Rediscovering God in the Age of Therapy, Part I

This article was originally published as “Recovering God in the Age of Therapy” by Gary Steven Shogren, in Journal of Biblical Counseling 12, No. 1 (Fall 1993): 14-19.

Note: I wrote this as a lecture in 1992, to comment upon Christian literature of the 80s-90s. I have not attempted to update the examples, since they have retained most of their relevance after nearly decades.

To get a quick scan of our civilization, look no further than the nearest mall bookstore. Naturally, it will carry the standards – Bibles, dictionaries, paperback classics, Cliff Notes. But since its manager has stocked it full of the ideas that consumers are buying this season, it serves as a handy display panel for the collective mind. Without doubt you will notice that merchandise is moving briskly from “Psychology/Self-Help”; a glance at the titles will reveal what’s selling:

Peace, Love & Healing – Bodymind communication and the path to self-healing: an exploration

Forgive & Forget: Healing the hurts we don’t deserve

Healing the Shame that Binds You

People of the Lie: the hope for human healing evil

May it also be said that Christian bookstores are the mirrors of our subculture? Run through the titles on whatever shelf corresponds to Self-Help and try to get a feel for what Christians want to hear:

Healing for Damaged Emotions (text and workbook)

Changes that Heal – How to Understand your past to ensure a healthier future

Restoring the Christian Soul through Healing Prayer

Faith that Hurts – Faith that Heals, and so forth; all by evangelical authors, put out by Christian publishers.

Is it a fluke, or do we really yearn for the same higher good – for want of a better term, Inner Healing – as the world at large? We dig deeper, and the likelihood of mere coincidence fades away.

Not only do the covers sound remarkably similar, but the contents read alike. At times the same title (in my case, Forgive & Forget) is found in both stores. And if you are surprised to find “secular” books on a religious bookseller’s Psychology shelf, then you may be even more puzzled to find books from evangelical publishers in the shopping mall.

If we can judge the book by its cover, Christians have adopted “healing” as a catch-all metaphor, an apposite umbrella term for all that we may expect from God. We may guess at how that came about: Dr. Christian, fictitious born-again therapist, has reasoned in this way:

Psychologists regard the emotional dysfunction that people experience as personal (we’re alienated from our selves) and social (we’re cut off from others). This is fine as far as it goes, but as a Christian I am aware that we are also hurting spiritually, and our relationship to God is, in fact, key. Isn’t it better to say that we are disease with regard to self, socially in our human relationships, and furthermore spiritually in our relationship with God? What we genuinely need therefore is God’s healing grace in all three connections.

What is wrong with this picture? The problem lies not in the Doctor giving a bad response, but in his attempt to answer the wrong question, one which Christians had little input in framing. He is immersed in a culture in which psychiatry, psychology, religion, and the media are champions of a “disease model” for whatever disturbs you. A Christianized version of this could depict God as the Great Therapist who gives us healing on some ultimate (spiritual) plane. As is always the case, Bible verses can be brought in for proof.

Most attempts to integrate Scripture and Inner Healing are written by professional counselors who also have some level of regard for the Bible. I am the opposite, an exegete with an outsider’s interest in counseling. As such, may I offer that it is not enough to use the Bible to strike the more egregious errors of Inner Healing and then assume that whatever is left standing is biblical? The Bible does not exist merely to filter the impurities from other systems! While keeping that in mind, let’s pose the question in this way: if a Christian began with the system found in Scriptures, would he or she soon discover this “healing” paradigm? And if not, should we embrace it as our model of first choice?

In such a study three questions will need to be answered:

(1) how does the Bible present the language of healing?

(2) how do counselors use the terminology of healing?

(3) what implications does the biblical pattern have for Christian counselors?

I. THE BIBLE AND THE LANGUAGE OF HEALING

The myriad biblical references may be sorted into two general categories: first, “healing” in its primary sense is the restoration of people to bodily well-being. Second, “healing” in a metaphorical sense is the overall state of well-being found within the covenant. [1]

The bulk of the biblical verses invest “healing” with the meaning of physical restoration. When our Lord healed he eliminated the symptoms and reversed the damage already done. In his own words, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear” (Matt. 11:5a). [2] Of course, spiritual benefits accompanied the Lord’s healings, most notably the forgiveness of sins, but “healing” words are not applied to these spiritual blessings. [3]

Twice Jesus compares himself to a physician; early in his ministry, he predicts that the Nazarenes will taunt him, “Physician, heal yourself” (Luke 4:23). In fulfillment he was jeered at the cross: “he saved others; let him save himself…” (Luke 23:35): ironically, Jesus’ power would seem to fail him when he himself was dying. In another instance, Jesus counters those who despise his association with sinners, by saying “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick (Luke 5:31).” He then added the clarification, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (5:32).” No therapist to the sick was he; Jesus was making his ministry intelligible by noting that the place of the caring is at the side of those in need.

Many references to physical healing appear in the context of God’s covenant with Israel. Even before Moses ascends Mount Sinai, the Lord promises physical well-being to those who will obey his Law:

“If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases of the Egyptians, for I am the LORD who heals you (Exod. 15:26).”

These “diseases of the Egyptians” are the boils and other afflictions with which they were plagued. Yahweh-Rapha (“the LORD who heals”) reveals himself as the one who takes away the physiological ailments of Israel if they abide by the covenant.

