The Only Army that Shoots its Wounded

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By Dwight L. Carlson

From an article in Christianity Today, February 9, 1998

The only army that shoots its wounded is the Christian army,” said the speaker, a psychologist who had just returned from an overseas ministry trip among missionaries. He summed up the philosophy of the group he worked with as:

1. We don’t have emotional problems. If any emotional difficulties appear to arise, simply deny having them.

2. If we fail to achieve this first ideal and can’t ignore a problem, strive to keep it from family members and never breathe a word of it outside the family.

3. If both of the first two steps fail, we still don’t seek professional help.

I have been a Christian for 50 years, a physician for 29, and a psychiatrist for 15. Over this time I have observed these same attitudes throughout the church—among lay leaders, pastors, priests, charismatics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals alike. I have also found that many not only deny their problems but are intolerant of those with emotional difficulties.

Many judge that others’ emotional problems are the direct result of personal sin. This is a harmful view. At any one time, up to 15 percent of our population is experiencing significant emotional problems. For them our churches need to be sanctuaries of healing, not places where they must hide their wounds.

THE EMOTIONAL-HEALTH GOSPEL

Several years ago my daughter was battling leukemia. While lying in bed in the hospital, she received a letter, which read in part:

Dear Susan, You do not know me personally, but I have seen you in church many times….I have interceded on your behalf and I know the Lord is going to heal you if you just let Him. Do not let Satan steal your life—do not let religious tradition rob you of what Jesus did on the cross—by His stripes we were healed.

The theology behind this letter reminded me of a bumper sticker I once saw: “Health and Prosperity: Your Divine Right.” The letter writer had bought into a “healing in the atonement” theology that most mainstream evangelicals reject.

According to this traditional faith-healing perspective, Christ’s atonement provides healing for the body and mind just as it offers forgiveness of sins for the soul. The writer meant well, but the letter created tremendous turmoil for my daughter. While evangelicals have largely rejected “health and wealth” preaching—that faithful Christians will always prosper physically and financially—many hold to an insidious variation of that prosperity gospel. I call it the “emotional-health gospel.”

The emotional-health gospel assumes that if you have repented of your sins, prayed correctly, and spent adequate time in God’s Word, you will have a sound mind and be free of emotional problems.

Usually the theology behind the emotional-health gospel does not go so far as to locate emotional healing in the Atonement (though some do) but rather to redefine mental illnesses as “spiritual” or as character problems, which the church or the process of sanctification can handle on its own. The problem is, this is a false gospel, one that needlessly adds to the suffering of those already in turmoil.

This prejudice against those with emotional problems can be seen in churches across the nation on any Sunday morning. We pray publicly for the parishioner with cancer or a heart attack or pneumonia. But rarely will we pray publicly for Mary with severe depression, Charles with incapacitating panic attacks, or the minister’s son with schizophrenia. Our silence subtly conveys that these are not acceptable illnesses for Christians to have.

The emotional-health gospel is also communicated by some of our most listened-to leaders. I heard one national speaker make the point that “At the cross you can be made whole. Isaiah said that ‘through his stripes we are healed’ … not of physical suffering, which one day we will experience; we are healed of emotional and spiritual suffering at the cross of Jesus Christ.” In other words, a victorious Christian will be emotionally healthy. This so-called full gospel, which proclaims that healing of the body and mind is provided for all in the Atonement, casts a cruel judgment on the mentally ill.

shooting
Don’t Shoot the Wounded

Two authors widely read in evangelical circles, John MacArthur and Dave Hunt, also propagate views that, while sincerely held, I fear lead us to shoot our wounded. In his book “Beyond Seduction”, Hunt writes, “The average Christian is not even aware that to consult a psychotherapist is much the same as turning oneself over to the priest of any other rival religion,” and, “There is no such thing as a mental illness; it is either a physical problem in the brain (such as a chemical imbalance or nutritional deficiency) or it is a moral or spiritual problem.”

MacArthur, in “Our Sufficiency in Christ”, presents the thesis that “As Christians, we find complete sufficiency in Christ and his provisions for our needs.” While I agree with his abstract principle, I disagree with how he narrows what are the proper “provisions.” A large portion of the book strongly criticizes psychotherapy as one of the “deadly influences that undermine your spiritual life.” He denounces “so-called Christian psychologists and psychiatrists who testified that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people’s deepest personal and emotional needs,” and he asserts, “There is no such thing as a ‘psychological problem’ unrelated to spiritual or physical causes.

God supplies divine resources sufficient to meet all those needs completely.” Physically caused emotional problems, he adds, are rare, and referring to those who seek psychological help, he concludes: “Scripture hasn’t failed them—they’ve failed Scripture.”

A PLACE FOR PROFESSIONALS

When adherents of the emotional-health gospel say that every human problem is spiritual at root, they are undeniably right. Just as Adam’s fall in the garden was spiritual in nature, so in a very true sense the answer to every human problem—whether a broken leg or a burdened heart—is to be found in the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. The disease and corruption process set into motion by the Fall affected not only our physical bodies but our emotions as well, and we are just beginning to comprehend the many ways our bodies and minds have been affected by original sin and our fallen nature. Yet the issue is not whether our emotional problems are spiritual or not—all are, at some level—but how best to treat people experiencing these problems.

Many followers of the emotional-health gospel make the point that the church is, or at least should be, the expert in spiritual counseling, and I agree. Appropriate spiritual counseling will resolve issues such as salvation, forgiveness, personal morality, God’s will, the scriptural perspective on divorce, and more. It can also help some emotional difficulties. But many emotional or mental illnesses require more than a church support network can offer.

