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Between Two Identities: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness

between-two-identities-healing-trauma-and-restoring-wholeness


“Know Thyself”
Temple of Apollo at Delphi

One Person, Many Parts

Straight out of graduate school, I worked at a psychiatric hospital monitoring patients and conducting group therapy. I was naïve and inexperienced, believing that my listening skills and psychological analysis would be effective enough to break through the most complex cases.

My session with Rhonda was everything I could have hoped for. As she vulnerably shared painful memories of abuse, I listened unflinchingly. As she wept, I mirrored her tears with my own. As she confided her deepest fears to me, I offered comfort. We experienced a deep emotional connection, and secretly, I felt like a superhero. I knew this was the breakthrough she needed to heal from her trauma, and I couldn’t wait to tell my supervisor about it.

A few hours later, I ran into Rhonda by the nurse’s station holding her confidential patient chart wide open to my freshly penned session notes. Her eyes filled with rage, her face curled up in a snarl, she moved toward me and shoved the binder in my face, finger angrily pressed on the page. “How dare you!” she hissed at me. I was completely taken aback and confused. “I shared these stories with you in private, and now you’ve written them down for the whole world to see! I trusted you, and you betrayed me. I hate you!”

Speechless and frozen, I held the chart as she whirled around and walked away. How could this be the same woman I had connected with moments before? So much for a breakthrough.

The Original Split

Years later, with a more informed understanding of trauma, I’ve come to see that Rhonda was internally fragmented. Part of her wanted to connect, to be known, and to receive love. But another part of her was terrified of feeling exposed. These two parts of her were constantly at odds, creating an internal conflict that pushed everyone away and left her stuck in shame.

The worst decision ever made by Adam and Eve, as chronicled in Genesis 3, firmly establishes the beginning of the sin virus that infected humanity and resulted in untold pain and suffering. Yet, we must also come to understand that shattered shalom is more than an event in history or a singular occurrence in your personal story. It’s also a comprehensive explanation of how what God created whole and complete became fragmented and divided.

God names Adam and Eve as the crown of his creation, formed in his own image and endowed with dignity and value of infinite worth. But the Fall impacts creation down to the cellular level, dividing and destroying everything in its path. Not just physically—but emotionally, relationally, psychologically, and spiritually.

The result? Fragmentation on three relational levels:

  • Our relationship with God
  • Our relationship with others
  • Our relationship with ourselves

To our own detriment, we have turned away from God, creating a relational rupture that we are unable to repair on our own. Secondly, instead of being “naked and unashamed,” we are now “naked and afraid”, running away from each other and wanting to hide. Finally, and most personally, we are fragmented internally, literally divided against ourselves. 

Defense Mechanism Gone Wrong

The psychological term splitting is often used to describe this inner fracture.  Seen as a defense mechanism, splitting allows us a mental exit from overwhelming emotional pain or anxiety.

Splitting protects us from looking bad or feeling bad and allows us to literally split off “bad” parts of ourselves that contain shame or hurt. This also buffers us from the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when our beliefs clash with our behavior or when we experience trauma that we don’t know how to metabolize.

Splitting isn’t all bad. It offers us a measure of protection from the unavoidable distress of living in a broken world. At its best, splitting shows up as a coping mechanism that instinctively kicks into gear during times of extreme fear or suffering. The brain has a sophisticated way of shielding itself through dissociation or detachment from a present reality that feels unbearable.

In his comprehensive treatment of the mind-body connection in The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D. states,

“Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own.”

A new neural network is formed to contain painful memories and feelings, but we don’t want anything to do with it, so it gets buried in our implicit brain, still alive but operating outside of our conscious awareness.

However, this primitive and automatic defense mechanism meant to ensure survival in a crisis can also have negative side effects. Disturbing thoughts and feelings that are cut off and never processed can remain alive in the body, showing up later as chronic pain, digestive issues, headaches, or flashbacks. This internal fragmentation creates filters through which much of life gets interpreted. Such filters help us cope with difficult things and protect us from further hurt, but they may also shut out the good things that we need to grow—like safety, love, and connection.

The First Crime Scene

The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is a sobering picture of the grim consequences of internal splitting. The first mention of sin after the Fall occurs in this homicidal narrative.

Let’s consider for a minute that Cain’s actions sprung from internal fragmentation. Outwardly, he wanted to appease God by his sacrifice, but inwardly, he didn’t want to dedicate himself wholly to God in worship.

God, the searcher of hearts, knows that Cain is divided against himself and counsels him in Genesis 4:6,7: 

“Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

At this point, Cain is faced with a decision: whose voice will he listen to?

By now, we know that the enemy of our souls has entered the scene with tactics to deceive, divide, discourage, defile, and destroy. This account describes sin as a wild beast—as though it has intention, desires, and objectives, actively studying Cain and looking for an opportunity to pounce and unleash destruction.  

