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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Inner Healing Begins

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“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23)

After meeting Jesus—at the end of my self-sufficiency and efforts to be “worthy” or right with God—I was bursting to share my life-changing encounter with other LDS people. Unfortunately, I soon learned this wasn’t at all a common or relatable experience for people in LDS circles.

“Spiritual experiences” were considered personal and not generally to be shared with just anyone. They might be shared on special, “spirit-filled” occasions, including “powerful” Fast and Testimony Meetings. These occasions sometimes included glimpses of God’s Spirit, but honestly, they were most often just times of emotional self-expression and identification with being part of the “one true (LDS) church on the earth.” (This last thought roused us like almost nothing else did.) It was generally deemed prideful to share freely one’s spiritual experiences, because “spirituality” was equated with personal worthiness.

My “worthiness” had absolutely, clearly not earned me this revelation of Jesus’ presence, love, and light; and yet it had happened. How could I explain this to people in my LDS world? It turned out that I couldn’t. I didn’t understand it myself. This remained an insoluble conundrum for me for as long as I was a member of the LDS Church.

A few days after meeting Jesus, I tried sharing what had happened with Janet. It didn’t go well—at all. Just the reverse. I could tell she thought I was being prideful and boasting of my own great spirituality and righteousness. She was upset by my disclosure, seeming instead disappointed, even angry. She strongly warned me against wrongful pride and referred me to some scriptures to read on that subject.

Her response was disheartening because this wasn’t how I felt or what I was trying to express. I wasn’t trying to promote myself or compete with her to prove I was the most spiritual of the two of us—though I very well might have done something like this previously.

Even so, and this is still hard to explain, while she was roundly chastising me, I didn’t feel the need to defend myself or even that I should. I was buoyed up by Jesus’ confirming love and peace. I didn’t need to have Janet’s approval or affirmation. The Lord’s validation and acceptance were more than enough.

It was different, but no less distressing, when I tried to share what had happened with Rodney.[*] He was a young man in my BYU ward whom I had come to know and hold in high esteem because he seemed so spiritual. Spirituality—of any kind—was considered a good and admirable thing in the LDS Church. Someone who had an attitude of obedience towards LDS prophets and other esteemed leaders, or who valiantly tried to keep the commandments of the church, or who had a strong testimony confirming that the church or its prophets (past or present) were true was considered spiritual.

Rodney was serving as a counselor in the ward bishopric at the time; and he was a returned missionary, having already completed his two-year commitment to serve the LDS Church in that capacity. In my eyes, Rodney was exceptionally spiritual—more so than most of the other young men in our ward. He seemed humble, gentle, and kind. I looked up to Rodney as someone who could be trusted regarding spiritual matters. I believed, of all the people I knew, he would understand.

However, when I tried to share with Rodney how Jesus had revealed Himself to me, something in him changed. It seemed he instantly made an intentional choice not to believe me. He shut himself off and became resistant. He began asking me questions that made me realize he was trying to attribute my experience to something that had happened only in my head. Like maybe it was some kind of hallucination or illusion stemming from wishful thinking or mental delusions.

After I tried to convince him that this experience had not just been a product of my imagination, he switched gears on me. Instead, he seemed somehow threatened by my story. He started describing his numerous “spiritual experiences” in the “mission field” and elsewhere. It seemed like he wanted to assure me he knew what he was saying because he was so much more spiritual than I was; and that whatever I had experienced couldn’t possibly be valid or of God. He even intimated that my experience could have been demon-inspired. His assumptions of where this revelation came from were very distressing. They were hurtful in a different way than Janet’s assessment had been. He seemed determined not to give me the benefit of the doubt. His false evaluation destroyed any bond of fellowship I’d felt toward him or ever hoped to have with him.

Whatever his thoughts or motivations were, our conversation was one of utter and complete—maybe even intentional—misunderstanding. If the Lord’s Spirit of love, peace, and comfort hadn’t been with me, I would have felt utterly degraded and deeply despised. In the past, such treatment would have spurred me to consider ending my own “worthless” life. But by the Lord’s truly kind, gentle, humble Spirit holding me up, I saw that Rodney was speaking way out of line. And more than that, even as Rodney was talking, Jesus’ Spirit prompted me to forgive Rodney’s huge disrespect for me and leave it alone going forward.

