What is a wounded spirit?

Q. My question is about the proverb, “The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?” What is a wounded spirit? I cannot find any other reference in Scripture to a “wounded spirit,” but it seems as though it would be important. Generally, the word “wounded” means an injury coming from a source outside the self. I have read commentaries that claim this wound comes from God—which, if true, is a wound to my own spirit. I need enlightenment and hope you can help. Thank you.

Given your concerns, I think it’s important to clarify right up front that this proverb isn’t saying anything about God. It’s an observation about the human condition. It’s saying in essence that emotional suffering is much harder to endure than physical suffering.

The proverb actually gives the reason for that. When we’re sick—the most likely meaning of “infirmity” here—our “spirit” allows us to “manage.” (That’s how I’d translate the term that the King James Version renders as “sustain.” The same term is used in Psalm 112 to describe those who “manage their affairs with justice.”) That is, if we have hope, courage, and determination, we can make it through an illness with grace and dignity. But if our spirit, the very faculty we depend on to make it through tough times, is damaged itself, this proverb asks, how will we ever manage?

The word translated “wounded” in the KJV refers to the condition a person is in after being struck or beaten. Other translations render it as “broken” or “crushed.” But since it’s referring to something that happens to our “spirit,” it should be taken figuratively rather than literally. It’s describing how the events of life can come along and “beat us down,” and then we are so discouraged and despairing that we feel as if we just can’t make it.

And so I think we do well to ponder the question this proverb poses: How will we ever manage? The implied answer seems to be that we need others to come alongside us and strengthen us from the outside, because we can no longer do that for ourselves from the inside. And while there’s a clear mandate throughout Scripture for us as people to help our fellow humans in this way, and to expect and accept their help ourselves, the Bible also portrays God as actively helping those who are in this situation.

I’m not sure, either, if there’s another reference to a “broken spirit” in the Bible, but there certainly are other expressions that seem synonymous. Psalm 147, for example, says that the Lord “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” The word translated “broken” here means “shattered,” and “heart” is roughly a synonym for “spirit.” So the Lord does not wound our spirits or break our hearts; just the opposite. He heals them.

Significantly, the “servant of the Lord” figure in Isaiah says that the Lord has anointed him, among other things, to “bind up the brokenhearted” and “comfort all who mourn.” Jesus applied this Scripture directly to himself at the beginning of his ministry when he read from the scroll of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue. (The selection he’s portrayed as reading doesn’t specifically include the parts about binding up the brokenhearted and comforting those who mourn, but it was characteristic of the time to cite part of a passage as a way of referring to it all.)

So the mission of Jesus is intrinsically involved in ministering to a wounded spirit or broken heart. In his own teaching, Jesus promised that those who mourned would be comforted. He also said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The proverb we’re discussing asks who can “bear” a wounded spirit; the image is of something too hard to carry. So the idea of Jesus wanting to lighten the load of those who are “heavy laden” applies directly.

About the only place from which I can imagine someone might get the idea that God would wound the human spirit is the passage in Isaiah that says of the servant of the Lord, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” The term translated “smitten” here is basically the same root, with a variant spelling, as the one translated “wounded” in the proverb. But the whole point of the passage in Isaiah is that we were wrong to think that the servant was wounded by God. Particularly from a New Testament perspective, we can see that instead God was in Christ, enduring this suffering on our behalf—not inflicting it on us.

 

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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