When the Levee Breaks (Restoring Trust)

by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project

Is trust something to be earned or is trust something that is lost?

One person might say, “How could you? I trusted you, completely. I don’t think I can trust you anymore.”

Another person might say, “I don’t know you well enough yet to trust you.”

And someone else might say, “I have been burned so many times, I don’t think I can trust anyone. You have to earn my trust.”

. . ( 2) (4)What has happened in the life of the person who holds onto trust as something so precious that to let it go even a little bit scares the person half to death, as they are sure to lose everything?

A considerable obstacle in the way of someone getting the help he or she needs is the element of trust. A person could desperately need the supportive aid of another person but may reject the help fearing some sort of adversity behind it. “I need and would certainly benefit from your help but what strings are attached?” “What baggage is attached to the support I might receive from you?” “I don’t know you… I don’t trust you… I don’t believe you… Thank you for the offer; now please go away.”

Life is a process on a host of levels. The first step to overcoming trust issues and barriers to trust is to trust in the first step of the process of change. The reality is that you put your trust in “the process” every day of your life. The process for managing disappointment and pain is to build levees around your heart so that nothing gets in. There’s no cryin’, no prayin’, nothin’… nothin’ gets in, nothin’ gets out. Shuttin’ it down. It’s much safer that way.

There is the process of how the world works naturally and socially. The physical properties of the earth’s relationship with the sun that sustains life is a process. The physical properties of gravity is a process. Ecological systems are part of the life process. Socioeconomic systems are certainly a process. How my brain functions in relationship to the rest of my body is a most complex process. The relationship between the physiological, psychological, and spiritual qualities of life is a process that is evidence-based scientific fact while at the same time an unsolved mystery.

Choices made that fly in the face of the process can prove disruptive to the process and result in struggle and pain. People get hurt physically, psychologically, and spiritually. If you attempt to defy or cheat the process of gravity you will likely fall at some point and experience physical pain. You might test the process of weather and attempt to go out in frigid temperatures without a coat or gloves. You might get away with it for a time but at some point tempting nature will lead to frostbite and pain. Play with fire long enough and you’ll get burned.

What about psychological process?

Psychology is the study of human behavior. The psychological process that happens in the life of one person is affected directly and often indirectly by the psychological process of other human beings. It occurs within families and throughout family life, as well as within communities and community life. We might refer to this process as relationship. As it turns out, relationship process is essential to individual cognitive (what one thinks) and behavioral (what one does) process.

The relationship between one individual and another and between people and their community involves a process of morality; a standard of what is right and what is good; a standard of good and evil; and a standard of best and worst. Who determines what is considered moral and immoral? This problem renders the process of morality both vague and absolute; both subtle and extreme. The matter of morality is a mixed bag in relationships and societies and therefore unpredictable when it comes to relational and societal process. While it is true that there are laws in what is the social process and the process of government but when you transition into a foreign society even the process of law changes.

What I have attempted to do is to help you to see that so long as there are individuals, families, communities, governing bodies, and so on, living according to varying degrees of process, seeing life and the world each through their own lens, whether subtle or extreme, the laws of process (whether physiological or psychological) are being broken at every turn, seemingly with every step to one extent or another.

The truth is that while life’s process is flawed so long as we are all selfish creatures, we all have surrendered to the process. There is no way out.

My challenge teaching the process

My biggest challenge as a counselor in a state correctional center is the barrier of secularism; the restrictions that exist to protect the client from someone like me who knows by personal experience, THE WAY, THE TRUTH, and THE LIFE for real change… transformative change… the light of truth to change the course of history in the life of someone dying in the shame of the lies he has come to believe about himself and his life. I understand it, though. Religious differences have started wars; not a good thing inside a prison.

For the person who comes into my office that believes in the love and life-giving power of Jesus Christ, I am permitted to “go there” and speak freely with him since I share his values where that’s concerned. But for the person coming into my office that does not believe in God or prefers not talking about “religion”, for me to go there would be to impose my values onto him. That would be tantamount to an ethical breach; ethical according to the standards of the state of Illinois and the company who employs me. While protecting my job where that’s concerned is important for me, losing my position in the prison could mean robbing dozens, if not hundreds, of men seeking the most sensible vehicle to sustained recovery from the opportunity to receive what God has called me to extend to them. So I must use caution in how this hopeful message is delivered in a secular setting so I can stick around to deliver it.

