“Man has two great spiritual needs. One is for forgiveness. The other is for goodness.”
“God pardons like a mother, who kisses the offense into everlasting forgiveness.”
–Henry Ward Beecher
“If you take care of yourself and walk with integrity, you may be confident that God will deal with those who sin against you. Above all, don’t give birth to sin yourself; rather, pray for those who persecute you. God will one day turn your persecution into praise.”
“bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive.”
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.
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.
The Bible is full of miraculous healings. Jesus Christ performed many of them. He taught His disciples, and those who would follow, to heal the sick and afflicted.
I’ve personally seen legs lengthened and fevers ‘broken’ on several occasions. It always boosts the faith of those who witness these miracles. I truly believe the Holy Spirit still works wonders today.
Somehow the ‘understanding’ is if you seek a healing you must have sufficient faith. Those who are not healed are the people who have a weak faith, They miss out on a miracle because their faith didn’t measure up.
Faith is an active component to many of the healings in Scripture. Jesus said to the blind man, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you” (Luke 18:42).
Yet we read of many believers in Hebrews 11 who endured sickness, ill-treatment. We read of vicious brutality and persecution of these “people with faith.”
Not everyone who is sick will receive a physical healing.
Epaphroditus was near death, (Phil 2:25-30)
Trophimus left ill at Miletus, (2 Tim. 4:20)
Timothy, given a remedy for stomach issues, (1 Ti. 5:23)
Paul had to suffer his “thorn in the flesh,” (2 Cor. 12:7)
For believers today who must suffer physically or mentally, we may question our faith. (Especially when the healing evangelist comes to town). After 2-3 tries we settle back on our “deficient’ faith feeling a bit miserable.
It seems to me that the real issue is not a weak faith, but holding on to your faith when you are not healed. I hear talk about having faith to be healed–but what about the faith to be sick?
Why do we suffer illness? I believe that for many Christian believers sickness is to bring glory to God, Also, holding onto a faith in the midst of sickness and pain often encourages those who witness it.
Oh dear one, continue to seek a healing. The Spirit does these things today. But if you’re left in your illness, trust in Him still. All your ways end up in His nail-scarred hands of our Lord Jesus.
“The moment an ill can be patiently handled, it is disarmed of its poison, though not of its pain.”
“Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!” (Luke 15:1)
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? ” (v. 4)
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.” (v. 8)
“For this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.” (v. 24)
The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the ‘lost son’ tell us that this is a time for recovery. This is a unique period for the Church. It is a season of special grace that allows us to seek and find things that are valuable to us. It is a time of finding out things about ourselves as well.
What is precious to you? With the woman, it was a lost coin (probably a part of her dowry) and she made a substantial effort to get it back. With the shepherd, what was valuable was a lost sheep, and he would take a calculated risk to find it, and rejoin the flock. And the father lost his son, and he had to wait for him to return to his senses.
These three parables were directed to the different issues that effected the “notorious sinners.” But they also spoke to the pharisees who were present. Both groups understood and there were plenty of implications for everyone.
It’s a funny thing, Jesus never minced words. No one could be neutral around him. That is still the case today. I think God is seeking His lost children. This is what He is up to, this is His passion. Understanding this salient fact should enlighten us,
to His will,
to know His passion and love, (His pleasure in finding what was lost)
and the true purpose of His Church.
As the Parable of the Prodigal Son develops, we see the pharisees equated to the ‘grouchy’ older brother. He begrudges his newly returned brother, and he really can’t see what is happening all around him. The idea of grace eludes him. Perhaps that is far more common than we think. Whenever ‘religion’ exerts control over a person or group, duty is almost always elevated over joy.
The Church is only as relevant as when it’s seeking out the lost.
The Church is meant to extend to the lost ‘sons’ of Adam, and the ‘daughters’ of Eve. This is God’s passion, and we must find out what He wants us to do to share His heart. It’s almost as if He wants to give us a chance to taste His joy.
“Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Colossians 3:13, ESV
Remember “Mr. Freeze?” (Not the rapper, but the supervillain.) He was a DC Comics ‘evil-bad guy.’ He wreaked terrible havoc using ice. It was his specialty, his weapon of choice. In the later issue comic books he wore a cryonic suit and used a “freeze gun” and his victims would be turned into an instant icicle.
But “freezing” people happens far too often. We don’t need a suit or a special gun. We do it with our words, attitudes, actions. It is called unforgiveness, or stigma, or just plain contempt. It locks another person in a place were they will stay forever, and you won’t ever have to deal with them.
We glaciate others with extraordinary ease. Someone offends me, or irritates me and I blast them. In my mind I solidify them into one spot, and there they are locked. Sealed away, and out of my thinking. (And I can avoid those pesky urges to humble myself.)
