Friday, September 26, 2008
Biblical Counseling, a Clarification
by David Powlison
Dr. David Powlison — author of the “Sane Faith” series on Boundless (part 1, part 2 and part 3)
— appreciates the comments you’ve written on a blog post I wrote yesterday. This morning he sent me an e-mail responding to some of them. Among other things, he writes that “faith actually changes how you perceive [someone] and respond to [them].” Later he adds, “How you’re relating to God and how you’re relating to [others] are not controlled by your body, but by your heart.”
I find his clarifications helpful as I wrestle with the principles laid out in “Sane Faith.”
* * *
[now from Dr. Powlison...]
I so appreciate the honesty of blog responders. Life is not easy street, but a hard road. Contrary to the glib self-confidence and easy answers that define our culture’s style, the Bible respects that our lives are fundamentally fragile, vulnerable to coming unglued. The psalms are the voice of honest strugglers, which is why Psalm 23 (and the anti-psalm) play such a key role in the lead article I wrote.
I want to make sure that the purpose of those articles is not lost. Ted Slater’s blog comments
are right in saying that these articles are not about medications at all. They are about affirming our humanness. They seek to shine a light on our common bond in the human struggles. We’re all in this together, and God comes to take us in hand. I’d hate to have the main point obscured by the discussion getting swallowed up in the medication issue. That is an important issue in its own right. Here are some thoughts to put in the mix in thinking about medications. But I hope that readers will also go back and ponder my original articles further.
About 10 years ago I watched a PBS special on the state of psychiatry in America. The head
of the National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH) was interviewed. He can fairly be called America’s “top psychiatrist.” He sits at the top of the pyramid that funds medication research, sets standards for care, and so forth. He knows his field. His comments were insightful and fascinating. He said that society has given psychiatrists an impossible job. They are charged with trying to help people solve all their woes and struggles. Then he said that psychiatric medications can sometimes take the edge off symptoms, but they can’t give people what they really need. People need meaning and relationships. Psychiatry can’t give that. Medication can’t give
You might want to reread that last paragraph. It contains a philosophy of medication that is sane and realistic, as well as knowledgeable. It’s so different from what our culture tells us. This psychiatrist was also seeing something about people that I believe can only be truly addressed by Christian faith. People need to find personal meaning and meaningful relationships. My articles are about what people really need. I fully agree with the head of NIMH that medications can “sometimes take the edge off symptoms.” He credits medication with possibly doing some modest good, not all the time, but sometimes. Modest good does not mean no good, or all bad, or useless. Nor does it mean the best good. People most need meaning and relationships. And “sometimes” does not mean always, or without the possibility of negative side effects. It means what it says, sometimes.
Most people who’ve tried medications would say that their experience mirrors what the head
of the NIMH said. He knows the literature. He knows people. He knows that people might be helped a bit, but that they need more help and deeper help. In my 30 years of counseling, I’ve seen the same thing countless times. I’ve also seen that when people find more help and deeper help they often drop the meds and don’t go back. They don’t need the symptomatic relief, because they’ve found more significant change. (That’s not always, but in my counseling experience it’s more often than not.)
More help and deeper help is what my articles are about.
Here’s an analogy you might find helpful. Let’s say you go to visit your mother for lunch. The relationship can be a bit strained. She can be “difficult.” When you are with her, and things take a wrong turn, you get tense. You feel a bit edgy, anxious, and irritable. You can get sarcastic. Later you might vent to your friends, “She’s impossible!” Let’s say you’ve also learned that your relationship with God makes a huge difference. You love this promise and response: He himself has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper. I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6) When you remember that, live it, take it to heart, you’re calmer. You don’t take your mom so personally. You’re more constructive. You’re able to forgive her. You pray for her rather than vent negative gossip. You’re able to get on with the rest of your day in a positive frame of mind. You say to your friends, “I’ve got to say, it’s hard to relate to my mom. But I’m very thankful to God for helping me not to return evil for evil.” That passage of Scripture speaks sweet promises to you, in God’s own voice: He himself says it! It also portrays how your faith comes to life: I can confidently say. Your thinking changes. What you say changes. How you feel changes. It doesn’t mean your mom changes. But your faith actually changes how you perceive her and respond to her.
