Triggers, Internal Distress and Self-Deception: How Closed Hearts Open through Engaging in Radically Honest Prayers

Street Theologian
18 min readFeb 25, 2024
All images are from Wikimedia Commons unless noted otherwise

What is denied does not disappear: What are your triggers teaching you?

1. Why pay attention to triggers?

2. Living with a mask in front of our own mirror

3. Mistakes were made (but not by me): Self-deception and internal distress

4. Self-deception and Scripture

5. Acceptance (through Christ!) drives change

6. Closed hearts and pain

7. The therapeutic nature of admitting and accepting rather than suppressing pain

8. What pain are you hiding from God?

9. What Gabor Maté is missing

10. Rest through humility

11. Getting high with the Most High? Psyschedelics and Maté’s spiritual discovery

12. Finitude, Flesh and Freedom: The way forward with triggers

Disclaimer: If you are struggling with processing the major difficulties in life, seek professional advice. The views in this article are not to be taken as professional or tailored advice. Acceptance is not the same as tolerance. You can accept an event as having happened in the past without condoning its immoral nature.

Do you have pain hidden within you that you’re shielding from exposure to the tender touch of Christ’s own wounds? Do you have thoughts, actions or intentions you’re embarrassed to fully admit with specificity to God, as if the blood of Christ is unable to touch some cavities your inmost being? If you’re anything like me, the answer is a resounding YES.

As Stanford prison experiment psychologist Philip Zimbardo, notes in The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, most of us humans do not even know ourselves properly.

Triggers: Invitation for questions or always a reason to hide?

What types of moments lead to you feeling tension in your body? Are your triggers ever treated as an invitation or always as a reason to run?

Do your triggers ever reveal to you your limitations- your mortality, or your (by and large!) inability to control others or control the world around you?

How are you trying to numb yourself from the pains of life? What emotional pains in particular are you numbing yourself from?

Do you ever engage in addictive behaviours or frequently run away from things in order to numb pain?

The reality of our closed hearts before God

These are big questions. Questions we often ignore. Yet, questions which are crucial to address. If you’re anything like me, we say our relationship with God is the most important thing in our lives, yet, we live with closed hearts before God.

A pretentious relationship

Our prayers are often shrouded in a layer of fake righteousness. We’re evil and fallen but surely not that evil we tell ourselves.

We’re scared to fully open up before the King about that hatred we hold towards another, the fact we still haven’t let go of the harm someone caused us, the evil, greedy or twisted thoughts we harbour towards others.

We add a chunky layer of pretense in between our true selves and God as if he somehow never knows what we are truly like.

As if his grace and Christ’s violent, cruel and humiliating death is not enough to meet us in the depth of the mess we are in.

Why pay attention to triggers?

As “trauma doctor”, Dr. Gabor (Gabriel) Maté explains, we build tensions in our bodies over the years to try and shield ourselves from the pain of the past. Maté explains emotions and triggers act as signals and that disconnecting from our emotions can lead to sickness. Emotions, according to Maté:

Orient us, interpret the world for us, give us vital information without which we cannot thrive. They tell us what is dangerous and what is benign, what threatens our existence and what will nurture growth.. To shut down emotions is to lose an indispensable part of our sensory apparatus and, beyond that, an indispensable part of who we are (The Myth of Normal, p. 186).

Our emotions can help show us our limitations and how unrealistic we can be in thinking we can control others or the world.

Dr. Andrew Huberman, has similarly, referred to emotions as being signals in his podcast.

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To try and block underlying emotional distress, we act tough or completely avoid situations to give off a facade of calm when in the deep sea of our hearts, a storm has been brewing for years.

Living with a mask in front of our own mirror

A minor wave others see on the surface does not even remotely expose the true reality of our hearts.

We live our lives with a mask on. Not just a mask before others but a mask before God and, yes, even a mask in front of ourselves.

That event didn’t really impact us that much. We don’t really feel unloved. We don’t really feel inadequate. We don’t really try to overcompensate for our low levels of self-respect by obsessing about material things and trying to impress others.

We don’t really complain all the time about everything because we have low levels of self-respect and feel like failures. We don’t really base our identity on what others think or on our marital or financial or social status.

We don’t really drink excessively or masturbate or take drugs because we are hurting or broken or deeply in pain. We’re fine, we’re not in pain.

Lies. Lies. Lies.

We’ve repeated these lies to ourselves so many times, that we can’t even discern the truth for ourselves.

