Caring for the Heart Series: Introduction
In the year prior to leaving the message, I had become very acquainted with a method of counselling called “Caring for the Heart“ (Developed by John Regier). I appreciated my pastor who would often go outside of the Message to find resources he felt would benefit our congregation. The materials we gathered included tools to equip parents how to better raise their children, and for couples to strengthen their marriage relationships. Although no tool was considered “perfect” by message standards (we still had to pass it through “the message filter” and modify where needed), there were some things we felt made a positive difference.
At the time, Caring for the Heart was practiced in one other message church that we were aware of, and so it seemed like something we should try. Much like John Regier did towards the “church” in general, we felt like the churches in the message were terrible at supporting marriages and people struggling with personal issues. Often the only direction couples received in marriage were the list of scriptures admonishing men to love their wives like God loved the church, for women to submit themselves to their husbands – and they to each other. There are few, if any, scriptures that mine down to the day to day situations that couples often face. They’re left with few tools to understand why their spouse shuts down or acts out (emotionally/verbally/physically) when certain things happen. It can feel like an emotional mine field over trivial issues that spark conflict and tension in the home – and the answers are hard to isolate because “talking about it” only creates further tensions.
Colorado Springs: Getting Training
After learning more about Caring for the Heart and feeling like there was something significant to learn (despite it not being “message material”), my pastor decided to embrace it. Consequently, my wife and I were blessed to travel to Colorado Springs to experience an internship for training. We would spend a week in observation of Caring for the Heart in action. Joining us was another message minister and a deacon from our church (and their wives) so we could all take the step of learning and bringing these tools back to our churches. We were privileged to sit in an “observation room” where we were permitted to watch John Regier help two couples (in separate week-long sessions) through marital/relationship issues.
Both couples we observed in counsel had unique circumstances that had manifested into deep struggles. In an effort to save their relationship/marriage, John would insightfully listen to their stories – from their earliest memories to present day. Methodically, he would break down each spouse’s life story in a manner that revealed their deepest fears, secrets and pain. Once he had broken down walls and opened up the secret places they individually protected, they would get to observe the flood of pain and hurt pour out. He would teach them how to put one another back together in a manner that demonstrated genuine love and care. As a Christian, he would introduce prayer as a tool for healing, restoration and reconnection.
Results: Not Perfect, but Powerful
At the beginning of the week, we saw two couples who were emotionally caustic to each other. There was yelling, screaming, crying, anger, frustration and pain expressed at each other. By the end of the week, they we holding hands through tears – walking out with hope and a deeper connection then they had ever known. As John strongly told us, his method doesn’t always work; it depends on the willingness of the people involved.
Frankly, none of this is easy. Often people are in put in a position where they are being asked to unlock a secret (or many secrets) that’s been hidden away in their heart – and they’ve never shared what happened to them, or how they felt in the aftermath. The feelings are intense and raw; and that feeling of complete exposure is the thing they have avoided protected against their whole life. They’ve never been able to trust anyone to care enough to open up and say “I was hurt so badly when _______ happened to me”. The hope is to equip them with understanding of what happens when you strip away all judgement, all criticism, all apathy, and allow reckless and unconditional love to listen and receive what they are daring to share. Together and individually, they can take hold of these concepts, practice them, and their relationship would go as far as they wanted into healing and connection through love.
One week was hardly enough to absorb everything we learned, and so we brought home extensive material to study and adopt into our ministries. It was an incredible experience for all of us, and I feel it was transformative in a positive way. We bought numerous resources – books and CDs – that would help us to learn and begin counselling others using this method.
A Personal Experience
For my wife and I, it opened up and powerful connection that was both healing and revealing. We found ourselves profoundly affected in our personal lives, as well as in our marriage relationship. When had gone to Colorado Springs to learn how to help other people; and suddenly, here we were feeling completely stripped bare and exposed to parts of ourselves we had never explored.
I am not sure I expected to have such a deeply moving experience; I had considered our marriage to be good. By most standards, I think it was good. My wife and I are non-confrontational, peacemaking personalities. It makes for a home without conflict or argument – and peace was the constant atmosphere of our household. However, we gained awareness of how much pain lingered within each of us, and how it impacted our relationship with each other (and with our children) in ways we were entirely blind to or previously unable to explain.
One afternoon in the middle of our week in Colorado Springs, my wife and I went for lunch in a nearby Wendy’s. We had just spent the morning watching John counsel with one of the couples, and we had a short time until the afternoon session. So we quickly ordered our food and went to the back to eat and talk about what we were feeling and learning.
Inevitably, we began to share. Our emotions were raw, and I recall telling my wife things about myself that I had never shared before with anyone. They were simple stories of a boy growing up full of fear, rejection and loneliness. I hadn’t ever told anyone just how alone I had been. The act of sharing how I would sit in the hallways of school with my paper bag lunch – eating alone – day after day, it opened floodgates of unfiltered emotion. I had never been able to tell anyone how much it hurt to feel unwanted; and that’s exactly how I felt: unwanted. There was no one to tell, or who would care enough if I did. It began to reveal aspects of my personality and the protective mechanisms I had build to prevent the hurt from drowning me. That was just a footstep; there was much more that would happen.
We hadn’t “fixed” anything in the Wendy’s restaurant that day; but aside from a soggy, tear soaked burger – we learned that there was a side to each other that we hadn’t known about. It would be a beginning to a journey of healing and growing.
