Tag: Ed Welch

What Should Pastors Do with Fear, Medication & Addiction

What Should Pastors Do with Fear, Medication & Addiction

What Should Pastors Do with Fear, Medication & Addiction

9Marks: You have written two books on the theme of fear, When People are Big and God is Small and Running Scared. Why is fear a theme you have focused on so much?

Ed Welch: As you look into the Bible on the subject of fear, the discussions are rich. There are dozens and dozens of books someone could write because it’s such beautiful material to access. That is ultimately, I think, the thing that gripped me with the material. One passage led to another to another to another, and I began to realize that God perseveres in speaking beautifully to people who struggle with fear. He speaks often to them.

9M: Should pastors give more thought to the topic of fear?

EW: I think that pastors should give attention to the Word and to the people in their congregation. As they study people in their congregation, they are going to find that people are filled with fear about what other people will think of them, about financial loss, and about multiple other things. Now, there are many places in Scripture that speak to these issues. And I hope that pastors will speak to people in their congregations who wrestle with fear.

9M: How do men and women experience fear differently?

EW: There does seem to be a gender difference in the way people think about fear. Most women can immediately connect it to their own lives, their children, fears of aloneness, and so on. Women just seem to have that immediate response to it. It makes sense. It captures them.

On the other hand, it takes more work for men to reckon with the issue of fear. There are a number of different reasons for that. One is, “Fear is for wimps” or “It’s a womanly kind of thing.” Let me speak personally. I want my wife to think I’m a strong man who has everything under control. When there’s a crisis I want to look really strong; like someone she can rely on. To talk about fear goes against the grain of most male thoughts. But fear is a universal phenomenon. We know from reading the first couple pages of Scripture that women don’t have the corner of the market on fear.

Where is it with men? It’s everywhere. Fear plays a role in the main male problems. For instance, anger is a common problem among men. What is anger? It’s the possibility that you could lose something. Something precious to you is in jeopardy, and there’s an aggressive response rather than fear response. But it’s the same thing: “Something that I love is in danger. What am I going to do about that?”

Look at men’s favorite compulsive and sinful behaviors. You have drugs and sex. Now, talk to most men and you’ll find people who are afraid they’re going to be found out. They are afraid they’re going to be left alone. They’re afraid they’re not going to be loved. I would suggest you can find fears wrapped around the majority of male sins. We can find fears and anxieties everywhere, but they do seem to have a particular gender expression.

9M: You’ve also written a book called Blame It on the Brain, distinguishing chemical imbalances, brain disorders, and disobedience. Is there such a thing as chemical imbalances and brain disorders that require medical treatment, or are you opposed to medication for depression?

EW: One of the enjoyable issues for us to consider biblically in this generation is the whole area of modern psychiatry and medications. There’s the delightful opportunity to see how the Scriptures speak to all the issues of life, even issues that weren’t anticipated by the biblical writers.

How do we bring the Scripture to bear? Let’s take the issue of medications. Are psychiatric medications sinful? Are they wise? Are they wrong? How should we view such things, especially when the Scripture doesn’t seem to speak about psychiatric medications in any particular chapter and verse? I think it’s an exegetical stretch to say that Scripture speaks against modern medication and that we cannot use it—period. Modern medication is trying to assuage some forms of suffering, and we certainly don’t oppose assuaging suffering. Rather, the Scriptures leave us in the category of wisdom—rooted in the fear of the Lord. Sometimes we might choose one thing, and sometimes we might choose another.

How do we make those kinds of decisions? You may say that there are two poles of thinking here. One pole says that medication is essential and that every pastor should be aware of psychiatric medications. The other is that medications are wrong and that they contaminate sanctification in the Christian church.

Both poles exist because they have important points to make. The important point on the no-medication side is that, when people take medication, they usually imbibe the worldview of modern psychiatry along with it. They begin to think in two tracks—a psychiatric track and a spiritual track. The spiritual track is the “stuff they get on Sunday.” The psychiatric track is “that’s where the action is because the psychiatric track owns our emotions.” People live their lives asking, “How do I feel today?” If they feel wretched and medication is able to help, then that’s where they will put their trust. The challenge for people taking medication is to think biblically and to not put their hope in medication. In that sense, the no-medication perspective is saying something very important. It is saying that we shouldn’t put our hope in psychiatric medication, but in Christ.

