Everything we experience is processed through our hearts, the good and the bad.
North of Atlanta there’s an intersection where two major highways come together: I-285 and I-85. When I say intersection, I’m not talking about a traffic light with a turn lane. This monstrosity of 20th-century engineering spans several miles and includes innumerable overpasses and exit ramps. I’ve driven over, under and through this interchange hundreds of times, and I still have to pay careful attention to the signs lest I find myself headed right back in the direction from which I came.
Years ago when the interchange opened, a local radio station held a contest to nickname this massive tangle of concrete and steel. My favorite entry was "The Car-Strangled Spanner." The name that stuck, however, was "Spaghetti Junction." When you look at it from the sky, the name is certainly fitting. And as confusing as it is to navigate, it’s actually an extraordinarily efficient traffic hub — unless you happen to be passing through between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. During this time of day, Spaghetti Junction becomes a multilane parking lot. Everything comes to a standstill. All hopes of being home for dinner, early for a ball game or on time for a meeting are dashed.
Just about everybody in the Atlanta metropolitan area has, at one time or another, driven into Spaghetti Junction with a smile on their face and a song in their heart only to find themselves driving out an hour later with visions of selling everything they own and moving to the country. The good news is, everybody eventually makes it out. The bad new is, few people come out with the same attitude they went in with. In my case, the longer I sit there, the more my attitude deteriorates.
The Other Hub
The heart is a hub as well. Everything we experience is processed through our hearts, the good and the bad. Life comes at us from all directions, but it all gets channeled through our hearts. Unfortunately, our negative experiences have a tendency to get stuck there. Eventually they make their way out through our words and deeds; but because of the delay between entry and exit, we often have a difficult time making the connection.
So we’re mad but don’t know why. We’re discontent, but can find no real reason to feel that way. We’re resentful toward certain types of people, though they’ve done nothing to deserve it. We’re jealous while knowing all the time that it’s foolish to dislike somebody for having something we don’t. None of these things make any sense, but they’re real. And left unchecked they have the potential to drive us into self destructive and relationship-wrecking behavior patterns.
So maybe Jesus was right. Maybe all that junk we don’t like about ourselves really does come "from the heart."
Maybe Jesus was right? Of course He was right.
The heart seeps into every conversation. It dictates every relationship. Our very lives emanate from the heart. We live, parent, lead, relate, romance, confront, react, respond, instruct, manage, problem solve and love from the heart. Our hearts impact the intensity of our communication. Our hearts have the potential to exaggerate our sensitivities and insensitivities. Every arena of life intersects with what’s going on in our hearts. Everything passes through on its way to wherever it’s going. Everything.
Thus the need to monitor our hearts. Even if life were a level playing field, clearly we would need to keep an eye on what’s going on in that invisible but vital part of our being. But life is not a level playing field.
Let’s face it; life isn’t always kind. Everyone experiences a measure of hurt and rejection, some more than others. As a result of these unavoidable realities, unpleasant things become lodged in our hearts. We’ve even developed language to describe this phenomenon:
- "I’ll never trust another man."
- "I’ll never love again."
- "I’ll never give my heart to anyone."
- "I don’t need anybody."
- "I’m not letting anybody in."
- "She broke my heart."
- "He wounded me."
Or when talking about people whose hearts have been damaged, we may say:
- "He’s hardhearted."
- "You’ll never get to know her. She has walls."
- "He has trust issues."
- "She’s cold."
- "Hugging him is like hugging an ice cube."
The earliest of our wounds are often inflicted during childhood. At the time, our age prevents us from accurately processing exactly what we feel; all we know is that it’s bad and we don’t ever want to feel that way again. Ever. If the hurt is repeated, we begin to develop coping mechanisms. We have to. The natural response to pain is to stop it and, once we’ve stopped it, to prevent it from ever happening again. This is true of physical as well as emotional pain. And in some cases we’ll go to extremes to stop our pain. Extreme pain calls for extreme measures.
Pain Without a Name
I was present when my oldest son got his feelings hurt for the first time. It was terrible. Andrew was almost 4. We were having a party, and an adult was kidding around with him about something. Suddenly, Andrew just closed up. I’d never seen that expression on his face before, but I knew exactly what had happened. He turned around without a word and walked into the living room. I followed him, and when he saw me, he just stared at me with a look of pain and confusion. He was feeling something he’d never felt before, and he had no idea what to do with those feelings. I sat down on the couch and extended my arms. He just stood there. I reached out and grabbed him and just held on. There was no point in trying to explain to him that the person who made the comment was just kidding. That was irrelevant. These were new feelings with no name and no place to go. So I just held on.
After a few minutes I stood him in front of me and said, "That hurt on the inside, didn’t it." At that point Andrew burst out crying. And I was so glad he did. I’m no psychologist, but I know the danger of allowing something to get lodged in your heart. And I wanted to keep this little boy’s heart free of debris as long as possible. His tears cleansed his little heart, and I just held him as they flowed.
Unfortunately for most of us, nobody was there when we received our first wound. So we just carried it around with us, determined not to let it happen again. By adolescence we all had wounded hearts.
Between the little jabs from our friends, our parents, our teachers, our coaches and our adversaries at school, there was no way to avoid it. My Achilles heel was my teeth. I had terrible buckteeth. My teeth were so bad that my orthodontist won an award for creating a gadget to fix my mouth. Not just my teeth — my entire mouth. He actually kept my before-and-after impressions on display in his office. Anybody who doubted his credentials needed only to check out my impressions to be duly impressed with his skill.
I took more than my fair share of abuse in the years before braces. I was so wounded, I refused to smile for pictures. In every picture from fourth grade to sixth grade, I’m either crying or frowning. Kids told me I looked funny, and I believed them. I still have a difficult time smiling in front of a camera.
You probably have a story or two yourself. They may even seem silly now. But they weren’t silly then. Long after we slim down, grow into our feet, figure out what to do with our hair, and move beyond the years of acne, the memories and scars remain. I can still remember specific names kids called me in the sixth grade. In fact, that’s about all I can remember about the sixth grade. I feel pretty confident in saying that nobody gets through middle school without a wound or two.
But others aren’t always to blame. The junk that gets lodged in our hearts comes from a variety of sources. In fact, sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.
For example, secrets can damage the heart. I’ve counseled dozens of people who had hidden habits or were harboring secrets from their past. These secrets had caused them to build walls in their relationships. In many cases, their personal secrets caused them to become unjustifiably suspicious of those closest to them. That’s because we usually suspect in others what we’re guilty of ourselves. In time their secrets took a toll. These men and women felt guilty, and they carried that guilt into all their relationships.
A similar dynamic occurs with shame. When shame becomes lodged in our hearts, it eventually impacts our words and behaviors. The extreme example is the adult who suddenly remembers from childhood a chapter of abuse, years after the incident occurred. Anyone who has been sexually abused or is married to an abuse victim knows the damage done to the heart.
My point is that none of us reach adulthood without a few dings to the heart. Our response to those dings determines the condition of our hearts. We cannot control how people treat us. We cannot stop their hurtful words. But we can monitor their effects on our hearts. And perhaps, we can reverse the damage and keep our hearts free from further destructive debris.
Excerpted from Enemies of the Heart by Andy Stanley by permission of Multnomah, division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.