My clients are prisoners at an Illinois correctional facility with substance abuse and dependence issues that have usually had a major impact on the man’s criminal thinking and behavior. The vast majority of my clients grew up in severely dysfunctional families where one or both parents were abusive and or negligent in how they raised their boys. Often, one or both of the parents of my clients were addicted to drugs, dealers of drugs, and incarcerated at one time or another. Often times, one or both of the parents of my clients were missing from their lives at one time or another. A number of my clients are wrestling with profound abandonment issues.

What kind of trust issues and barriers to trust would you guess might be in play when it comes to this process of recovery? Is it that they struggle to process trust, to trust process, and struggle to trust the human agents that are involved in the process?

One guy suggested that he has experienced so many setbacks in his life that he has built up a levee around his heart. The flood waters of rejection, betrayal and abandonment have stormed in and destroyed so much in his life that it is near impossible to trust anyone. Because he built the levee… this fortress… around his heart for protection against emotional damage, he is able hold back the flood of disappointment to the point that he has shut down emotionally; meaning that he has repressed his feelings, beat them down with the club of extreme disappointment and fear. He is set up to miss out on the best of genuine honest relationships that might find him otherwise.

He constructed the levees when expectations were consistently unmet. Little failures and betrayals would come through the walls of his heart a bit and he would plug the holes with sand bags. Then as betrayals from loved ones as a young child became more common place he would need to build the levees to replace the chunks taken out of the walls. As betrayal and rejection evolved into outright abandonment, the trauma of his childhood experiences required a remedy, sought through drugs and alcohol to replace unreliable people. Since he did not at that time have the materials to rebuild the walls of his heart adequately enough to hold up against the rushing waters of failure and disappointment, he did what he could to hold the waters at bay.

Caged by Shame

Several years back I worked with a woman who had been sexually molested by the boyfriend of her mother after her parents’ divorce. These sexual encounters included intercourse and went on for three years. My client at the time was manipulated into twisted thinking and did not know how to tell anyone for fear of punishment… extreme punishment. My client was nine years old when it began and twelve years old when it was discovered.

When it was discovered my client was scolded by her mother who informed the authorities that my client between the ages of nine and twelve dressed provocatively around the house in shorts and tank tops. Let me say it again… She was nine! She was ten… eleven years old… in her own home (as if that matters).

Child and Family Services did remove her from the home and she, along with her younger sister, was placed with her father. Her father had just remarried. My client’s stepmother manipulated this messed up middle-school aged girl and her younger sister into holding down their two-year-old stepbrother while her stepmother beat him repeatedly. I don’t know how long that went on but before my client started high school she had been place in foster care; some of it good and nurturing, some of it neglectful and abusive.

As an adult, my client at the time in her mid-thirties, had developed a drinking problem and was dependent on alcohol. She was good at shielding her teenage son from the severity of her problem until lapses in judgment took their toll and the problem became clear to all involved. She had become increasingly erratic, making peculiar choices and acting out in ways that were obviously irrational. If she was behind you in the express 10-items-or-less checkout aisle at the store, and she counted that you’d put twelve or thirteen items up there… well, look out because she was coming for you with a profanity-laced tirade humiliating herself, her husband and her son.

My client shook while she told me her story and talked about her early twenties participating in the underground world of orgy sex parties and such that were a part of her reacting to all of the betrayal and rejection when she had know idea how to react to the trauma in her life. She shook as she told me that her severely abused stepbrother, at eighteen years of age and mentally ill, committed suicide. Talk about the feelings of immense guilt and shame that my client had allowed to define her as an awful, evil person not able to experience forgiveness on any level. Through all of the abuse she had fallen victim to, over the years she had come to see herself as the villain of awful behavior that, in her mind, contributed to the death of her step-brother.

My client had allowed the guilt from her past to define her. Shame is when you believe the lie that the mistakes made by you and the mistakes and evil done against you to now define you. So instead of guilt saying, “I made a mistake.” Shame gets you to say, “I am a mistake.” While guilt will admit, “I did a bad thing.” Shame will convince you, “I am a bad person.” Guilt will seek to accept responsibility and make amends for an offense. Shame will lie to you again suggesting that there is no forgiveness for you. These lies feed addictive thinking into desperately seeking a remedy that fuels destructive behavior when the intended remedy never seems to quite cut it.

