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How to Disciple through Emotional Trauma: Grace

Photo of Lee KeeleLee Keele | Bio

Lee Keele

Lee and Ginger Keele have been married and ministering together for over 27 years. Life is an adventure with 5 children; the two youngest still at home, and two in college. Lee has degrees in Bible and Ministry from Oklahoma Christian University and is currently working toward a Master of Business Administration. Passionate about teaching, preaching, and making disciples, Lee continues to enjoy working with the local church. Together, Lee and Ginger have experience in adult ministries, youth, and children's ministries, and have partnered together in missions and several overseas mission trips.

Every biblical model of Christian discipleship should circle constantly around the idea of love.

If we miss love, we’ve missed everything.

Hold on to this thought tightly, because love is at the heart of discipleship and disciple-making.. Jesus told us to “teach them [disciples] to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). And Jesus was often commanding us to love (e.g. Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Luke 11:42; John 13:34-35; John 15:12).

Here’s the tie-in with discipleship and emotional trauma: When we are hindered by emotional trauma, we are limited in our capacity to love God and others.

Just as physical injuries limit our physical expression, so emotional injuries limit our emotional expression. As a disciple-maker, it is our prerogative, then, to help others love as well as possible.

We are encouraged in Scripture to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” and to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). This is a call to engage in full-on empathy with others. But I am convinced that we can’t love fully when our hearts are trapped in a cycle of woundedness.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that wounded people can’t love or be kind. Not at all. I’m saying that when we find ourselves unhealed of emotional trauma, it will be difficult at best to love others to our full God-given potential.

Healed people love well!

When we coach others in the divine art of love through grace–well, that, to me, is the epitome of discipleship! 

Leonard’s Story

Leonard has been married to his lovely bride for 15 years. They are beautiful people. Kind in every respect. They have a lovely family and two kids, and a church family they love and minister to regularly.

But Leonard was emotionally wounded.

His parents loved him in their own way, but didn’t always show it through actions that spoke love to Leonard’s heart.

In addition, Leonard had a history of addiction. Moreover, his addictions were tied to an event in his youth that was somewhat beyond his control. Mrs. Leonard knew about it, she’d forgiven him for his part in it, loved him through the rest, and Leonard was in recovery. But he still held on to certain notions about himself that were tied to some of his past mistakes and experiences.

On top of it all, though Mrs. Leonard was a beautiful person, gracious and kind in so many ways, she didn’t exactly live up to Leonard’s expectations that were, quite honestly, not very realistic. Because of that, he harbored some resentment toward her.

Though Leonard had put his past behaviors behind him, and even forgiven his parents to a certain degree, it was his notions about himself that had him truly hung up.

His past mistakes, his inability to conform to his parents’ ideals, and his unmet expectations in his marriage all had him emotionally traumatized by shame and anger.

As I discipled Leonard, I was able to see a change take place. I remember a brief conversation with Leonard some time after his conversion. Note: details are changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty. 🙂

“I’ve gotta tell you, Lee. I’ve never experienced love like I did this week,” Leonard began.

“I was driving on my way home from work, and I was thinking about how much God loves me, and how free I am now that I’ve given my shame and my anger over to God, and that I don’t have to hold on to those things anymore. Well, I drove past a complete stranger and just felt this deep sense of love…. for that person. That stranger!

“I don’t even know who that person is! But I remember thinking, I love that person. I would die for that person! I literally started to cry!”

“Really!” I said. “Tell me more.”

“Well, I realized that I was just feeling love for everyone! It was like I was feeling what Jesus must have felt when he went to the cross. I felt like if it were me, I’d go to the cross, too. Like…I’d die for the people of this world. I don’t even know any of them, but I would die for them and have no regrets!”

I remember asking him what was different now. What was it that enabled him to feel these things in ways he hadn’t before? He explained,

“I’ve always known I was forgiven. I’ve always known that God is gracious and merciful. But just a few weeks ago, as we prayed to receive God’s grace, I really let myself receive that grace. And when I did, I couldn’t help but start giving it, and just loving people!”

“I saw my parents differently! I was able to forgive my wife for–well, for simply being human! In fact, I realized that I was holding on to unrealistic expectations and letting it keep me angry. I found that I was able to love her, my parents, that stranger, the whole world unconditionally! It was miraculous!”

And indeed it was.

John 1:17 reads, “For the law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

When we hold ourselves and others to the law, we all come up short. All of us. No one is perfect. We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.

Grace, on the other hand, frees us to love ourselves. And the more we love ourselves, the better we love others. After all, the commandment reads,

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we’re stuck in a cycle of self-loathing, or self-shame, how well can we really obey that command?

For Leonard, grace both given and received was the key that released him from the shackles of shame and anger. Hearts free of shame and anger and other emotional trauma are free to love. When we coach others in the divine art of love through grace–well, that, to me, is the epitome of discipleship!

John 1:17 reminds us that it was both grace and truth that came to us through Jesus. This leads us to our final discussion on discipling people through emotional trauma in the next article.