On the other hand, pastors really must know about psychiatric medications. We should listen to the problems that psychiatric medications are trying to address. When we do, we inevitably find a hybrid of spiritual and physical struggles.

We know that people taking psychiatric medications are suffering. If they are suffering, we must move towards them because Scripture says it’s imperative for us to encourage one another daily. There is no question about these things.

It is a complicated phenomenon, but I at least want to establish that both poles inevitably have a point. Those who speak for psychiatric medication have seen it alleviate (or at least lower the pitch) of certain kinds of sufferings in a person’s life. In that sense, we are very much for it.

9M: Are you opposed to medication for depression?

EW: I’ll answer in three parts. First, we need to consider the relationship between mind and body. You hear all kinds of discussions about chemical imbalances. The reality is that no diagnosis in modern psychiatry has a known physiological cause behind it. Psychiatry wants its diagnoses to be treated as traditional medical diseases, but at this point there is no known gene or chemical imbalance. That’s just the way it is.

But that doesn’t answer all our questions about medications, as if to say we shouldn’t use them. I suspect that in another 100 years psychiatry will find that there are chemical differences between schizophrenics and non-schizophrenics. They will find brain differences, and they will probably find genetic differences. Now, they will not find that that something like schizophrenia is purely a genetic or a physiological phenomenon. It’s a combination of things. But certainly there will be a more sophisticated understanding of the incredibly complex organ of the brain, and they will be able to distinguish between a schizophrenic and a non-schizophrenic brain. I’m anticipating that that’s the way psychiatric research will go.

I anticipate these developments from a biblical perspective because we understand from the Bible that people are embodied souls. Both soul and body have a particular contribution. The body brings particular strengths and weaknesses, while the soul brings particular allegiances—spiritual allegiances. Soul and body work together to create a whole person, but they can be distinguished. Biblically, therefore, we can anticipate that there is some sort of biochemical substrate behind an individuals’ particular strength or weakness.

Now this raises the question, how do we respond to all this in a godly way?

Second, we need to consider the question of what medications can do and cannot do. Medication has a certain limited field of work. It can never change our spiritual allegiances. It can’t make us love the Lord more. It can’t make us sin less. At best, it can alleviate some physical weaknesses that are especially bothersome. The spiritual allegiances of the human heart continue to be the most important issue in all of life, and it so happens that this is what pastors focus on. Now, pastors want to bring sensitivity to the strengths and weaknesses we all experience and to show compassion to psychiatric weaknesses in particular. But these weaknesses cannot make us sin, which is one of the really fine features of the way God has composed us.

What do we know about depression? Depression is at least a form of suffering, and medication in some people seems to alleviate the suffering. When it does, that’s a good thing. But we also know that there’s something deeper that all of us need to learn, which is learning to turn to Christ quickly in the midst of suffering.

There lies one of the dangers of medication, and the danger doesn’t arise out of psychiatry but out of the nature of the human heart. People latch onto different things to trust in. So the question is, how can we more quickly encourage one another to call out to the Lord for mercy and grace in the midst of trouble. That is what’s most important when we think about depression from a pastoral perspective.

Third, we need to consider the relationship between medication and sin. Here’s an illustration from a popular book on the medication Prozac. A man went to a physician for mild depression and also mentioned that he was involved in pornography. Neither the person nor the physician considered pornography to be a problem, but they both noted it. Since the man was depressed, the physician gave him Prozac. The guy came back in a month and, among other things, reported that was he wasn’t interested in pornography anymore. Well, that’s great, we say. Why battle pornography? We can just take a little Prozac.

Well, in that case, the Prozac was just another way of feeding this guy’s idol. The idol was, “I don’t want to feel lifeless. I want to feel a certain way, and I’m going to do everything I can to deal with that.” Finally, he found that Prozac could make him feel that way, so pornography no longer occupied the same central place. But we also know that Prozac will eventually follow the path of pornography, where he’ll try it, it won’t work, and he will move on to something else. So here’s a place where it looks like medication is helping someone to not sin. But I think there are other ways to interpret what has happened biblically.

