How To Let Life’s Pain Make Your Heart Soft, Instead of Hard

How To Let Life’s Pain Make Your Heart Soft, Instead of Hard April 24, 2018

The other day I was sitting in my dad’s kitchen back on the family farm, and we found ourselves talking about life.

We seem to do that more these days. This past year I was navigating a rather painful life chapter, and the latter months of the year included discovering that he–at just 60 years old– has stage 4 prostate cancer. All of that invites a season of reflection and contemplation for those who dare to journey where such thoughts can lead you. While I’ve lived a life afraid of many things, I’m generally not afraid to follow that unpredictable road in one’s heart and mind.

As we sat there, I blurted out a thought that came to mind in real time: “I guess if there’s anything in my life that I’ve accidentally done well, it’s that I’ve allowed a rather painful life story to make me soft instead of hard.” I’ve continued to reflect on this more and more in the days that have passed, and am increasingly grateful God has helped my heart stay tender and soft as I sit with a growing awareness that it would be so easy to just grow hard.

While I can’t say for sure why my life’s story hasn’t made me hard, as I reflect I can certainly think of some things that made a big difference. Here’s a few ways that you too can allow life’s pain to make your heart soft, instead of hard:

Reject bitterness and practice forgiveness as often as you need to.

This is easier said than done, and there’s no trick to it– sometimes it requires intentionality and raw determination. For me, I determined to reject bitterness while serving as the presiding pastor at a funeral for an elderly individual whose most memorable qualities were nastiness and bitterness. As I explored deeper into their story, everyone who had loved them seemed to point to a few tragic and painful losses that understandably turned their heart hard, instead of soft– resulting in this individual being remembered as, shall we say… less than friendly.

Rejecting bitterness doesn’t mean experiences and memories don’t hurt. It doesn’t mean every situation gets fixed, perfectly reconciled, or that everything gets made right again. Instead, rejecting bitterness is simply a way of saying, “I won’t let this moment in time pre-script how the rest of my life is going to go.”

Allow pain and hardships to make you less judgmental of others.

Life has a way of landing us in situations we never expected to be in, and that sucks. However, if we look beyond our own experience and story, we’ll often realize that we’ve been quick to judge others who found themselves in similar circumstances– and that maybe things weren’t as simple as we had judged.

Whether it’s a divorce, loss of a job, financial hardship, or a host of other difficult life-chapters, it’s easy to judge others. Ironically, the act of judging is something that primarily harms ourselves because it causes us to harbor negativity in our own hearts– something that doesn’t lead anywhere good, healthy, or helpful.

Taking our own painful stories and realizing that life’s train wrecks are rarely as simple as an outsider might judge them, and remembering the same holds true for others, is something that will make our hearts progressively softer as we resist judgment and negativity in favor of humility.

Become genuinely curious about others as you grow in awareness that everyone has a story behind their circumstances.

Judging others makes life easy, because we don’t have to be curious– we can simply assign judgement without doing an ounce of emotional labor, and then walk away. However, what softens our hearts is when we not simply refrain from judging, but when we become genuinely curious to hear and understand that secret backstory everyone has.

The more we humble and quiet ourselves to listen to these stories, the more and more we discover the human experience is one filled with both unexpected similarities– and individual uniqueness. While it’s an acquired skill that doesn’t always come naturally, the more we find ourselves sitting and curiously listening to the secret backstory that others bring with them, the more we find that our hearts grow tender and soft towards all those whose paths cross our own.

Let remorse be a healthy springboard instead of a bottomless grave.

Let’s be honest: while difficult life circumstances are full of nuance and reasons for happening, each situation often comes with it contributions we uniquely made. The process of growing and developing makes it necessary to own our own junk, but developing a heart that’s soft instead of hard means we have to resist allowing remorse to throw our own story into a permanent nosedive.

Few things have the power to make our hearts hard and cold as does a self-imposed life sentence of punishment over mistakes we’ve made. However, healthy remorse means owning our mistakes, making amends where possible, and then moving on with a commitment to live differently– a process that makes us soft toward a critical person in our lives: ourselves.

