Judith MacNutt, wife of Francis MacNutt, tells a great story about a circus elephant she saw back-stage. The massive animal stayed in its circle, held by a chain around its foot staked at the center of the circle. The huge creature easily could have ripped that chain right out of the ground and taken off. But it didn’t. It obeyed the chain’s restriction on its mobility.
Fascinated, Judith McNutt asked the handler how they trained such a massive animal to obey such a relatively small chain. “We first put the chain on when the animal’s small,” explained the handler, “The baby elephant learns it can’t pull the chain out of the ground. Then as it grows, it remembers that lesson and never challenges what it ‘knows’ to be true. So it’s not the chain that keeps an adult elephant bound, it’s the memory of the chain.”
Wow. How many of us are still bound by the memory of chains of trauma from childhood that we could easily break now as adults?
Trauma teaches us the world’s not safe. True lesson. The world’s not safe. What was done to us was absolutely wrong, sinful, and unjust. It was not fair, and it was not our fault. The problem is what we do with that lesson.
Often, rather than trusting God to protect us in an unsafe world, we vow to protect ourselves:
- “I will never be angry like my dad.”
- “I will not have emotions. Emotions hurt people.”
- “I will not make a mistake. Mistakes can kill you.”
- “I will never let anyone close enough to hurt me again.”
- “I will take care of myself. No one else will.”
- “I will be the good boy/girl so people love me.”
While the initial trauma is neither our sin nor our fault, our sinful response is our responsibility. We often vow to protect ourselves. Instead of trusting God, we become our own god. Our ability to control the situation (and the people) to protect ourselves becomes our very own personal idol.
The problem is, we make these inner vows based on their deceptive marketing. They don’t deliver. Either they don’t work at all, or they work in reverse, or they have an extremely high hidden cost the commercial didn’t tell us about. When they work at all, the cure is worse than the disease.
When They Don’t Work
If we vow to not have emotions, that won’t work. God made us with emotions, and we can’t undo what God has made no matter how hard we try. What happens instead is we don’t show emotions. But they’re there. Under the surface, simmering, like ripe magma getting ready for a volcanic eruption. There’s no such thing as an unexpressed emotion. It may come out 20 years later, and it may come out sideways, but it’s coming out.
“Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) Not the overflow of our understanding. Not the overflow of our good intentions. The overflow of our heart — all those things we needed to express but never did. Like a volcano, the longer the pressure builds up, the bigger the eruption.
When They Work in Reverse
When we judge our parents or others in our lives, “I’ll never be like them,” we set ourselves up to be exactly like them. God promises us, “You who judge do exactly the same things.” (Romans 2:1) How often have we heard our parents’ exact same words coming out of our own mouth? The judgements we make set us up to do exactly the same things, cause the same hurt, and repeat the cycle all over again.
When They Have a High Hidden Cost
Sometimes inner vows actually do work as intended, but they have a high hidden cost we didn’t intend to sign up for. Often we make inner vows as children, a self-defense against the trauma, so we can survive. We don’t know they’re even there because they go back further than our memory. They can be hard to articulate when we made them in our heart before we had words.
For example, look at an inner vow to “never be vulnerable and let anyone close enough to hurt me.” Maybe a child made this vow at 2 years old while being molested. Even if the memory is completely suppressed, the vow is still in play, “protecting” our heart, like we told it to, like we decreed.
Decades later, we get married to a wonderful spouse. We want to fully give ourselves to that person. But we just can’t. We get frigid or impotent. Or we’re emotionally distant. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t be vulnerable with our spouse. The vow is in the way.
Or consider an inner vow to “never hope again.” How’s that work when we want to enter into worship and express our faith in God? Hebrews says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Hebrew 11:1). So if we’ve vowed to never hope, that inner vow gets in the way of our faith.
Salvation Doesn’t Remove Inner Vows
The good news is, yes, inner vows can be removed. There’s 3 steps to removing inner vows we’ll cover in a minute.
But I’m assuming first that you’re a Christian, having accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. You’ve made the decision to follow him with your life. If not, don’t bother trying to remove an inner vow. Don’t waste your time. Only the power of the blood of Jesus on the cross removes inner vows. If you’re not under the blood, it won’t work.
Having said that, getting saved and putting your faith in Jesus does not automatically remove inner vows! We so often assume once we get saved, everything’ll be just peachy. Often, the opposite happens. The effects of the inner vow get worse. This is a blessing from God in disguise. God is intentionally overloading the inner vow because he wants to expose it, so he can remove it from blocking the identity he created us for.
