Responding to Heartache

Heartache isn’t something I enjoy parading to the world, and to tell you the truth, I’m somewhat ashamed of it. It shows I’m vulnerable, I’m in pain, and perhaps I’m being overly dramatic. But we all deal with heartache, and of three responses to heartache that I notice most of us take, only one ever makes any difference at all.

heartache

I didn’t ask for this pain, and I didn’t see it coming. Maybe I brought it on myself, or that I deserve it. Whatever the rhyme or reason, my life is dragging down because of it and I’m left with a mess.

I’m embarrassed. I’m an adult, a ministry leader, a business owner, a husband and father and all that jazz. I’m self-reliant and I write articles and books encouraging others to be the same. Life should be all Facebook selfies and smiles. I’m following the formulas, I’m playing the game…so what’s the problem?

I’m dealing with heartache, that’s all. And perhaps you are, too. Just like everyone. Eventually.

I have walked through and identified three responses. I’m putting this out there on my blog to help me sort this out, but I also hope it helps you.

1. In the Flesh

By “flesh” I mean your most basic instinct. Get angry. Lash out and attack. Hate those who persecute you. Blow up, kick the cat, hit something.

This rarely works for me, though it works for some — or it appears to, at least. I’m sort of jealous of those who respond in the flesh and seem to pull it off.

I envy the abusive parent whose kids never lip off, or the hot-tempered boss whose employees just do as they say, or the fire-breathing pastor who beats their congregation up from the pulpit. Everyone seems to behave. I don’t know how they manage it, because I have not had good results with the response of the flesh.

And my flesh can really be strong. I’m not a violent guy, but my words cut like swords. I’m the sharpest debater, dicing up those who hurt me into little rhetorical chunks they won’t easily forget. Or forgive. Rhetorically speaking, if you draw the flesh out of me and tick me off, I’ll fillet you for dinner.

But it rarely helps any. Sometimes it makes matters worse. Managing anger is tiring. My spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak. I really don’t like to be the jerk in the room. Especially when there are loved ones around.

I realize this: my basic human instincts exasperate the problems in my life. And my flesh is my problem, one that I need to wrestle with, one that my loved ones should not have to be burdened. I’ve got to get over my flesh and stop wallowing in the trials of my life. At least in the flesh; it is not helping at all.

2. In the Mind


There are some people like this guy. He’s got issues, but like those in the flesh, I envy him. He tears his congregation apart and attacks his flock in their pews, flipping out and ripping them apart. The result? Commendation and respect. Go figure.

He probably has a few degrees and is a really intelligent guy. His is a hyper-religious, legalistic response. I, too, can get myself wound up like him. I’m not so fire-breathing, but there is a tendency in me that entertains similar responses to my heartache.

Here’s the intellectual path of the response of the mind. It’s quite predictable, and like the flesh, it seldom works. First, take aim at the source. Next, identify the sin and corruption, call it out, simplify it and demonize it. Lastly, demand subordination and submission, perhaps publicly.

It’s too easy for me to respond to heartache this way. It seems valiant, righteous, correct. Zero in on the problem and fix it.

There are people in your life who are making things difficult for you. The mindful response is to fix their tendencies. Quote scripture, write a letter (a really, really long one), chew them out, and make sure they understand how wrong they are.

The most radical seem to love this senseless game. They get a kick out of public confessions and excommunications — of others, of course. These people are witch hunters. Their fingers point at everyone but themselves, and lives all around them are falling apart. (Again, watch that guy above. He scares me because I am like him.)

I’ve tried the mind, and just like the flesh, it seldom helps. The heartache doesn’t go away, and piling on more judgment and condemnation and ridicule of others doesn’t work.

It sometimes just makes things worse. I’ve found only one way.

3. In the Heart

I have only two responsibilities, and its centered around my heart. I need to huddle with God and seek what his will is, how he’s shaking things up, what he wants me to work on or change.

This may sound fleshy. “It’s all about me.” No, it’s not. It’s about God and how I fit into this universe.

This may sound heady. “It’s all about God.” Well, it is. But it’s not about how I think God should deal with you in particular — or anyone, for that matter. He’s dealing with my heart, and that’s my first responsibility.

My second responsibility is harder. My flesh repulses at this, and my religious tendencies find this truth difficult to accept. It sounds too easy, but it is totally good.

My responsibility is to love.

Love this situation, heartbreaking as it is. Learn from it, listen, grow. And love he or she who’s dishing this heartache out on me. Even love my enemy.

This concept has taken me years to figure out, and I wish someone told me this earlier in life. Maybe they had, but I was too wound up in my flesh or intellect that I refused to see the truth in this.

My heartache is not my end. It’s life, and there is something shaking out that I haven’t realized yet.

I’ve got to believe there is hope. And that hope is in me. Period. This may be my flesh, or it may be with my intellectual tendency to blame others, but it’s me God loves and it’s me he’s inviting to change.