Now here’s where our little analogy get interesting. Let’s also say that when you drink three
cups of coffee on an empty stomach and don’t eat a good breakfast, you go into your day feeling tense. You get a bit edgy, anxious, and irritable. (Sound familiar?) Eating a good breakfast and laying off the caffeine makes you feel better. Similarly you find that healthy exercise and a good nights sleep also make you feel better, less prone to that tense frame of mind.
Here’s the million dollar question. Will eating a healthy breakfast, taking a brisk walk and being well rested make your relationship with your mother tension-free and happy? No, it won’t. It might help you go into that lunch visit a bit less keyed up. It might help you not cancel because you can’t face her. Maybe you won’t be quite so reactive. But your relationship with your mother is a matter of “meaning and relationships.” How you’re relating to God and how you’re relating to her are not controlled by your body, but by your heart. Jesus puts all this in His usual pithy way. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Bread means bodily sustenance: breakfast, exercise, sleep. But bread alone can’t bring energy and light, hope and love, to the meaning of your life and to your relationships. Whenever we make the connection, life makes much more sense. It’s a connection to make every day, like eating a healthy breakfast. The same sort of thing is true with medications. When they help, they tweak your body to feel and function better. But they can’t touch your need for the things that Hebrew 13:5-6 touches. Perhaps this paraphrase catches the right sense of proportion: “Man does not live by meds alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Our society attaches such inordinate hopes to medication. Pharmaceutical advertising makes such grandiose promises (not just about psychoactive drugs, but about many classes of meds). We want to say, things that help your body are good: healthy diet, exercise, and sleep, always; medications, sometimes. But they aren’t the best. See these things for what they are and aren’t, and you’ll keep your life struggles in proper perspective. The human touch that the articles seek to elicit and portray is always the most important. Those articles are about the YOU on the inside of who you are. They are about the YOU in your relationships.
I’d encourage readers to go back and read the lead articles again. As Ted Slater mentioned,
Boundless and I have been working on this project for a year. In a culture of online information, people are not used to reading something more than once. But anything worth thinking about carefully is worth reading a second time. Print it out. Take it slowly. Underline. Write in the margins. Ponder what it means. Take it to heart. I’d describe medication questions as a riff off from those articles — an important question in its own right, but a sidelight, even a distraction. You’ve probably seen how easily that happens in blogs. A riff carries the discussion far afield from the original topic. I hope that what really sticks in your mind is Psalm 23. Verse 4 brings a true perspective on all our woes, including a body that gets out of sync and mothers who can sometimes be difficult.
* * *
P.S. Here are some further thoughts, and something for further study for those so minded.
Joseph Glenmullen, a research psychiatrist at Harvard, summarized hundreds of studies on
the effects of psychiatric medications for anxiety and depression (Prozac Backlash, Simon &
Schuster, 2000). He takes a balanced view, similar to the director of NIMH. He simply gives
the research data. Research shows that most of the positive effect comes from placebo effect,
not psychoactive ingredients. Perhaps two-thirds of those who take medications feel better
because they expect the medication to make them feel better. In other words, even with a
pill, the issue of one’s faith plays a significant part. How can you know whether you’re getting a psychoactive bump in mood or a placebo bump? You can’t. That’s part of why paying primary attention to meaning and relationships puts medications in their proper place as second-tier items. A person getting a placebo bump will continue to feel better when off medications because the meaning and relationships in his or her life improve. Glenmullen also gives details on the negative side effects that frequently arise and the frequency of drug ineffectiveness. People in these categories need not despair. Fruitful dealing with meaning and relationship issues always makes a difference in a person’s life, even if they must live with lifelong tendencies towards depression and anxiety — which many wise and godly people in history have done. Even if there’s no medication to make the tense-and-anxious reaction in your body go away, if the tense-and-anxious reactions in your relationships improve, then your life improves.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Sane Faith, Part 3
by David Powlison
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.
