Heart Rot

In the middle of a rainy night in Georgia, the horrible sound of cracking, splintering wood jolted me out of a deep sleep. Reflexively, I sat straight up in bed, screamed and then braced myself for the crushing impact of the falling tree that seemed to be headed straight toward our roof.

Thankfully, that impact never came.

After a few stressful minutes of impending doom, it was obvious that we had been miraculously protected. I turned on some outside flood lights and unsuccessfully tried to see where the tree had fallen. The next morning, I realized that the surrounding woods had caught the impact of the tree’s destruction. We were spared damage to our home and perhaps, even, to our lives.

As the tree removal was underway a few days later, I discovered that the massive oak tree, while appearing healthy before the fall, had succumbed to a disease called “heart rot.” It is a fungal disease that slowly causes the decay of the heartwood at the center of the trunk.

How does heart rot enter a tree? Through wounds in the bark. And slowly, over time, the diseased heartwood softens and makes the tree structurally weaker and prone to breakage. It’s often not obvious on the outside of the tree. But when the majestic tree falls, it crushes whatever is in it’s path: a house, a car...sometimes, tragically, even a person.

Heart rot happens in people, too. A seemingly upright, trustworthy and honorable man or woman succumbs to shocking moral failure. And if you’ve been in the path of the fallen, you understand the enormous pain and destruction that can crush your own life as collateral damage. Marriages, families, ministries and legacies are often severely wounded or destroyed.

How does heart rot begin? “Through wounds in the bark.” In trees and in people.

All of us will be wounded as we go through life. The big questions are what we will do with the wounds and what we will allow the wounds to do to us. 

Often, because of hurtful life experiences, a person might feel justified in becoming bitter or unforgiving. And over time, that unforgiveness or wounding allows heart rot to enter in the form of anger, a sense of entitlement or justification, or behavior to numb the pain in a variety of destructive ways. “Little” sins and “white lies” become habitual. Self deception increases. Sensitivity to others decreases. Poor choices compound. Addictions develop. Authenticity is replaced by ever-present masks.

Given time and secrecy, the heart rot spreads. A challenging season arrives, the winds of life blow stronger, and BOOM, the seemingly healthy tree falls. And oh, the destruction. Incredulous, we wonder "what happened?" In reality, the weakening and decay had been underway for years. The fall was just a matter of time.

What can we learn from these tragedies and how can we avoid heart rot in our own lives? How can we continue to grow, stay strong, rooted and faithful? How can we encourage one another to “finish well?”

  • Be intentional about your life. Make a list of your core values and then periodically self-assess. Does your “walk” match your “talk?” Ask those closest to you. Drop your defenses and really listen. Choose to take concrete, consistent actions that align with your beliefs.
  • Be accountable to a few trusted friends. Be completely transparent, and confess your struggles and failures. Pray for one another and ask each other the hard questions. You’re much less likely to repeat bad behavior if you know you will be called to account by someone who loves you. Give others permission to speak into your life.
  • Remember that not everything in others’ lives is as it seems. Just as heart rot could be spreading in a tree, it could be happening in the private life of a person you care about. Reach out. Invite them to lunch or coffee. Get past the surface questions and be a nonjudgmental listener. From your own struggles, you might be able to help another who is at an important moral crossroads.
  • Believe that no one is immune. Including you! If you have lived a good and moral life to date, congratulations! But please don’t assume that you can’t stumble. Being proactive and establishing healthy behaviors and relationships is the best way to protect against vulnerability to heart rot.
  • Choose to forgive. Not because those who have hurt or mistreated you deserve it or have asked for forgiveness. Because it’s what God has called you to do. (Read The Lord’s Prayer!) Don’t allow the wounds inflicted by another open you to harmful or destructive choices of your own. The book (and ministry) Forgiving Forward by Bruce and Toni Hebel provides excellent, practical protocols for forgiveness. And yes, sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself. But think about this: if Jesus died on the cross to offer us forgiveness for our sins, who are we to elevate ourselves above Jesus and decide we can't forgive ourselves?
  • Work with a good therapist. There are wonderful counselors who can help you deal with the deepest levels of pain and failure. Whether you have been hurt by another’s behavior and/or made poor choices of your own, you don’t have to continue down the wrong path. Change IS possible. The word “therapy” actually comes from the Greek word “therapeuo” which means “healing.”
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Health comes from living in community. Whether it’s from shame over personal choices or hurt inflicted by others, it’s so easy to pull away from others and nurse your wounds. Instead, surround yourself with people of strong character. The book Changes That Heal by Dr. Henry Cloud is another of my personal favorites, and it describes the vital role that authentic community plays in emotional health.
  • Pray, pray, and pray some more. God is always available, 24/7. You don’t need an appointment. He loves you, no matter what you have done. His love isn’t based on your performance. He offers your complete forgiveness for your mistakes. Jesus stands at the door of your life and knocks. Please let Him in. It’s the best decision you’ll ever make. And the best way to show your love and gratitude back to Him is to live a life of joyful obedience.

I know that life is not as simple as following a series of bullet points. Many of these suggestions are easy to list and much harder to actually implement. Perhaps you have fallen yourself or been crushed by another's choices.  Recovery might seem impossible. I understand. But no matter how far you have fallen or how badly you have been hurt, restoration is possible. It takes time and you'll need to press through the pain. Please don't take the easy way out and succumb to heart rot. God truly can bring beauty from ashes and He promises to bind up the broken hearted! I'm living proof.

“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.”

—Isaiah 61:3