While secular America makes pop icons of therapists like Dr. Phil and Wayne Dyer, Christians have become remarkably resistant to introspection and analysis. We seem to think that if we have pains or grief, struggle to forgive, or need others’ help to overcome our past, we have lapsed in our faith. Church is the last place many Christians seek healing, because church culture evidently believes the faithful should heal like flipping a switch.
Therapist Stephen Arterburn isn’t having it. In Healing Is a Choice, he demonstrates how human beings heal, both alone and in community; and he exposes the lies we tell ourselves that prevent healing. He challenges Christians to lay down their burdens in ways both healthful and Scriptural. Most notably, he emphasizes ways psychology has recovered truths the prophets knew, but which church culture has suppressed for generations.
While ministers and evangelists try to resist this attitude, regular pew-dwellers have developed a guerrilla approach to mental health. People who struggle with grief and tragedy hear from fellow Christians that they must “forgive and forget,” they should stop dwelling on the past, and if they were strong in Christ, they would put trauma and loss behind them. Meanwhile, illnesses fester deep in troubled souls. Not surprisingly, many hurting people leave the church.
These attitudes persist even though both science and spirituality say that denying pain and resisting introspection only make the problems worse. Science has found that suffering denied does not go away. Time does not heal all wounds; indeed, infected wounds infected will get only worse until they kill their hosts. Refusal to forgive has catastrophic effects on human physiology, including fostering heart disease, nervous disorders, ulcers, and other measurable injuries.
The Bible has told us just these truths for millennia.
Why, then, do Christians persist in false dogma? We tell each other that real believers should have peace, no matter the circumstance. We cling furiously to the belief that if I have God, I need no human help. We await “Road to Damascus” moment before living the commandments. None of these positions have any biblical foundation. Human church culture impedes God’s promised healing and redemption.
Worst of all, Christianity has become a cozy escape from life’s hard challenges. Instead of urging us to change, to trust our trials to God, and to face life boldly, it inspires compliance and passivity. This hardly seems like the Living Water that inspired the Samaritan woman to share her joy with the village, or made the crippled man stand up and race around the Pool of Bethesda. Redemption should make us courageous, not isolated and languishing.
But therapeutic practice discovers, time and again, that Christian principles actually heal the sickened soul. Allowing ourselves to feel our griefs, like Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, frees us to face what comes after. Trusting in the community rather than in our own wisdom, like the apostles, gives us greater depth of insight. And serving others rather than our own appetites, as the commandments repeatedly stress, keeps us from festering, and heals the wounded soul.
Arterburn’s Christian therapeutic practices don’t just come out of the air. This revised edition of his bestselling guide includes hard lessons learned when Arterburn, an advocate of preserving marriage, survived a painful divorce. He could only endure the suffering this experience forced on him by applying the principles he’s long advocated for others. So he knows that, hard though his principles are, they return exactly the rewards he promises.
Admittedly, Arterburn’s autobiographical passages run a bit long. But he supplements them with object lessons from patients, the news and media, and the Bible. I especially appreciate the integrated workbook, with specific exercises that apply the chapters to you as a person. Arterburn requires those seeking healing to practice personal inventory, compile resources, and specifically identify the justifications we use to wall ourselves off from others.
Where many self-help books tend toward principles and abstraction, Arterburn demands we search ourselves and take concrete action. This is a doing book. And in challenging Christians to search ourselves, he challenges us to search our church. By living out these principles, and helping our fellow Christians live them out, we can take a step away from contemporary church culture, and toward living Christ’s mission in this world.
Arterburn doesn’t make his principles easy. He pushes readers to change. But as he says, the same sick mind that created our pain cannot create our healing. We Christians need his challenge. And I for one welcome it.