The Wounded Healer: Limping into 2024

How do we help others heal when we are deeply wounded? Where do we find the strength and the heart to help others when our own wounds still cry out? I think the longer one has lived the more likely it is that they are called to be wounded healers. Answering the call isn’t easy or inevitable. Even if we avoid the temptation to become bitter or quit and withdraw, even if we draw close to God and open our hearts, our wounds can easily sideline us.

Perhaps the cruelest taunt that stops us is like the one Jesus faced on the cross: “You saved others, but you can’t save yourself.” For me the accusation is “You failed to help your son, Peter, what makes you think you can help anyone else?” As with many pastors whose children wander from or rebel against God, my failure to persuade all my kids to love Jesus feels like a disqualification. How can God use me to proclaim the good news if I have failed with my own family? I feel this keenly when I stand behind the pulpit.

Preaching on the story of Jacob this last Sunday has helped me. After twenty years away from home and working for his uncle, Laban, Jacob is told by God to head home. Awaiting him, however, is his brother Esau, who years ago swore to kill Jacob for stealing his blessing from Isaac. Although God had enriched Jacob during his years serving Laban, he must now face Esau and his four-hundred armed men. The night before meeting Esau Jacob wrestles with an angel.

The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel cannot be hammered into any of neat theological box. Some see this wrestling as Jacob resisting God. But Genesis says the result of his wrestling is the angel blessing him. It is hard to understand why or how resisting God would result in a blessing. Perhaps the greatest blessing comes when Jacob realizes the angel is God and he “has seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30).

Even after the angel touches him and dislocates his hip, Jacob refuses to let go. Peter, in the weeks before he died, had become so frail that his hip popped out of the socket. The pain was excruciating. Jacob was holding onto the angel—to God—even through terrible pain. The angel blesses Jacob and declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). I suspect the angel dislocated his hip to let him know that the blessing flowed from God’s grace, not Jacob’s strength or skill as a wrestler.

Jacob limps toward his dreaded meeting with his brother Esau. Before him, Jacob had sent extravagant gifts of hundreds of goats, sheep, and cows. Jacob had worked an extra six years for Laban to acquire all this wealth and herds, so it had to be hard to give them to Esau. He then sends his wives and their children before him—making himself completely vulnerable to Esau. Before standing face to face with Esau, Jacob bowed to the ground seven times. Then “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.”

We are not told what changed Esau’s heart, but it is clear Jacob did all he knew to do heal the relationship he had broken. Jacob gave all he could, made himself completely vulnerable, and had the courage to face Esau even though limping.It is perhaps likely that God went before Jacob and softened the heart of Esau.

So what does it mean for us, like Jacob, to be wounded healers? First, through all our pain and dislocated hearts, we hold onto God and His promises. We cling to God until we are changed, until we are blessed. We hold onto God when we think we can’t go on and see no way forward. We wrestle until dawn.

Second, we become humble enough to heal all our relationships. Our hearts are made tender, and we begin to value relationships more than our own rights. We become those peacemakers Jesus called blessed. We see others differently. Even though Esau tells Jacob that he doesn’t need the gifts he has given, Jacob asks him to keep them “for I see your face one sees the face of God.” After having wrestled with God and seen Him “face to face,” Jacob sees Esau differently—sees him with the same joy he saw God.

Last, wounded healers refuse to be disqualified by their wounds. Jacob doesn’t just limp to meet Esau. He limps into the covenant promises given to Abraham and Isaac.  We know God blesses and uses the wounded. We know, as Paul was told, that God’s power is perfected in weakness. We trust in God, not our own strength or wisdom. Without pride or ambition, we bow before our brothers.

Like Jacob limping into the promised land, we limp toward Jesus by whose wounds we are finally healed.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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