Sane Faith, Part 1

Aug 05, 2010 |David Powlison

In this first article of a three-part series, the editor of "The Journal of Biblical Counseling" introduces a Scriptural approach to therapy and counseling.

We've invited Dr. David Powlison to begin a discussion on counseling from a biblical perspective by writing a series of articles for Boundless. This is a conversation starter: We believe that thoughtful discussion of significant issues is crucial to the flourishing of the body of Christ.

Focus on the Family does not promote one particular model of Christian counseling, but earnestly seeks that we all grow in wisdom together. As with any article on Boundless, publication is not meant to be taken as an endorsement of its content. It is our hope that you are challenged to consider the relevance of Scripture, the importance of balance in the counseling process, and to better understand the Lord's concern and power when it comes to understanding the real life problems that we all struggle with.

After you've had a chance to read the articles in this 3-part series, consider reading this clarification from Dr. Powlison.

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Garrett, 23, is a recent college grad. When some little thing frustrates him or he doesn't get his way, he explodes in anger. It goes way over the top. In college he was an episodic binge drinker, but he's started to drink regularly and heavily over the past year. The effects of alcohol in him are unpredictable. Sometimes booze mellows Garrett out, but most times it lowers his threshold for volatile hostility. In addition to his growing drinking problem, he routinely turns to online pornography for a "fix." His friends don't know about that, but they fear for his future, wondering if he will self-destruct with his drinking and violent temper.

Official diagnosis and current street wisdom? "Garrett suffers from intermittent explosive disorder (IED) and is an addictive personality — and Garrett is all about Garrett, and has control issues, big-time."

Sarah, a 29-year-old single woman, has become increasingly preoccupied with her looks, her calorie intake, and her exercise regime. She often "feels fat," at 5'9" tall and weighing only 103 pounds, She's relentless in her activities and self-care, competitive, always trying to prove herself. Her roommates and family have become more and more concerned. Sarah seems joyless, and has been detaching herself from normal social interactions. She seems nervously self-preoccupied most of the time, so she has little time, energy, or attention for anything or anyone besides herself.

Diagnosis and current wisdom? "Sarah has anorexia — and she's a perfectionist with low self-esteem."

Lise, 32 and married, with a toddler, has felt down ever since she had the baby. Lise has had a tendency to wallow in self-reproach ever since childhood, but lately it's gotten worse. She's mired in loops of self-condemning thoughts, endlessly rehearsing and bemoaning her faults, both real and imaginary. She has developed elaborate "quiet time" rituals that help her feel some sense that her life is OK. She never feels like God loves her. Her husband worries that Lise's ritualistic habits and "sticky thoughts" about personal failings interfere with her ability to raise their child. Her brooding casts a pall over their relationship, too. The simplest question — "How was your day?" — often turns into a dark spiral of complaint and despair. He walks on eggshells: "What can I do? What can I say?"

Diagnosis and current wisdom? "Lise has a case of clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — and she sets impossible standards for herself."

Chandra, 21, a senior in college, has battled intense anxiety feelings ever since adolescence. She gets tongue-tied if she's put on the spot in a social interaction. She increasingly avoids social situations, and only goes to gatherings or events if she has a friend with her to run interference and carry the ball conversationally. She hasn't been out on a date since a couple of ill-fated attempts in high school when she "almost had a panic attack" trying to figure out what to talk about. Chandra medicates her anxiety with daytime TV, Netflix and chocolate ice cream.

Diagnosis and current wisdom? "Chandra suffers from social anxiety disorder — and she's shy, gets glued to the tube, and needs her chocolate fix."

Do you recognize any of your friends in these people? I do. Do you recognize something of yourself in any of their problems? I do, too.

And do you also notice how each diagnostic label simply takes what we already know and then restates it in quasi-medical-sounding language? The actual experiences of life-lived get turned into a depersonalized "condition." Problems get viewed exclusively as something a person "has," rather than the array of things a person feels, thinks and does.

It's curious. The labels don't actually add any information to what we already know. Yet they somehow alter the entire way we perceive a person. They even alter how people perceive themselves. The story and the struggle get lost in translation.

Hold onto that thought, and we'll come back to it later. First we're going to climb into the story and the struggle.

We're all in these stories

Let's start with the common ground we feel with other people's stories. These problems are garden-variety human struggles ... amped up to very destructive levels. They beset each one of us to a greater or lesser degree. Of course, for the four people described, these tendencies have taken on life-dominating power.