Despite these two very negative experiences with Janet and Rodney, I still worked up the courage to share my spiritual encounter with my roommate and best friend, Gina.[†] While I talked, she just listened. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. When I was done, she said something tentative like, “Time will tell” and observed that for the time being I probably shouldn’t share this with anyone else. At first, I was impatient with her response, but the Lord by His Spirit of Peace softened my heart and helped me to see that her comments were kind, well-meant, and mostly reasonable; and that while she was mostly unconvinced, at least she had given me some benefit of the doubt, something Janet and Rodney hadn’t even considered.

My final attempt to convey the transformative encounter I’d had with Jesus to another LDS person was near the end of that semester. This time, I tried sharing it with the Book of Mormon professor my high school seminary teacher had recommended—the one I had been so excited to take a class from. The one who was teaching us students to seek a personal relationship with Jesus and had encouraged us to pray for at least twenty minutes each day. The one whose teachings, I thought, had come full circle. Surely, of all people, he would be able to understand what had happened to me.

However, when I dropped in during his office hours, he seemed unusually preoccupied and unready to listen. He apparently had a lot on his plate right then. This should have been my cue to come back another time. Also, he didn’t know me; we had no rapport. I was just a random student to him. But I disregarded all this. He didn’t say anything to indicate another time would be better. The school term was running out. I didn’t know when I’d have another chance. I was that desperate to try anyway. So, I did.

He was so distracted and unengaged that the more I tried, the more flustered I became. I felt so much like I was wasting this teacher’s precious time that I was totally embarrassed. I found myself unable to put a meaningful sentence together in this situation, let alone share such a personally significant event. Remember, too, that this kind of thing wasn’t part of our LDS experience or vocabulary; so, to top it off, I wasn’t at all equipped to express what had happened. If he hadn’t wanted to listen before, he was probably even more frustrated with trying to understand what I was so ineptly trying to explain. Finally, even though I had—foolishly—started the effort, I couldn’t finish. One of us must have had a class to get to. It was a disappointing relief to walk out of his office.

These collective efforts to share the experience of being met by Jesus gave me pause and made me realize that probably no one in my LDS world was going to understand. When those I believed most likely to understand me had taken me so wrong, it seemed best to keep this experience to myself. And, though it also seemed wrong not to share, apparently, it wouldn’t do any good. I wasn’t going to be understood or believed, nor welcomed to share—but just the opposite. I didn’t repeat any attempt to share my experience—of Jesus revealing Himself to me nor the simultaneous spiritual birth or awakening that had changed my whole world—with another LDS person for a long while after this, no matter how much I wanted to.

Nevertheless, it remained that Jesus in glorious, indescribable love and light had appeared to me. And, even though He had revealed Himself in a spiritual, materially intangible dimension, it was still, far and away, the most real event that had ever or could ever happen to me. No matter how others misunderstood me or how incapable I was of expressing myself, the Lord was still with me by His Spirit. His love and light continued to illuminate my mind and heart, helping me to see everything and everyone differently.

When I returned home for the summer, some of my friends and family members could see a change in me. Still, I was only able to share my experience with one friend, Jeff. He was a friend from high school. I loved him dearly and completely from the time I met him, but he didn’t seem to return my affection. We had a unique relationship. When we did spend any time together—which we did on occasion—we always had stimulating conversations. He thought things out more than most of us did in our youth. (I once spent all night after a dance in Denver just talking about a multitude of subjects with him.)

Possibly as a result of our conversations together that summer, Jeff began talking to a Catholic priest and seeking Jesus in earnest—at least for a time. It bothered me that Jeff went to a Catholic priest and was opposed to coming to the LDS Church with me, but that’s how it was; later, I figured any search for Jesus was better than no interest at all.

Meanwhile, the Lord had begun helping me to see my fellow humans with more empathy and compassion through His eyes. On returning home after my first semester at BYU, He, first, began to help me love the people closest to me—my family—with His love and by His light.

Against my own nature, I began to truly love and care about one of my sisters who I’d thought of as acting out in total rebellion against my parents and the church. I understood she’d been sneaking out her window to spend the night at her boyfriend’s—with the help of his mother. My parents were very concerned because she was only around thirteen or fourteen years old at the time. I’d been super angry with her for being so contrary and rebellious toward our parents and the church. On top of that, an almost greater offense in my eyes back then, she was also “borrowing” my clothes and my sunlamp for tanning without asking me.

At one time, this last thing would have been the final straw. I would have blown up into a fireball of wrath. That summer—a moderated version of my old self—I still lost my temper with her. But I felt so convicted afterward that I apologized to her and told her she could borrow both the sunlamp and clothes, she just needed to ask first. This was a huge concession on my part. Before that, I had been so ultra-stingy that I wouldn’t loan my stuff to anyone—especially one of my sisters. Even with Jesus’ strong influence, it was terrifically hard for me to tell her she could borrow my things! But Jesus’ love in me was beginning to win out.

