“Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In some odd way, our lives seem to be always getting interrupted by God. And it can happen a lot. We need to see the invisible. When we can, it can be quite amazing. Our night sky here in Alaska is wonderful. I see stars that others can’t, and the northern lights here are wonderful.
But probably the most phenomenal night skies were in Mexico while camping on the beach. As I lay there I looked and the Milky Way was on full display. It really was as good as it could be. It seemed there were 10x more stars than ever before.
Laying on the beach I gazed up, and a weird sort of fear gripped me.
It was almost a panic; I started to tremble and shake. I got up and ran to our tent. I just couldn’t handle the incredible universe with no buffer. I was completely undone and reduced to a quivering speck of dust. I tried to tell my wife Lynn what had just happened to me, but I couldn’t. I was too scrambled. I couldn’t speak.
Reflecting on this, I realize now what I had experienced was “awe.” It was something much more common a few generations ago. There is a kind of existential crisis which we side-step in these more modern times. We rarely contemplate the night sky. We seldom, if ever, have seen fire in a bush.
It seems we have traded our awareness of an authentically Almighty God, and in turn, we get to pick all blackberries we can haul. We reason it out and feel we have made a better bargain. But when we extricate this from our souls, don’t be surprised if we suddenly find that we have become spiritual paupers.
Maybe we should learn to see those things that are invisible.
Each of us has the opportunity now to see the spiritual world that swirls around us. Why wait for heaven? Ask our Father to reveal His glory now in this present moment. Learn to see that which can’t be seen, but by faith.
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies announce what his hands have made.”
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.
“O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.”
Song of Solomon 2:14, KJV
“The dove is in the cleft of the rock”—that is, the open side of our Lord. There is comfort and security there. It is also in the secret places of the stairs. It loves to build its nest in the high towers to which men mount by winding stairs for hundreds of feet above the ground. What a glorious vision is there obtained of the surrounding scenery.
It is a picture of ascending life. To reach our highest altitudes we must find the secret places of the stairs. That is the only way to rise above the natural plane. Our lives should be ones of quiet mounting with occasional resting places; but we should be mounting higher, step by step. Not everyone finds this way of secret ascent. It is only for God’s chosen.
The world may think we are going down. We may not have as much public work to do as formerly.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
It is a secret, hidden life. We may be hardly aware that we are growing, until one day a test comes and we find we are established.
Have you arrived at the place where Christ is keeping you from willful disobedience?
Does the consciousness of sin make you shudder?
Are you lifted above the world?”
Albert Benjamin Simpson, (Dec. 15, 1843 – Oct. 29, 1919)
FOUNDER OF THE Christian and Missionary Alliance, Albert Benjamin Simpson was born in Canada of Scottish parents. He became a Presbyterian minister and pastored several churches in Ontario. Later, he accepted the call to serve as pastor of the Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. It was there that his life and ministry were completely changed in that, during a revival meeting, he experienced the fullness of the Spirit.
He continued in the Presbyterian Church until 1881, when he founded an independent Gospel Tabernacle in New York. There he published the Alliance Weekly and wrote 70 books on Christian living. He organized two missionary societies which later merged to become the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
“I hope everybody can find a little flame Me, I say my prayers, then just light myself on fire and walk out on the wire once again.”
Counting Crows, “Goodnight Elizabeth”
Hope is a powerful thing— nothing compares. It truly is the ‘anchor of the soul.’ Without it, life would be hopeless, and that is intolerable to a human being. We will implode without hope. The psalmist was well aware of this tendency; he speaks to himself about this. He ‘talks to himself’ which can seem a little weird to some.
“Why are you discouraged, my soul? Why are you so restless? Put your hope in God, because I will still praise him. He is my savior and my God.”
Day-to-day life can be arduous. Sometimes faith falters and hopelessness becomes a deadly option. For those of us with debilitating illnesses this can be significant hazard. Depression can severely hinder us.
The writer of Psalm 42 understood this. Discouragement was a real issue, especially when he wondered what was swirling around him. (And I daresay he is not alone in this.)
He insists a certitude. He refuses to give in to the idea that failure is final. He will not allow himself to accept the finality of hopelessness. He will not surrender himself to this idea that ‘all is lost.’ The way he battles back is seen in an inner conversation with his soul. He speaks to himself directly concerning the great faithfulness of God to his situation.
It is real, it’s definitely not fluff. He operates in reality. Hecan’t pretend that the feeling of despondency is imaginary, it is far too cruel and real for it not to be.
However having a hope will cement me in the goodness and mercy of God. It is the sterling silver (.925) belief that He cares for me. The verse in 42:11 ties in with praise and worship. This is no minor thing. When we praise, we break the bonds of hopelessness, in a way that our souls can know, and appreciate. It decisively disarms the depression, and fills the embattled soul with hope. Pain can be a powerful indicator of depression unchecked. But hope changes the manner of which we live.
“Every Christian who struggles with depression struggles to keep their hope clear. There is nothing wrong with the object of their hope – Jesus Christ is not defective in any way whatsoever. But the view from the struggling Christian’s heart of their objective hope could be obscured by disease and pain, the pressures of life, and by Satanic fiery darts shot against them.
All discouragement and depression is related to the obscuring of our hope, and we need to get those clouds out of the way and fight like crazy to see clearly how precious Christ is.”
I wish you the best even as the battle intensifies. Jesus is enough. Look around, see Him and run right to Him. Your faith will hold you.