9M: In seminary pastoral care classes, aspiring pastors are sometimes taught to distinguish between spiritual matters with which they are competent to deal and medical issues which they should refer to professionals. Is this good advice?

EW: Some seminaries communicate to the students, “Here are the things that are yours, and here are the things you have to refer to other people.” The things that belong to other people include all things medical and all things psychiatric. And the psychiatric includes the angst of life, the challenges of life, the troubles of life, and the relational difficulties of life. What’s left for pastors? Guilt, adultery, and murder are what’s left.

Perhaps a better way to consider all this would be to say, as you move pastorally towards people, know that you will find struggles; and struggles will be about sin and about suffering—a combination of the two.

When people are out in the wilderness, they wonder where God is. If there’s anything we know from people out in the wilderness, it is that they need the encouragement of God’s people. They need to be able to fix their eyes on Christ who is with them in the midst of their suffering. You move toward everybody—absolutely everyone—because sin and suffering encompass all of this.

What about medical problems? You move towards someone who has cancer. It’s a form of suffering, and we all know that we want to speak words of encouragement and point them to Christ in the midst of their suffering.

Psychiatric problems are the murky middle. Whether they are physiological or spiritual does not matter. It will involve both sin and suffering. We move toward them and we do the same thing we do with everybody else in our congregation by helping them to turn to Christ in a true and meaningful way. I think the Scripture has a simpler answer for seminary students and pastors. Someone is hurting over there. Somebody’s stuck in sin. We are called to move toward them.

9M: Can you talk about the materials that you have just written to facilitate a small of group around the problem of addictions?

EW: I’ve written a curriculum for people struggling with an addiction that is entitled Cross Roads. There is a picture in Proverbs where wisdom goes into the urine-drenched alleys. It goes out into the bad places and the hard places. My desire was to write a curriculum that made Scripture quickly accessible, inviting, and persuasive for people who struggle with addiction, live in the trenches, and might not even be Christians. The nice thing about addiction in our culture is that, for better or for worse, people talk about addictions as a spiritual problem. The word spiritual can be defined by people in very different ways, but at least it means that they expect you to talk about God.

I foresee the curriculum as being able to speak to people who have a profession of faith and people who don’t have a profession of faith. They just have to be willing to hear; that’s all. There is also a guide for the people who walk along with that person.

The goal is that it would be clear, accessible, persuasive, beautiful, hopeful, and that the gospel would be vibrant in the middle of it all.

Edward T. Welch, M.Div., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and faculty member at CCEF. He has counseled for over twenty-six years and has written many articles, booklets, and books including When People Are Big and God Is Small; Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave; Blame It on the Brain?; Depression: A Stubborn Darkness; and Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest. Dr. Welch’s newest release is a curriculum entitled Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addictions.

 

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Taking Your Soul to Task: One Example

Taking Your Soul to Task: One Example

Taking Your Soul to Task: One Example

Topics: Anger
Published: Oct 27, 2011

When we are stuck in sin there are a few angles to consider. The most obvious one is that we are stuck in sin because we like it more than we want to fight it. Rarely do we lash ourselves to the mast to avoid the Sirens’ song or threaten personal dismemberment when we go back to the same old idols. Jesus calls us to be merciless and violent with our lusts (Matt.11:12 KJV) yet when we do battle with something we love, our aim often becomes friendly borders rather than utter destruction.

Here is one example of a man who has had enough. He is sick of certain sins and has strategized how to put them to death. He has sent the following plan to his wife, pastor and a few friends. Granted, a list doesn’t lead to change in itself. Anyone can make a list. But a written list that is public is a fine start.

Here is his plan. I left the first part in his caps, which usually means that someone is angry and yelling, but in his case it is simply the way he likes to write his notes.