Our own bodies know we don’t take our own emotional distress seriously and start to try and shield us. We try and run from our emotions rather than think constructively.

Fundamentally we deceive ourselves. We deceive ourselves about who we are. We also deceive ourselves about who we are relative to God. We struggle to accept our finitude.

What if the way forward is the opposite of what we have been doing this whole time? To take a realistic view of ourselves, to feel and accept pain. To admit to and bring the full weight of our pain and fallenness before God?

What is denied does not disappear

What if, paradoxically, behind our pain, distress and tension is an inability to accept our pain or fallenness?

That could not have happened to us. People could not do such things to us. Surely something so small couldn’t impact us so much. Surely, we’re not that petty that our whole afternoon gets ruined by someone making a small comment about us?

Surely we’re not actually that bad and we have good motivations.

We can deny things all we want. We can run away, and avoid situations that would otherwise be conducive to growth. We can numb ourselves through substances, self-pleasure (aka masturbation or porn use) or screens.

Yet, none of this will cause the underlying root cause to disappear.

Please bear in mind, I am not saying you should never distance yourself from toxic people or you should deliberately make life difficult for yourself. Rather, I am asking us to look at why we behave the way we do and ask if it is constructive or not.

The Book of Proverbs urges us to choose companions wisely (eg. Proverbs 13:20; 18:24) and Paul even urges Titus to cut people who are divisive or petty off after two attempts (Titus 3:9–11).

Self Deception and Internal Distress

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts, psychologists Tavris and Aronson, elaborate on the plague-like nature of human self-deception- it touches everything in us.

For example, if we have a core self-image of ourselves being a nice person, our memory, through the influence of the “totalitarian ego”, can actively wipe out memories of the harms we have caused others, denying such events.

Tavris and Aronson provide examples of highly qualified judges who were simply unable to face evidence which came out years later, indicating that they made a wrong decision sending certain individuals to prison. The human capacity for self-deception is terrifying.

Tavris and Aronson outline the nature of cognitive dissonance, the mental toll inflicted on us when we hold contradictory ideas. This is linked with psychological stress!

It’s as if you’re at war with yourself, through your conflicting parts unable to live in the same person.

Goodreads

From a Christian perspective, we can experience cognitive dissonance when we think Jesus died for all of our sins, yet have certain sins or thoughts, we are not prepared to openly confess to God in specific detail, because we are embarrassed to admit to such things or accept such thoughts or actions are part of our past!

Deep down, we are really telling ourselves Christ’s humiliating death is not enough to meet us where we are at.

Here are a few snapshots from Tavris and Aronson’s writing:

“In the horrifying calculus of self-deception, the greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth.”

The totalitarian ego shielding us from pain

“Confabulation, distortion, and plain forgetting are the foot soldiers of memory, and they are summoned to the front lines when the totalitarian ego wants to protect us from the pain and embarrassment of actions we took that are dissonant with our core self-images:”

When memory gives way to pride

“We remember the central events of our life stories. But when we do misremember, our mistakes aren’t random. […] memory researchers love to quote Nietzsche: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually — memory yields.”

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Self-deception and Scripture

Sin fundamentally starts with self-deception. A warped view of who we are relative to God.

Our hearts are deceitful above all (Jer. 17:9). Our proud hearts deceive us (Obadiah 3). Out of our hearts come evil intentions (Matt. 15:19).

In Psalm 32, David exclaims, “Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit (v.2, ESV).” Various translations and concordances, translate the Hebrew word for blessed, asher, as happy.

Commentators note words such as joyful, cheerful, glad, flourishing and delighted are also relevant.

David continues to outline that while living in self-deception, failing to confess his sins to God, he felt internal distress as his body wasted away (v.3) and his strength dried up (v.4).

Yet, in confessing his sin, he found a refuge in a time of distress (v.6–7), alleviation from torment (v.10) as the steadfast love of God led him to joy and rejoicing.

Opening up our deceitful hearts to God and confessing our sins with openness and honesty, delivers immense healing. For the burdens we internalise can be taken to the cross of Christ.

Perhaps we’re scared to confess to God with specificity, what we really think of that person or how we really responded in that situation. In doing so, we are carrying a burden that has already been carried at the cross.

Acceptance (through Christ!) drives change

Acceptance drives change, as psychologist William Miller notes:

One of the many insights of Carl Rogers was that when people feel unacceptable they are immobilized, unable to change. It is, paradoxically, when people experience acceptance that they are freed to change (Treating Addiction: A Guide for Professionals).”

