Simplistic Solutions

Just pray about it.

I did pray about it, hundreds of times, but my wife still had breast cancer. I’m not making that up. Maybe God was mad at me. Maybe I didn’t have enough faith.

Maybe it was more complicated than that.

I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life. Most of them I cannot remember. Some of them I’ve tried to forget. Many of us have been in churches and heard messages on stress, relationships and spirituality that offered solutions to our deepest pains. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we have to admit that most of the proposed wonder-cures never worked. Other people looked so happy and whole and we were left wondering if God hated us, or we were too sinful to be helped. Did everyone else get over their abuse and shame and horrendous childhood so quickly?

What is wrong with me?

I recently had an argument with a minister about sermons. Most of the ones I have heard don’t seem to play out in the real world. It seems easy on Saturday night to prepare three points on ‘how to fix your marriage or ‘how to quit sinning’. On Sunday he delivered the message, felt good about it, was complimented for it… but did it really change anything?

Really?

Many of us are discovering is that there are fewer easy solutions than we once imagined. People on stages, not just religious stages, love to offer half-baked solutions to hurting people who are suffering on a level that most of those hired guns cannot imagine. How many of us were sexually abused, molested, neglected, tainted, or damaged too deep for a quick cure? How often have we sat in church or tuned into Oprah or Phil only to be left feeling worse because we cannot get on board in less than an hour?

I remember watching the Cosby Show years ago. Every problem was wrapped up in twenty-two minutes. I vividly remember one episode where one of the perfect children decided to start drinking. Seven minutes later, hugging Bill on the couch, they promised they would stop. To this day I hate sweaters.

Then Roseanne came out. Now there was a family I could relate to. Life in that household was messy. Why did it feel so much more real?

The solutions to the problems we face are harder than we usually wish to acknowledge. Your issues can rarely be wrapped up in twenty-two minutes. Trite sermons and superstar speakers only reinforce the fact that most of us will only commit to half measures both in prescribing the cure and dealing with it. Foundational transformation takes years of pain and work. Yes work. You probably need to go deeper and darker than most of us are willing to go. You probably need to confess things that few of us are willing to confess. You need to open up a big can of worms.

Think I’m being dramatic? I interviewed a pastor once who said this, “I tell people that God forgives them and they need to forgive themselves, but how the hell do you do that? It’s not as easy as you think. What, should I pretend their shit never happened? I preach every week that change is easy and I pretend. I’m tired of glib answers.”

Talking about religion is usually not a great idea. The list of people who are going to tune me in about my lack of faith or understanding about their religious dynamic is probably long and heated. So let me tell you straight out – I’m not talking about your pastor or priest, or your church or healing center. I’m talking about someone else’s. Your pastor is a great counselor, it’s just the other ones that have 4-7 years of divinity school and two classes on counseling (neither of which is based on evidence-based practices). I know many religious leaders are amazing. I know I am speaking in generalities, I usually do.

Many of us who do this professionally have been shocked and saddened by clients who have been told to “just pray about it” when they told their religious practitioner that they had been raped or molested or (insert issue here). I have also been told, more times than I care to remember, that my client was unsure about seeing me because they wanted to see a ‘Christian counselor’ and were worried that I would undermine their beliefs. I am a person of faith, but because I do not work for a Christian counseling service and choose not to declare my personal beliefs, apparently some people think I will be tempted to drag them over to the dark side. The simple fact is that many counsellors/psychologists/psychiatrists are persons of faith, and those who are not have absolutely no interest in changing someone’s religious belief system unless they are fond of sacrificing chickens in my office.

I am not against Christian counsellors or even ministers helping people in need. I have a problem with anyone setting up vulnerable and fragile people for failure. I take issue with those who would, usually out of ignorance or prejudice, flippantly throw out half-baked solutions that leave wounded people feeling useless or worthless.

Not every issue can be solved in one session or with one act of faith. If you believe God can heal you I have absolutely no issue with that.

If God chooses not to, however, that’s where I come in.

11 thoughts on “Simplistic Solutions

  1. Love that last line!!!!!!!!!!! What an awesome, humble, reverent job description. I think often times the lesson or character that God is teaching us in our difficulties is not the one WE want to work on; hence the feeling that God isn’t responding. He’s responding all right, just not in the area we’ve assigned him to.

    God bless you, Scott, in your own journey as well as in your service to a hurting world.

    Alyson

  2. Hello Scott,

    I’m sad to hear about your wife’s breast cancer. I hope she is doing well.

    This is an interesting post, and I will try to avoid the temptation of including religious issues in my response. Instead, I would like to talk about spirituality. I’m sure many people know that the highest rates of both suicide and major depression belong to rich nations. How come poorer countries (very poor countries) report very low rates of these two problems? I think that it all has to do with the way most people are taught to think. Unfortunately, in developed/rich nations we are taught to think in terms of what we do not have; what we have loss; what we did not do; what we cannot control; what we should do; who we should be; what we cannot do for x, y, and z reasons…ok, after living like this for many years, who does not get depressed or wish they die? In poor, underdeveloped, or developing countries people think in terms of what they have; what they have gained; what they have done; what they can control; what they accomplished; who they could be; and what they can do.

    How interesting…the main goal in therapy and counseling is to help people modify their “shoulds” and unrealistic expectations of self and others, and their faulty logic, all of this by using ancient techniques originated in eastern cultures. Counselors and therapists try to help others heal, and the most effective therapies so far are the ones that focuses in spirituality. People get better when they start thinking the way the poor person from the poor country thinks.

    I’m not saying that we need to be poor to be happy, and I definitely do not need to be poor in a rich nation (what’s worse than that?) But it does help to be humble, and appreciate what we have, and to practice solidarity instead of competition…I do believe that we would feel less depressed that way…That’s my perception.