Sin wants to erode and fragment your identity—to pull you apart and divide you against yourself, others, and God.

We don’t know how much time passes between God’s warning and Cain’s decision to murder his own brother, but we do learn that sin carries the power within itself to entangle us. We cannot run from its consequences.  

Could we, as observers to this story, possibly have known the war waging in Cain’s heart?  

From all appearances that a camera would see, Cain’s offering was a legitimate sacrifice that should have been acceptable to God. Had we known Cain, we would have likely believed that he was a good person, an upstanding citizen, someone we enjoyed being around. But God’s word is like reading an X-ray image of the heart. Our outwardly good behavior can conceal sinful motives lurking within, deceiving ourselves into thinking we’re fooling God.

Thankfully, we have a divine explanation of how sin seeks to take advantage of us. So, if we are willing, we can learn to master it before it masters us.

God’s counsel to Cain gives us the first step in mastering sin: be aware of your fragmented heart.

Putting the Pieces Together

The Hebrew word shalom literally means peace, but it includes the notions of completeness, totality, wholeness, and well-being. Similarly, the English word integer means “a thing that is complete in itself,” and it’s where we get the words integrity and integration.

Sin causes psychological and spiritual disintegration—the opposite of shalom.

Sin studies us. During childhood, when we’re most vulnerable and unprotected, it looks for fractures in the tender, developing self. Harm, pain, and loss in our stories create the breeding ground for us to turn on ourselves and others, to self-protect, and to try to make life work apart from God.

Knowing your story allows you to study your heart with the same X-ray vision we have of Cain.

So, ask yourself:

How does sin work in me? Where does it show up? How has it turned me away from God and against myself?

Be assured that sin has found a unique way to tempt and hound you, using all of your life experiences to pull you as far from the Father’s love as possible.

Most cunningly, sin has isolated parts of your heart that have yet to hear the gospel. It has made you believe that the “bad” parts of you are disqualified from the grace of God and that if you name them, they will swallow up all the good.

When we come to understand the beastly nature of sin and its power to divide, we are moved to a state of desperation and humility. Knowledge and willpower can’t piece together what sin has torn apart. Sin is much more intelligent, creative, and powerful than we care to imagine.

It is crouching, ravenous, and relentless. So then, what is our strategy to not be consumed by it?

In short: knowing and naming your story, speaking your story out loud to yourself and others and bringing it into God’s presence.

The Psalmist models this for us in Psalm 32:3-5:

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night, your hand was heavy on me. My strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

God welcomes the fragmented parts of your heart. And by naming them, your guilt is dissolved, your sin washed away, and your disintegrated parts are restored.

Wholehearted

What if Cain had listened to God’s counsel, and, instead of cherishing the anger and envy in his heart, he had responded with humility and contrition? Had he recognized the danger he was in and come into the light, the story could have had a much different ending.

But our nature, like Cain’s, resists every encroachment of light as though we will be severely burned by it. Little do we know that the darkness of our soul is already fully known to God, and he intends to shine his light brightly enough for us to see that our hearts are “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).

This point in our identity formation feels bleak. How can we possibly be restored to shalom and made whole again?

Let’s pause and sit in the profound nature of this dilemma that we find ourselves in:

Divided against God, each other, and ourselves. Helpless to do anything about it, too weak to stop it, too scared to admit it, reflexively primed to resist it...

BUT GOD

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—it is by grace you have been saved.

Ephesians 2:4-5

As you look at the pieces of your heart and name the ways they’ve been divided, broken, fragmented, and disconnected, preach this truth to every part of your soul:

By grace you have been saved.

Yes, our sin is great, but God’s grace is greater still. The practice of naming and bringing disparate parts of your soul into a deeper understanding of God’s grace is what I imagine Paul had in mind when he prayed for “our inner selves to be strengthened and empowered by the Spirit to be rooted and grounded in Christ’s love.” (Ephesians 3:16,17)

Not only that, the “old self which has been corrupted (fragmented) from deceit” is being renewed and a “new self” awaits. (Ephesians 4:22-24). As our identity formation progresses, it’s as though we’ve been brought back to life from the deadgroggy from the transition and unaware of the difficult work that the total rehabilitation of our souls requires.

With our old identity a memory of the past, and our new identity sealed with a promise for the future, the hope of the gospel is that, through the redeeming love of Jesus, the process of reintegration has begun.

Next time, we will examine how we search for love and meaning as this journey of restoration unfolds.


Sin isn't just a personal problem. It affects those around you. Listen along as Patrick Miller teaches from Luke about how to deal with sin.

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Don't miss each part of this blog series by Lynn Roush:

  1. Between Two Identities: Discovering Who You Are According to God's Story
  2. Between Two Identities: Starting Your Self-Exploration at the Beginning
  3. Between Two Identities: Recognizing the Real Enemy