A couple of weeks into treatment, she persuaded her husband to buy a puppy. Her husband was resistant until my client agreed to take care of it. They had to keep the puppy in the cage because it unpredictably would have the runs and make a mess everywhere… everywhere. The puppy would do its business outside but then come back in the house and do plenty more. After carpets were cleaned a few times and some items disposed of for obvious reasons they knew they had to be very sensitive about the time the dog was out of the cage. They needed the cage to be on the tile floor in the kitchen since “the mess” went flying everywhere. While the puppy was out they loved on her but then they would put her back in the cage where the puppy would make mess after mess. If you were anywhere near the cage while the puppy was, well… you get the picture. The dog’s mess was sprayed and splashed all over you. For some three weeks the therapy group heard the daily report.

After the third week of this my client and her husband took a major step while the puppy was outside. Any guess, here?

They removed the cage. From that day forward, the puppy never made a mess in the house ever again. (Even after my client concluded her treatment, follow-up contacts revealed that the puppy grew into a much bigger dog with no “accidents” in the house.)

Suddenly, in the group therapy session, it hit me right between the eyes; and I get emotional sitting here writing about it. My client was trapped inside of her cage of betrayal, abandonment, shame and pain. As long as she was trapped in her cage of shame she made a mess all over herself and anyone else who got close to her. I told her that through the sacrifice of Jesus, from a heart of compassion He had shown her mercy, forgiving her for every mistake she was responsible for and freeing her from everything that had been done to and against her.

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me… Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.” John 13:8, 12 (NIV)

I emphasized to her that the door to her cage of shame had been unlocked and pulled opened, that she had been loved on by Jesus and was free to leave the cage of her past. I encouraged her that if she would step out and walk away from the cage that Jesus would remove it and she would indeed be free; that she would be clean. And if she did still make little messes from time to time that Jesus would wash clean the areas of her life and character that get dirty.

I shared with her important Bible passages during that session.

“I know it was painful to you for a little while… because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.” 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 (NLT)

The godly sorrow is healthy guilt that leads to turning away from the behavior that is non-productive and destructive to your lifestyle. Healthy guilt protects you and even defends you. What I mean by ‘defends you’ is that the healthy guilt defends you against believing in the lies that suck you into the shame trap. The worldly sorrow is the shame that defines you as a sinner incapable of receiving mercy from anyone, including God. Shame hurts so much that the remedy one chases after to ease the painful feelings of failure and disappointment could hurt more and you wouldn’t even notice… for now. But God is pleading sensibly with her to repent of her mistakes and permit Him through relationship with Jesus to forgive her, cleanse her, and literally wipe the slate clean.

He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. Psalm 103:12

“That sounds really nice but how can a righteous God forgive what I have done?”

Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything… If we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. 1 John 3:19-21 (NLT)

John wrote that the forgiveness of God can overcome your inability and perhaps unwillingness to forgive yourself. It helped my client to recognize the power of reconciliation that comes with God’s mercy. Through this reconciliation she was able to experience something amazing to the extent that she became confident to approach God. She could trust God to forgive her as she confessed her condition to Him. God’s mercy would set her free. Once free she would repent—putting down the remedy that was alcohol and isolation; and vengeance against her abusers vicariously acted out against innocent people.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

John wrote here that God’s mercy to you is a matter of justice to Him. Because His Son paid the debt for your sin He has to forgive you when you admit your sin to Him. To God, it’s only fair!

For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:19 (NLT)

This was a therapy group where we shared the aforementioned Scriptures for my client (which applied to each of us, of course) and we all had tears streaming down our faces; not because of my words but because we watched the Spirit of God bathe His child white as snow right before our eyes. I will never forget it. It was beautiful… quite a night.

Does any of this process sound familiar to anyone?

To trust someone to come anywhere near either of these people’s fragile hearts would mean allowing what that someone brings through the levee. That comes with substantial risk. If the people that were supposed to love them the most broke their hearts and shattered their trust (subjected to a relationship process resulting in severe harm), why would they put any trust in anyone?