ANGER

  1. I HAVE A LOT MORE ANGER THAN I THINK I DO.
  2. I SPEND MORE TIME THINKING I’M A NICE GUY THAN REPENTING AND SEEKING HUMILITY.  I GIVE MYSELF MORE CREDIT THAN I DESERVE.
  3. WHEN I’M FEARFUL, I COVER IT WITH ANGER.
  4. WHEN I FEEL HOPELESS, I COVER IT WITH ANGER.
  5. I EXPECT OTHERS TO MOVE TOWARDS ME SO THAT I DON’T HAVE TO TAKE THE RISK OF BEING HURT OR REJECTED.  I RESPOND INSTEAD OF INITIATE.
  6. I DON’T LIKE BEING AT THE MERCY OF OTHERS, OR NEEDING THEIR MERCY & FORGIVENESS.
  7. WHEN I FEEL CRITICISED, I VIEW MYSELF AS A VICTIM AND ACT BOTH DEFENSIVELY AND OFFENSIVELY.  I DON’T TRUST THE ONE BEING CRITICAL, AND I DON’T TRUST THE SPIRIT TO BRING SOMETHING GOOD OUT OF TIMES WHEN I FEEL HURT.

Solutions

  1. Trust Jesus Christ & appreciate his mercy and grace towards me—first, foremost, always.
  2. Return kindness in the face of adversity—listen to criticism openly & without fear.
  3. Practice gratitude—to the Lord—to my wife. Value—expressions of love—patience & perseverance.
  4. Seek spiritual growth personally & with the influence & encouragement of others.
  5. Keep my promises—exercise integrity.
  6. Act authoritatively & responsibly—do the work. No more passivity.
  7. Speak the truth in love and without judgment.
  8. Remember that my spouse is hurting and vulnerable and needs empathy, compassion & encouragement.
  9. Love & respect my spouse & value her opinions.
  10. Talk openly & vulnerably.
  11. Pursue honesty.

 

I find that there are three levels of clarity. When I only think about something, my thoughts are embryonic and muddled. When I speak about it, my thoughts become clearer, though not always. When I write about it, I jump to a new level of clarity.

If there is any practical wisdom in this progression, then a written plan that is edited and witnessed by others is good practice and indicates that we are ready to take our souls to task.

Parents Ignore your Kids Feelings

Parents Ignore your Kids Feelings

Parents Ignore your Kids Feelings

Ed Welch

Yes, that’s what you might overhear among mental health professionals. The self-esteem revolution is officially over. The writing was on the wall when Baumeister identified that violent prisoners did not suffer from low self-esteem, rather they suffered from egoism. They thought too highly of themselves. As a result they had to seek revenge when someone showed them a hint of disrespect.1

Now it is stylish to bash our decades-long infatuation with self-esteem. Helicopter parenting, extreme parenting, parents who rebuke teachers for giving a B to their 3rd grader, parents who need their children to be happy and successful and will do anything to make them that way, teachers who embrace “different learning styles” to shield a 7th grader from the simple fact that he isn’t that great at math, parents who try to protect their children from all hurt and failure, and little league coaches who give life-sized trophies to every five-year-old—they are now being told to let the kids cry and let them learn how to deal with hard things. If there aren’t hard things in their lives, then feel free to impose some hardship. And, for crying out loud, stop trying to make your kids feel so special and learn how to say “no”! It’s time for them to earn their stripes.2

Perhaps the next decade will be filled with “Tots week with Bear Grylls,” cold showers in every locker room, and drill sergeants in elementary school classrooms.

Indeed, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing is new under the sun. It isn’t only the nutritionists who change their tune every five years. Pop psychology does the same.

The reality is that not every kid can be President. Kids are like the rest of us. We are good at some things, bad at others, and average at most. Wise people consider their strengths and weaknesses, and have sought the help of their critics so they don’t indulge in wishful thinking.

“An accurate self-image.” That’s what I remember John Bettler3 teaching almost thirty years ago. Not an inflated self-image, not a low-self image, but an accurate one. It sounded like heresy then. Now it is mainstream! And though John’s teaching was wise, he wasn’t ahead of his time, he was just thinking biblically about this topic. There is a timeless quality to that.

In other words, expect your biblical thinking about morality and human nature to have two distinctives: (1) parts of it will be ridiculed because it will be out of synch with popular thinking, and (2) parts of it will be received as ordinary wisdom that has broad, popular appeal (there are facets of God’s wisdom that are available to the naked eye). And—if you wait long enough—what was once ridiculed will often become ordinary.