The covenant renewal in Deuteronomy throws this relatedness of health and obedience into greater relief. Yahweh will bestow favor on the obedient, but the backslidden he will chasten with wasting disease, fever and inflammation, boils, tumors, festering sores, the itch, madness, blindness, and confusion of mind (Deut. 28:22, cf. the allusion to the diseases of the Egyptians in v. 27). Clearly, this will be no outbreak of psychosomatic symptoms generated by national guilt; rather the LORD will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring upon you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The LORD will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law until you are destroyed (Deut. 28:59-61). When Israel goes back to the covenant, it will return to the land from exile and find new prosperity and health (Deut. 30:1-10).

As both Testaments dramatize, it is absurd to place the immediate blame for every sickness on sin (see the example of Job). But the connection between sin and the loss of physical vitality does loom large in the Law [4] and the Psalms [5]: lapse from the covenant, and God may use sickness to jolt you back to reality. Thus David’s complaint is best understood as a chastising affliction:

O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. For your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down upon me. Because of your wrath there is no health in my body; my bones have no soundness because of my sin. (Psalm 38:1-3)

The other configuration of “healing” terminology concerns the enjoyment of a full range of blessings, not just physical health. These good things may be had by those who are right with God in the covenant. Common to both prophet and psalmist are reports that the Lord inflicts the penalties threatened in the covenant; then, when the nation repents, it is restored. Blessing replaces misfortune of every sort – agricultural, social, spiritual, physical – “when the LORD binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted (Isa. 30:26b).” [6] That same metaphor resurfaces in a handful of New Testament passages. In 1 Pet. 2:24 the apostle paraphrases Isaiah 53 to extend the blessings of the covenant to Gentiles: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” [7]

Why is “healing” an appropriate label for having peace with God? The reason is apparent – since physical vigor is one consequence of revival, then the removal of the curse and the renewal of sweeping blessings might with justice be termed “healing.”

We may sum up the biblical data with these observations:

(a) When the words for “healing” are used of the ministries of Jesus and the apostles, they invariably refer to the restoration of physical (not emotional) health.

(b) Under the terms of the Deuteronomic covenant, bodily affliction may be caused directly by God as chastisement for backsliding.

(c) From time to time, the fruits of conversion are called “healing.” “Healing” in its broader sense returns when God removes his chastising hand from the repentant and restores them to wholeness. And, while it is difficult to prove a negative, we may also note this down:

(d) “Healing” as the easing of inner pain – when that pain is not due to God’s chastisement – is not in the vocabulary of the biblical writers.

ENDNOTES:

[1] The Hebrew and Greek terms for healing are varied; in the OT the most common term is rapha with its cognates. Within the NT, iaomai (26x) and therapeuo (43x) are the most common verbs for healing; despite claims to the contrary within the etymological studies of the last century, the two verbs are interchangeable in meaning. The verb sozo (normally “to save”) can have the meaning of “healing” (Mark 5:23, James 5:15), as can its cognate diasozo (Matt. 14:36, Luke 7:3); these meanings are entirely distinct from their usage in other contexts with the meaning of “save.” katharizo may be used of “cleansing” of leprosy.

[2] Quotations are from the NIV; note that the covenantal name Yahweh is rendered as “the LORD.” Here is a complete listing of miraculous healings by Jesus and the apostles in the NT in which the verb “to heal” appears: therapeuo in Matt. 4:23-24, 8:7, 8:16, 9:35, 12:10, 15, 22, 14:14, 15:30, 17:18, 19:2, 21:14; Mark 1:34, 3:2, 3:10, 6:5, 13; Luke 4:40, 5:15, 6:18, 7:21, 8:2, 9:6, 13:14, 14:3; John 5:10; Acts 4:14, 5:16, 8:7, 28:9. iaomai in Matt 8:8, 13, 15:28; Mark 5:29; Luke 5:17, 6:18, 19, 7:7, 8:47, 9:11, 9:42, 14:4, 17:15, 22:51; John 4:47, 5:13; Acts 9:34, 10:38; 28:8. sozo appears in Acts 14:9, its cognate diasozo in Luke 7:3. James 5 uses sozo (v. 15) and iaomai (v. 16) when it instructs the church how to pray for the sick; cf. G. Shogren, “Will God Heal Us? – A Re-examination of James 5:14-16a,” in The Best in Theology, 1989 (Christianity Today, 1990); also available at https://openoureyeslord.wordpress.com/2010/10/09/will-god-heal-us-a-re-examination-of-james-514-16a/

[3] A possible exception may be Luke 4:18-19. Here Jesus quotes Isa. 61:1-2 as a prophecy of his ministry: “…He has sent me to proclaim…recovery of sight for the blind.” This refers either to the healing of literal blindness or to the removal of the spiritual blindness of sin. See the comments by J. Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, WBC: 35A (Dallas: Word, 1989), pp. 196-97. In the latter case, this metaphorical use of healing language falls under our second category, healing as the restoration to covenant blessings; in context it cannot be stretched to mean “inner healing.”

[4] Besides those we have cited see, for example, Deut. 32:39.

[5] For example, Psalm 6:2-3, 30:2-3, 32:3-4, 41:1-4, 107:20; cf. also Prov. 3:7-8.

[6] Among these passages one may note 2 Chron. 7:14 (“heal their land”), Psalm 147:2-3, Isa. 1:5-6, 30:26, Jer. 3:22, 14:17, 19, 30:17, 33:6-9, Hos. 11:3, 14:4, Mal. 4:2.

[7] Note also how the imagery of Ezekiel has impressed itself on the prophecy of the New Jerusalem: “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).”

PART II to follow

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I concur, my understanding of the bible is that the afflictions God is most concerned with aren’t dealt with using sessions, couches and counseling, rather; death to the old man, and being born again to the new.
    Good blog post, I found it by Googling “diseases of the Egyptians”.

    • Thanks, Jim, and good to have you aboard! Gary


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