Our hearts are always shutting down.
It can begin with a defining moment where someone says something you can’t forget. Or maybe it’s been many small disappointments with someone who failed you. Again.
Either way, it’s so natural to hold people (including God) who disappoint us at arm’s length. It feels safe and hurts less, but ultimately has disastrous consequences in our lives.
The Anatomy Of Shutting Down
For me, it was just another day, another criticism. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t please my boss.
I began dreading work. Not because of the work, but because of the criticism.
Before I knew it, my heart had grown angry, bitter and cold. The constant, dripping criticisms hurt less, but day by day I was becoming less alive.
CS Lewis describes our condition – and how we arrive there – in The Four Loves.
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal… Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
We love someone. Or something. It doesn’t go the way we planned, and we become deeply disappointed. And so instead of facing our hurt, we retreat and stop being vulnerable. Our hearts are ‘safe’ and don’t feel the awful lows, but there’s a massive price to pay. Because we can no longer feel the intense joys and delights God intended for us, either.
In the end, self-protection and true joy cannot co-exist.
Other Hidden Costs
Shutting our hearts down has other, hidden costs.
- Collateral damage. It’s tempting to think we can be distant toward one person and not allow that to affect the rest of our lives. But that’s not how God has made us. For example, while I continued to love my family when I was struggling at work, I began noticing that I was less present at home, too.
- Drifting toward (once) unthinkable sin. If we harbor bitterness, we can quickly become cynical and start to justify ungodly choices in response to difficult circumstances. I’ve seen this happen, for instance, in many marriages. Someone gets hurt, begins to create distance, and starts turning to someone outside the marriage for what they want from their spouse.
- Lack of intimacy with the Lord. Ultimately, when we close our hearts toward someone else, we’re closing our hearts toward the Lord, who seems to be distant and aloof. This is the greatest loss because God is our greatest treasure.
Climbing Out Of The Casket
So what can you do when you find your heart shutting down?
- Take it seriously. If you can’t think of people or situations with whom you’re angry/miffed/frustrated, check your pulse. Then think and pray harder. ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!‘ (Psalm 139:23)
- Confess what God shows you. No matter how small, ask God to forgive you for any bitterness or coldness you feel toward him or someone else. Your apathy may be entirely understandable given what you’re facing. But we can’t hitch the wagon of our forgiveness to the horse of someone else’s repentance. Our call is to ‘let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you… forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Ephesians 4:31, 32).
- Examine our expectations. If we expect an easy, all-inclusive vacation life, we’re bound to be disappointed in a world that needs resurrection. Is it reasonable to expect, for example, that the people closest to me will dramatically change after I’ve addressed an area of weakness or sin a few times?
The Most Important Thing
More than anything, when our hearts start to ice over, we need to keep our eyes on God. Not our pain. Or the person who’s hurting us. Or our circumstances that are less than ideal.
Don’t get me wrong: all those things matter to us and God. But placing our focus there will only lead us further down the rabbit hole of bitterness and despair.
When our hearts are shutting down, we need to very intentionally redirect our attention to what God says about himself in his word.
- ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God’. (Psalm 42:11)
- Meditating on passages where God comes through in impossible situations. Like the time God broke his silence after 400 years by sending Jesus to deal with our separation from him once-and-for-all (see the beginning of the gospels). Focusing on God and what he’s done in crazy, discouraging circumstances gives us hope that there’s hope for our own.
- ‘Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen’. (Ephesians 3:20)
There will always be reasons to let our hearts shut down and grow crusty. Especially when the people and circumstances around us don’t seem to be trending upward.
But we have an important choice: will we hold God at arm’s length and act like he’s not present unless things improve? Or, will we hold onto him in hope, trust and tenacious prayer no matter what?
If we choose door #2, we may well feel far more pain, but our hearts will remain alive, tender and ready to experience all the joys God intends for us.
Questions for reflection:
Where do you notice your heart shutting down? (Be specific.)
How can you re-frame what you usually tell yourself about these areas so that your eyes are fixed on the Lord rather than your pain and circumstances?