April 9 – Therapeutic Theology

April 9 – Therapeutic Theology

Matthew 28:20

“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

I arrived just as Virginia was lifted from the ambulance, strapped to a metal stretcher. When she saw me, her greeting was simply, “God has abandoned me.” Maybe you’d feel that way, too, if your husband had died an agonizing death of cancer less than a year before and this was the second accident since then, the one you knew intuitively had ended your driving forever. But her voice was flat- no wail of self-pity or angry accusation against God. It wasn’t the first time my sister felt God had abandoned her. Actually, she’s felt that way periodically over the past 20 years since Margie, the joy of her life and only daughter, was brutally killed. It didn’t help that the killer had done it before and had just been released from prison on the advice of a court-appointed psychiatrist. It didn’t make sense that a young woman who loved God and people so intensely should be snuffed out by a madman. Perhaps God abandoned her, too…[19]

I thought to myself, why do I never feel that way? Some judge that I have cause enough, but I never had those feelings. This started a train of thought about other things I’ve never felt: despondency, depression, anger with God, for example. Then I began to think of feelings I have had that I wish I hadn’t: unforgiveness, impatience, numbness of spirit. Why the difference? Perhaps theology has something to do with it.

Theology? More likely heredity or environment. Except that Virginia and I sprang from the same gene pool, were raised by the same parents. In fact, we’re much alike in personality. As I thought about my inner responses to external circumstances I was drawn irresistibly to the theology factor. What I truly believe seems to have set me up – both for success and for failure.

When asked to share some of my life experience for an audience of professional counselors, I thought, I’m no counselor. What could I contribute? I’ve spent my life at theological reflection, not psychological. But then I realized my life story might point up some of the interface between the two, an interface theologians seldom consider and an interface a counselor might be tempted to by-pass. So without trying to explicate how that interface should work for either theologian or psychologist, let me tell the story.

Consider a few positive examples from my life, then a few negative examples which seem to support the idea that theology played a major role in who I have become and continues to play a major role in what I am yet to become. You see, theology provides protection.

More than therapy to heal the broken, perhaps, theology builds an immune system to keep a person from breaking in the first place. Here’s how it worked for me.

I believe I’m finite. I didn’t always believe that. Oh, I would have admitted to finitude if asked, but my youthful self-confidence led me to believe I had a corner on the truth. Then, in my early twenties I entered the dark tunnel of agnosticism – from knowing “everything” to knowing nothing for sure, especially about God and his Book. I wasn’t arrogant, affirming that no god existed, just that I, at least, couldn’t find him. When, by God’s grace, I emerged from that dark tunnel I had great confidence in the basics: that God is, that the Savior actually saves, that God has purpose for my life. But I was shorn of any pretense of infallibility about the details. My expectancies – for myself and others – were lowered to the realities of human finitude.

I exulted in the confidence of what God had revealed for sure – so sure that all believers of all time would affirm it. But I concluded that most things I’d never figure out no matter how long I investigated and contemplated- things about God’s infinities, and things about my finitude. Like the meanings of my past, the hopes of my future, the reasons for my circumstances, the goings-on of my inner self. I’m comfortable with that ambiguity about life, now, though I recognize others may not be. Some seem to need to have everything settled for sure.

For an inquisitive thinker and an intense activist, the realization of one’s finitude can be a marvelous relaxant and stabilizer. Besides, lowered expectancies of oneself is a doorway to making room for others. Maybe they’re finite, too- and in a different configuration, yet! That realization could make a peace-maker out of a person. For example, when Mack set out to get rid of me as leader of the ministry, I didn’t have to try to “be good” and not get angry, fight back, or hold a grudge against him. After all, he saw things differently than I. Besides, maybe he was right. I didn’t think so, but neither did I conclude he was devilish. Our finitudes had clashed and we both thought we were doing God’s own service. My theology had protected me in the crisis.

I believe I’m fallen. And so are others. So I expect them to behave that way and that helps make allowances for their failures, which doesn’t come to me naturally. What comes naturally is to be easy on myself and hard on the other fellow. So it’s a trick to be realistic about my fallenness without justifying my own ungodly behavior because I’ve been easing off on the other fellow. I haven’t figured out all the ramifications of the doctrine of the fall for protecting me from wrong thinking about myself and others, but on the larger scale, that doctrine has been a powerful deliverer in my life.

Here’s how. The whole of creation is under the curse of the fall and I’m not exempt, by being loved of God, from the consequences of living in a world of vicious cancer and violent winds. Nor from a world of finite and fallen people who inflict harm on me, wittingly or unwittingly. I expect the worst and rejoice when, by God’s grace, it usually doesn’t happen! Sometimes when I wake in the morning I muse, Lord, lots of folks died last night. Why not me? At my stage of life so many of my dearest family and friends suffer painful, debilitating illness and agonizing death. Why not I? That’s the only reasonable “why” question for one who lives in a fallen world.

I don’t want to oversimplify the problem of evil; a whole complex of theological issues intertwine. For example, if God made his own people exempt from the human condition, who wouldn’t become a believer? But what kind of believer would they become? Again, when does God heal and to what end? For what purpose does God protect or remove the protection? The theological questions seem endless, especially when faced with personal tragedy, but the bottom line for me is this: I’m fallen and so is my world. Not, “why me, Lord?” when trouble strikes, but “why not me, Lord?” when it so often misses.

Muriel was blessed with eternal youth- looking forty when she was actually 55. But that’s still far too young to fall before Alzheimer’s, the disease of the old. “Early onset” they called it in clinically sterile terminology. Early onset of what? Of grief for me who must watch the vibrant, creative, sparkling person I knew dimming out. No grief for her, however, except for momentary frustrations quickly forgotten- she never knew what was happening.

So, why us, Lord? There are various theories. One alumnus said it was God’s judgement on me for allowing contemporary Christian music on our radio station. I don’t feel guilty about that but I do know circumstances contrary to our desires are always intended to make us more like Jesus, and God has surely used these two decades of lingering grief to develop in me several deficiencies in my model-of-Jesus’ role in life. Perhaps God wanted new leadership at Columbia International University, though the Board and administrators didn’t buy that theory. Of late I’ve begun to wonder if the Lord put me under “house arrest” so I’d do something my busy life didn’t allow much of: writing books and articles. Of course, whatever other purposes God has in sending or permitting adversity, there is always the purpose of bringing God glory, either through his mighty deliverance from suffering or his mighty deliverance in suffering. And that he has done in wonderful ways I’ll never fully understand. So, it’s obvious I have contemplated the “why?” question.

But why have I not fretted over the answer? Why have I not demanded healing from God or frantically pursued the many cures friends and strangers have suggested? The bottom line is this: we live in a fallen world- what else did you expect? Theology protects from destructive inner turmoil. How about you? Wrestling with feeling abandoned? Or wondering why? We may know some of the answers, but mystery is God’s glory. We are finite, He is not.

[19] This story is included with permission from the surviving family.

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