The Basic Principle of How it Works: Caring.
The concept of this counselling method is as simple as it’s name; it is a practice and process of “caring for the heart”.
The thing that is difficult about it is:
- most of us don’t actually know how to REALLY care. We think we do.
- And most of us are really good at protecting the wounded parts of our hearts.
- So we neither know how to give or receive “care” (love) in the manner that breaks through walls and defences within ourselves, or in the people around us whom we experience our lives with (family, friends, spouses, children, etc).
The walls and defences within ourselves are so much a part of our ‘way’ of experiencing life (emotionally, physically, spiritually, etc) that we generally just accept that “this is who I am”. We accept our moods, our habits, our reactions as being normal. We don’t recognized that our fears, anxieties, apprehensions, avoidances, habits, relationship issues, strengths, emotional responses, etc, are often the developed mechanisms we’ve established to protect ourselves from things that hurt us. These mechanisms would have been developed over our entire lifetime, beginning from our childhood experiences.
Often a couple will have (unintentionally) hurt each other in many deep ways. They may love each other in sincerity, but when they don’t perceive that it is completely safe to be open, it’s a very difficult thing to entrust the most fragile, vulnerable parts of themselves to that other person (no matter their relationship to them). By doing the work of digging past the surface – not by force or pressure, but by a demonstration of unconditional love and care – a person can feel safe enough to become vulnerable. Hence, a caring counsellor can create an environment of absolute, judgement-free, unconditional love and care where a person can begin to come out from the protection of ‘inner walls’ – and say “this is me”.
Why This is Important to Share
I don’t care if you are in the message, if you have left the message, if you don’t know what the message is. I don’t care what country or culture you come from, what religion you practice, what your gender is or how old you are. If you’ve been around people – you’ve developed patterns of behaviour to cope with things that have hurt you. They show up in mundane behaviours or ways we dismiss as “that’s their personality” or “that’s how they were raised”. On the surface it may seem fine, or normal – but when you really look at the impact, there’s more that lies under the surface.
Let me give some examples so you know what kinds of things I’m talking about:
- A wife sees her husband’s facial expression. She wants to know what he’s thinking. But any time she asks “what are you thinking”, his response is either to ignore her, dismiss her question with a “nothing” response, or sometimes – he would lash out angrily, wondering why she has to keep asking questions.
- A wife is feeling lonely for deep conversation (which she doesn’t find in her spouse), so she asks to go out with a friend for coffee. He reacts violently and attacks her need for friends or for leaving the house.
- A husband notices that his wife doesn’t like to be touched. She’s always uncomfortable when he puts his hand on her hand, or his hand on her back. She has a reflex to pull away – and although he tries to be gentle, it feels like she doesn’t want him in her personal space.
- A wife observes that whenever she gives an opinion, her husband routinely dismisses her words as criticism and nagging. However, when his mother gives an opinion (sometimes the exact thing she had said), he bows with a “yes, mom – you’re right, mom”.
- A husband tells his wife how much he loves her every day – many times. Yet she continues to ask, every day – “do you love me?”.
- A wife can’t understand why her husband won’t throw anything out. The basement is full of what she thinks is junk, and the garage has no room for vehicles. If she tries to throw something away, he is furious.
- A child forgets to make their bed – and is given harsh punishment. But when they do make their bed, they can never do it well enough to warrant appreciative praise; it’s always done imperfectly.
These may seem like “little things”. But what happens when in the accumulation of months and years and compounding other “issues”, things like these turn into emotional meltdowns of shouting, crying, denigrating words or spouses not talking to each other for days? What if it turns into threats of violence….or actual physical violence? What if it brings people into feelings of belittlement, disownment, rejection, neglect, depression – and ultimately regret for being married, and thoughts of divorce? What impact do you suppose is spilling over into the home – and the affect it has on children? And what if all of this is done while, outwardly, posturing to appear like a spiritually thriving Message-believing family – pressing towards the Stature of a Perfect Man to fulfill the calling of brideship, as per the message?
I believe, without reservation, that the Message is FULL of people who are hurting. The message does not give weight or concern to this aspect of humanity; it’s too psychological and humanistic. It’s foolish to waste time with “feelings” or “emotions”; it’s all about striving to live “the Word”, find faith, obedience, forgetting the “former man” and overcoming by the spiritual blessings that God provides.
Further to this, going back and looking at the sources of behavior can be called “criticizing” or “blaming” people from our past. To some, it’s a demonstration of disrespect to take a critical look at things that occurred in childhood – especially when the people being called into question were “stalwart and faithful message believers”. I’ve heard so many times “you just need to move on” – when raising to question parenting practices.
All of that ignores the fact that, in many cases, people are suffering. Certainly they can “move on”. But that may mean the road ahead is going to be a life-long continuation of dysfunction and emotional/relational turmoil. The intention is not to blame anyone. It’s simply to be honest so that constructive understanding can be established and an opportunity for correction, care and healing can be introduced. It may provide for new patterns of living, and unfathomable heart-connections to be made between loved ones – and even between you…and yourself.
In the coming posts, I will get more into the controversy and challenge of Caring for the Heart within hyper-religious environments – such as the Message – and also more into how it works.
Thank you for reading!