What does it mean to “get over something”? After enduring a difficult situation, how do we know if we’ve processed it wisely? Listen as Alasdair Groves discusses some steps we can consider as we grieve and heal.
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves and I’m the host of Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, where our mission is to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church.
So awhile back, I was working in counseling with someone who’d been through a difficult experience with a particular church that she had left under hard circumstances. At one point she asked me a question, which is a question I’ve heard many times before and many times since, both in counseling and out of it. But I remember for whatever reason, there was this particular moment where something kind of clicked for me, where I had a light bulb experience. The question was, how do I know if I’ve really dealt with this? How do I know if I’m really processing this well? Am I in denial? Am I ignoring this? Am I stuffing this? Have I gotten over this? Am I past this? The question takes various forms, but the question of, “Hey, something’s happened in my life and I am not sure if I’m actually doing a good job of responding to it. Am I okay here? How would I know if I had in a mature and significant way kind of dealt with whatever it is that’s happened?”
I think it’s a great question and it’s one that sparked a significant amount of thought for me. What came out in this particular season of counseling with this particular woman was sort of a four-part answer to that question that I’ve just found really, really helpful. It gives categories not enough for some kind of easy answer, right? If you’ve ever listened to this podcast before, you know we’re not into quick, easy answers and three steps to fix your problems. But I’ve found these four categories, these four buckets, these four shelves on which to place various aspects of one’s experience just to be a helpful way of saying, “All right, I think if I can say I’ve got things on all four shelves and I’ve looked at all four shelves and thought about the situation through all four of these lenses, then I can have a confidence that I’m actually walking forward well, that I’m honoring the Lord in my response to this and I’m not hiding from it or refusing to deal with it or not acknowledging the impact it’s had on me. I’m not bottling it up and really just in a pressure cooker recipe to explode down the road, shirking my duty to handle the hard things in life.”
So I want to speak about those four and kind of lay them out, but as I do so, I can’t overstress how much I don’t want to say to you, especially if you’re listening to this and you’re someone who is in the thick of dealing with something hard, dealing with something that’s just been a traumatic experience, a heartbreak, something where your life has been profoundly, painfully rearranged. My goal is not to say, “Hey, here it is. Here’s your formula. Go forward. Just do these things and it’ll all be okay and the quicker the better.” I’m really wanting to offer these as a sense of process and ongoing unfolding process that might unfold over quite a long time. In fact, it might be iterative. You might go through and say, “Okay, yeah, I think I’ve done three of these four things and how do I do the fourth?” Okay, and you might come back a year later and say, “There’s aspects of this I hadn’t fully grasped.” But you would have categories to identify, “Okay, here are maybe some threads then that I could go deeper with or that would be appropriate and helpful to process still further.” So I’m not trying to short circuit anybody’s sensitive timeline. It’s going to be different for each person of how this plays out. By the same token, if you feel like, yeah, I’ve kind of looked through these four lenses and I feel good about what I’ve thought through and the response I’ve made, that’s fine. The goal is not to endlessly process and be navel gazers who spend our lives simply trying to think through our experience or even our every heart experience and process it in some exhaustive way. You’ll never process anything exhaustively. You’ll always be learning and growing. The more decades that pass, the more you’ll have different kinds of reflections on things that happened a long time ago. That’s the Lord’s mercy to us that He’s going to walk with us and he’s going to meet us and each new season He will teach us new lessons as our lives extend and as we see our history differently as He brings different things into our lives and teaches and grows us and matures us, and so on and so forth.
So with that said, let me offer four categories to think about when you’ve been through something difficult and you’re in any way, shape or form asking the question of have I really processed this.
Category number one, do I have anything that I brought into this situation that I need to repent of? So that’s just boringly normal. Take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s. You start with yourself. We are all sinners, so undoubtedly you were a sinner during whatever the experience was. So there’s going to be some level of, are there things that I have not seen, I’ve not owned, there’s places where I need to repent and to just acknowledge I had an impact on this situation. That repentance may be entirely before the Lord. It may include a repentance that you then need to go and take with other people, but we’ll say more about that in a moment. So repentance would be the first lens that I would put on the table.
The second would be the lens of forgiveness. Are there places where wrong has been done against me where I need to forgive? I’ll come back in a moment and say more about each of these categories, but let me just get them all out there. So repent, forgive.
A third category would be are there actions that I need to take, is there justice that needs to be pursued? Are there reparations that need to be made, so on and so forth. Wise guardrails and protections that need to be set up, new insights that need to be implemented.
Then the fourth category, and this is the one I tend to find people are least thinking through well, so it’s probably the place where we need to most slow down and spend our time would be the category of lament. Are there places where we’re actually what processing, what dealing, what being able to move forward in a wise and healthy way looks like is actually opening up my heart to the sorrows of what has happened, giving a name, giving words to what has been lost, what has been damaged, what is it that was hard about this situation.