Another thing the Lord began addressing in me was the resentment and bitterness I had been holding in my heart toward my parents. He used what was going on with this sister to help me see that they were doing the best they could with the understanding they had. And that their knowledge of what to do was limited despite their desires for things to be otherwise.

I didn’t know how to help my sister either. She seemed to be willfully doing what she wanted without regard to threats, discipline, punishment, or anything else they or I tried. She seemed totally insensitive despite anything any of us said to her. She didn’t seem capable of believing any of us cared about her or loved her. Later on, she shared with me why she had felt this way—and I saw that she was fully justified. But at the time, I only had a limited understanding. All I could do was try to love her as Jesus was teaching me to, treat her kindly as He wanted me to, and hope she would one day see God’s love for her through the love He was giving me for her.

It was, humanly, very difficult. I could see a little of my own past behavior in how she was acting out. But it didn’t help me understand what was going on with her. She wasn’t trusting or sharing anything with my parents or me.

I didn’t understand this then, but we had all unwittingly and deservedly broken her trust in us by that point. We had all been too concerned with her returning to doing what we thought was right and not concerned enough about her, her actual circumstances, and her resulting feelings. Understandably, in her eyes, we were part of the “they” who were against her and not those who were for her. Interactions with her were all very frustrating and frightening for us all.

While I couldn’t understand my sister, I knew I needed to keep loving her anyway. Meanwhile, through these circumstances, the Lord helped me have much more compassion for my parents. It was during that time I realized I needed to forgive them for their past offenses against me. Offenses that were both real and, as I later came to see, also imagined. Imagined, in that they had to do with my own false expectations, or my own misunderstanding of circumstances or intent, and so on. I saw that I tended to, unfairly, hold my parents to a higher standard than I did anyone else, even myself.

The Lord helped me to realize through all this that my parents were also raised by imperfect parents—who in turn were raised by imperfect parents in a cycle going back to Adam and Eve! The bottom line I was beginning to see is that human beings are fallible. Only God is not. We all need Jesus to break the cycle of spiritual brokenness we’ve all inherited simply by being born to imperfect human beings in an imperfect society.

When I finally began to understand this, I wanted with all my heart to be a “repairer of the breach, [a] restorer of [good] paths...” that the prophet Isaiah had spoken of by God’s Spirit (Isaiah 58:12). I didn’t want to be a perpetrator of wrong human inclinations inherited from our very first parents going forward.

The things I was learning gave me an even deeper desire than I already had to be a godly mother and parent myself someday. One who wouldn’t continue a hurtful cycle, but one who would be instead a repairer and restorer. (I had no idea how far I was from this ideal.)

All the while, probably because my inclination to criticize was still so strong, God’s Spirit caused me to look within and ask myself what benefit there was in blaming my parents when none of us gets everything right—but in fact, we too often get things wrong, even with God’s help. I was beginning to see by the Lord’s light and love that I could and should only aim for and focus on repenting of my own sins, of wrongdoing and omission, as they became evident to me; and that before then, I should not be trying to fix anyone else. With this realization, I also saw God’s sense of humor. If I were to keep this in mind and as a practice, I wouldn’t have time or space during my whole life to worry about anyone else’s sins. If only!

I was beginning to see how only Jesus could break the cycle of blame, unforgiveness, and “justification” for holding on to sin and rebellion against God. Did I want to go against Him? Against His good Spirit who was trying to teach me to let go of blame and forgive others as God had somehow forgiven me?

Forgiving others is never a one-time event. It’s something I have had to choose to do again and again. Often, forgiveness is something I can only do with God’s help, especially when it comes to things I could justifiably hold against others. But then again, if I don’t forgive by the Lord’s Spirit, I am condemning myself at the same time.

Thankfully, none of us can fully realize all our shortcomings all at once, nor can we see all the consequences of all our shortcomings in this life. This is one of God’s great mercies! Seeing these things all at once would destroy us! We could not bear it. The weight of it would paralyze us.

God knows what He’s doing in asking us to forgive one another. Because we are, every one of us, sinners and continue to miss the mark of God’s perfection, He commands us to forgive one another—including and especially, our parents and spouses—if we want Him to forgive us. 

