Americans buy more self-help books than any other kind of book. There are a lot of good reasons for it. Self-improvement and problem solving are some of the goals we all strive to achieve and when someone says, "I know how," it's worth paying attention.
But sometimes life, well, life just sucks, and our problems can defy solution, even with the help of others. Then the limits of a self-help culture become apparent. Yes we can? No, in fact, sometimes we can't:
- The wheelchair is not going away.
- You were shamed and abused. The past cannot be altered.
- The job is gone. It's not coming back.
- The terminal diagnosis is just what it says, "terminal." It's the last, life-ending word from science that has no more answers.
As good as they can be, self-help strategies are about managing losses and points of pain. They are not about confronting the absolute limits of life, the places where things never snap back into place and can't be fixed.
When we confront those limits the spiritual choices that should have been obvious all along force themselves on us. How can we respond?
- We can allow despair to take hold and lose hope.
- We can buy another book, find a new guru.
- We can bank the grief and limp along.
- We can hold our breath waiting for the therapeutic strategies to snap back into place.
Or, we can give ourselves to God in the middle of the loose ends and shattered dreams.
Will life be different from the dream we were building? Yes. Will there be real losses or less than we hoped? Yes. But life is not about physical perfection and material prosperity. Life is about a journey into God, and what matters most is our capacity for intimacy and companionship with God—whatever the circumstances.
Contrary to what some critics of it have said, the Christian life is not about pie in the sky by and by. And, contrary to what a few preachers with painfully fixed smiles seem to imply, God is not a cosmic vending machine. Christian life is about a courageous, faithful giving of ourselves to God in the midst of life's broken, dog-eared existence.
As a dear friend of mine who has spent decades of her life in a wheelchair puts it, "Some of us are differently-abled, the rest are temporarily-abled." Any portrayal of the Christian message, then, that suggests otherwise betrays the message itself and exposes all of us despair. There are times when life simply sucks.
Where, then, does therapy take its place in the life of the church?
To the extent that therapy's categories allow us to understand ourselves more fully, it can be very helpful. Therapy can help us name and manage forces that often defeat us spiritually and don't fall easily under the label of "sin." But as useful as they are, therapeutic strategies can neither touch our deepest needs, nor provide the vocabulary to explain them.
A young man who sought me out for spiritual direction years ago had found an AA group that made his sobriety possible, but (as he put it) "I need more. I neither know who the ‘higher power' is in my life, nor what that ‘higher power' might want for me." To help people like this the church must own and use its own language for God, the meaning of life, the nature of the human predicament, and the spiritual dimensions of healing.
There are two places to begin:
First, the church needs to embrace life with unflinching honesty and admit that life is never whole and strong. We have wanted more to be nice than to be honest. People who are nice without being honest may feel better about themselves, but they are little or no help to people in pain. How often are we honest about the hard, uncomfortable spiritual struggles associated with divorce, sexual abuse, or alcoholism?
Second, we must take responsibility for articulating a spiritual response to those in need that embraces therapeutic realities, but isn't confined to them. It is not enough to host an AA group or support groups of other kinds, as important as those can be. The church doesn't exist to provide free group therapy or to simply organize others in meeting their own needs. It exists to provide a window into the larger spiritual challenges that people face and it cannot delegate that responsibility to others.
Third, the church must flesh out an understanding of its message that reaches out to people who find themselves in hard places.It is important to sit with people in their grief. It is also important to avoid offering simple, pat answers. But in reaction to simplistic solutions, some churches have made a virtue of saying nothing at all about the suffering people encounter.
Is there an irreducible mystery at the heart of every wounding or loss? Yes. Is it appropriate to run from crisis to crisis dispensing an explanation for the hard places in which people find themselves? No.