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The Wall around Your Heart

by Mary DeMuth on December 30, 2013 in Book Excerpts

Excerpted from The Wall Around Your Heart: How Jesus Heals You When Others Hurt You, by Mary DeMuth (wife of Patrick, ThM, 2004). Recently featured in Christianity Today.

When we look at other translations of this famous portion of the Lord’s Prayer, we often remember “daily bread” instead of “food we need.” But those words, according to most commentaries don’t merely mean ground grain, leavening and water. Bread connotes everything we need to sustain our lives. It is the daily gift of God to give us nourishment both for our bodies and our souls.

It’s fascinating to note two words: “us” and “today.” We ask for this kind of grace for us, not just me, which makes this prayer even more important for those of us who  limp along after someone else’s insult. All of us need that grace. All of us need forgiveness. Them and us.

And we need it today, daily. Yesterday is past and the worries of the future are futile musings. Today is all we have, and God promises that He will meet us right now. “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’” (John 6:35, ESV). That’s His promise to us, and it’s said in present tense.

It’s important to understand Jesus’ direct audience. These people were not wealthy by any stretch of our modern imagination. In that era, you were considered wealthy if you had one other set of clothes to change into and one meal lined up that you didn’t have to work for first. They exemplified dependence on God for everything—even shelter for the night. With our glut of stuff, we can’t imagine that kind of need for God. And yet He calls us to that kind of moment-by-moment dependence.

Shane Claiborne wrote, “[The Lord’s Prayer] is a prayer the poor know well. It is also a warning to those of us who might pray for tomorrow’s bread or those of us who might pray for a steak. We are not to pray for ‘my’ bread but to cry out with the poor ‘our’ sustenance. We are not to pray for the poor, but to pray with them—and to realize that as long as anyone is hungry, all of us are hungry.”[i]

Ultimately, God calls us to live in the moment, to ask for that bread, to not let the pain of the past prevent us from engaging in the great right now. How do we ask Him for such a grace gift for our relationships right now? And what does that look like as a lifestyle? Expanding the metaphor from bread to loving in the present tense helps us pursue “the food we need” in our difficult relationships. It gives us permission to thrive despite the desire to wall off our hearts. Asking Jesus for specific strength when we endure pain from others enables us to live openhearted lives.

Settle your worth

If you don’t like criticism, join the club. It’s never easy to hear or read or experience.

And if I’m completely honest with you, I have to admit that I struggle deeply with it. I can’t seem to move beyond it. Words stick to me like crazy glue, particularly negative ones. I assign weighty worth to them, more worth than the sweet words God speaks over me. I grant negative words power in my life, over my thoughts. This has to stop.

Because, thank God, our worth is not dependent on whether we disappoint someone or fail to live up to expectations. We may feel that way, but that belief is untrue. Have you considered that it’s plain old disobedience when you entertain mean words against you more than you accept and believe your worth? I’m not saying we shouldn’t take in criticism and learn from it. As a writer, I have to do that all the time. I couldn’t improve unless I was willing to hear hard words. But we do have a choice when we hear criticism. We can listen, sift, ask God to help us, then change (or not change) or we can listen to the poisonous words and let them holler accusation over us.

“You’re not worthy to be on this earth.”

“You’ll never measure up.”

“You’re not worth anything.”

Those hateful words are not God’s words to us. His words are for us. Yes, He disciplines, but always with hope and peace, not with berating, not by attacking our worth.

Criticism, whether it’s accurate or not does not define you. Jesus defines you. Even you don’t define you.

Today choose to rest there. Not in the mean words. Not in your own taunts. But in His delight over You.

Pass by on the other side

Jesus instructs us that our bread is for today, not yesterday. And really, all we have is this moment right now. When we live in light of the past, it strangles our ability to embrace life freely today. That’s why we need to let go of relational baggage. It should not define us, nor should the pain from it inform the way we interact or withdraw from others today.

A few years ago, I learned a valuable lesson about today and the past as I jogged through my neighborhood, near the glint of sunshine on the lake, the smell of fall in the air. When I turned the corner to ascend the hill, I started the little game I’d been playing each time I did so. I condemned. Maligned. Hollered at myself.

Why? There’s a house on my route that serves as a reminder of a failure of mine. While I’d been at the pool with my daughter, I interacted with a parent. I’d completely forgotten that I’d met her before and asked her all sorts of questions that I should’ve known the answer to. I noticed her perplexity. Only later did I realize I’d just treated someone I’d met before as a stranger. So every time I jogged by the mom’s house, words assault me. “You should’ve remembered her. Why didn’t you?” So I started my mantra to the cadence of my slow paced run.