  3. Scott,
    Thank you for this. I can’t begin to explain or express the depth of pain and frustration that I have felt when dealing with fellow Christians who say and suggest that the depression and pain I experience are basically my own fault for not praying sincerely, because my faith is weak, or not trusting/believing God enough.

    I have tried all kinds of therapy, self-help, spiritual practices, and recovery methods. It’s still part of me and the embedded, repetitive programming is still operational. God is with me through it, I’m learning to recognize that. However, it still is as I still am.

    It has taken me over 20 years of living, learning, cycling, and regressing for me to even begin to be ready to face the deeper wounds and open them to healing. We’ll see how fast and how far I get from here.

    Kina

  4. This is how I got out of religion: if God was good, and God answered prayers, didn’t that make him equally responsible for the prayers he didn’t answer? Two patients side-by-side, both with churches praying for them. If one gets better and the other dies, doesn’t God have to answer for the one that dies? Religion answers that God works in mysterious ways and that everything happens for a reason, but I was in 6th grade with a classmate who lost his mom to breast cancer and there didn’t seem to be much reason in that. I could wrap my mind around a neutral, un-involved God. I could understand a kind of systematic plan through which we all get smarter and have the tools to make each-other’s lives more bearable. But I wasn’t going to pray to that systematic plan if the goal was to push me in one direction or the other. And my religious upbringing didn’t allow for a Deist approach to God.

    Anyway, I met too many Christians who had the attitude that Jesus died for our sins, so we might as well make the most of the sacrifice. Being able to call on Jesus as a get out of jail free card when you’d never done a day of hard work trying to earn the right to look at yourself in the eye with some measure of dignity… It was just yucky and wrong to me, even at 17.

    Never trust people who pursue positions of power. Never trust anyone with an easy answer. Especially don’t trust anyone who embodies both. The answers might be relatively simple – for me “show up” is a big one – but simple is not the same thing as easy.

  5. I believe that God can – and has – healed me. But that healing was never instantaneous. In every single instance, it involved lots of prayer, lots of pain, lots of work, lots of introspection, lots of time, and often counselling to help me gain or regain perspective (just one of the many ‘instruments’ God uses in the healing process). People think that God doesn’t heal if it’s a process but I believe God’s healing is especially evident through the process. He wants us to understand how we ended up where we were and what we need to do in order to get to where we want to be. It takes more faith to trust God through the process than it does for instantaneous deliverance. I’m a Christian but I do find that, in general, there’s a disconnect between reality and how the message is delivered in Christian circles. Christians are not super people, we’re flawed people who are saved by grace. It’s a great disservice when anything but that reality is projected. I am who I am today because of the sum of what I have been through and overcome, and I’ll continue to be a work in progress for the rest of my life. God will use my reality and testimony to make a difference in other people’s lives. Of that, I’m certain. Great post, Scott.

  6. I never much cared for those sitcoms like “Full House”, “The Cosby Show”, and others like it. Those were the shows that I grew up on, and they really sent the wrong message about family life. And then there was Roseanne. Roseanne was the closest thing to my family. A working-poor, dysfunctional, lower middle-class family that had so much conflict. The only difference is that you could tell that the family ultimately loved each other, despite everything.

    Maybe I misinterpret love due to a cultural skew on it. I don’t know. But, you’re right. Life is not that neat or clean. Especially the way that they wrap it up in a sermon or pre-marriage counseling. What a waste of my time, seriously. I had to attend these classes twice weekly for months in order to be married in a church. While some of it was useful, like the five major things that couples fight about that can make or break a marriage, most of it was rubbish. Most of it was not applicable to my relationship, because the pastor assumed that just because we were getting married less than a year into our romantic relationship, we didn’t know each other well enough to be prepared for marriage.

    The most major problems that occurred in my marriage wasn’t over the Big Five. It was the interferences of prior trauma and mental health issues. And that’s not something that anyone can prepare for. Not even with all of the faith in God and prayers ’round the clock.

  7. Hi Scott. Interesting you would write about this today. I am in the place in my memoir where I am about to begin to write about my spiritual journey. I entered the doors of a church for the first time as an adult two months after my brother killed himself. I was one broken young woman, seriously mentally ill. On the one hand, that place was the perfect incubator for my faith. On the other hand, what I was told about my mental illness almost pushed me over the edge and left me very confused most of the time. It made me think God didn’t love me, accept me, didn’t care about me, that I wasn’t “saved,” and that I was on my way to hell no matter what I tried to do to prevent it. So, I’m trying to get in touch with my memories and figure out how to write about that time. It was beautiful and scary, wonderful and horrible. It almost killed me more than once. I’m just glad I had tried all the other avenues already, because I may have turned away prematurely. Like you, I am a Christian who chooses to not work for a Christian counseling group or advertise this on any of my marketing materials. I believe Jesus cares about everyone and wants them to be healed, not just Christians. He cares about people, he died when we were yet sinners. I used to be a church secretary. In fact, I was a church secretary in about four different churches over the years as we moved about. I ALWAYS felt I was in the wrong place (for me). Jesus wanted me out in the world, reaching out to those who do not know him, not waiting in an office for people to wander in off the streets (not likely). Anyway, another great post Scott.

  8. Great post. I’m often frustrated at “Life Affirming” posts on the blogosphere that just say “the only thing stopping you is you” or similar. I know the intention is good, but it’s crass rubbish and deeply unhelpful – To a damaged mind it’s saying “your only sad/broken because you don’t try / pray / work hard enough” – How useful is that. I like people such as idolanuel.com – who tends to be more pragmatic, offering ideas for real things that might help – and yourself, because you’re honest about the fact that it’s going to be hard work.
    Life is hard work – achieving joy is hard work – love is hard work – but it’s the best paid work there is.

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