As much as we try to convince ourselves that we’re strong and words don’t matter, the truth is we’ve all been wounded by toxic words, whether they’ve been said out loud or simply live in our own heads. In this article, Sarah Damaska discusses how discerning and listening to God’s voice is the best tool for silencing your inner critic.
The summer I turned 15, I took Driver’s Education. For several weeks, our teachers went through our book, teaching us all we needed to know. I was a good student, so I studied hard, got an ‘A’ on the written test, and felt ready to conquer the open road.
But I still hadn’t actually sat in the driver’s seat. The next step was two weeks with a driving instructor. And I got the one who hated teenagers, namely the ones learning to drive. He would make notes on his clipboard, barking commands and slamming on the brake when I did the wrong thing—which was often.
I was positive I’d fail. I’d try to parallel park and he’d measure to ensure I was exactly 12 inches from the curb. Strike one. I’d turn on my turn signal 10 feet too early. Strike two. He’d wind me through mazes of one-way streets to see if I could find my way to the correct destination. Strike three.
On the last day, I took the driving test—the test to determine if I’d get a real driver’s license. My instructor took me out of our small town and onto the four-lane highway. There were on-ramps and off-ramps and lane changes. I felt helpless and stupid. But when he handed out the final scores, I had passed… barely. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was over.
Except it wasn’t over. Because every time I drove, I heard his voice in my head. So I only drove when I had to, often paralyzed with fear. One day when my husband off-handedly told me I was a good driver, I was honestly shocked.
THE WOUNDING WORDS OF OTHERS
As much as we try to convince ourselves that we’re strong and the wounding words of others don’t matter, the truth is we’ve all been poisoned by words, whether they’ve been said out loud or simply live in our own heads. Both leave scars that don’t easily heal.
My story of a critical driving instructor doesn’t hold a candle to what some of you may have in your past. As I’ve written these words, I’ve prayed for those of you who grew up listening to damaging messages. I’ve thought about those who find themselves in hurtful relationships today. You live with deep wounds and defeated hearts. My words are only meant to scrape the surface and awaken you to your need for Jesus’ healing. If you need help, please find a counselor who can help you to hear the true voice of God.
For many years, I gave my driving instructor an undeserved hold in my thoughts. I let him shape what I believed. His window into my life was just a few short weeks. But I gave it power by pushing repeat over and over in my head.
THE SPIRAL OF TOXIC THOUGHTS
We were meant to live in community. We’re made for friendship and relationships with one another. When words wound us, our instinct is to pull away and protect ourselves. But that doesn’t stop the inner dialogue going on in our heads. Those insecurities and struggles follow us around, popping up when we least expect it.
“Your life is such a mess.”
“Of course bad things happen to you. You deserve it.”
“If you weren’t so much to handle, maybe people would want to be with you more.”
Your inner critic says things you wouldn’t say to your worst enemy, but somehow you allow it in your own life. You chastise yourself for not being better, smarter, thinner, and funnier. According to Dr. Caroline Leaf, “the vast majority of the illnesses that plague us today are a direct result of a toxic thought life.“
The truth is, that scolding voice keeps you stuck and lifeless. It doesn’t help you to gain perspective or give you a clearer picture of the way Jesus is leading you. I wonder what might happen if, instead, you chose to listen to the gentle voice of God?
LISTENING TO TRUTH
For years I believed I was a terrible driver. Until that day when my husband affirmed my driving ability and something switched in me. Suddenly, I believed him. I looked back at all the times I had driven—without one ticket or accident—and I realized he was right.
I wasn’t who my driving instructor said I was.
When the apostle Paul came to faith in Christ after being a persecutor of Christians, he was struck blind. There, on the road to Damascus, he encountered Jesus. For the three following days, Saul lived in complete darkness. He went into the city and was met by a disciple named Ananias, who placed his hands on Saul and prayed for the Holy Spirit to come on him. “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight” (Acts 9:18).
Saul got up and was baptized. He ate, regained strength, and was changed.
When we keep wounding words in the dark, they gain momentum. We begin to give them life. But when we fight the words and listen to the truth, they lose power. The scales fall from our eyes, and we finally see what we’ve been missing all along: We are who GOD says we are. No one else gets to hold that power in our life.
WE HAVE A CHOICE
We rarely get to choose our circumstances, but we do have a choice of what to believe.