I know it sounds unscriptural to say that some individuals need more than the church can offer—but if my car needs the transmission replaced, do I expect the church to do it? Or if I break my leg, do I consult my pastor about it? For some reason, when it comes to emotional needs, we think the church should be able to meet them all. It can’t, and it isn’t supposed to.

This is why the emotional-health gospel can do so much harm. People who need help are prevented from seeking it and often made to feel shame for having the problem. Thankfully, more and more people in the Christian community are beginning to realize that some people need this extra help. If professionals and church leaders can recognize the value of each other’s roles, we will make progress in helping the wounded. Forty percent of all individuals who need emotional help seek it first from the church, and some of these will need to be referred to mental-health professionals.

Church leaders should get to know Christian therapists in their communities so they can knowledgeably refer people with persistent emotional problems.

A Date With the Awl

Body piercing has become pretty much acceptable just in the last ten years.  Studs are placed in a hole or piercing to make a permanent decoration.  I have seen a fair amount of it, and I think that a stud in the tongue has got to be the most intrusive.  (I recently read of a young girl who died after her tongue was pierced from an infection).

There is “body piercing” in scripture.  In Deuteronomy 15:12-18, slaves who are being set free by their master after six years of service, could, if they loved and were loved by their master, could choose to remain a slave to him.

“But if your slave says to you, “I don’t want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and has a good life with you,17 stick an awl through his ear into the door; he will be your slave for life. Also do this to a female slave.”

Deuteronomy 15:12-18

This was a decision that required elders to act as witnesses.  It was significant as well as completely binding.  I like to think of the ceremony to be kind of a cross between a wedding and a circumcision. (Sounds fun, huh?!)

The slave would be led to a doorpost and the master would take an awl, and push it through his ear lobe.  This designated the slave to be forever “owned” by a specific master.  Herein lies a picture of the Christian.

Many times in the New Testament we are called to be servants (slaves) of Christ.

Peter, Paul, James, and Jude referred to themselves as “bond servants of Jesus Christ” in their epistles.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is awl-piercing-faith-1.jpg This is not a forced servitude. It’s a choice made in love!

There are many believers who have done the same, they have fallen in love with their Savior.  They do not plan on a life apart from Him.  So spiritually they have gone to the doorpost, the awl is pushed through their ear, and they are marked from that point on.

Although the ear was pierced physically in the Old Testament, a different kind of piercing takes place in the New.  In Romans 6:16 we read,

“Surely you know that when you give yourselves like slaves to obey someone, then you are really slaves of that person. The person you obey is your master. You can follow sin, which brings spiritual death, or you can obey God, which makes you right with him.”

Romans 6:16, (NCV)

When the prodigal son returned home from the far country he fell before his father and humbly ask,make me your servant.” (Luke 15:19,21) He, in essence, was saying to the father, “pierce my ear.” The father made him a son, but the attitude of the son’s heart had changed to the heart of a servant. So it must be with us. Only then will we live a “pierced ear” life, revealing to all that we are servants of Jesus Christ!

“Savior, I know Thou hast allowed me absolute liberty, to serve Thee, or to go my own way. I would serve Thee forever, for I love my Master. I will not go out free. Mark my ear, Lord, that it might respond only to Thy voice.”

— Jim Elliot, Missionary and Martyr

 

Getting a Grip on Boredom

Monotony can easily become an issue for many. I had been told to be on alert for it, but it seems like I’ve got to learn for myself.

With any chronic illness, there can be something tedious and routine about life. To have a physical or mental illness is acutely painful in many different ways. Afflicted people understand what I’m talking about. Pain can be intense and intrusive. Sometimes these things can become really depressing.

The sheer boredom of my illness can strangle my walk. It seems every day is the same and the foreseeable future holds little hope of it changing. Now I’m a reasonably sedate person. I don’t need a lot of excitement. (I like a good book and a cup of tea.) I’m not after adventure, but I don’t care too much for monotony either.

Brain-numbing existence is quite common for the afflicted.

Many people don’t understand this. Others do. And it’s not limited to us who struggle with illness. It’s seen in other people too. This brain-numbing life happens to many as well. Consider–

  • the single mom working as a secretary
  • the man mopping floors
  • the college grad frying burgers
  • the resident at the old folks’ home, every day is the same

These situations seem inescapable. We see ourselves locked into a situation where escape is not possible. We are consigned to do whatever our circumstances dictate. We’re all trapped. Pure and simple. We can find no meaning in our lives; we start to despair, “Will it ever be different?”

I believe the drabness of our lives can often be attributed to a lack of intimacy with the Lord Jesus. We are built for fellowship with God, and anything else is just “treading water.” Nothing satisfies, except Him present. I need Him desperately.

When I’m filled with hopelessness, I often find myself filling the emptiness with anything I can find. This usually leads to even more sadness and deadness inside. It’s a vicious cycle that destroys as easily as more gross and obvious sin.

When I ponder my hopelessness I feel like giving up. I simply don’t want to take another step into the doldrums of what my life has become. I despair that life will continue its suffering grind.

I must have joy in order to survive.

“The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). I don’t have to dwell in the grey drabness of hopelessness. My heart can find a reason to “sing to the Lord.”

“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. Therefore my heart celebrates, and I give thanks to him with my song.”

Psalm 28:7, CSB

The Psalms repeatedly tell me the incredible power of a life that sings.

The Holy Spirit understands our brokenness. Jesus is interceding for us at this very moment, and I can rise above this tedious mess I have made for myself. This is the only way out for me. Depression is a form of suffering.

I give it to Him. I take the strength and joy He gives.

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