9 God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

13 And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. 14 Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 All who confess that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. 16 We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 1 John 4:9-18 (NLT)

So what about spiritual process?

Are you, or is someone you know, battling the ability and opportunity to experience healthy love (still not perfect love but a more sincere level of love) because he or she is in a fragile state when it comes to trusting someone? Is it difficult to let go of your reservation to give yourself to someone in relationship because the barrier in the way of trust is like a levee around your heart holding the waters back? Have you been so wounded in relationships with people you expected to love you that you cannot seem to believe in anyone trying to get close to you? Are you somewhat paralyzed by the fear of more failure and disappointment in your relationships?

It all comes back to trusting in the process over people, even though, clearly, people are vital to the process. The difference for making it work is that your faith be in the process far more than the people that are participating with you in it.

There is in fact one person in the process that you will need to put your trust in; but you might not be there yet. Faith in God through relationship with Jesus Christ changes everything. When you know Jesus as your rescuer and savior from the pain of the past, something in you melts away and it feels really good and right and oh so real.

The process comes down to A) Admit that you are powerless to on your own change from being broken to being made whole; B) Believe that you need to trust in something that reaches beyond your disappointment and pain; and C) Commit to begin to surrender to the process of change from what has been to what it can be if you will begin to let go of the wounds of the past.

Please consider this question. What if the levee built up and fortified to protect you from the misery that comes from letting people get close to you is doing the opposite of what it is intended to do? What if your heart has been destroyed in the flood of your pain and the levee is retaining your pain and you are still trapped in the flood of disappointment? What if you have been in the process of drowning in your hurt all this time and shutting down emotionally, and not letting anyone in, is merely a life vest allowing you to do little more than keep your head above the bone-chilling water as the rest of you agonizes over your condition?

When it comes to living you need to at least understand this truth: You are trusting in and surrendered to the process. Which process? Do you trust in the process of living or have you put your trust—your faith—into the process of dying? That is a very serious question. The ABC principles in the paragraph before last applies to both processes. Whether you have given yourself over to the process of dying (by way of self-gratifying, self-persevering, self-surviving remedies that do not last and in some way cause you harm) or whether you will give yourself over to the process of recovery into a better healthier way of living, you have surrendered to a process.

I work hard to emphasize this point to the client at the prison who struggles with belief in the unseen God and therefore has difficulty working the 12 steps. I challenge him to understand that his addictive and ultimately criminal lifestyle has become a power greater than his will to control it, that it is out of control, and that he cannot on his own fix it and make it better. His life has proven to be unmanageable. The man needs to admit that but also needs to understand that it is truth whether he admits or not. That fact that he lives under the roof of a building owned and operated by the correctional system is proof that the state’s correctional system is the higher power greater than him that has imposed its will over his to manage his unmanageable life. The fact is that my client has indeed surrendered his life into the care and will of this higher power, the state’s correctional system. There is no disputing this.

What is it for you? What are the facts about your struggles that you cannot on your own seem to get on top of? How does your struggle with disappointment through unmet expectations have power and control over you? In other words, how does the pain of your past own you to the point that you’re not willing to choose to trust in someone who you have determined does not meet the “criteria” to earn your trust?

So why not trust God? What do you have to lose?

If you are someone who does not believe in God at all than I admit this is a tough sell to persuade you to trust God. I suppose if trusting someone has become really difficult for you and you will admit that not trusting is also particularly painful for you… you know… because it’s no good feeling isolated and alone… because you can reasonably conclude that someone “working you” to get close to you winds up feeling alienated by you and yet again you feel isolated and alone when they finally give up trying. If this is increasingly discomforting to you, then I have a challenge for you.

What do you have to lose asking God… more specifically, Jesus Christ… to show up in your life and prove to you somehow some way that He is indeed real and alive and wanting and willing and able to help you? You don’t even have to believe or have faith that God is real. You only need to want for God to be real. You only need to need God to be real. You only need to hope that God is real. You only need to wonder enough, considering that you have run out of options in your pursuit of a remedy, if God is in fact real and alive.

What if God is real? What if He is? Then what?

If I am wrong and God is not real and alive—does not exist—what have I lost in the end? Nothing! What have you lost in the end? No more than you have already. But if God does exist and is alive and is all that the Bible says that He is, what have I in the end gained? EVERYTHING! What have you gained when it all comes down to it? Nothing yet. But it does not end there…

“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” Revelation 3:20 (NLT)

You only need to hope that Jesus is real and alive to say that and mean it. You only need to want this to be true that Jesus loves you and wants to have fellowship with you. Maybe, all that you need to do is answer the door. What if that’s all there is to it?

Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. Hebrews 11:1 (NKJV)

Is it hard to believe in Jesus because you don’t see Him?
Do you see gravity?
Do you see oxygen?
Have you seen your brain? How do you know you have one?
Have you seen George Washington? Do you know anyone you trust who has seen George Washington? How do you know he was the first president of the United States? How do you know George Washington even existed? What, you believe it because you read it in a book? Do you trust people (authors and teachers) you don’t even know (who certainly wouldn’t have earned your trust) that it’s true?

At some you except that gravity is true when what… when you experience gravity. The experience is all of the evidence you need to believe that gravity is what it is. You accept it as a fact of your life even though you do not see gravity with your eyes. You do not need to put your faith in what you do not know. Believe in the evidence of your experience and accept what you do not see as truth and reality. This is also how you come into belief by faith in the reality of who God is through a connection with Jesus Christ when you open the door of your heart and permit Him to come in have fellowship with you. It is then that you experience the reality of God through that relationship with Jesus. It changes your mind; renews your mind.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1-2 (NIV)

If you are not experiencing this transformative renewing experience through a relationship with Jesus, it is because you have not opened the door to let Him in. Why not? Because you have yet to surrender to even the possibility that He can repair the damage and heal the wounds that still own you. Make no mistake. You have surrendered to one process or the other. You’re surrendered to the process that is worldly sorrow that leads to death, or godly sorrow, which is a contrite broken spirit that allows the presence of God through relationship with Jesus to heal everything in you that hurts and needs healing. The bleeding will stop. The wounds will be washed and healed.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole. And by His stripes we are healed. Isaiah 53:4-5 (NLT, NKJV)

Jesus Christ suffered beatings and was crucified against a tree and died on that cross so that you would be healed and live. He was resurrected from the dead. The wounds that Jesus bore on your behalf today have healed. Everything you have ever done and everything that has ever been done against you is healed in the healed wounds of Jesus. He took your pain then but today Jesus is alive and free to set you free.

God says, “Rebuild the road! Clear away the rocks and stones so my people can return from captivity.”
The high and lofty one who lives in eternity, the Holy One, says this:
“I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble.
I restore the crushed spirit of the humble and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.”
Isaiah 57:14-15 (NLT)

There will be scars, but let me tell you what a scar really is. A scar is the mark—the stripe—that is left when the wound is healed completely. You cannot rub on a scar and open up the wound. The wound is healed and no longer has power over you. The origin of the wound no longer owns you. You are in fact healed and able to turn away from the past into the reality of a new life experience.

“I have seen what they do, but I will heal them anyway!
I will lead them. I will comfort those who mourn, bringing words of praise to their lips.
May they have abundant peace, both near and far,” says the Lord, who heals them. Isaiah 57:18-19 (NLT)

I also need to say this: To encounter the presence of God is most certainly powerful. To live in the experience of God’s presence is transforming; empowering you to become more like Jesus. You can come into this experience that will change you forever. Living in God’s presence means that his transforming power will break through the levee you have built around your heart. As the cleansing flood that is the loving compassionate undeserved grace of Jesus Christ courses through the memories of your past, the guilt is resolved and the shame washed away.

You will experience the presence of God who cares for you beyond imagination. You will know beyond doubt that you have experienced the renewal and restoration that comes with knowing Jesus. You will experience relationship and fellowship as you open the door, let Jesus in, and allow Him to clean every room in your mind, heart, and soul. It is a miracle and it’s awesome. It is all the evidence that you will ever need and you will trust it with your life.

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2 Responses to When the Levee Breaks (Restoring Trust)

  1. ewangelia says:

    Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We grabbed a book from our local library but I think I learned with more clarity from this post. I am very glad to see such excellent info being shared freely out there.

  2. I liked your “When the Levee Breaks” article. I especially enjoyed how you tied it all together at the end with “So why not trust God?” You always put things in a way that makes me think, I like that! Thanks for all you do…

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