In Christ we can fully embrace, accept, and take responsibility for our fallenness, taking it to the cross of Christ.

We are acceptable, not because of our own goodness but because of Christ’s goodness that takes the place of our filth.

From there, real change can come.

Closed Hearts and Pain

In a similar fashion, we hold emotional burdens to ourselves that God promises us he can carry.

Peter urges us to cast all our anxieties on God because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:6). David urges us to pour out our hearts before God (Ps. 62:8). Paul exhorts us to make our requests be made known to God in everything (Phil. 4:6).

Yet, in reality, we’re often embarrassed to truly tell God what we are anxious about.

To truly open up about what hurts us. Yes, we might skirt around the issue or talk in vague terms to God, but in our prayers, we function no different to someone who has broken trust in another human being and is scared to open up too much.

Struggling with that? Well, that’s a good place to start praying. Admit to God you’re struggling to open up to him and ask him to shape your heart.

The therapeutic nature of admitting and accepting rather than suppressing pain

Gabor Maté is a prominent “trauma doctor” and best-selling author of books such as The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction and When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.

Dr. Gabor

Maté explains the dangers of being unable to feel rejected or admit that to oneself:

“The core belief in having to be strong enough, characteristic of many people who develop chronic illness, is a defence. The child who perceives that her parents cannot support her emotionally had better develop an attitude of “I can handle everything myself.” Otherwise, she may feel rejected. One way not to feel rejected is never to ask for help, never to admit “weakness” — to believe that I am strong enough to withstand all my vicissitudes alone.”

He adds:

“The attempt to escape from pain, is what creates more pain.”

“True healing simply means opening ourselves to the truth of our lives, past and present, as plainly and objectively as we can. We acknowledge where we were wounded, and, as we are able, perform an honest audit of the impacts those injuries as they have touched both our lives and those of others around us.”

“The growing capacity to admit to oneself, “Ouch that hurts,” or “You know, I didn’t really mean what I just said,” or “I’m really scared to be myself in this situation” is the impulse toward authenticity becoming stronger.”

Abandoned sexual abuse victim and suppressed hurt

Maté gives the example of Mee Ok, who experienced a “deathbed resurrection” that “owed everything to her confronting (a) long-buried trove of hurt.” Mee Ok was born to a Korean single mum and then adopted by an evangelical (very sadly!) couple in the United States.

Mee’s adoptive mother had a nervous breakdown when Mee was 10. Moreover, Mee’s adoptive father sexually abused her throughout her early childhood. Mee suppressed emotions of terror, pain and rage her entire life and was unable to heal until she embraced and accepted this pain.

Pain and addictive behaviours

For Maté, pain also drives addictive behaviours:

“A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours.”

“Don’t ask why the addiction, ask why the pain.”

Goodreads

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What pain are you hiding from God?

The question is are you trying to shield your pain from God? Hiding from opening up about the true depth of it? Are you subconsciously trying to carry your pain alone? Deep down are you trying to carry a hurt you’re unable to carry yourself?

Maté notes the importance of unconditional love and self-acceptance in healing this pain. However, in reading his book, I’m convinced he cannot offer a plausible worldview to make proper sense of unconditional love and how fallen human beings can experience true self-acceptance.

What Maté is missing

Yet, in Christianity, we have access to the unconditional love of Christ and a new identity offered in him! God is transcendent. Transcendent, unconditional love starts with God! God is personal and therefore can be the Source of personal love.

Our identity doesn’t depend on our unconditional acceptance of our fallen selves as in Maté’s view, but on Christ’s work for us.

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We don’t merely have to accept pain, we can take it to the cross. We can accept we have fallen from God’s perfection, yet be made whole through Christ. Wholeness is not something we can achieve ourselves.

There is Someone to carry our burdens. There is an ultimate Source of love and grace we have access to. There is somewhere to take your pains and failings- the cross of Christ.

Maté picks up on some natural laws God has embedded in the universe, the importance of humility, a need for love, acceptance and grace, yet, his worldview doesn’t come close to Christianity in explaining how this all fits together.

The Gospel gives proper grounds for love, forgiveness and acceptance of a broken, hurting and twisted people. For God meets broken people at the depths of their darkness by subjecting himself to a cruel, degrading, vicious and twisted act for the sake of making them whole!

