Becoming More Wholehearted

What do you understand wholeheartedness to be? It often feels like an unattainable state, especially in this fallen world. In this conversation, Dan Allender and Rachael Clinton Chen break down their experiences with becoming more wholehearted: the desire for its joy, the shame that often prevents us from embracing it, and the simple practices in which we can have an embodied, intentional movement toward Shalom.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: Rachael, I have a moderately odd question for you. Uh, any, any significant sports injuries that you wanna put words to? And I should probably say, look, we’re not gonna be talking if, if already as a podcast listener and you’re worried about this is the focus, uh, what we’re beginning to move toward is the question of how do we become wholehearted. But I, I think sports injuries are a really interesting way to get to that. So just a, a quick question. Any sports injuries?

Rachael: Well, I’m laughing cause when you initially asked me this in preparation, I was like, no, no, because I played sports. So, so wholeheartedly that like yeah, my injuries maybe came from that and then very quickly had to repent of my, uh, you know, arrogance because yes, a few I can think of cause I do have some sports injuries that were like, I was so in so intense, like in basketball, stealing the ball too many times from someone who got mad and like pme in the face, going up for a layup, I also have like, you know, broken nose from, you know, playing second base in softball and being a little distracted by something and the ball hitting me right in the face. Um, but my most significant sports injury, if we wanna call it an injury, I don’t know if I’d call it an injury just more like the, uh, and I think it gets, this is the confusing thing about wholeheartedness that we’ll get into, but, um, is I had, I developed asthma as a college track and cross-country athlete and I had been running at that point since fifth grade, long distance cross country track indoor track. So if you’ve ever been a long distance runner, endurance runner, you know, there’s certain ways you have to both listen to your body and also tune your body out. So when I developed asthma, there was a lot of cognitive dissonance for me. Um, it felt like, you know, the asthma I had like lots of stereotypes about who has asthma. Mine was probably connected to like mold and mildew in an old dorm I lived in. Um, but it deeply impacted my capacity to run. Cause obviously if you can’t, if you’re not getting enough oxygen…

Dan: Hard to run.

Rachael: It’s hard to run for like three to five miles. So I do have a few stories of like, I mean, I remember my asthma doctor being like, you are seriously one of my worst patients, like how are you not picking up the cues that you are not breathing enough? And so I have memories of being, you know, in the midst of a college track race and being on lap 10 and the lines on the track starting to weave in and out of each other because I’m definitely like getting dizzy…

Dan: You’re going to into asphyxia. It’s not funny, It’s not funny

Rachael: There’d be someone running off the track and being like, and, this is when I collapsed and it’s humiliating, right. Because I then had to go get hospital treatment, like a nebulizer treatment, make sure everything was working, but it was very hard for me in some ways I think I thought I was really being like faithful to the, the task at the expense of my body. Hmm.

Dan: Yeah. And we can almost summarize it by, it is a failure of focus, a distraction, a disintegration, you know, something about being whole integral, integrity, wholeness, uh, you know, whenever in one sense we’re distracted divided, we’re in some sense, not wholehearted. Uh, for me, I played football from fourth grade through the first year of college and I just confess, I never liked the sport. I just didn’t like the whole concept. I know that’s anti American anti male, but it was a context for me to relieve levels of rage that, um, percolated in me for a long season and probably not entirely resolved. So it, I enjoyed the sport only because of, uh, it was a more societal context to play out a level of violence against human beings that would not have been viewed as redeemable if it had been in a more informal context. So, the idea of playing hard, uh, always struck me as ridiculous, like practices were where I was injured because I just didn’t wanna run hard. I didn’t wanna hit hard. And, but I would end the game like trust me, put me in the game, coach, I’ll do what you want. I’ll do actually more than you want, but don’t make me run during practice. So I was always a cheater, always looking to hide behind somebody so I wouldn’t get caught. And that same basic tactic actually created… I don’t think I was ever injured beyond a few major cuts on my face in games, but broken bones actually occurred at practices because I was half-hearted. And I think what we’re getting at is it, it wholeheartedness is not just a goal. Uh, it’s not just a reasonable and, um, intentional process. It’s actually the safest, you can be in this world of great danger, to live in a way that is whole and hearted. So let’s at least begin to try and unpack. What do you understand wholeheartedness to be?