Dr. Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who spent time as a prisoner in Auschwitz. He believed we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation,” he wrote. “You cannot control what happens to you in life. But you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
You and I will not have the same experiences as Dr. Frankl. But we can exercise the same freedom. When the voices in our world become voices in our head, spewing negativity and toxicity, we have a choice to let them loop on repeat or to push the stop button. We always have the freedom to control how we respond.
If we aren’t grounded in the promises of God, in seasons of vulnerability the threats of the devil will take root and mature into despair. We must be on guard. It’s not easy. It requires daily capturing and redirecting. But words and thoughts can be stopped. That’s why Paul wrote that we “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
3 WAYS TO DISCERN THE VOICE OF GOD
No matter what you face or what voices are trying to take you down, you are still qualified. And you are still worthy. You can still hear God’s voice. And you can still participate in God’s plan. He is there, ready and waiting to redeem what has been lost. When we’ve foolishly run into our own wilderness—like Elijah did after hearing a venomous message from Jezebel (see 1 Kings 19:1-8)—God is at hand to redirect us. His voice rises above all the other voices, not in a forceful, demeaning way, but in a gentle, inviting whisper.
But in order to discern the voice of God, take our own thoughts captive, and replace them with the truth of Christ, we must learn to listen for His voice.
1. Stop Escaping Into Busyness
When the cycle of toxic words hits you over and over, it’s often easiest just to keep your head down and carry on. But numbing your brain doesn’t take your thoughts captive. In fact, it does the opposite.
There are obvious ways we do this like scrolling social media or filling every moment with music or noise. But we also pack our schedules full until there isn’t one more possible committee or practice or club we could fit in. In the midst of all the busyness, we make it impossible to hear God. We live in fear that we’re not good enough for Him. We’ve messed up too much.
But the truth is, we are messed up, and the only way to heal is to sit with God in the quiet to hear His voice. God sits with us in our pain and doubt, in our berating thoughts and swirling emotions.
2. Draw Toward People, Not Away
We are hardwired to connect with others. We aren’t made to be alone.
“You and I need to be able to seek out wisdom and insight when our own brains can’t sort out the answers, can’t muster the willpower, can’t find the strength, can’t remember to pray,” Jennie Allen writes. “Relationships like that take time, effort, and energy to cultivate, but they shift everything.”
Painful words and wounds make it hard to engage. When you’ve risked trusting and it’s failed miserably, it’s the hardest thing in the world to get up and try again. But relationships are always worth fighting for. People can be jerks. They’re self-centered and insensitive and disappointing. But guess what? So are you. And so am I. So instead of letting it hold us captive, we have a choice. We can keep showing up, keep extending grace, and keep fighting for truth.
3. Redeem the Lies With Gratitude
Regardless of our wounded past, the circumstances we face, and the whispers of our inner critic, we can be people who give thanks. Before the scales fell from Paul’s eyes, he was breathing murderous threats toward Christians. If he had lived his life in the shadow of his past actions, he would have been full of shame and regret. But he took every thought captive and let the love of Christ consume his thoughts.
It may be tempting to define ourselves by what others have named us or by the terrible things that have happened to us. But what if there’s a better way? What if there’s a purpose in our pain? What if He can bring good out of the toxic words that have been spoken to us? When we find God takes the things that should bring us sorrow and transforms them into something good for His glory, we can only look on in gratitude.
LISTENING TO GOD’S VOICE ABOVE ALL
I was driving with my teenage daughter as part of her required hours to get a license in the fall. She changed lanes and didn’t check her blind spot. I tried not to yell—really, I did. But as I sat in the passenger seat with heavy traffic swirling all around us, I felt very out of control. Soon tears were coursing down her cheeks. “Why do you think I do everything wrong?” she asked.
In that moment, God gave me a window into who I had been all those years ago. I heard the voice of my driving instructor telling me how terrible I was. I reached over, squeezed her arm, and apologized. She’s just learning to drive and she’s far from perfect. And that’s okay.
May we be women who strive to listen to the voice of God above all. May we have the wisdom to sort the truth from the lies, taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ, silencing the inner critic and refusing to believe the toxic lies of the enemy. And may we find a way to be thankful for the way God is transforming us—one word at a time.
How have you inadvertently given toxic words power in your own life? How have they impacted your confidence, self worth, relationships, even your faith? Think of one way you can listen for God’s voice today and start replacing those lies with truth!
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