Then the Lord said this: ”Pass by on the other side.”

Really, Lord?

“Yes. You’ve beaten yourself up far too much. Pass by on the other side.” So I did. I purposefully ignored the painful house reminder, steadying my gaze on the other side of the road. I noticed houses I’d never noticed before. New landscaping. A new vista. The sun shone differently on this side of the street. And once I passed the house, I felt free.

It really is true that you have a choice. You can run on the side of the road where the condemnation blossoms—where the yesterdays haunt you. Or you can choose to run to the other side and notice new signs of life today. You can beat yourself up, or choose to offer grace. Yes, the grace to be kind to yourself.

Ask for bravery

I’m not often brave. But part of what I need each day from Jesus is personal bravery. One day, I needed it for the sake of another.

The older gentleman standing before me in line at the supermarket fumed. Livid about the price of strawberries and an apparent discrepancy in what the store advertised and what he was charged, he spewed venom on the girl who checked him out. Then he grabbed her and made her walk with him to the strawberry section to show her how wrong she was. Oddly, she willingly followed. While I waited.

The man returned with the shame-faced girl, waving the sign at her and hollering. I felt terrible for the girl, but I was also a little annoyed that all my groceries were on the conveyor belt and this conflict didn’t seem to want to end.

Finally, as a manager came near, I firmly told the customer, “Sir, I’m sorry you’re having a conflict, but can you please take this to the manager here and have her settle it? There are people waiting in line.”

He scowled. Later, my daughter Julia said she thought he would punch me. “Mom, if he punched you, I’d punch him back for you.” But then she admitted, “That man scared me.”

Back to the story. I looked at the checker in that moment and our eyes locked. “Thank you,” she said. “That man scared me. I can’t thank you enough for rescuing me from him.”

Her eyes, her fear, her sadness plunged me back to another memory when I was in the middle of a heated exchange where one woman berated and ridiculed a friend of ours. Something rose up within me in that moment. Firmly I said, “You are not allowed to treat him that way.”

Someone pulled me aside after that exchange and confronted me. “Mary,” the man said, “you are reactionary. You need to control yourself.”

At first I apologized. But after thinking about it and praying, I realized I had nothing to apologize for. Bullies should not go unchecked. If I hadn’t who would? Who would stand up for the victim? If Jesus were there, wouldn’t He help the victimized?

I hope I did the right thing, both for the checker and for my friend. Sometimes it’s hard to know. Because we’re conditioned to think love is ooey gooey, and touchy feely. Always kind and gentle and sweet. I would argue that sometimes love looks pretty darn tough and even borders on mean, in the case of protecting the innocent. Sometimes love looks an awful lot like a firm voice and drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Sorry, but you’re not allowed to talk that way to that person.” It’s the right thing to do. And Jesus will grant us that bravery if we ask Him.

Seek the Shelter of Jesus

Have you ever come to the place where you don’t feel like you can take another sideways comment, ridicule, or criticism? I’ve been there. And I’ve had to learn to ask Jesus for help—otherwise I’d give up and become a hermit. When a disgruntled person sent my husband an email missive, I chose to skim it and not let the words penetrate. And when I’ve received ill-meaning emails from angry people, I’ve tried to do the same. But sometimes those words penetrate, take up residence, and devastate.

That’s when I turn to King David and his prayers. He wrote, “You hide them in the shelter of your presence, safe from those who conspire against them. You shelter them in your presence, far from accusing tongues” (Psalm 31:20 NLT). Accusing tongues are not my favorite way to spend an afternoon. I don’t count them as daily blessings. But here, David assures us that God is big enough to shelter us from the accusing words other send our way. His love and provision take the sting out of mean words. We can make it even easier on ourselves if we believe this. And we can grow through a painful interaction by choosing to let go of the painful words, whether by deleting (if they’re written) or replacing our memory of someone’s words with a prayer for them.

Rid yourself of an all-or-nothing mindset

I tend to do all or nothing. If I take a run in the morning, I make the whole day a healthy nutrition fest. But if I miss my run, chocolate lurks around every single corner of my house, making me eat it all day long. All or nothing.