Rachael: That’s a great question. I mean, I think this is actually a hard concept. Um, because many of us have many of us, not all of us, but many of us have been formed in contexts, especially Christian context where this kind of language typically means like wholeheartedness is also connected to like purity, holiness, um, faithfulness hopefulness and like our capacity to love. So it gets all tangled up. I mean, I think where I immediately go is like, it feels impossible to be wholehearted. And what do you mean wholehearted is the safest place to be, like? So I do think it has to do with, um, being undivided, right? Like an inter… you name this, an integration of our bodies, um, like actually honoring our bodies and tending to our bodies and, um, offering care to our bodies, acknowledging our bodies are a part of our existence and how we move and breathe and have our being, um, I think about, uh, the desire I think about, um, intentionality. Um, and I, and obviously if we’re talking about wholeheartedness in the context of our faith, then some something to do with our, our, our devotion and our following of God, uh, in, in bringing the kingdom of God here on, on earth as it is in heaven.

Dan: Hmm. Well start with the first, I, I think that’s such an important beginning point to say, you know, I’m truly here, I am really here. And, uh, again, to underscore that we’re each all of us to some degree struggling, I don’t think I’ve ever been fully wholehearted for any significant length of… We’ll come to that another point, but the reality is we are all somewhat divided and fragmented is a clearer word. And if you’ve had trauma, which is impossible not to have, if you live in a fallen world. The reality is we all have some degree of fragmentation and, uh, you know, I’ve had a number of, well, mostly motorcycle accidents, a few wretched long-legged vermin called deer have tried to take me out of this world. Uh, so I, the accidents have brought some pain, but, uh, I’ve been told by physicians and others, uh, like your level of tolerance of pain is actually almost, and the phrase was used by one person inhuman. And I have to admit, at least in the context of this particular accident, I felt sorta like proud. Like, yeah, I can do this. And it’s just the quagmire opposite of what we’re talking about. I’m here with all that’s within me. Uh, the brokenness, the beauty, the fragmentation, and I have a way of gaining some degree of access to it. And, you know, uh, it generally, uh, you know, in certain terms it’s called interoception the ability to be aware, self aware, and so much of trauma shuts down our ability to be aware of trauma or aware of what’s inside, uh, portion of our brain called the insula, um, that actually coheres what our different organs are experiencing. One of the effects of any significant trauma is that the insula stops integrating what’s happening in the different parts of us. So if we can use that both as an actual statement, but also as a metaphor. You know, the portions of our brain, particularly our thalamus and our limbic system, that is another portion of our brain that integrates now, not just the viscera, but actually the internal thought process and emotions. It also somewhat shuts down, you know, in the context of trauma. So the dilemma is, our fallenness in a fallen world makes internal division almost the norm. So without, in one sense, a consciousness like I will be aware of what’s in my body, we’ll just naturally be disintegrating and not integrating.

Rachael: Yeah. And to me, there’s a lot of, um, heartbreak to that because I don’t think any of us necessarily want to be fragmented or want to be feeling, you know, want to have kind of the pride of really high pain tolerances, because we’ve known so much body harm that we’ve established a capacity to survive. And so, um, I think this is where I also would say, we have any imagination that healing is possible and that the God of all comfort actually longs to be with us in the places where it feels really hard to be present in our bodies. And I think for so many of us, we are so used to more of a God who would be like, I need you to power up. I need you to like, you know, suffering is suffering. Like you think I didn’t suffer, you know, like, you know, I don’t care about your suffering. So I think it’s actually a, a mind shift, um, to see and honor that part of what we are meant for and made for is a welcoming.

Dan: Well, and, and, you know, just using those two particular parts of, of our brain, the insula and being able to go the insula is the very temple of our God, you know, the thalamus the portion of our brain that brings things together. It’s the very temple of the Holy Spirit. So to have a sense that our body is not only important for the physicality of our movement on the earth, it is the place that God resides and therefore it requires intentionality. Um, and you know, our culture actually has a good word for that: mindfulness. And I like that word, but I don’t know why we don’t say embodiedness, um, a kind of, I need to be with my body. So if I wanna be wholehearted, uh, and I want that for me, I have to coming come back to words like, oh, Jesus, I need you in my thalamus right now. I need to pay attention to my insula and because my viscera are not working together at this point. So to be in awareness that I meant for Shalom, that’s where the movement of desire is always going. And as, uh, our dear friend, Linda Roiyster often talks about Shalom. It’s the place of flourishing, not only for ourselves, but for our community. It, it is the place where we know something of fullness. Um, and we’ll come back to this word probably in our next podcast, but it’s, it’s a Greek word, pleroma, P-L-E-R-O-M-A, pleroma. And it it’s the notion that the fullness of joy is what God desires. And there is something about having a embodied, intentional movement toward Shalom. Fullness. Joy is I, I, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think about that much until I’m doing a podcast, which is somewhat pathetic. Uh, but to go, wait a minute, am I like wholeheartedly flossing this morning? Well, I didn’t floss. So it’s impossible to say that I had wholeheartedness, but in the process of having my kombucha this morning or choosing what I eat for breakfast, am I present to my breakfast? No, I’m, I’m checking out things on the internet while I’m eating. Already. I’m not wholehearted. I’m literally divided in the process. Why not put the phone down? Why not taste, what I’m eating and allow the nourishment, the pleasure, the smell to be part of this embodied movement toward Shalom. So I think I wanna just ask, why do you think so few people seem, well, you can talk about me. Why, why do I seem to be so seldom wholehearted or wellwell make it more general? Why so few seem to be. 