Let me see if I can bring this a little closer to us by talking about the woman I had the chance to speak with. I guess I should just start by saying she is someone who the genuineness of her desire to think well about her experience, to think biblically about her experience, to honor her Lord in the way that she handled the various different pains and discouragements and frustrations of this church situation. It was obvious. She was clearly someone who was a thoughtful, eager, Christianly processing woman, and it was just an honor and a privilege to get to sort this out with her. She hadn’t done everything perfectly. She was aware of some of that, but yeah, her heart was in the right place of saying, “I want to understand as best I can.”
So here was her situation. She had moved to a decent sized city and had grown up in a more rural setting. She got to the city and had her choice of churches and got involved with this church. They were a pretty hip church, pretty young church, and she really liked that. It was kind of cool. I’ve come to this city and that’s exciting and this church feels like they really have energy and enthusiasm. She particularly got involved with the young adult ministry. Over time, as is not a shocking turn of events, there was some leadership stuff and certain people were getting involved in leadership, and a dear friend of hers was on the leadership team with the young adult group. Then something started going wrong between the young adult pastor and this young woman. The friend that I’m now counseling sometime later is just trying to help her friend process and feeling worked up for her friend. One thing snowballed into another, and long story short, there ended up a group of them who felt like this isn’t right and I don’t think that we’re doing this leadership the right way, and the leadership on the other side saying, “It feels like you guys are undercutting us, you’re forming a faction against the good things we’re trying to do here.” I won’t go into the various details of sorting through even how do you think about what was good and what was bad and who was right and wrong in any particular issue.
What I’ll simply say is it was messy. There was a lot going on. Here’s this woman 6-9 months later trying to say, “How do I think about what just happened there? Was I completely wrong? Did I just totally torpedo this group? Did I contribute to a division amongst God’s family? Or was this a spiritually abusive leadership? Were they just hardhearted and against us? Were they pushing us out and they wouldn’t listen and there was no humility? How do I understand what has happened here?” We had lots of very helpful in-depth conversations and she now lived far, far away from the city where she had been so there wasn’t much that I was going to be able to do in terms of helping… I didn’t know any of the people in that particular church, so there wasn’t going to be a mediatorial role for me. But I just tried to begin to sort out with her through these four lenses, what can you see that you brought to this situation? It was really rich how she quickly was able to identify some places where she could say, “Okay, I can see that my pride was active here. There was a way in which I wanted to be the champion of my friend, and I may well have inflamed feelings of resentment in my friend by the way I behaved. Because I liked being someone she could turn to. There’s something that felt good about having a little crusade, if you will, on my life that I could go on.”
As we talked about forgiveness, where are there places to forgive? Certainly whatever else was true about the back and forth and the nuances of the various issues, it seemed beyond question that some of the ways that this particular pastor in particular had spoken, the ways that he had spoken to others about the woman I was counseling and about her friend and then about others, it had just been unkind. It had been unfair. It had not honored the genuine desires that were clearly there for reconciliation and so on and so forth. So the understanding of like, “Yeah, I’m going to have to say I was harmed, I was wrongly spoken of. My reputation was unfairly accused and there was gossip here and that had real impacts”—we’ll get more to the impacts in a second, but to be able to say, “I want to be able to say I forgive.” I find one of the most difficult things, especially when you’re processing what just happened here, and I’ve got all these feelings and thoughts about how this went down. One of the trickiest things when you’re trying to figure out if you’ve processed well is even just being able to simplify down and say, “Yeah, you know what, I can at least see that this was not good and this needs to be forgiven and I don’t have to endlessly take it back into court in my head and re-prove to myself this was wrong, this was wrong. No, no, no, this really was wrong.” Of course, that’s a difficult thing because when you come out of a confusing situation where you’ve been hurt or something’s been broken, it’s often difficult, especially if there’s relational conflict at the center of it. It’s often difficult to let go, to not keep re-proving it to yourself because the other person and they have a very different opinion than you about what happened and what went down and why and who’s to blame. So I think we are all tempted in those situations to endlessly re-litigate. There’s something beautiful about the way that forgiveness breaks that compulsion to litigate yet again. But I was right or was I right? I think I was right. No, no, no. It’s important that I get to the point where I can say I was right on all these things. When and where you can say, “Here’s what I brought. I repent. Here’s what the other person brought and I can forgive.” Forgiveness is a difficult thing. This isn’t a podcast on the complexities and the challenges of forgiveness. So there’s much more that could be said about how do you forgive, especially when it’s difficult and what does it look like to walk that out over time and how does forgiveness intersect with rebuilding trust, reconciliation and so on and so forth. Those are longer conversations for another day. But there’s a powerful way where both of those break through the cycle that the confusion often pushes us into of re-litigating.
