At a coffee meeting, Pastor Sean lamented to me, “Another key leader left my church. I’ll probably never see him again.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“I’ve been through this before. I can tell by the way he left. He just told me, ‘It’s time for us to move on.’ He wouldn’t elaborate.”
“How could he just leave without trying to work things out or at least tell me why? Was it my preaching? Does he not like how I’m leading the church? Did I not meet their family’s needs?’”
“I’ve been dreading Sunday mornings. I look for the faces of people who left, but all I see are their empty chairs. I’m afraid our church is declining and it’s my fault!”
“Sean, it’s hard to see you judge yourself. You’re putting a gorilla of guilt on your back.”
He was blaming himself so he wouldn’t have to feel his anger. (Feelings of guilt and shame are often from re-directing onto yourself anger you feel at someone else. We do that because when we’re afraid our anger would hurt the other person or our relationship.)
We did some anger work to help him hear his aggressive emotions and feel in his body the force of his words and to experience being emotionally accepted, not judged.
Then I saw him wrapping his hands around his coffee mug. It was a picture for me that his heart needed to be held with empathy.
“When you condemn yourself it pulls you away from your grief that needs comfort. This feels sad for you. Tell me more about that.”
“We were in a small group together for a number of years and I invested a lot in developing his gifts. He and his wife even helped us start the church and we raised our kids together.”
I reflected back, “It feels like you’ve lost a brother.”
It was quiet. Slowly his tears began to slip out.
I prayed silently, “Where are you Lord when Sean sees the empty chairs?”
Later a prayer of David’s popped into my mind: “Seek His face! Your face, LORD, I will seek” (Psalm 27:8). So I suggested Sean try imagining Jesus sitting in the empty seats and smiling with compassion and pleased with his shepherding heart.
He prayed this way repeatedly before church and then to remind himself to look to Jesus’ smiling face during his sermon he put smiley faces in his preaching notes!
That Sunday he preached without a gorilla on his back! He stayed in tune with the empathy of Immanuel.
Most people we talk to struggle with self-criticism. What do you judge yourself for? The way to get the gorilla of guilt off your back is to express your angry and sad feelings to a soul friend and to Jesus.
The Lord delights to know your heart and as you trust in his empathy and love it frees you of guilt and shame. Jesus’ smile is powerful!