Having this kind of mindset sabotages your relationships, though. Why? If you fail, you fail wholly. If you’re an all-or-nothing person, one little mistake opens the door to widespread failure for the rest of the day. (Well, since I’ve eaten one chocolate covered peanut butter ball, I might as well eat a dozen. Or, if I can’t live up to my spouse’s expectations, why even try?) Rooted in this is a strange form of perfectionism. If I can’t be perfect, I may as well fail completely.

With an all or nothing mindset, you tend to judge yourself relentlessly. When you fail, it becomes catastrophic (even though it’s not). The world crumbles around you and Eeyore becomes your best friend. The problem is that relationships are seldom all or nothing. Often they involve the tension of good and bad, positive and negative. No one relationship is happy all the time. Nor is it accurate to say a relationship is 100% bad.

The other problem with an all or nothing mindset is who you become when you’re doing well. You can fall into the trap of pride and arrogance. When others don’t live up to your expectations or standards, they become fodder for judgment. You may not say this out loud, but internally you’ll wonder why other people can’t hold it together as beautifully as you can. And you’ll see those who struggle as less than. This is not the daily help Jesus wants to give you. He gives spiritual gifts like patience and kindness and longsuffering. He does not give a haughty, superior spirit.

Lapsing into the nothing category shortchanges your growth. When we give up and falsely believe that we’ll never amount to anything, we stop risking, stop trying, stop growing. This causes atrophy in our spiritual lives. And it devastates our relationships. Remember that God is the relentless pursuer. He pursues us. He pursues our enemies. In this very moment, He has not given up on you. So do not give into despair.

Part of asking for what we need is finding balance between an all or nothing mindset. By His grace, we give our all to relationships, holding nothing back, yet placing every heartache in the capable hands of our Savior.

Practice Contentment

Discontent comes my way when I look at other folks. Is it that way for you?

I see someone else’s house, life, ministry, books, successful relationships and I begin to wonder why that blessing hasn’t come my way. I hate to type this onto the pages of this book so you see the ugliness of my heart. I wish I could have a holy contentment for today, for what I have right now. Often I do, but there are times when my eyes stray and I wallow in what I perceive as insufficiency.

The Lord often uses Scripture to bring me back into right alignment:

“Peter turned around and saw behind them the disciple Jesus loved—the one who had leaned over to Jesus during supper and asked, ‘Lord, who will betray you?’ Peter asked Jesus, ‘What about him, Lord?’ Jesus replied, ’If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.’ So the rumor spread among the community of believers that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that isn’t what Jesus said at all. He only said, ’If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’” (John 21:20-23, NLT).

Peter’s eyes strayed toward another believer, John. He wanted to know what would be John’s lot in the future. I can’t help but think there was an unholy curiosity there, a desire to see what God would give John, a place to compare. But Jesus didn’t allow it. He plainly said, “What is that to you? You must follow me.”

He says those words to me. To you. Right now. What does it matter if she has more than you? Why focus on his success? What’s the big deal about how perfect her life seems? What is that to you?

We aren’t called to follow after other’s comings and goings. We’re called to follow Jesus in the great right now. Wherever He leads. Wherever He takes us. Whenever He calls. However He wants. In whatever manner He deems. We are called to look away from others and look toward Jesus. The nourishment He gives us is contentment in the moment, that we are uniquely us, not them. That God sees us and will give us good and perfect gifts right now. He is a good Father who gives amazing gifts. But when we compare our lot to others, we forget the presents God gives us.

Choose to engage anyway

Maybe we struggle in our daily kingdom pursuit because we don’t fully chase after God’s kingdom. Remember that we’re called to balance. If you’ve been hurt by Christians, and those injuries have sidelined you, examine your life and where you’re spending your time. Is it all with believers? God calls us both to Christian community and the pursuit of those outside the kingdom. Perhaps you’re hurting today because you’ve become too enmeshed in God’s people, preaching to the choir, and not messying yourself with those who don’t yet know Jesus.

Or maybe you’re on the front lines of meeting non-Christian people, and it’s burning you out. You find their behavior and attitudes encroaching on your walk with Jesus, and you’re tired from fighting against it. Maybe it’s time to retreat to your community of Christian friends, let them pray for you, and carry you through this time of fatigue.

We’re not to retreat from the world.

We’re not to retreat from biblical community.

God’s kingdom is balanced. We are to be connected deeply with people inside and outside the church. Truth: both sets of people will hurt you. Both will manipulate, lash out, and confound. They are human, after all, just like us. The problem comes when we place huge expectations on Christians, then crash and burn when they fail. While it is true that Christians should act better than the “world,” it doesn’t always work out that way. That old cliché “hurt people hurt people” represents both sides of the kingdom.