Perhaps you can't identify with just how badly another person flounders. But can you identify with worry? Getting angry? Overindulging in food or drink? Immoral thoughts? Self-preoccupation? Feeling guilty and despondent? Breeding unrealistic hopes? Escape into TV or music or web surfing? Bickering and gossip? Feeling anxious around people? Blanking out on God? All the different ways of being loveless, and joyless, and restless? We can each identify with aspects of what these people do.

Each of these four stories describes a person who needs help in order to face up, to deal, to change. But these people aren't in a completely different category from the rest of us. They aren't weird, as if the rest of us were normal. Think about it this way. They dial up the volume, but we all play the same kinds of music. These are our friends ... and ourselves.

It's no surprise, then, that the Bible engages the varieties of chaos, confusion and trouble that mere humans experience. Our stories interweave with God's story at every point. God intends that we understand what exactly goes wrong — and how exactly he goes about making it right.

In his letter to people who know Jesus, James alerted us to something about personal and interpersonal chaos. Wherever you find "confusion and bad stuff" (James 3:16 paraphrase), you'll find two underlying problems. First, "bad zeal" wants the wrong things too much. Second, "selfish ambition" organizes life around all-about-Me.

James is unblinking about what's wrong, but he never gives the mess last say: "God gives more grace" (4:6). More than what? His goodness is more than all that goes wrong inside us. Confusion and bad stuff is exactly what he goes to work on.

Of course, the particular details of our four friends' stories have a 21st century flavor. But once you scratch the surface, they simply give new spin to old problems. These struggles are variants on the typical confusion and bad stuff of people everywhere. Almost 2000 years ago, Paul said "the works of the flesh are obvious." He gave fifteen examples: "sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these" (Galatians 5:19-21). Anyone can see that this is not the way life is meant to be. All forms of self-preoccupation are the opposite of love, joy, and peace. Paul rounded off his list by pointing far beyond the examples he chose to mention. "Things like these" include the 21st century problems of our four friends and people like us.

So our friends' chaotic ways of living fit the category "works of the flesh." These lifestyles show up on the MRI of Scripture. God sees them for what they are, and he teaches us how to see through his eyes.

God also looks behind the externals into the inner reasons. Galatians 5:16-17 names the motor for a destructive lifestyle: the "desires of the flesh." That's Paul's phrase for bad zeal and selfish ambition. The things people want seem so instinctive and plausible. But our desires become monsters and dictators. We want the wrong things too much, and approach life as if it's all-about-Me.

Garrett's way of life is "my way or the highway." No wonder he gets so angry. Sarah worships an ideal of thinness that even supermodels can't attain. No wonder she's so unhappy. Lise lives by a principle of self-attained standards of performance, and goes snow-blind to the mercies of God towards her. No surprise, she has no sense of peace. Chandra craves approval (and panics about possible rejection). She's so worried about how other people treat her that she has no thoughtful kindness to give to them.

God sees what's operating on the inside, as well as what's oozing out for all to see. He sizes it up for what it is, and then helps us to understand life the same way he does.

These patterns of inner motivation are what the Bible calls your "heart." We generate substitutes for God. The false masters are "little gods" that become I GOTTA HAVE THAT! Our blind, misplaced devotion enslaves us. We express our submission to little gods by destructive lifestyles, by our emotions, thoughts, words, and choices that the Bible calls foolish. God wants us to see our hearts the way he sees us. Inside and out, this is exactly what Jesus came to forgive and aims to transform.

  • Jesus died to overthrow the dictatorship of the flesh
  • Jesus died so that you won't die clinging tight to your idols
  • Jesus died so you won't waste your life massaging and refining self-preoccupation
  • Jesus lives to become your true Master

Here's the whole message in a sound bite: "He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Corinthians 5:15). Jesus can liberate Garrett from the stranglehold of self-will, so he actually begins to care about other people. Jesus can bring Sarah to her senses, so that she comes to love the beauty of Jesus rather than obsessing over an impossible and empty ideal. Lise can rebuild her life on a new foundation. Chandra can find safe refuge and the courage to reach out.

Christ overthrows dictatorial desires. The fruit of His Holy Spirit — Galatians 5:22-23 — makes for a life worth living.

Of course, the freedom is never all-at-once, one-and-done. But Jesus creates new conditions for life. In our lives now, He begins to make right all that goes so wrong. He sets about the long, hard answering of the complex questions. He begins a lifelong freeing process.