This all came back to me later when I was a parent, myself; when I wanted with all my heart to be forgiven of my own parental failures and other faults. When I knew I fell short frustratingly often. Even though it was often my own and not God’s expectations I was failing regarding how a “good” wife and mother should act, forgiveness looked really good to me. After all those years of doing the best I could—with the Lord’s sure help keeping me from total disaster, I have no doubt that only God is or can be a perfect Parent or Husband to any of us.

For those who desire to break the cycle of hurt, “letting go and letting God” isn’t just a trite saying. It is a life-changing practice when we choose to employ it. Before and during most of my parenting years, I was still entrenched in my very LDS—also very human—ways of trying to power through and do things by my own wits and strength. I may never get to a place in this life where I’m as fully surrendered to seeking and doing God’s will as Jesus was. But moments of surrender do happen once in a while, as I continue to learn. I am ever grateful for God’s grace and forgiveness—His mercy through Jesus.

One thing that summer was becoming more and more certain. I’d never be in a place where I could judge others rightly. God was helping me to see that the area of judgment is purely His jurisdiction. He is the only completely just Judge. It is never my job or place to dictate or clean up anyone else’s life. This is God’s place alone. Over and over again, the Lord has reiterated to me that I have enough to do dealing with my own sins and follies. Only by the grace of God’s Spirit, through His perfect sight, timing, and help, will I ever be able to overcome my shortcomings and completely stop hurting myself and others.

I found I had no heart to wish God’s judgment or hell on anyone, especially not a final, permanent separation from Him—which is commonly referred to as everlasting, infernal, sulfurous fire and brimstone! I wanted others to also receive God’s mercy. This is how I became able to pray for people who acted like my enemies.

At the same time, I recognized that though we are to forgive each other, we are not to “call evil good and good evil, [or] put darkness for light and light for darkness, [or] put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20). God says, “Woe to those who [do this].” Woe is another word for misery, distress, sorrow, grief, suffering, wretchedness, and torment. Ultimately, these are symptoms of spiritual separation from God, which results in the soul’s destruction).

Though God forgives us, He doesn’t accept anyone’s wrongdoing as being all right. In His love, He won’t leave us where we are in our sins and shortcomings. If we turn our lives over to Him, desiring Him and what He calls good with all our hearts, and letting go of all else, He will purify us completely. If we hold to Him, He will lovingly purify us—gently whenever He can, but some things are only cleansed by fire. Painfully.

Now, returning to my story.

Some more gentle, inner cleansing happened at some point toward the end of that first summer after I was born again through meeting Jesus. I can’t remember why, but my thoughts turned toward some of the most popular kids I had attended high school with. These kids had been beautiful, from wealthy families, well-dressed, talented, well-liked, and in every way seemed to have everything going for them.

I had been easily hurt by those who had generally snubbed me and other less popular students. Somewhere along the way I had developed a strong resentment towards those who had always been, in my eyes, so “stuck up,” self-important, and exclusive. Those who seemed to think they were better than anyone else. I had long held a grudge towards them for this.

But in the light of the Lord’s love, I began to see them in another light. Maybe some of them—like my seemingly happy-go-lucky, good-looking, wealthy friend who had committed suicide in junior high—had painful things going on in their lives of which I had no idea. Things that equally and deeply affect human lives whether people are rich or poor. Things like parental neglect or indifference; personal health problems or disabilities affecting themselves or loved ones; alcoholism or substance abuse; mental health issues; fearful, manipulative, over-demanding, or controlling personalities; and so on, or even a mix of these. Maybe the aloof attitudes some of these students had taken were a reactionary shield or mask they imagined would protect them from further pain.

Or maybe these kids were full of themselves and totally stuck up because that was how they were raised. I realized people who relate with others this way on purpose, deserve pity, not envy, for choosing an attitude that could only cripple their life and relationships.

Whatever the reason for their attitudes, I didn’t want to carry around what amounted to emotional bricks of bitterness towards any of these individuals. I could see by the Lord’s love and light that there was no good reason for holding onto resentment anymore (nor had there been in the first place!). As I let go of these grudges and the accompanying hostility, I experienced a sweet release—a great lightening of the weight that went with holding onto these things. Jesus had released me from this one-more-thing-that-didn’t-belong-in-my-heart forever!

I hadn’t had any interaction with any of these people after high school, except for the rare brief encounter during my occasional Boulder wanderings. I hadn’t thought much about any of these people since graduating high school. Yet when I did run into them or think of them, these feelings of resentment had still been there. God apparently knew and decided it was time for this particular house- or heart-cleaning to happen in me.