What does this mean for parents? If you never really signed on with the self-esteem movement, then it means nothing. If, however, your parenting philosophy is that your children must always be happy, they have unlimited potential, they could be great at everything if it weren’t for that pesky algebra teacher and tennis coach, both of whom are blind to real talent, and your children live in a world where life is about them, then now is a good time to recalibrate your understanding of discipleship.

But you certainly can pay attention to your kids’ feelings.


1 Baumeister, Bushman and Campbell, “Self-esteem, narcissism and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or threatened egoism?” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol.7, no.1, Feb 2000, pp.26-29.

2 E.g., The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel; “How the cult of self-esteem is ruining our kids,” by Lori Gottlieb, The Altlantic Monthly, July/August 2011); and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

3 John Bettler was a co-founder of CCEF and Executive Director for more than 20 years.

My Version of Tuesdays with Morrie

My Version of Tuesdays with Morrie

My Version of Tuesdays with Morrie

Ed Welch

Tuesdays with Morrie, a 1997 book by Mitch Albom about his conversations with ALS patient Morrie Schwartz, made wisdom from our elders popular, especially if those elders are dying. There is something about dying that clarifies the mind and reveals what is especially important. My father-in-law Jack is my Morrie.

He was diagnosed with untreatable stomach cancer in March 2011, and our entire family had the opportunity to spend time with him in June.

I would sneak in for extra time.

I missed his recitation of Psalm 121, which he offered to family and friends a few weeks before, while he was recovering from unsuccessful chemotherapy. I was not going to miss anything else. That’s how I got to hear the sparrow story.

He began with a story he heard from a woman in his small group—he is a beloved small group leader at Saddleback Community Church in Southern California. While this woman was praying for her grandson, who is a medic in Afghanistan, she noticed an image of a cross shining on the wall in her room. She received this display as confirmation of God’s gracious care for her. Though some might take it as a coincidence, a random convergence of sunlight and errant window blinds, she understood it as a personal gift, which made Scripture even more personal to her.

When my father-in-law heard this story, he was blessed, yet it also reminded him that he never had such an experience, which was fine with him since he was persuaded that the Word of God was always personal. But still . . . .

Then the sparrow came to his window. He was having a bad day, so weak he was unable to move his head without exertion, and he was facing the window in his room. The sparrow sat on the wrought iron rail right outside the open window, and it started making a rumpus. The bird was immoveable. Single-mindedly committed to its chorus for an audience of one. A long chorus. Until the message became obvious.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matt.10:29-31)

Dad knew the passage. He probably preached on it a few times. But there are times when a passage becomes our own. The Lord doesn’t promise that he will personalize a passage just for us, but occasionally he does. And, as we might suspect, the Lord seems to take particular pleasure in personalizing passages for the sick. It is a way he shows compassion and gives hope.

And here is another feature of the ways of God. Though he is pleased to speak to one person, he also puts his glory on display for many. He spoke to my father-in-law, but he didn’t stop there. He took this sparrow’s song and passed it to me, and to my wife, who still cries when she thinks about it, and to my children, who cried when they heard it, and to my mother-in-law, and now—to you. This passage, in a vicarious way, has become our own. It has become God’s personal gift to all of us.

And the sparrow has returned.
Every day for a week.
Dad began to call it “my sparrow.”
And then Dad recited the words from this hymn to me.

I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches me.

What has helped you in your troubles?

What has helped you in your troubles?

What has helped you in your troubles?

Ed Welch

Take a random sample of Christians. Ask them a simple question: What was most helpful to you when you were going through trouble? This is what you will hear.

The #1 answer: people. People are the cause of most trouble; people are the salve for most trouble. A letter, a visit and then another visit, kind and understanding words, or a consistent presence: sitting next to you in church, dropping off a small gift, having a meal together, helping with chores around the house, reading to you, offering Scripture that was helpful to them in their trouble, downloading worship music for you. The list is endless. Love can be very creative in the way it comforts those who are hurting.