Living for Jesus on this side of heaven is hard. God calls us to engage with messy people within the church and hurting folks outside it. Both sets will hurt us. Yet God is big enough to shoulder either type of pain.

When overseas, most of the relational pain we experienced came from other believers. We found surprising refreshment when we ventured beyond those walls and met with new friends and neighbors. Through our kids’ school friends, we met a family who didn’t know Jesus, and had a thousand skeptic’s questions. That family eventually moved toward faith in Jesus, and our daughter Sophie had the privilege of leading the daughter to Him. I don’t know if we would’ve pursued them had we not experienced such pain in other relationships.

The New Testament parallels this pattern. In the upper room, the Holy Spirit fell upon the Jewish followers of Jesus. They became true believers in that moment, empowered by the Spirit to share Jesus with other Jews. Eventually (and quite quickly) the church grew in Jerusalem. But God used persecution and dreams and other means to push the believers beyond their comfort, to disperse them abroad. This made them rub lives with both Jews and Gentiles who had yet to hear about Jesus.

God won’t let us stay safe in our churchy cocoons. He pushes us out. And sometimes He uses pain in the church to do that.

Understand the season you’re in

It’s important, too, to discern the season God has placed you in. There are times to heal from relational discord, times to retreat, times to advance, times to invest, times to rest. For five years post-ministry, Patrick and I healed, two years for every one we’d served on the mission field. During that time of healing, our world became small. We trusted few. We hoped to lead our children, discipling and training them. We committed ourselves to a small group of people from our church. Sometimes we went through the motions of life, still feeling numbed and devastated from the pain. We got angry. We took our anger out on each other far too much. We suffered in our marriage. We went to counseling. We tried to engage in deeper community, but often pulled away, afraid.

We walked through a season of healing.

And just last week, God refocused us. We resolved to be relational again. We’d been protective far too long. And we’d navel gazed, allowing some people within the body of Christ and their bad behavior taint how we engaged today. You would not believe what has transpired since we decided to shift our focus outward again to people who don’t yet believe and to the hurting.

In one week, I interacted one-on-one with ten people. People came out of every corner to find Patrick or me. We joked in our walk last night that once we made that determination to be about God’s kingdom (instead of wallowing in self protection), God brought many people our way, most of whom were hurting. We laughed about the irony as the sun went down and our dog panted in the humid June air. In a moment, someone drove their car nearly to the curb and stopped. It was our friend Kathy. “Hey, I saw you, so I decided to stop and ask if you wanted to come over tonight and have some blackberry cobbler.” We said yes, then laughed together at the uncanny season we found ourselves in. People were stopping along the side of the road to invite us to community.

Our daily bread comes in thousands of different bites. I’ve only highlighted a few unique ways God provides for us relationally. What I love about God is how He personalizes our lives. The daily Wonder Bread He gives you is different than the brioche He sends my way. The baguette He provides your friend tastes different than the Hawaiian toast He gives an acquaintance. Perhaps a lot of our discord and relational stress could be alleviated by recognizing the uniqueness of God in each other’s lives. Oh the vast peculiarity of us all! And how tailor-made and clever God is to meet us in us-shaped ways.

Jesus’ provision of daily sustenance reminds us of the manna in the wilderness. God “baked” it each morning, fresh and delicious. But if hoarded, manna grew moldly and inedible. In our relationships, we can’t go to Jesus once for help, then live the rest in our own strength—if we do that, our ability to love decays. We must ask Him every single day for help. By ourselves we cannot love, forgive, overlook, and grant grace. Jesus reminds us if this obvious, but often overlooked truth: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NIV). With Jesus, we’ll see fruit in our friendships. Without Him, our relationships emaciate.

Questions for Growth

  • How does settling your worth (that you’re wildly loved by your Creator) inform your relationships today? How would having that kind of security with Jesus help you navigate your current relational pain?
  • How have you been afraid or timid in your important relationships? Spend some time asking Jesus to bring you bravery and courage.
  • Why does knowing Jesus as your shelter from strife help you heal from your current pain? Does Jesus understand your current situation? How do you know?
  • What kinds of all or nothing mindsets mess with your relationships currently?
  • What role does contentment play in your relationships? How can you become more content in your friendships today?

© 2013. Mary DeMuth. Used with permissions from Thomas Nelson.

1. Claiborne, Shane and Tony Campolo, Red Letter Revolution. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2012), 70.

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