Invite the painful parts of your life story to turn you into a person of compassion and empathy.

If there’s one thing the world needs today, it’s more empathy.

They say the most beautiful art is born out of pain, and I think the same is true of empathy– the softest, most loving people I know are the ones who have taken their own painful stories and allowed them to foster more empathy towards others who are navigating painful stories.

Empathy gives way to understanding, understanding gives birth to compassion, and practicing compassion is something that will keep making your heart soft, instead of hard.

This last year and a half of my life has been a painful one, and has turned out to be longer and more difficult than I ever imagined on day one of this journey.

While the past cannot be changed, and life’s circumstances often include variables completely out of our control, there is one thing I’m determined to do above all else:

I want my painful life stories to leave my heart soft, instead of hard.


unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com. 

Be sure to check out his new blog, right here, and follow on Facebook:

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Cynthia Brown Christ

    This article resonates with my life so completely. When I was a child I thought that I was given more hardships than my friends and other family members because I was special, blessed, that God knew I alone could handle it all because of my strength, my ability to love, and to know Jesus. As the youngest of five siblings I watched my mom fall apart, and my siblings become estranged and addicted leaving the care of my dad dying of cancer to me at 16. I remained blessed, and shared my blessings copiously.

    A few years ago after being diagnosed with PTSD, and finding myself on every page of the ALON book recommended by my therapist, my daughter stopped speaking to me for 3 years. I also chose to withdraw from my Catholic church because I felt compelled to stand for my gay son.

    My whole world was shattered – except for my compassionate heart which kept searching for places to love, and to seek Christ.

    I worked very hard on myself, learning who I really am and I will not forget the one moment when it all resolved within me. This Christmas I texted my daughter to invite her for the holiday. My son called me to say she wouldn’t be coming, and I immediately was filled with this wholeness, this forgiveness mostly for my own part in the mess that was made, I knew that she must be hurting as much as I was, and I said out loud, “it’s OK. She will come when she is ready.” And I meant it.

    Thank you for sharing this article.

  • SamHamilton

    Thank you for this reflection.

  • otrotierra

    Thank you Dr. Corey. Much here for future contemplation and action regarding how people, including people in groups we call “country” and “government,” treat other people.

  • Turning all over to God has been my goal in life. Turning my thoughts away from negativity and seeing the sweet spots from the past MHO has really helped!! I wait and listen for instructions to get active. I’m to take on life on life’s terms!! I’ve been clean and sober for 14 years!!

  • Brenda Finnegan

    As I have traveled through a very dark place over the past 6 months, still not seeing the end of that road in front of me, I am desperate to lose the bitterness, anger, and pain that surround me like flies.Your article gives me hope that, if I keep swatting those flies away, there will come a day that I can feel quiet, rested and still again.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Every cloud has a silver lining. i had high school classmates that died. one of them died in a car accident on the way to prom. I guess you can say, to me, 60 is an age most of us will only dream about, because some are lucky to make it that far.

  • gimpi1

    I’m so sorry about your dad. I truly admire your ability to use your pain to make you more empathetic and compassionate. I also hope you have fewer opportunities to become more compassionate in the next year – because you have a much better year.

  • Mark Letham

    Thank you for this post. Sorry about your Dad. My Dad died from Stage 4 kidney cancer almost 9 years ago. He’s with the Lord and not in pain. I still miss him. I’m also going through personal upheaval in my life now.

    The section on forgiveness moved me and convicted my to start working on forgiving those who have “hurt” me in my life. Your words and The Spirit. I’ve been allowing the bitterness to have too much space in my life these past few years.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Church is boring.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    You’re dad’s not “with the lord”, he’s either ashes in a jar or in a box, rotting.
    Hate to be the bearer of bad news.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Everything? You get god to pay your insurance and mortgage?

  • hi George hope you’re doing okay. I think of you sometimes. I wonder what your life is like. Do you have a wife or a sweetheart? Do you have any pets? Are you going to take a vacation this summer? How are you doing anyway?