I have been frozen by others— and I have been the ‘freezer’ as well. The sad part is that we ourselves are so far from perfect. When we zap someone we will never, ever ‘receive’ from that person. We can even preclude them as outside of the grace of God. “You offend me, and I will never forget it, and you will never be more than an evil miscreant to me.” My rationale is “life is too short for hassling with jerks like you.” But I can’t fully accept that idea. That is not God’s will for me, and I know it.
We end up debasing ourselves by our own unforgiveness. We restrict others from the Holy Spirit’s transforming ability. In our mind’s eye, the wicked person will never be able to offer up anything of value. We freeze–locking them into a place. And a vast amount comes from an unforgiveness that is ‘fallen’, and an unbelief in God’s grace and power.
Perhaps all our personality conflicts are merely chances for us to learn how to love and receive special things from God. But we get confused with ‘our difficult people’ and situations. In our immaturity, we simply put them away where they cannot hurt us again. We may even encourage others to do the same.
Furthermore, any use of our ‘freeze gun’ freezes us as well. Unforgiveness turns on us (which we didn’t count on) and the effect is cumulative. We can only absorb so much and we get hard and cold.
One more thing. We do this to whole groups of people. The alcoholics, the mentally ill, other races. This can be called prejudice or stigma. Ask yourself this–have you ever been stigmatized or demonized? You will usually know it. But we cannot afford to be controlled by our unforgiveness. There is far too much at stake.
“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him and let it drop (leave it, let it go), in order that your Father Who is in heaven may also forgive you your [own] failings and shortcomings and let them drop.”
“The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.”
Exodus 34:6, NLT
“I’m in a desperate situation!” David replied to Gad. “But let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great. Do not let me fall into human hands.”
2 Samuel 24:14
Sitting on the deck, it’s a cold morning, but the sun is bright. It’s a typical winter day here in Alaska, which means the sun is pushing back the winter for all it’s worth. Up here we have a ‘the love affair’ with the sun; it hides herself in the gloominess of winter— only to show herself off big time during our summers.
Soaking up the sun got me thinking about the mercy of God. I find I am of two minds. For the most part I love His mercy. It is probably the attribute I love most about Him. Mercy defined by my dictionary:
Who could not like this in ones deity? Most of us would agree that we are thrilled that God is this compassionate— especially when we’re such rascals ourselves. We will ground ourselves in His mercy, even when our minds give up.
But this is the hard part. I must be as merciful as He is. Mercy comes with the caveat that I become a compassionate person, even to those who are undeserving.
“Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’
If you want mercy, you must be prepared to give it. Perhaps this is how God changes the world?
See what the Alaskan winter sunshine can do?
“When a Christian shows mercy, he experiences liberation.” ~Warren Wiersbe
“He begs God on behalf of a human as a person begs for his friend.”
Job 16:21, NCV
I’ve been thinking about a class I had in Bible School. The instructor made a comment that has stuck in my thinking for over 30 years now. I have relied on it countless times in ministry since. It has helped me piece together certain issues of the heart.
When we “preach” to a person, we are actively accelerating the judgement of God in their life. When we pray for that same person, we delay this judgement and allow more room for the Holy Spirit to work.
Now I know this is a generalization, and yet the basic premise of preaching and praying has a specific action. When you preach, you are calling that person to make a decision. They meet up with the truth and must decide for themselves. This is a very sensitive moment. If they consider your message at all– you must understand, one way or the other, that it will require a decision. Either they act on it, or they’ll decide to reject it.
Within the Bible we often see judgement coming to someone, and very often it comes right after a “declaration of the truth” by a witness or a sermon. Those who hear the word must choose to believe it, or spurn it. Even a neutral position is a position. A decision must be made on all light that comes their way.
Perhaps this may be easier to see. The Word is full of men and women who interceded for others. If preaching accelerates God’s judgement on a person (or group,) than prayer decelerates it. In a sense, authentic intercession can give them more time. It delays things, without approving them.
A classic case is Abraham. He intercedes, and by doing so desires to save and deliver God’s own. He “stands in the gap” for the unaware. We see him “negotiating” with the Lord, trying to make a deal of sorts. He is bold and somewhat presumptuous. And actually, this is a regular occurrence with different circumstances. Many in scripture do seem to get intensely involved in the lives of the people they represent.
“I will surely not stop praying for you, because that would be sinning against the Lord. I will teach you what is good and right.”
1 Samuel 12:23
Should we preach or pray? We must consider, I think, the certain obligations of both. I believe at the end of a person’s life, they have had both dynamics working. Its like the tide– it ebbs and then advances, and perhaps that will help us to do the right thing at the right time. We understand the necessity of preaching, and just as important the work of prayer. We must do both, but grasp the issues behind each work. Both are necessary for one to come to faith in Jesus.
Seeing the effects of our actions brings us into a deeper understanding of the life in the Spirit. It motivates and will guide us. We start to understand the Lord’s ways and become aware of what is happening in the world that is around us. This new discernment can only sharpen our work.