Rachael: Yeah. Like I’m not gonna talk about, cause I’m not gonna prescribe that for you. That would be, I mean, I, you know, we, we could have those conversations. Yeah, sure.

Dan: I wish it for you. And here’s what I see to be where you’re half-assed, Which is another word for not wholehearted.

Rachael: Yeah. I mean, I think I wanna be careful cause this is where I also think you can be hard on yourself and you can have really high expectations for yourself that have really, they come from really good places. Um, and so I, I know enough about your story and your war, um, to know that like why that would be something that comes out sounding like such a harsh indictment, like to be half-ass because the reality is I don’t, I don’t think it’s that like, we’re all sitting around like, ah, I don’t wanna be hearted or I’m too lazy to be wholehearted. I actually think it’s painful to be wholehearted in the world we live in. It’s why we have all become addicted to screens. Like I, when you say that, I’m like, oh, the war I have with like, don’t pick up your phone, don’t pick up your phone, just cause you have five minutes of a pause and I can be all over my kid about this. Like why do you guys need to be on screens all the time? But then don’t wanna deal with my own places where I’m like, here’s two minutes where there’s silence. Let me pick up my phone. And I, you know, I think it really does have to do with the places we are haunted by, um, because to be mindful and embodied, to be intentional, to lean into. I mean I’m not fond of joy. Joy is scary. I want joy. I relish it when I taste it. I also think how long do I get to keep this?

Dan: Oh, oh, okay. You’re you’re messing, messing, messing, messing. I mean, cuz I, I think everybody thinks they want joy. And so few have even a reference point to say, wait a minute, joy is a femoral. It comes, it goes it’s without much control and, and in its departure there’s something actually even more diespairing than despair, when joy parts.

Rachael: Yeah. Well and, and to be in community, meaning any relationship outside of your many parts of yourself actually to be in relationship with the parts of yourself is to hold joy and sorrow together. But I think it’s also that reality of like how do we bear joy when in the same breath we’re often having to hold such heartache and, and in some ways it’s, that’s, I mean, you said this this morning in a teaching that we’re doing with our training certificate, like the, that is the call of the gospel to step into places where beauty and brokenness, joy and suffering, death and resurrection are held in tension. And in some ways that’s what we’re talking about with wholeheartedness. Um, and that requires profound courage and a deep trust in our own goodness that I think so many of us are at war with. Like we’re not fond of desire. We’re not fond of joy. Yep. And we’re not fond of our bodies. So if those are the categories of wholeheartedness, then, you know, I think there’s some genuine heartache to contend with there’s and I, of course there’s again, addictive ways, numbing ways that we soothe and we cope. And so we can, we can be honest about that and we can be grieved by that and we can want a deeper transformation, but I’m not ready to just like indict you as someone who’s just like not willing to be wholehearted.