Two ways of doing life

From Jesus' point of view, there are two fundamentally different ways of doing life. One way, you're connected to a God who's involved in your life. Psalm 23 is all about this: "The Lord is my shepherd ... and his goodness and mercy surely follow me all the days of my life." The other way, you're pretty much on your own and disconnected. Let's call this the antipsalm 23: "I'm on my own ... and disappointment follows me all the days of my life." We'll look first at the antipsalm way of doing life.

Antipsalm 23

I'm on my own.
No one looks out for me or protects me.
I experience a continual sense of need. Nothing's quite right.
I'm always restless. I'm easily frustrated and often disappointed.
It's a jungle — I feel overwhelmed. It's a desert — I'm thirsty.
My soul feels broken, twisted, and stuck. I can't fix myself.
I stumble down some dark paths.
Still, I insist: I want to do what I want, when I want, how I want.
But life's confusing. Why don't things ever really work out?
I'm haunted by emptiness and futility — shadows of death.
I fear the big hurt and final loss.
Death is waiting for me at the end of every road,
         but I'd rather not think about that.
I spend my life protecting myself. Bad things can happen.
I find no lasting comfort.
I'm alone ... facing everything that could hurt me.
Are my friends really friends?
Other people use me for their own ends.
I can't really trust anyone. No one has my back.
No one is really for me — except me.
And I'm so much all about ME, sometimes it's sickening.
I belong to no one except myself.
My cup is never quite full enough. I'm left empty.
Disappointment follows me all the days of my life.
Will I just be obliterated into nothingness?
Will I be alone forever, homeless, free-falling into void?
Sartre said, "Hell is other people."
I have to add, "Hell is also myself."
It's a living death,
         and then I die.

The antipsalm tells what life feels like and looks like whenever God vanishes from sight. As we hear about Garrett and the others, each story lives too much inside the antipsalm. The "I'm-all-alone-in-the-universe" experience maps onto each one of them. The antipsalm captures the driven-ness and pointlessness of life-purposes that are petty and self-defeating. It expresses the fears and silent despair that cannot find a voice because there's no one to really talk to.

Our four friends are spinning out of control. They might implode. Something bad gets last say when whatever you live for is not God.

And when you're caught up in the antipsalm, it doesn't help when you're labeled a "disorder," a "syndrome" or a "case." The problem is much more serious: The disorder is "my life." The syndrome is "I'm on my own." The case is "Who am I and what am I living for?" when too clearly I am the center of my story.

But the antipsalm doesn't need to tell the final story. It only becomes your reality when you construct your reality from a lie. In reality, someone else is the center of the story. Nobody can make Jesus go away. The I AM was, is and will be, whether or not people acknowledge that.

When you awaken, when you see who Jesus actually is, everything changes. You see the Person whose care and ability you can trust. You experience His care. You see the Person whose glory you are meant to worship. You love Him who loves you. The real Psalm 23 captures what life feels like and looks like when Jesus Christ puts his hand on your shoulder.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil.
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Can you taste the difference?

You might want to read both antipsalm and psalm again, slowly. Maybe even read out loud. The psalm is sweet, not bitter. It's full, not empty. You aren't trying to grab the wind with your bare hands. Someone else takes you in His hands. You are not alone.

Jesus Christ actually plays two roles in this most tender psalm. First, He walked this Himself. He is a man who looked to the Lord. He said these very words, and means what He says. He entered our predicament. He walked the valley of the shadow of death. He faced every evil. He felt the threat of the antipsalm, of our soul's need to be restored. He looked to his Father's care when He was cast down — for us — into the darkest shadow of death. And God's goodness and mercy followed Him and carried Him. Life won.

Second, Jesus is also this Lord to whom we look. He is the living shepherd to whom we call. He restores your soul. He leads you in paths of righteousness. Why? Because of who He is: "for His name's sake."

You, too, can walk Psalm 23. You can say these words and mean what you say. God's goodness and mercy is true, and all He promises will come true. The King is at home in his universe.

Jesus puts it this way, "It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). He delights to walk with you.

PART 2: Sane Faith »

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Focus on the Family has counselors and care specialists who are available weekdays to talk with you, provide information and encouragement, suggest resources, give referrals and pray with you. If you are struggling, and would like to talk with one of them, you can find more information here.

Copyright 2008 David Powlison. All rights reserved.

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