy, nothing can move you out of depression and loneliness like Someone who loved you enough to die for you so you can have a second chance. Not only that, He keeps loving every single day, even when you’ve failed once again, or you’re not at your best.
Awareness of our human failings and our weaknesses is the first step to healing. Self-awareness leads us to become contrite and humble enough to know we’ve contributed to our own wounding and to the woundings of others. Yes, we’ve been hurt, but we’ve hurt others in the midst of our pain, too.
But stopping with awareness can bring condemnation and shame, leading us away from relationships. On the other hand, moving towards repentance and God’s unconditional love allows us to experience peace and healing that open the door to forgiveness and reconciliation with others and overflow to compassion and empathy for others.
Moving Towards Others for Healing
If our most crucial wounds happen in relationships, doesn’t it make sense that healing and restoration must also happen in relationships? But what kind of relationships?
Some studies on mental health and well-being pointed to the need for relational recovery—that is, allowing yourself to know and to be known in relationships in a way that heals relational wounds from your past, transforms you, and matures you into who you were meant to be. For us who follow Christ, that means growing into His image.
It makes sense when the psalmist said, “God sets the lonely in families…” (Psalm 68:6) and when Jesus Christ urged his disciples to love one another. The Apostle Paul even underscored Christ’s command in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Relationships that are built on trust, empathy, safety, and grace allow us to reveal our imperfect selves that struggle with shame and longs for unconditional love and acceptance. This is why the church is the ideal place to find these kinds of relationships—with people who have experienced unconditional love and acceptance through the gospel.
Unfortunately, many lonely and hurting people are discouraged away from their need for restorative relationships because they are told to just “depend on the Lord.” Dependence on God and the need to be in healing relationships are not divorced from one another. In fact, one of the ways we trust God is to intentionally build loving relationships—to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and dependent on others.
To the hurting, we know that some of your wounds may have been caused even by people who are followers of Christ. But there is hope, because if there is anyone who wants you to be restored relationally, it would be God, and He is willing and able to reach out to you tangibly through a church community. Even now, you can reach out to us for prayer. And as we pray for that small group of people you can share life with, you can message us.
To the church, it’s true that we are made up of imperfect people. So let our theology be filled with love and grace, rather than just intellect and the “rightness” of it. After all, Jesus Christ Himself quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice.” The Hebrew word for “compassion” in this verse means a “belonging love” or a “loyal and faithful love” that emphasizes the kind of belonging and acceptance among God’s people. And together, as we live out Christ’s command to love God and to love others as He loves us, we will experience the loving-kindness that leads to repentance and a changed life.