“God never promised you a perfectly whole and happy life.”
I’m finding that this has become a frequent mantra of mine in pastoring and counseling. In fact, it’s something I’ve had to work through myself. You see, 12 years ago, I started going to counseling to get healed, to get whole, to get the nagging ache of existence to go away. 12 years later, I’ve not gotten rid of the ache.
It’s always a scary thing when someone comes to me for counseling, and hopes that they’ll get their needs met in a way that Mom and Dad didn’t meet them. I’m glad to play a minor role in re-building hope and trust, but I don’t have a fighting chance to meet their needs – at least, in the way they assume I can.
This, of course, is a uniquely Western phenomenon, born out of an Enlightenment promise of progress and fulfillment that has almost run its course, aided by cynicism of postmodernity. Even still, people are not willing to let go of the promise of certain fulfillment just yet. It’s hard to give up the conviction that happiness is within our reach. This is why addiction runs so rampant in the progressive West.
Soul care, you see, is not about meeting unmet needs (ultimately – of course, “needs” will be met), or getting whole, or achieving healing. It’s just that arrogant of us as Westerners to believe that. Counselors are not experts, nor can we ever pretend to be able to fix people, fill their gaping holes, or mend their wounds. We’re a mess, too. We’ve learned to join the chorus of lament as faithful friends along the way, and we’ve discovered a few tools that might help. These tools – empty chairs or collages, family sculpting or letter-writing – are helpful, but they are not magic. It’d be incredibly presumptuous to think that we could mend a broken heart.
People often ask me, “What is Christian counseling?” Whether the name Jesus is spoken or not, what we do is lead people into more honest living that ultimately begs the question, “I’m finished. What more can I do?” In other words, we lead them to the end of themselves, hoping that the miracle of all miracles happens – that they discover that there is nothing they can do to mend their broken hearts. Anything less than Jesus is but a drop of water in an endless desert.
Now, these drops of water – the things we go to in order to satisfy the thirst – while not ends in themselves, are signs. And these signs are powerful. They’re not powerful in their ability to satisfy. They cannot possibly satisfy our thirst, whether we look for satisfaction in a substance, a relationship, a religious ritual, or food. No, these things might cheer us a bit in the moment, but will ultimately leave us disappointed and empty. The power comes through listening into the disappointment. What was I looking for? What was I longing for?
A counseling relationship can be one such powerful sign. I cannot possibly be a Dad to a young man, but my presence can stir a longing which, if explored together, can lead to a more loving Father than I could ever be. In fact, this is part of why I love the New Exodus motif. Like Moses, we are guides on the journey. Like St. Paul, we provide a roadmap. Christ-followers debated about who had the best ‘magic Jesus pills’ back in the day – Paul, Apollos, Peter, etc. Paul said it well…it’s not about us. We’re happy to lead you down the path…but the path leads to Jesus. Relationships stir a longing. And though I’ve seen dozens of married couples for counseling over the years who thought marriage would satisfy the ache (or sex addicts who thought prostitutes would satisfy it, or co-dependents who thought helping would satisfy it…), it never, ever does. It cannot possibly make the ache go away.
We grow and mature (note: stop using the language “we get healed”) as we step more deeply into this ache and find beneath it desire. In this, we find that whatever our drug of choice might be, it is only a false or momentary panacea. One of my drugs of choice is reading. I’ve always hoped to find myself in a book, and I’ve spent hours with dead writers drinking their medicine. The journey has not been futile, as I’ve found that the books or words themselves don’t satisfy, but stir in me something more real. C.S. Lewis said it best in The Weight of Glory:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
What Lewis doesn’t say is that we should give up looking at our pasts, or reading books, or drinking wine, or enjoying sex, though in some cases we know these things can become self-destructive (addictive). What he proposes is that we take a look beneath them. If we do this, our hearts are inevitably broken, as we’ll need to grieve the loss of our false gods. But out of the brokenness, new life will come. Our hearts – constricted from our idols and addictions – will beat stronger and grow larger, longing more freely and fully for real life. Honesty will grow. Hope will grow. Relationships will grow, because we’re no longer looking for final satisfaction in them. Our pasts will stop enslaving us, as we stop trying to re-create our lives in the present (forgiveness). Out of the darkness comes light.
As I write this meditation, it’s Good Friday, and it strikes me that this is what we remember as we descend with Jesus through the liturgy of Good Friday, only to rise with Him on Easter. One last story might be appropriate. I saw a woman for counseling whose pain was so raw and desperate that she was literally carving into her arms. Already scarred, she’d continue to go back for more, hoping that by cutting on herself she might be able to control the deeper pain inside. Counseling, as it often does, was only making the pain greater, for her eyes were opened to see her past more honestly. Sexual abuse. Rape. Humiliation and mockery. No wonder she’d cut. I might too. Counseling, she hoped, would heal. It would be the magic pill, the panacea. She had heard I was good (oh, crap!). And she was beginning to doubt as the pain increased.
I’m not that good, and neither are you. But, I had the presence of mind (translate: Holy Spirit) to walk her, like Moses or Paul or some of my mentors/counselors walked me, further into the wilderness until she was exhausted and expended. “Nothing will help,” she said. “Not journaling, not empty chairs, not processing, not crying…I’m tortured.” And then Holy Week came, and a movie called The Passion of the Christ happened into theaters, by God’s providence. And so, I asked her to go to it with two good and safe friends. (Sometimes this is all a counselor can do).
And she watched Him cut. And she watched Him bleed.
A raw, guttural cry came after the movie, and she rocked and cried and ached and…confessed – “I’ve been trying to cut myself when You’ve been cut for me. I’ve been trying to heal myself when You suffered and bled for me. I’m so sorry.”
Cutting lost its power for her after that. That doesn’t mean she didn’t cut again, for it was habitual, an almost mindless reaction to internal pain. But, it lost its power to heal. And as she looked beneath the ache, she noticed a desire welling up to enter more deeply into His sufferings…and perhaps even the hope that emerges out of suffering…Easter hope.
She isn’t healed. She’d be the first to tell you. She is hopeful. And she still recommends me as a counselor. “He’s good,” she says, smiling, when she tells people.
She’s not talking about me.