This is the final article in a 3-part series. We encourage you to read part 1 and part 2 if you
haven’t done so already.
* * *
We’ve seen how the therapeutic worldview disconnects from reality. People with problems
are treated less seriously than they deserve. They are given Band-Aid therapies for questions
that call for an organ transplant. Let’s think carefully through a series of implications.
1. The facts are the facts — but what do they mean?
Notice that nobody disputes the facts. Mental health practitioners, friends and family, you,
me, and the God of the Bible agree that Garrett (see part 1 of this series) is narcissistic, has a
bad temper, drinks too much and uses porn. He tries to control his world because he thinks
it’s his world. All agree that Sarah starves herself, works out relentlessly, and puts in a lot of
mirror-time. She demands perfection on her own terms.
Nothing I’m saying questions any of these facts. These are facts that call for explanations and
call out for help.
The question is how to interpret the facts. What do these problems mean? Why do our four
friends live like this? Why are they ruining their lives?
• Does each of them “suffer from” a quasi-medical-sounding disorder that actually
explains his or her problems? Do they “have” diseases or conditions that the labels
• Or are they “doing” extremely disorderly things for extremely confusing reasons? Are
they living out lifestyles that God correctly names?
In other words, is the final explanation for our problems something bad happening to us? Or
is it something bad about us? God’s interpretation is the second one, and He gets last say. A
true interpretation sees the problem of sin concretely, right in the details of people’s lives
It’s crucial, by the way, to understand sin accurately. Most people think that to identify
something as “sin” means saying that the person consciously chose to do some bad action.
The person also has the power to Just Say No.
But the Bible comes at sin from the opposite direction. We do many wrong, unloving things
without even knowing what we’re doing or why. Most sin is not a matter of conscious choice.
The “high-handed” sins are conscious. But much of what we do, think and feel expresses that
we are blind, self-deceived, metaphorically drunk or sleepwalking, calloused, acting like
brute beasts, walking in the dark. So we do not have the power to Just Say No.
That’s why we need a Savior from ourselves. Sin actually tends to make us more unconscious
(“blind”) and more compulsive (“enslaved”). I am what I am, and do what I do, even if it’s
self-destructive and destroys my relationships.
Furthermore, sin is an interpersonal offense and insult — to God first. He calls us to love
him utterly ... but we are self-preoccupied in a thousand ways. Most people view “sin” as an
item from a select list of heinous behaviors that hurt others. God sees much further. I can’t
accurately see myself until God makes me self-aware of what I look like to Him.
And, still further, grace targets sin. Jesus comes for sin. Mercy and compassion are given for
sin. Forgiveness buries sin.
Most people think that the word “sin” only implies judgment, condemnation, selfrighteousness
and moral exhortations to try harder. That’s the obvious thing to think. But God is not so obvious. He forgives people who are not righteous, and self-righteousness is a heinous sin. Christ does what none of us can do. Jesus’ blood and righteousness and resurrection set us free from sin’s guilt and punishment. Christ’s Spirit progressively frees us from sin’s power. The Lord’s return will free us from sin’s presence. God directly applies His mercy and power, changing us into the image of His glory.
We’re objecting to the misinterpretations placed on troubled and troublesome lifestyles. We
aren’t denying the trouble. Jesus came for the trouble.
2. Quasi-medical labels are mislabels
Think a bit more about those verbs “suffers from,” “has,” “is” and “has a case of.” We use
these passive verbs to describe our experience of a true medical problem. You suffer from
cancer or have a broken leg. You are a diabetic or have a case of hives. None of these true
medical conditions describes your behavior, your motives, your lifestyle. They describe
something bad that’s happening to you.
Of course, your lifestyle and choices can affect whether or not you develop a medical
problem. Smoking might cause lung cancer. Dirt-bike racing might cause a broken leg. But
smoking cigarettes and riding dirt bikes are things you do — just like drinking too much, or
worrying what people think, or obsessing in front of the mirror. I hope we’d never say, “He
has a bad case of dirt-bike syndrome, and suffers from a smoking disorder”!
Notice that the descriptions of our four troubled friends consistently portray what they do,
how they think, how they react emotionally, how they treat other people. Lise broods
relentlessly on her failings, and is so preoccupied that she’s inattentive to her daughter.
Chandra worries that she’ll be rejected, and hides from people. And each of them lives as if
God were a non-factor.
The truth is that they do their lives; they don’t suffer from their syndromes. By definition, a
human being is an “active verb,” not a passive verb. We want and fear, love and believe, do
and say, act and react. You don’t “have a case of” the way you do life.
3. What people do affects relationships.
Notice that in each of the four stories, what a person does affects other people. Our four
friends do not have private pathologies. They are not the only ones suffering; their closest
relationships suffer as well. Other people worry about them, or feel hurt by them, or get
angry at them.
This is because outbursts of anger, drunkenness, extreme dieting, relentless selfrecrimination,
escapism, instability, and social anxiety intrinsically threaten relationships. By definition, doing such things isolates you from God and people. You can’t live this way and at the same time trust God and love people. These are four different ways of being devoutly self-absorbed. It’s significant that friends and family sense this. They’re troubled by the distance and relationship breakdown caused by self-preoccupation. They have good reasons for their concern. Consider the contrast between this and a purely medical problem. Friends and family will be deeply concerned for you if you have a broken leg or suffer from cancer. But trauma or illness don’t automatically separate people and jeopardize relationships. In fact, usually sickness provides a context in which people come together and feel closer. Friends and family rally to support you. You appreciate the love and concern they show. Medical problems often draw people together in love and appreciation.
Your kith and kin will be concerned for you when you’re sick. They want your body to get
well. But they’ll be concerned about you when you’re devoutly self-absorbed. They want you
to become a different kind of person. That’s one more evidence that the deepest problem for
all four is some form of sin.
Again, remember some things we mentioned earlier. “Sin” doesn’t always mean consciously
chosen badness. Most sins express how what I love has become disordered and dictatorial.
When my core love turns away from God, I blindly attach myself to something else — anything else. I then live out the implications by making selfish choices. And to name your problem as “sin” does not mean that others should scold, moralize or condemn you, or that you should beat yourself up with self-recrimination and trying harder. Jesus Christ comes “so that we may receive mercy and grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Mercy and helpfulness specifically target sin. So identifying how sin operates opens a wide door to God’s mercy, patience and power. God’s mercy restores all the relationships that sin threatens, reconciling us to God and equipping us to reconcile with people.
4. Quasi-medical labels artificially separate people
As we’ve seen, lifestyle problems harm relationships. But harm can come from the other
direction, too. To put a diagnostic label on a person harms your relationship with that
person. It creates artificial distance. We should be able to identify with each other, but if I
think that you are sick and I am well, I artificially divide us. A true medical problem creates an objective experiential distance between people. Let’s say I get in a car accident and suffer a broken leg. My doctor and my friends do not have broken legs. I hurt a lot and need crutches. They feel perfectly fine and walk normally. Their experience and mine are fundamentally different. I am not well. They are well. I definitely need their help. They can help me precisely because they are not all laid up with broken legs! But if you use quasi-medical labels for what I do, think and feel, it creates artificial distance between us. If I struggle with anxiety or irritation or escapism ... well, so do you. So does everybody. But if you label my struggle as a “disorder,” then that means you are normal, but I am sick. That’s an artificial distance, because none of us gets anger, fear and pleasure-seeking exactly right. I might be having a much bigger problem than you. But our actual differences are matters of degree. I may be stuck and blind, while you’ve grown wise in an area of life. That matters for your ability to help me. But at the most basic level of human experience, you know that you and I have the same general tendencies and temptations. We come in very different flavors and intensities, but we are more alike than different. Our underlying commonality is fundamental. That’s why you see so much of yourself in Garrett and Lise and the others. You can help people precisely because you do have first-hand understanding of the basic human struggles: “There is no temptation that overtakes you that is not common to all” (1 Corinthians 10:13). You can help people precisely because you do know the grace of God at work in you, and that’s exactly what others need: “God comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Because we are in it together we can help each other. Medical doctors don’t ever need to have the same problems as their patients. But brothers and sisters always have the same kinds of problems as their fellow strugglers. Therefore we share the same essential cure, which always involves some form of faith working through love, by the grace of God in Christ. There’s no artificial distance, because we have a real commonality.
5. How do we weigh the various contributory “factors”?
I’ve focused on the heart, the gospel and our identification with each other. But how should
we weigh all the other variables that affect us? No one disagrees that genetics might
contribute a “tendency,” and that the social environment abounds with “triggers.” Countless
factors “influence” us.
But what is the final cause of how you live? Of course, you are your final cause. That said,
let’s look briefly at the many contributing factors. What goes on in your body has an influence. When you experience allergies or sleepless nights, premenstrual hormones or chronic pain, Asperger’s or Alzheimer’s, your mood, thinking and actions are affected. You’re tempted in different ways than when you feel fine.
Similarly, it’s obvious that each of us comes wired from birth with a different temperament.
Some people are more prone to anger, others to anxiety, others to getting discouraged,
others to pleasure-addictions, and so forth. Our bodies affect us in many ways. It’s likely that
Lise’s post-partum hormones color her moods. But does the body give the decisive, underlying explanation for their personal problems? No; no more than it gives the decisive explanation for their good and loving choices. The body is a contributory factor, an influence. It’s not the final cause of either your faith or your idolatry, your kindness or your selfishness. What the people around you do also has an influence on you. Like “nature,” “nurture” plays a role. Every one of us lives in a world filled with competing values, a variety of hardships and many enticements. You implicitly absorb the categories of thought provided by your native language, and the values of your native culture.
For example, Sarah lives in a society that glamorizes unreally thin women. Garrett’s father
was a poor role-model for how to handle frustration, and his bad example “discipled” his son
into temper and drinking. We live in a world where betrayals of trust occur. Chandra lives
among a group of peers who might (and have) hurt her. But do those experiences provide the decisive explanation for their struggles? No. These are significant and impacting, but not determinative. Your surrounding environment influences you in countless ways, but it never determines whether your life orients in the direction of Christ or twists in on yourself.
In fact, countless factors “influence” you. Weather and seasons? You may feel gloomier
during three cloudy weeks in January than you do during three bright weeks in July. The
project due next week in school or on your job? The current state of your personal finances?
World politics before and after 9/11? Immediate traffic conditions and whether you’ll be
late? What’s on TV tonight? Whether your football team is winning or losing? Any of these can affect you. But does any one decisively determine how you will react? No. You are always in the mix.
In fact, the Bible teaches that God actually arranges the stage on which you live. He is the
Lord of history, including your local time and place, and your personal history. Your
particular matrix of influences provides the context in which your faith (or your self-will)
plays out, in which He meets you (or you shirk Him). This awareness frees you. You can seek to understand any contributory influence as just that, as a factor and not the cause. You won’t grant them too much credit, morphing them into root causes and excuses for your sins. But you also won’t dismiss them as irrelevant, ignoring the actual situations and difficulties in which you need practical wisdom and practical mercies.
How you live comes out of your heart. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow
the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The heart is you, not something that happens to you.
Jesus says that when wrong actions appear, that wrong comes “from within, out of the heart
of man” (Mark 7:21). Something about who you are and what you live for sets your trajectory in life and shapes every choice. Deep down, everyone knows this is true. That’s why every sort of treatment or therapy involves taking some responsibility for your life. It’s odd, when you think about it. According to the therapeutic outlook, you have no real responsibility for causing your problems. Your syndrome, disorder or disease was caused by genetics, hormones or how people treated you. But you are given final responsibility for solving what’s wrong. You can get a grip; you can make better choices; you can choose to heal; you can change your self-talk.
Here’s the logic: “You are definitely NOT a sinner. But you definitely ARE your savior.”
God sees things the other way around. You definitely ARE a sinner, and you are definitely
NOT your Savior.
When this merciful Father gets a grip on you, you take hold of Him. As the patient Spirit
changes you, He enables you to make more loving choices. Because the good Shepherd
restores your soul, you flourish. This most personal God teaches you how to talk with Him,
so you stop talking to yourself so much. We’re tangled up, and we also live in tangled bodies amid a tangled world. C. S. Lewis vividly captured the profoundly humbling self-awareness this reality creates:
Man’s love for God must always be very largely, and must often be entirely, a Needlove.
This is obvious where we implore forgiveness for our sins or support in our tribulations. But in the long run it is perhaps even more apparent in our growing — for it ought to be growing — awareness that our whole being by its very nature is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty yet cluttered, crying out for Him who can untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose. (The Four Loves, chapter 1)
Many things will influence you. The whole world is knotted up and dangling loose. But you
are still your biggest problem. You need what God alone can give. It’s no accident that Jesus
begins here: “The poor in spirit are blessed” (Matt. 5:3). It’s no accident that Paul heard
God address his fundamental human weakness: “My grace is sufficient for you, because
power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It’s no accident that most of the psalms
cry for help. It’s no accident that Jesus is who He is, and does what he does. It’s no accident
that God freely gives what you most need — the mercy to change your relationship with
Him, and the power to change you.
Coming home to sanity
When we see how deeply the “madness in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 9:3) infects us and our
friends, then we see how deeply the love of God in Christ applies to our deepest problems.
The real Psalm 23 and all the rest of God’s wisdom lead us home. Jesus Christ actually lived and died to rescue us. He now lives specifically to rewire our core insanity and to overcome our inevitable isolation. Best of all, His answer to self-absorption is not just a bunch of great ideas. The Lamb of God is a real person. The Shepherd calls you into a talking, listening, long-term, committed relationship. He’s good, and good for you.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
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
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
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.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Sane Faith, Part 1
by David Powlison
* * *
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.
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.
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?”
disorder (OCD) — and she sets impossible standards for herself.”
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
she’s shy, gets glued to the tube, and needs her chocolate fix.”
yourself in any of their problems? I do, too.
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.
story and the struggle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
show up on the MRI of Scripture. God sees them for what they are, and he teaches us how to
see through his eyes.
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.
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.
up for what it is, and then helps us to understand life the same way he does.
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
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
makes for a life worth living.
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.
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.
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.
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.
say when whatever you live for is not God.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
He restores your soul. He leads you in paths of righteousness. Why? Because of who He is:
“for His name’s sake.”
goodness and mercy is true, and all He promises will come true. The King is at home in his
12:32). He delights to walk with you.
Copyright 2008 David Powlison. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. This article
was published on Boundless.org on August 26, 2008.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
I wanted to pass on to you a great new tool by our friends at Monergism.com here at www.reformedbooks.net they have compiled what they believe to be the best in Reformed theological works by both author and subject. This is a great resource in that today there are SO MANY books out there! Here they have done a lot of the "combing" through to compile their lists! Go through there and find a good book to read this Fall! Take care,
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Above is a picture from outside our backyard! Wow! Below is a picture of us along with Anna's brother's family, her mom, grandma and cousin Bridgette.
And yes we went SEA KAYAKING in the Puget Sound! We kayaked around a couple of smaller islands and had a great time! Once in a lifetime!
The bottom three pictures are a sampling of the wildlife that can be seen there!