And please don’t think that the encouragement of others is merely a random act of kindness. All this mobilized love, of course, is from the Spirit who often gives gifts anonymously (Isaiah 45:1-5). The Suffering Servant has a soft spot for those who suffer. As a result, believers and unbelievers alike will usually find some comfort in the words and deeds of another person.

There is still more going on behind the scenes. We were created to be a people. The created intent of human beings was that we would move toward each other – not against and not away from. In this present era, in which selfishness and cruelty are still apparent, there are risks in moving toward other people, but we are guaranteed isolation and grief if we wall ourselves off. When we follow God’s created intent for us, life feels a bit more right and good. It feels more like home.

Notice the important implications of this. Grief can mistakenly believe that it wants to be alone. And, yes, there are some people who use that alone time well, but no one should stay there, no matter what grief tells you. When you are suffering, the last thing you might want to do is move toward other people such as a small group, a Sunday service, or an open invitation to someone’s home, but that is exactly when you should do it. A couple went through the loss of a child. The wife moved toward other people, including her husband. The husband isolated himself. The wife had it right, and it was only her hard and fast commitment to him that kept the marriage together. When suffering hits home and one spouse moves away from the other, the consequences to the relationship can be severe.

With this #1 answer in view, the escapist traditions stand out as being much more deleterious and doomed to fail. If, during hardships, you avoid people and move toward things and activities, you only intensify the pain, in which case you turn even more frequently to your preferred source of pseudo-comfort. Drugs and alcohol have been the most common and destructive of the away-from-people traditions, but there are many others: video games, pornography, spending money, and eating. Foolishness that isolates can also be very creative.

Move toward people. Move toward. Don’t move away. Don’t simply wait. Move toward. As you do you will be acting truly human, and that’s good.

The #2 answer: Scripture. The second most common comfort-in-trouble is Scripture. Some people might argue that it should be #1, and maybe it should, but a broad sample of people won’t mention it quite as often as the #1 answer. Both sources of help take some work. This one, however, takes a little more effort – effort that is decidedly less risky than #1, and effort that will end in encouragement.

One day a friend who was going through very deep waters was talking about how Scripture rescued her day after day. She would have ranked Scripture #1 and other people #2. She used the expression, “force feed,” and the phrase was immediately etched into my brain. I’ll probably forget my own name before I forget this.

She would wake up in the morning, prefer to do nothing, maybe get a cup of coffee or three. Her soul did not realize what it needed. So she would force feed. She didn’t always want to, but she always did it.

I have since met many more force feeders. They are a persistent group. They will feed on Scripture, like it or not, until they are satisfied, full, thankful, even joyous. They never settle for merely a bite. They keep eating until the encouragement and comfort of Christ lifts them up and they are ready to head out and lift up others.

You can discover these people in a few different ways. When you are going through your own struggles, notice who offers you Scripture. Now, some folks will offer you Scripture and it might sound trite or hollow. The problem could be your own, of course, but a force feeder will give you Scripture, perhaps even something as common as Romans 8:28, but it won’t sound mechanical. Instead, they are giving you a trusted friend. They are giving you the best gift they ever received. Ask them to tell you more.

The #3 answer? There is none, at least there is no consensus #3. Some people find great encouragement in the sacraments, others in music. So there are other items on the list. But the Spirit works through people, and the Spirit certainly works through Scripture. What more do we need?

EMDR and the Meaning of Suffering

EMDR and the Meaning of Suffering

EMDR and the Meaning of Suffering

Ed Welch

You already know what PTSD is – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is probably the best-known and most common psychiatric diagnosis. PTSD describes people who have experienced a very painful event and are stuck in that moment of past pain—its severity never fades.

What you may not know is that EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – is gradually becoming the preferred treatment for PTSD. As in most post-traumatic therapies, you are asked to invoke the past experience with all its power. What makes EMDR unique is, while keeping the traumatic memory in mind, you follow an object that moves from right to left across your visual field – a therapist’s fingers, for example – activating both hemispheres of your brain. The theory is that you are re-programming those neural snares, releasing past memories, pain, flashbacks, broken relationships, and irritability and replacing them with peace and tranquility.

Honest, I am not making this up.

