I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness. — John 10:10b
Stories are a remarkably powerful communication tool. They permit us to enter the world of others at will to be challenged and inspired. As a child, it was the Old Testament’s epic view of God and His dealings with the Israelites that allowed me to vicariously experience His faithfulness and mercy. Just as impactful were the New Testament narratives of Messiah’s followers. Their courage in the face of overwhelming odds gave me hope that I could do the same.
Recently, I came across the account of a particular boy born to a single mother. Even though being raised by one parent is not all that unusual today, it was not always the case in years gone by. In fact, as the boy grew, he realized just how different he was. His lack of a father was an unwanted stigma isolating him from his peers, and bringing great embarrassment and shame. As a result, he always went to great lengths to keep his family situation out of the public eye.
Time passed, and the boy continued to stay in the shadows as much as possible. One day, however, he heard people talking about the arrival of a new preacher in town. Although he had never been inside a church, the youth decided to see what all the excitement was about.
Slipping out of his house early one Sunday morning, he walked to the church in time to find a seat well in advance of anyone else. Not wanting to be noticed, he made his way out before the dismissal. He was intrigued by the preacher’s message enough that he decided to go back again and again, always being careful to arrive late and leave early to avoid being asked why he was alone.
Although he could not have known it at the time, the child was falling victim to a devastating cycle of shame, fear and control. His shame at being without a father caused him to believe he was somehow defective, and because he was afraid he would be found out, he did everything possible to control his circumstances. In effect, he was unknowingly laying the foundation for a spiritual stronghold that had the power to enslave him.
During one Sunday service, he became so engrossed in the sermon that he failed to exit in time. Realizing his mistake, he hurried past the people pouring out into the aisle, and quickly headed for the door. He might have made good his escape, but was unexpectedly detained by a strong hand on his shoulder. Turning around, he looked up into the intense gaze of the tall preacher. “What’s your name, boy?” the man asked. “Whose son are you?” The poor child cringed, but before he could say a word, the discerning preacher said, “Wait. I know who you are. I see a distinct family resemblance. Why, you’re God’s son!”
As only the Lord could have arranged it, the boy eventually became a preacher himself until other pursuits led him in a different direction. Many years passed, and the man retired. One day he decided to stop by a local restaurant for dinner. It wasn’t long before he struck up a conversation with the young couple sitting near him. The younger man’s obvious annoyance at such an unwanted intrusion soon changed to profound humility as he listened to the story of the preacher’s earlier life. “You know, mister,” the old man concluded, “those words from the preacher that day changed my life.” With that, he got up and walked out.
“Do you know who that was?” the waitress asked the couple a short time later. That was Ben Hooper, the two-term governor of Tennessee.” Instead of shunning the public eye, it seems he found the courage to embrace it. It was clear that at some point he had made the decision to be defined by an attentive heavenly Father rather than the absence of his earthly father. He was after all, the child of the One who never abandoned him and was always proud to call him “son.” The faithful, steadfast love of God gave him the courage to turn his life around and march into the destiny God planned for him before he was ever born (see Jeremiah 29:11).
Over the years I’ve thought a lot about why rejection, abandonment and betrayal hurt so deeply, and why they have the power to destroy us if we fail to deal with them. When all is said and done, I believe this kind of pain strikes at the heart of who we are, or at least the person we think we are, or are told we are. All too often a misplaced identity leaves us vulnerable to rejection and abandonment. In turn, we may fall victim to loneliness, insecurity and depression.
The same article that referenced the fatherless boy mentioned an interesting study conducted in 2012 at the University of California, Los Angeles. I was intrigued enough to track down the original paper published by researcher Naomi I. Eisenberger in an article entitled, “Broken Hearts and Broken Bones: A Neural Perspective on the Similarities Between Social and Physical Pain.” Eisenberger set out to determine if the experience of rejection, exclusion, or death of a loved one can actually cause physical pain, or if the terms we use to describe our feelings are merely convenient metaphors. Her conclusions were revealing. She discovered that such descriptive phrases as, “You hurt my feelings,” or “He broke my heart,” are a nearly universal phenomenon. People everywhere express meaningful similarities in how they experience and react to physical and social pain. She also found that regardless of how pain is perceived, or expressed, it is very real.
This should not come as a surprise to students of the Bible. Like us, Jesus also knew temptation (Mark 1:13); poverty (Matthew 8:20); frustration (John 2:15-16); weariness (John 4:6); disappointment (Luke 13:34); rejection (John 6:66); sorrow (Matthew 26:38); ridicule (Mark 15:19), and loneliness (Matthew 27:46). It is precisely because He suffered as we suffer, that we can trust He is close to the brokenhearted and longs to rescue those whose spirits are crushed (see Isaiah 53:3, Psalm 34:1).
Christ came to set the captives free by teaching us how to forgive the unforgivable and how to love the unlovely. If you are one of today’s walking wounded, the Bible offers you a remarkable shared blessing. “Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance” (Isaiah 61:7a). Remember, your past does not have to be prologue to your future. As Rick Warren says, “Your greatest life messages and your most effective ministry will come out of your deepest hurts.” That is because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3). Turn to the only One who can help you write the new story—His story—of your life.
Heavenly, Father, we know that with You, all things are possible. Give us strength to forgive the past so that we might turn our full attention to a better future. It is in Your precious Name that we pray. Amen.
— Francine Thomas