Dan: Well, I know there are moments that my heart is whole and, or whole, but you know, it does feel so infrequent and how much of my day just feels spent on it’s 9 o’clock we have this. Yeah. And then it’s 10 o’clock we have this. And the process of moving like most people through a moderately complex day with different activities segmented hourly. Uh, it it’s it’s I think one of the things that has been so helpful for me as we’ve been planning to do this podcast is just having an awareness like you, you’re not eating wholeheartedly. And yeah, I do have a proclivity to my own judgment and to be able to, um, love mercy, um, to be able to go, you’re not now you can refocus, you could put, you could put the phone down and, and if you don’t, it’s not going to be a catastrophe, but this oatmeal with cinnamon and red and green grapes visually and in terms of olfactory, I, you know, for most people, oatmeal is not exactly what you’d call the most compelling of smells in the morning, but this morning, just to be able to go, oh, I like the red and green grapes. I like their intersection. And like, I just put a pile of cinnamon on like, I, I mean, it, it was enough that I, I could inhale it from the bowl itself. So all that just to go, I love that this morning, you know, I put the phone down, I ate with a little less fury and intensity and distractedness, but what it did was it just helps me go, I’m so often split off. And even though that’s a very technical, psychological term, you, if, if you wanna think of it from another standpoint, Piaget talked about, you know, the sensor/motor period for a child moving eventually by about five/six into what’s called concrete operations. That’s the framework of being able to see things as, this is good. Oh, and that’s bad. And there is no intersection. There is absolute clarity. This is good. This is bad. And that notion of splitting something off where you’re unable to hold the complexity, generally what Piaget called formal operations. And this will sound very, uh, judgmental. And I don’t know how to say it any better than, I think there, lot of believers who don’t move into formal operations, um, and there are certain aspects, uh, about how scripture or the broader category of how the Christian life is taught, that creates almost a necessity or return to formal operations. Like these people are good? These people are bad? And you wanna associate with these bad people or do these bad things. And if you have almost a formal structure that limits your ability to see the complexity, the gray, the, the, the, in some sense, the almost contradiction of living death and resurrection, um, it will not be in one sense, something you intend to hold. So how can you embody complexity? Uh, and in some sense, the issues of ambivalence with the intentionality of may I hold this together, may I hold death and resurrection together? And so to be able to look at my bowl of breakfast and be able to say, I, I don’t know how to practice it. That is wholeheartedness outside of this moment of being able to go eat well, smell, taste, slow the input of the spoon down just a little bit. And you don’t really chew a whole lot with oatmeal a little bit with a grape, nonetheless, just let yourself savor. But that is something of an assault against what I think for me and others is much more natural. And that is to live with an implicit or explicit body shame and a kind of tending to your body is at best selfish. Uh, and again, I, I think that becomes a crucial category of why so few people tend to be as wholehearted as we would want for ourselves, because we’ve not really engaged the issue of how trauma has brought this dollop, huge dollop of shame, which then we neglect and then split off.

Rachael: Well. And, and in that very, um, I can’t remember the word you used, cause it was a good technical word, um, in that very, um, good and bad, very split thinking. We’ve also split off the body as in some ways against, against our capacity to like be a kind of body-less wholehearted. Like if we could just eradicate the needs of the body, the, the warfare of the body, then somehow we’d be better able to be wholehearted in following God. So it’s both the reality of trauma and some of the ways in which we have tried to control and contend with our bodies in certain theological frameworks. So it’s a strange thing to have to reckon with the incarnation that there’s something really central to our bodies as a part of being human and as a part of being image bearers.

Dan: Well, again, to say, how many people are thinking about the incarnation when they floss, um, probably not, uh, or making sure you have red and green grapes. It, it, it sounds, I’m sure it, even to me a little bit crazy, but it’s making more sense to be able to go, this is the temple, and I need to be fully in the temple to know the fullness of Jesus in the temple. Uh, and I get to play with this a thousand times a day if I want, but that requires me. And, and I’m at least I’m getting a little clearer in my own head. This requires me to actually dream Shalom and not just in the by and by and not just in, you know, huge, appropriate cultural categories. You know, I, I long to see Ukraine freed and cared for, with regard to the level of trauma, uh, I long to see, uh, our world deal with racial trauma. It, things that are really Shalom oriented, I get it. But what’s the point of when Jesus says be faithful with the small. You know, if we can begin with a category of Shalom that we’re beginning to think about, what does Shalom look like here? What would it mean for me with regard to my breakfast? Not a big matter to be thinking about Shalom that again, I I’m so grateful for, I don’t know if it’ll be of help to anybody else, but it’s been really, really sweet to begin to think about I need to eat with, and for the sake of Shalom.

Rachael: Well, it just makes me think, and we’re not getting into this so much, but sometimes we also need community in order to do that in the small, sometimes we need loving relationships. Sometimes we need good attunement. Sometimes we need delight in order to start to have imagination that Shalom could be for us, that enjoying a meal wholeheartedly is a part of participating in the kingdom of God, in the ways that we’re meant for and has the power to transform our hearts, that we actually want that to be a reality for all people. Um, and so, yeah, I mean, I, I I’m with you, I think that capacity to dream, to hope, to take risks. Um, and, and we think we can jump into the big without actually tending to where we’re so at odds with that in the day to day. And so I think wholeheartedness here right, is a practice of starting with it’s, uh, probably a both, and like, we need, we need the big to compel us to even care and we need the small to help us have resilience in the big.