As you can imagine, any treatment in which you wiggle your eyes at the right time and are cured will have its detractors, and EMDR has its share of critics. But the therapy not only persists; it becomes more popular.

How do you even begin to understand this? Any of a dozen strands in this topic could become someone’s life’s work. The challenge for biblical counseling is to develop a biblical overview of the field, which is daunting, especially when no immediate scripture references jump to mind.

Here is a possible starting point.

Suffering can never be reduced to mere physiological events that can be reprogrammed. Instead, suffering is connected to the meaning we ascribe to the events.

An African man loses his child. His American friends believe he is in denial and are astounded that he doesn’t grieve. His religion, however, is “that’s life,” so he has brief flashes of missing his son then moves on. Put a Hindu in the same situation and you get a different response. You will find grief, gifts to idols to appease angry gods, and attempts to receive better karma next time around. If you are a Christian you grieve with hope.

Here is a corollary to this starting point.

The more a therapy can be reduced to a series of steps, and the more it invokes a neurological reconfiguring, the more it assumes a mechanistic view of people and has lost any remnants of a soul. (By soul I mean that we live before God and, as a result, we live with basic questions about who we are, why we live, and how we live).

The problems with EMDR won’t be discovered in the research. Maybe it alleviates some pain, maybe it doesn’t work any better than the passage of time. The problems lie in its assumptions about people. It suggests that life simply impresses itself on our brains and bad events mess up our neurons. That is a shallow view of life and people.

Instead, life is a two-way street. The events of life impress themselves on us, and we impose meaning on them. What is a painful hardship in one culture might be normal and even inconsequential in another. The same event, even the same trauma, means different things to different people. Meanwhile, new experiences bring challenges to the way we make sense out of life. When it brings challenges that confront our old ways of seeing, we can become wobbly and must either reaffirm and deepen our old worldview, or the old shatters as we make way for something new.

So is it possible that some people get stuck in past pain? Yes. Does it make sense that victims of severe trauma and war veterans struggle with moving forward in daily life? Absolutely. But without addressing the meaning attributed to what happened, moving forward will continue to be hard.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. These are not events that would normally result in PTSD symptoms but show how what we believe impacts how we react.

Start with the loss of a spouse. That is hard for anyone, even if the relationship was difficult. But the pain tends to decrease over time. The sobs of the funeral are gradually overtaken by loneliness mingled with fond memories.

Now add guilt. The surviving spouse never said, “I love you.” The surviving spouse never said, “Will you forgive me?” Guilt will always cause grief to be both intense and enduring.

Now add a lifestyle in which you isolated yourself from other people. It was just you and your spouse. Now add that you think being single is intolerable.

Now add a conviction that your spouse did not trust Jesus and you will never be reunited, and be sure not to entrust your spouse to the Lord who judges justly.

These will make your loss staggering.

Or—start with the loss of a job.

Add an idolatrous attachment to it. You loved the reputation it brought and the power of your paycheck.
Add that the loss of the job is due to a dishonest manager, and you live with bitterness and thoughts of revenge.

The loss now becomes life-dominating.

If you are frozen in old painful events, check for the meaning that is attached to those events. Is there any baggage of guilt or anger? Look for whether or not you believe the Lord is in your suffering. Consider any myths that have attached themselves to your knowledge of God. For example, have you become a deist who believes that an impersonal God is idly on his throne and leaves the day-to-day business of earthly life to caprice or chance?

On the other hand, if you have said that Jesus is Lord and are persuaded that he is the Suffering Servant and Compassionate King, if you believe Romans 8:32 – He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all– how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? – then your confident hope is in the reigning Christ and you will by-no-means be stuck. Still familiar with grief? Yes. Grief that intensifies over time? No.

This still raises questions. For example, if certain techniques can lessen pain, even if they seem a little odd, can’t we use them? It is hard to imagine a good biblical argument against such a technique, unless the technique was illegal or immoral and EMDR is neither. But we could safely say this: be careful that in your quest for such techniques you do not skirt biblical ways of examining the unnecessary or even sinful attachments to your pain, and never fatigue in using suffering as a time to turn to and know the God whose love is more sophisticated than we know.