Thirdly, are there actions that need to be taken? Do I need to go back and have some kind of further conversation even after the situation has died down, I’m no longer a part of that church. One question she had, “Is there more I need to say?” We concluded, and here I was grateful to her, to her friend, to their friends around them and to the church leadership as well. Everybody had done a good job of really trying to have the right conversations. It wasn’t like, “Yeah, we shut this down and you’re wrong and stop talking or we refuse to hear from this terrible leader.” They really tried to talk it through. Our conclusion was we’ve said everything really that can be said, at least at this season, there isn’t going to be any value in pursuing another iteration of sort of rehashing the places where we really see things differently about what happened and what would’ve been best and what was being valued by one person versus another. There was hurt and there was ultimately a splitting of fellowship and several people now at different churches, but it didn’t seem that there was action to take there. It didn’t seem as to be processed that there was any particular, that there had been abuses of power by their leadership. There had been mistakes, there had been painful missteps, there had been sins, some of which had been repented of, some of which didn’t really seem to be acknowledged, but it didn’t seem like there was more to be done other than to acknowledge that it had been painful and that it had been tried. We were in Romans 12:18, as far as it is possible for you live at peace with everyone and beyond that, then you’re going to leave things in the Lord’s hands.
That leads us to the last point which is lament. Lament is so uncomfortable. It is so counterintuitive. It is so hard to, and especially as I think Western 21st century folks who have an addiction to comfort and quick results and feel like pain is an aberration from the norm and everything should be fixable with a pill or three steps or whatever, we don’t like lament because lament doesn’t fix anything, and yet it is so vital to wisdom, to obedience, to spiritual health, to godliness, to grow, and the ability to lament, to simply speak to the Lord and say, “Lord, here are the good gifts that you gave that are lost, that have been broken in this situation. Here is where the fallenness of this world has impacted me.”
So for this particular woman, she was just processing, “I had so many good friends that I’m no longer in touch with.” She ended up moving away from this city. She was in a job transition situation and chose to take a job far away that gave her the opportunity to kind of start afresh, and that was largely driven by just the anguish of the broken fellowship in this particular church where it had already become effectively impossible as far as she and others could tell to move back into things. So again, we could have a longer conversation about how and when should you leave a church. That’s not the point that I’m after here. All I’m trying to say is speaking of the loss of friendships, some of those, because they’re just people I don’t see anymore, some of those because I had massive conflict with this person and we couldn’t resolve it in a way that worked well for both of us to continue on together. Some of it being I liked things about living in the city and now I’m living in a more rural context again. Some of it being I just feel and I’ve shed tears more days than not for months, so many different places where this has just had impact. She was speaking about that impact to me, and we began to just say, “How can we turn this towards the Lord? How can we turn this towards speaking about what has been painful and naming the losses, naming the griefs, pouring out your heart to him in the thick of it, knowing He’s given us the book of Psalms, the longest book in scripture as a picture, as a lead, as a guide to this is what it looks like to speak about what is going on in your life, what’s on your heart?” If you’ve listened to this podcast for any length of time, you know that as a drumbeat we come back to again and again is speak to the Lord, speak to the Lord, hear the Lord. Listen to Him. Let Him guide you, let Him lead you in.
One of the most important things he will lead you into is speaking to Him and then speaking to His people. I don’t mean that in the sense of you have to talk to the Lord and then to others. I just mean the logical application, the logical outflow of having a God who hears and listens, who has an ear that is always attentive to our cry… the logical outflow of that is to speak to other people, to share that burden, to bear burdens together in part by sharing heartaches, by being able to speak to other people about what is on your heart, what’s going on in your life, to pray with them and ask for help, to lament as a way of handing to the Lord, yes, I have named this. I’ve grieved this. If and as that loss comes back in my face, whether that’s 10 seconds later or whether I’m feeling it afresh and anew in six months—to know again and again, I have the opportunity, I have the invitation, I have the open ear of the Lord who will never tire of hearing these things. When I’m able to name them and as I feel my losses to bring them to Him, there is this thing that happens over time in which you don’t necessarily stop feeling sad. You don’t necessarily stop feeling a sense of “I wish that had been different,” but there is a resolution that comes with naming and placing it again and again in God’s hands. As you find yourself naming the same thing over and over, there’s a confirmation in that of, okay, I am seeing the key things that have been changed, that have been harmed, that are challenging.
So I’ve been speaking about a more significant situation. Could we apply this to, I have a hangnail to… I forgot my lunch today and I’m hungry and now I’m kind of cranky about it, and have I really processed this situation? Yeah, you could. But of course that’s not where we spend our time. We only slow down and really think through: have I dealt with this well in more significant situations? At least in my experience, those are the conversations I have. So my hope is that these four lenses, these four shelves, four buckets, four categories, whatever you want to call them, that they would be a way of helping you just as you think about things in your life and ask, “Have I done a good job of working through that?” I hope that these would give you categories in which to say yes or no or kind of but maybe there’s a bit more here, or even to have a conversation with a trusted friend where you could say, “Could we just talk this through? I’m wondering if there might be more here that I’m not seeing. What do you think?”
My prayer for you in all of this, as in all of the things that we face that are hard, is that whatever level of processing you’ve already done, whatever processing may or may not be left to do, that the fact that the Lord knows, that the Lord is the one to whom we entrust ourselves when we don’t fully process and can’t fully know and don’t fully deal with things, we never can fully deal with anything at the depths of God’s omniscient power, that we would know Him as the one who holds us in His hands and our hope is in Him, not in our own processing.
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).