Dan: Oh, I love that in, in one sense, the big is what we’re really moving toward, but at least from my standpoint, you know, if it, I, I can’t grow without something of the particularity of the one pushup. And, uh, like after shoulder surgery, I’m doing really well on lots of things that I would not have been able to do, but my PT delightful woman, uh, said to me, so how are your wall pushups? And I’m like, not so good. She said, well, let me see one. And I’m like, okay. So as I put myself against a wall and, and pushed, I’m like, I am barely able to do a wall pushup. And, and she said, look, it likely will take you, and she, I, she obviously didn’t know about this podcast, but she said, it will take your whole heart to really do the work on the wall. And she said, have you been doing your wall pushups? And I, you know, I, I just felt like caught. And I said, no. And, and she said, it’s pretty apparent. Um, you’re doing well. And a lot of other things, but what is it about, uh, the wall that, I said, because I can’t do it well. And she said, oh, so unless you can do it well, you don’t do it at all. Like, oh, caught again. Now what’s required to be wholehearted in some sense, my weakness. Um, I think we think of wholeheartedness in too dramatic of a term, which then we can’t reach versus that simple point of, well, I probably can only do two or three wall pushups, maybe two or three sets, but because I can do so little, why would I bother at all? And that I’m just too satisfied with too little, and I want to escape anything that feels danger enough to expose me. That’s where I think my, my, my issue with wholeheartedness needs again, a redemptive work, but I love your point. And that is community. In this case, Dana, the PT, um, was a community experience just as Becky has said to me, for many decades, you’re eating faster right now than normal. And you always eat fast, but you’re eating faster. And just that awareness of what’s the story involved in my rapid eating. And again, I put words to this before. So I’ll simply say my role in my family, was at meals to be the storyteller, to keep my very fragmented family from becoming even more, um, violent or despairing. So at a meal, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I had to consume quickly in order to have a, the ability to tell stories without having to be interrupted by food itself. So when we begin to engage, what are the issues that keep us from being embodied with the intent to move towards Shalom? It’s in some sense, defensive to, to put it this way, but most of us are just committed to comfort and convenience and something of control to keep us from actually having to hear the data, respond to the data and actually long for something different.

Rachael: Yeah. I, I, I agree with you. And I think that language of like, we’re, we’re looking for comfort, convenience and control is all to fiercely protect ourselves and to be okay. And I think comes from places where we don’t actually believe that the God of all comfort longs be with us in ways that could bring a different kind of freedom or, um, might ask us to suffer in ways that, um, also lead to incredible joy. Um, and that our convenience is like slowly killing us, um, that we’re made for so much more. I mean, you said it like you settle for so little, um, but I think just a good reminder that we’re meant to do these things empowered by the spirit of God in consult and companionship with the spirit of God. And it’s that sense of like, when I think about wholeheartedness in our capacity wholehearted, when Paul talks about like, you know, we weep with those who weep and we would rejoice with those who rejoice. That’s another big one where I think what I hear you saying is, do you have a capacity to weep in the places you need to weep. That you had to become a storyteller and eat really fast and to rejoice in the places where you still have a capacity to delight in oatmeal and grapes, which I think speaks to a great capacity for joy and delight. And so can we offer ourselves something that we’re also meant to bring forth the community and we’re meant to receive we’re to receive from God we’re meant to receive from others. And so that’s probably where I would say, like, it is a, it is a discipline and a work within ourselves that we’re invited to and it can’t really be done in isolation. And so I look forward to, um, continuing this conversation.

Dan: Yeah, me too, at, at, as I’ve said several times, it’s really been helpful and I hope it is. And one of the things I would say to, to you, beloved listener, um, could you just like tune in two or three times between this week and next, uh, to either the distractions and what it feels like to not be wholehearted and perhaps like, you know, try some oatmeal minute and 30 seconds in the microwave, couple red grapes, couple green grapes and a little cinnamon and just what it smells like, what it tastes like when you eat a little bit more, um, embodied, uh, more intentional and with a thought that even the small can be a taste of Shalom and we’ll, we’ll do our best, uh, without, um, steps or simple processes to try and put words to what’s involved in becoming more wholehearted.