Looking back on this time in my life when I was a newborn babe spiritually, I can see what an infant I was. I’d been introduced to who Jesus is, and His loving presence had already begun a drastic change in my mind and heart. But I still had, and still have, a very long way to go in the transformation—also known as sanctification—process.

It is a lifelong process. It takes time because the Lord never forces the change of one’s wrongful or wayward beliefs, personality, character, attitudes, inclinations, habits, traditions, and so on. He is a pure gentleman. He chooses to work with permission and upon request—always. I’ve learned that I must choose to wholly surrender to God’s will.

Remembering God’s love and faithfulness through Jesus, causes me to trust Him, which in turn makes me want to obey or follow Him with all my heart. Whenever there is an immediate, positive transformation in someone, it is because that person has been prepared and is instantly willing to surrender themselves to the Lord’s higher and better will and ways.

After meeting Jesus I had a huge motivation for trusting Him and submitting to His will. I didn’t need or want excuses for disobeying Him—even when I didn’t understand completely, or in some measure why I should. I also couldn’t take offense easily at God.

People have asked, “If God is so loving, why does He allow evil and suffering?” I have seen that we are protected from a lot more than we know, and that following our own human will and the practice of individual determinism plays the largest role toward the injustice and misery of this world. God will rarely (maybe never) limit human will. He never forces people to be good or do what’s right.

Meanwhile, our difficulties can draw us into an intimate relationship with God more than anything else can. Or, depending on how we deal with our circumstances, they can eventually, forever separate us from Him. When we turn to God in our pain, He carries us. He goes through it with us. And He doesn’t let any of our suffering go to waste but turns everything to our good.

People could ask, “How do you explain the Old Testament and God’s wrath? It seems so opposite to Jesus’ love in the New Testament.” Even those who aren’t offended by or rejecting God outright cannot see how deep their lack of trust and disobedience to His perfect standard of justice has been or how wide the ripple effect goes. I know that God is anything but indifferent or hateful. And that He wants the absolute best for us and loves and rejoices in our whole-hearted turning to Him. His desire is for His perfect love—a balance of both justice and mercy—to abound in us and in all the earth. He wants to use our time on earth to redeem us—to fully heal us and make us whole.

God’s expressed wrath seems to come out of His great passion for human souls and as a consequence of people’s complete, unwarranted, and willful blindness to and rejection of Him and His goodness. But He’s not impatient nor does He act on impulse. His righteous judgement or wrath doesn’t come until after He’s given people every possible opportunity (and then some) for turning from their injustice and lack of mercy (back) to Him. Though in one way or another we all deserve God’s wrath, He never gives any of us what we actually deserve—so there’s that, as well! God is long-suffering more than all of us combined could or ever will be.

It is a comfort to realize that even while God can see all things—including what’s in my mind and heart—He still loves me as His child. He doesn’t change. He continues to extend perfect justice and mercy to me because of who He is, not because of who I am or what I do. He continues to be full of light, love, and goodness, which translates to perfect, glorious righteousness, no matter what any of us do.

As I grow in gratitude for God’s loving kindness and mercy to me, the more I want to extend His love and mercy to others. I know, without a doubt, He wants me to respect and fully care for others as He does. I need His mercies—which are “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22–23)—His forgiveness for my unloving thoughts, words, and actions. The forgiveness He readily extends through Jesus is a great comfort since I still too often fall short or fail for whatever human reason to do His will. Every day, He allows me to have a clean slate and to begin again no matter how many times I’ve let Him (and so many others) down. This eventually, if not immediately, drives me to love Him more than my sin and to let go of my sin for good.

I was then, and I still am now in some ways, an awfully willful soul. It takes some of us longer than others to realize how off the mark we sometimes are, especially in areas close to the heart.

After being born again I did not amend instantly. Though my inner core had been changed, and this began to make a marked difference in the trajectory of my life, God and I still had my will, habits, human nature, and other things to deal with. I have never stopped being grateful for each change the Lord’s love and light have made in my soul. Doing things God’s way according to His heart never fails to bring me great peace and joy. Jesus is my light and the source of all that makes my life worth living.

The Lord is a relational God who cares about us individually. Following the summer after my life-transforming, spring time encounter with Jesus, the next major changes in my life mostly had to do with relationships—with roommates, with my boss at work, and with the young men I dated after I broke things off with Jed. Some changes also had to do with personal habits that had caused and exacerbated my struggles with depression. How the Lord helped me in these relationships and situations, and more besides, is for other chapters.

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

(Colossians 3:13)


[*] Not his real name

[†] Not her real name


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