Even as Christians, the vow is in place until we remove it. God is a gentleman and will not violate what we’ve decreed over our own lives. We were created in God’s image, with his creative authority. He gave us the tool of authority so we could bless. How we use that tool is up to us. Like a hammer, authority can bring incredible blessing or incredible damage, depending on how it’s used. We can curse and bind ourselves, as inner vows do, if we choose to.
How to Identify an Inner Vow with 3 Questions to Your Heart
Like we’ve said, this can be tricky because inner vows are often older than our memory and were made in our heart before we had words. But if you’re stuck, without any other reason to be, there’s possibly an inner vow in play. If you’re wanting to do something good, like have faith, enter into worship, fully give yourself to your spouse, join in a certain (wholesome!) activity, but you just can’t for some unknown reason — well, there could be an inner vow getting in the way.
Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal it. “Holy Spirit, have I made an inner vow that’s blocking this?” Then hush and listen.
Inner vows were our way to protect ourselves from something we’re afraid of. So if you feel an irrational fear coming up, pray “Holy Spirit, help me hear my heart.” Then ask your heart, “Heart, why are you afraid?” (I’ve a whole post about how to talk to your heart.)
Sometimes I have to overtly tell my mind to hush so I can listen to my heart. Sometimes it takes a couple days or weeks. But in my quiet times, or when I’m alone in the car, I keep asking. “Heart, why are you afraid?”
Since often inner vows were made before we had language, our heart often answers with a memory. It’s your heart’s way of saying, “Because this happened.” Ok, now we’re onto something.
Ask your heart again, “Heart, because that happened, what judgement did you make about the world, about God, about other people, or about yourself?” And then the question to reveal the inner vow, “Ok Heart, therefore, what did you vow to protect yourself?” Bingo.
Q1: “Holy Spirit, help me hear my heart. Heart, why are you afraid?” A memory floods back of being abused as a toddler.
Q2: “Heart, because I was abused, what judgements did you make?” My parents won’t protect me. No one will protect me.
Q3: “Heart, therefore, what did you vow to protect yourself?” No one will protect me, therefore, I will protect myself. It’s all on me. I will take care of myself!
Bingo! There it is. This person will have a very hard time trusting in God’s provision, even if as an adult, mature, Christian, they really want to. Now they know where that irrational fear is coming from.
So out of that fear, they try to overly control the situation. “Thanks for the ride, but when are you leaving to pick me up? It’s a 20-minute drive from your office with traffic, so you need to leave by at least 9:10.” They really don’t want to be a control freak, but out of their fear, they just can’t help it. Now it all makes sense. The vow is trying to protect them and destroying their relationships in the process.
How to Remove Inner Vows in 2 Steps
So how do we get rid of an inner vow? 2 steps. Here we go.
Step 1: Confess & Repent. The sin that tempted us to make the vow was someone else’s sin against us. It wasn’t our sin, nor our fault. But our sinful response to it is on us. We confess our sin in making the vow, in trying to protect ourselves instead of trusting God. Keeping with our example above:
“Jesus, I judged you as never going to protect me. I believed a lie that no one would. So I made a vow to protect myself. I repent of making this vow and ask your forgiveness.”
Step 2: Renounce & Replace. Renounce the inner vow, and replace the lying judgement it was based on with God’s truth. Ask the Lord, “Jesus, what’s your truth you want me to cling to instead of that vow?” Sometimes the Lord answers with a Bible verse or two.
In our example, suppose the Lord gave Proverbs 18:10, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run to it and are safe”, and Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
So now we simply pray and renounce the vow and replace it with God’s truth. And when you pray the verses, personalize them. Make them yours.
“Lord Jesus, by the authority of your blood over me I renounce that inner vow to always protect myself and not trust anybody else, not even you. I ask you to remove it far from me in your loving forgiveness. Lord, I choose now to instead believe your truth, that you are my strong tower, and I’m safe when I run to you. Your plans are to prosper me and not harm me. You give me hope and a future. I choose to trust you.”
In the future, when that fear rises in our heart and tempts us to run back to all those old ways of responding, instead we go back to those verses. And we personalize them and say them out loud (if the location allows).
How about you?
Does your heart need healing? Tell me more in the comments below.