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Rest through humility

Jesus says in Matthew 11:28–29:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Notably, finding rest for our souls is inseparably linked with learning from Christ, to be gentle and lowly in heart like him.

Instagram

Gavin Ortlund in Humility: The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness, outlined the relaxing and joyous nature of humility. With humility we can begin to see things as God sees them. Gavin articulates:

  • “There is no reason not to live with a kind of astonished gratitude at what is around us — except a lack of humility.”
  • “Humility actually breeds strength and resilience because it frees us from the restricting needs of the ego — the need to be in charge, the need to look good, the need to defend ourselves, and so on.”
  • “Being a big deal is a burden. Humility, in contrast, means you don’t interpret everything in relation to yourself, and you don’t need to. It is the death of the narrow, suffocating filter of self-referentiality.”
  • God has not merely given us an abstract definition of humility — in the person of Jesus Christ, he has himself (astonishingly!) displayed humility.”
  • “The transcendent Son of God, adored by angels, through whom every star was made, while remaining fully God, lowered himself to the status of a fetus growing in Mary’s womb. Can you fathom it?”
  • “When I contemplate the unpretentiousness of the gospel, I am ashamed of times I try to be noticed. Who am I to draw attention to myself when God himself took the hidden road?”

Truth Unites

Getting high with the Most High? Psyschedelics and Maté’s spiritual discovery

Towards the end of the Myth of Normal, Maté adopts a more spiritual tune to his writing. He recalls his story with psychedelic, ayahuasca, purporting that, as if by some sort of divine grace, he had a spiritual experience in Peru that helped him heal from his childhood trauma at age 75.

New Buddhist

Christian writer, Carrie Lloyd, addresses this in an article for Premier Christianity titled, “Getting high with the Most High.”

Lloyd raises various concerns around Christians using psychedelics and other mind altering substances (eg. links to pharmakeia/ sorcery in Gal. 5:20 and Rev. 18:23). If you wish to learn more about this topic, I’d recommend you read Carrie’s article or explore the work of Michael Heiser or Steven Bancarz (we might write about it one day too!).

A true highlight of Carrie’s article, however, is when she describes the fruits of wounded people she has seen healed by the Spirit of God in her own life:

In my personal experience..those who are truly healed, who are truly close to God. They have an extraordinary capacity to love others and an exuberant amount of mercy and grace for all people, in all walks of life — humility drips off them like an athlete in training. Those in pain, or hurt, disregard others. Those who are healed seek to heal.

They give versus take, they ask versus project, they consider another, rather than expect the room to answer to them. They are warm, full of curiosity and discipline, full of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23), not because they must, but because they can’t help it.

.. For them, a trigger was an invite, not a reason to hide away.

There was no quick fix. There was no pill or tea. It was to take on the longevity of long-suffering love.

The very refusal to invite escapism, the very humbling experience of embracing hurt and disappointment, was itself the tonic.

It brought wisdom and a strength hewn from faith in God, leading to greater faith in themselves. Easier said than done.

Premier Christianity

The way forward

If pain exists, admit it to God. You’re not hiding anything from him even if you subconsciously think you are. Our pretense drives us further from God. If you’ve failed, admit it to him.

This is the path of joy. The path of Christ meeting us where we are at. The path of truly believing Jesus died for and can forgive the darkest and deepest of our sins.

The path of believing our burdens are not ours alone to carry and properly embracing it. Radical acceptance. Radically embracing our pain and fallenness and taking it to the cross. Not adding a layer of fake righteousness or a pretense of being just fine between ourselves and God.

Pretense is the way of long-term pain, pride and, ultimately, destruction.

The cross of Christ and his subsequent resurrection strikes right at the existential longings of the human heart.

As Gavin Ortlund explains in Humility: The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness:

“The cross shows us the depth of God’s love, but it also shows us the depth of our sinful need. It reveals what God was willing to do, but it also reveals what he had to do.

Our pride is such that it put the Son of God on the cross.”

Triggers: Finitude, Flesh and Freedom

What are your triggers teaching you about where you still need healing? What do they reveal to you ability your lack of control in life (finitude), your flesh and the freedom you have in resting in the work of Christ?

Key takeaways:

1. Observe your triggers and ask what they are teaching you

2. Be specific as possible in bringing your hurts, pains and faults before God to the point you feel yourself slowly opening up and letting go

3. Reflect on how Christ’s work on the cross shapes your identity and offers love and acceptance

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Street Theologian

Theology and apologetics for those who want to get their hands dirty