This much I have figured out: I’m called to love. Even those who seem to be causing us the most heartfelt pain in my life. Especially those ones.

This is so incredibly hard. You and I don’t deserve this. Push away the pain and those who are causing it. We’ve been wronged, abused, disrespected, treated poorly, maligned, set up, slandered, etc. This eats you alive.

Identify? Of course you do. Because this is life. Heartache happens, and the only response that will heal any of it is in our hearts.

This is the only response that works. Pause, pray, seek counsel on what is going on. Consider your options. Most of all, doubt your flesh and mind, instead seek the deeper, heartfelt answers that are brewing up through the pain. Consider that, like cancer, the pain comes from the effects of the disease, not the disease itself.

Now there’s a thought to ponder. These answers come from the heart, not the mind and definitely not the flesh. Perhaps the pain isn’t the problem. Perhaps this heartache calls us to connect with our hearts, to grab our attention to a deeper, heartfelt truth that we’re being called to figure out.

Perhaps these troubles aren’t that bad at all. Perhaps they’re opportunities to connect with God, he’s got my attention, and he’s working on me and how to deal with my heartache.

Not in anger (the flesh).
Not in judgment (the mind).
But in me. In love.

Don’t Miss This Final Point

I hesitate to say what I’m about to say, because I don’t want to make light of the heartache in your life. I find myself complaining about my problems, but some of you have some real doozies. Death of loved ones, debilitating illnesses, addictions, abuse (both received and given), embarrassing slander, bankruptcy, prison, corruption, etc.

You’re way more desperate than I am, and your heartache may be way, way, way bigger than mine.

Here’s the thing, how I have found hope. Heartache very typically turns to glory. I’ve witnessed others overcome the most debilitating heartache, and they inspire me. It seems like the more pain there is, the more opportunity for miracles and victory.

God’s asking only one response of me: love. The response to heartache is heartfelt love. Life comes together from there.

I hope this helps you, and thank you for listening. Writing this out helped me. Immensely.

The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

~ C.S. Lewis The Abolition of Man

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  • Roman Hammes

    I struggle with my heart so much – craving the affirmation and love of those around me rather than the One in me. If my relationship with God is solid, I am able to turn the other cheek – most of the time, I don’t even have to deal with my own feelings of insult. I wish I could say my relationship with God is solid most of the time, but honestly, I usually have to get hurt to realize I am out of touch AGAIN and am just cruising along on my own steam. Without prayer to get my heart right with God, I am totally about your first response – my flesh wants to strike out in the general direction of whatever is causing me pain.

    Recently, I was given the realization that although I naturally seek God when I have a conflict at work or with my children (that is, take an internal moment for a quick prayer or delay an impulsive response until I’ve had a chance to talk with God about the situation), I didn’t do that in conflicts with the most important person in my life, my wife! I was so shocked and heartbroken to realize I had so mistreated her (and thinking about it, that most of what I had taken offense at was because of my flesh)!

    Yes, I agree the real answer is my relationship with God. Many times, I will not, or cannot
    see what is so obvious for another to see. I thank God for pastors that are willing to walk alongside, truly empathetic because they have been through similar struggles. I thank God for Christians who refuse to live the lie that they must be perfect and cannot have any struggles or difficulties or hardships if they are “good Christians”. I thank God for every Christian that lives a life that honors all of the precious people around us – especially the lost – because everyone is created in the
    image of God. Jesus spent time among the lost, not ostracizing them. I don’t recall Jesus ever saying “come back to me when you no longer sin” He didn’t embrace the sin, but he embraced
    the sinner. The greatest gift we can give to this world is a life that loves those around us, to be the recipient of the question “why are you different?” so we can share the love God gave to us.

    Thanks for being an honest, transparent voice, Chris. May God continue to bless you and your
    wonderful family!

  • Sarah F.

    I occasionally comment on townhall.com and there are some nasty people there tearing each other down. I have found that when I am careful not to retaliate to being chewed out, but give them the benefit of the doubt, they apologize, retract their statements and stand up for me latter. It’s hard, but it pays off by earning you a good reputation and healthy relationships.

    As far as heartache itself goes, I was really sick for over a year and the medicine made me feel much worse. The verse that helped was Habakkuk 3:18, “though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stall yet I will rejoice in The Lord, I will be joyful in God my savior.”

  • jim

    Excellent blog.
    Pain/affliction is one of the most effective indicators. It signals that we need to step back, and recognize that we are “Dust in the Wind”, and seek God’s will. Then God is compassionate to reminds us that love is the answer. My question is… How do we stop ignoring the “Check Engine” light that God can use in our lives.

    Psalm 90:12

    12Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
    13Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
    Have compassion on your servants.
    14Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
    that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
    15Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    for as many years as we have seen trouble.