Sane Faith, Part 2
The problem with much of contemporary counseling is that it denies the reality of evil, and consequently the relevance of the Savior.
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.
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In the first article of this series, I introduced you to four people who struggle with typical “problems.” If you haven’t read that article, do go back and start there. This article builds on what was said earlier.
Each of the four lifestyles earned a label for a person: addictive personality, eating disorder, OCD, and so forth. But we saw how each one of us can identify with the things they do, think and feel. You and I might be different in degree from Garrett and Sarah, but we aren’t different in kind. Lise and Chandra are fellow strugglers, not bizarre aliens. We noticed how the Bible “normalizes” the seemingly abnormal, reinforcing awareness of our common humanity.
And, finally, we took Psalm 23 and turned it upside down. The “antipsalm” mapped into the four lifestyles – and captured the madness in each of us. But the real Psalm takes us by the hand and walks with us into sanity.
The Awkward Problem of Evil
If you’ve followed me so far, you might feel a question nagging at the back of your mind. Why don’t we hear more of this refreshing and realistic way to think about people? What’s the purpose of tagging people with diagnostic labels, of piling on the heavy freight of “disease” and “syndrome”?
Why doesn’t the therapeutic establishment use human and humane terms to describe Garrett and the rest of our friends? Their stories describe things we can all understand and identify with. Why does God explain behavior, emotion and the human heart in such a different way from the labels? And why do the therapeutic answers never offer anything remotely like the intimacy of Psalm 23?
The answer to these questions is complicated. But it boils down to two things.
First, if you face our problems for what they actually are, then you have to acknowledge the problem of evil. What’s wrong is much more serious than a sickness or syndrome. Evil operates on the inside – bad zeal and selfish ambition. And evils come at us from the outside: betrayal, false values, poor role models, shallow relationships, a body going out of sync, injury, aging, death. Both sin and suffering characterize the problem of evil.
But the diagnostic labels (and street wisdom, and even our four friends) never mention the E-word: evil. What distorts our lives? Evil. What breaks our lives. Evils, both inside and out. Something very dark and very complex is going on. Bad stuff comes at you, and bad stuff is an operating system inside you.
No one can fail to see evidence of evil. You feel it. You participate. But people don’t want to name it for what it is. We might admit the evil of a Hitler or a suicide bomber killing innocent children. We fail to see the evils operating in normal problems.
Second, if you acknowledge the scope of the problem of evil, then you realize you need a Savior. If evil infects us all, then someone not under the power of evil must bring light and life from outside the system of darkness and death. That person is Jesus Christ.
Garrett’s consuming “I insist on my way” is a sin of the heart against God, who alone is King, whose will is that we love Him utterly. Garrett needs what only Jesus can give, comprehensive forgiveness and a complete turnaround. Sarah’s endless striving up the ladder of idolatrous slenderness is a sin of the heart against God, who calls her to love Him with all her heart. She needs powerful mercy. And so it is with Lise and Chandra, each putting their own spin on our need for God.
Like all human beings, they are by nature lost in the antipsalm. We need Him to save us from the inner logic of our hearts. We need Him to save us from suffering and death.
If Garrett manages his temper a little better, if Sarah eats a bit more healthily, they’ve barely dented the surface of their problems and their need. They need mercies. They need a change of heart, a different Savior, a different Lord. They need Psalm 23. We all do.
But if you don’t want to need Jesus Christ, then you must deny the depth and scope of the problem of evil.
The Relevance of Christ
We sought to make sense of these four stories through God’s eyes. We approached people with troubles in the light of God’s mercies and power in Christ. His love is candid, patient, and effective. He intends that we each know our need, and find Him true. Then we, too, grow more candid, patient and effective in our love for other strugglers.
The persuasive voices in modern culture look through different eyes. The diagnostic system now in vogue makes problems seem smaller and solutions seem easier. It explains problems as genetics plus the social environment, with a nod in the direction of how you talk to yourself: “nature + nurture + self-talk.” It sounds so appealing. With just the right medication, the right kind of friends and the right affirmations to boost your self-confidence, you can fix your kind of syndrome. The Savior of the world plays no part in the solution, because alienation from God plays no part in the problem.
There’s a wide gap between medical-sounding labels and the Bible’s straightforward teaching. There’s a wide gap between therapeutic solutions and self-sacrificing love. Why the gap?
It’s hard to face reality.
In T.S. Eliot’s words, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Here’s a longer answer, again in T. S. Eliot’s words. When the Church tells of Jesus, she tells people
… of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
– “Choruses from ‘The Rock,'” part VI
The man that is shadows every pretense. Goodness is our greatest need. There is darkness both outside and within. There is tender mercy where we least expect it. And there is the hard reality that without such mercy, you die. Jesus calls for change of heart.
How much the perfect systems would like to forget all that.
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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. International copyright secured.
About the Author
David Powlison has worked at CCEF since 1980. He edits the Journal of Biblical Counseling and teaches counseling at Westminster Seminary. His writings include Seeing with New Eyes, Speaking Truth in Love, and numerous booklets and articles on dealing with life problems. He and Nan have been married for 30 years, and they enjoy three adult children, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter.