“Harder than I thought”
It was my first day on the job in a Christian psychiatric hospital. I was like a kid on Christmas morning. I had been taking college and seminary glasses and reading all that I could get my hands on about Christian counseling for about four years, and I was ready to put my knowledge into practice. I showed up at the medical center in Dallas early that morning all geared up to teach the patients how to find the life I know awaited them as soon as they learned the truth I had been taught.
I looked down the hall, and a woman in a pink bathrobe walked out of her room. She extended her arms outward and exclaimed, “I am Mary, Mother of God!”
Now think about it. Here I am, brand new at Christian counseling, thinking all I had to do was come in and tell people God loved them. If they would understand more of what he has said, they would be well. But when I heard what this woman said, I thought: This is going to be harder than I thought. It was a thought I would have many times in the year to come.
Four Models of How People Grow
In Christian circles at the time I was beginning training, there were basically four popular ways of thinking about personal growth: the sin model, the truth model, the experiential model, and the supernatural model.
The sin model said that all problems are a result of one’s sin. If you struggled in your marriage or with an emotional problem such as depression, the role of the helper was to find the sin and confront you urging you to confess, repent, and sin no more. If you did that, you were sure to get better. I was like many three-point sermons you may have heard in Bible churches:
1. God is good.
2. You are bad.
3. Stop it.
The truth model held that the truth would set you free. If you were not “free,” if some area of your life were not working, it must be because you lacked “truth” in you life. So the helper’s role was to urge you to learn more verses, memorize more Scripture, and learn more doctrine (particularly in your “position in Christ”), and then all of the truth would make its way from your head to your heart and ultimately into your behavior and emotions. Passages that emphasize knowing truth, renewing your mind, and how you “think in your heart” became a new theology of “thinking truth to gain emotional health.”
The experiential model held that you had to get to the pain in your life-find the abuse or the hurt-and then somehow “get it out.” Proponents of the more spiritual versions of this model either took the pain to Jesus or took Jesus to the pain. In a kind of emotional archaeology, people would dig up hurts from the past and seek healing through prayer or and clearing out the pain. This model emphasized Jesus’ ability to transcend time; he could be there with you in your pain or abuse and could change it.
The supernatural model had many variations. Charismatics sought instant healing and deliverance; others depended on the Holy Spirit to make the change happen as he lived his life through them. Exchanged life people (those who held that you just get out of the way so Christ can reproduce his life in you) as well as other very well-grounded students of the spiritual life trusted God to lead them and make changes in them.
While I saw value in all four models—and practiced all four to some degree—it wasn’t difficult for me to decide which one made the most sense. After all, I was heavily into theology and studying the Bible, learning doctrine, and knowing everything I could about God and the faith. I have always been a big believer in the authority of the Bible. So I found the most truth in the truth model. I found enormous security in learning about God’s plan for life, his sovereignty, my position in him, and the doctrines of forgiveness, justification, and the security of the believer. I believed in the power of the Bible and knew that God’s truth could change any life. I knew that if I could just teach others the same things and encourage them to know the truth as I was learning it, they would find the same kind of growth I had discovered.
Yet, at the medical center I saw people who had walked with God for years and many who knew more about God’s truth than I did. These people had been diligent about prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual disciplines. Nevertheless, they were hurting, and for one reason or another, they had been unable to walk through their valley.
To deal with marital, parenting, emotional, and work struggles, people tried the things they had been taught, and felt as though these spiritual answers had let them down. I began to feel the same way. Again the realization hit me: This is going to be harder than I thought.
The Failure of the Truth Model
I would teach people about God’s love, but their depression would not go away. I would teach them about the crucified life, and their addictions would remain. They would focus on their “security in Christ,” yet their panic attacks would be unyielding. I was discouraged about the power of “supernatural interventions” as well as my chosen profession.
Don’t misunderstand. It wasn’t that people weren’t getting better and gaining some relief from these methods. They were. I often saw people improve. Prayer, learning Scripture, and repentance were very powerful elements in healing many clinical conditions. But something was missing. The feeling that “there has to be more” nagged at me.
Four things specifically bothered me again and again:
1. Spiritual methods didn’t solve some problems.
2.Life problems were often “helped” but not “cured”; spiritual interventions often only helped people to cope better.
3. Sincere, righteous, diligent, and mature Christians hit a ceiling in some area of life growth.
4. Spiritual growth grounded in good theology should be helping to solve these problems a lot more than it was.
Then something happened in the next four to five years that turned my world upside down. I saw people grow past their stuck places. I saw the things I had gone into the field to see. I saw real change. Instead of seeing depressed people coping better with depression, I saw depressed people grow out of their depression. Instead of seeing people with eating disorders cope better with their eating disorders, I saw them get over them altogether. Instead of seeing people with relational problems cope better, I saw them grow in their ability to be intimate and make relationships work. I saw processes that actually changed people’s lives; I found the “something more” I had been looking for. People were growing past their “ceilings.”
There was one big problem: What helped people grow did not seem to be what I had been taught was the “Christian” way to grow. It involved deep transformations of the soul that I had never seen. So I was faced with a dilemma.
It seemed to me that there was the spiritual life, where we learned about God and grew in our relationship to him, and then there was the emotional and relational life, where we learned how to solve real-life problems. But it made no sense to me that there were answers other than spiritual ones. My theology taught me that God answers all of life’s problems. We suffer because we live in a fallen world. God has redeemed the world, and as the Bible says, he has given us everything pertaining to life (2 Peter 1:3) How could there be spiritual growth and then “other” growth?
I could not live a divided life. Therefore, I studied the Bible again to find an answer to the guiding question of my life: How does spiritual growth address and solve life’s problems?
What I found was amazing. I saw that everything I had been learning that helped people grow was right there in the Bible all along. All the processes that had changed peoples’ lives were in the pages of Scripture. The Bible talked about the things that helped people grow in relational and emotional areas as well as spiritual ones. I was ecstatic. Not only was the Bible true, but what was true was in the Bible!
Spiritual growth is not only about coming back into a relationship with God and each other, and about pursuing a pure life, but it is also about coming back to life-the life that God created for people to live. This life of deep relationship, fulfilling work, celebration, and more gives us the life we desire and solves our problems.
Taken from How People Grow, © Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Zondervan 2001
This article is part 1 in a series of Feature Articles adapted from How People Grow.
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