Other parts in this series: Part 1 | Part 3
The True Story and the counter-story
In Part One, I introduced you to five people who struggle with typical “problems.” If you haven’t read that, do go back and start there. This section builds on what was said earlier.
Each of the five lifestyles earned a label for a person: addictive personality, eating disorder, OCD, bipolar, and so forth. But we saw how each one of us can identify with the things they do, think, and feel. You and I might be different in degree from Garrett and Sarah, but we aren’t different in kind. Lise, Matt, and Chandra are fellow strugglers, not bizarre aliens. We noticed how the Bible “normalizes” the seemingly abnormal, reinforcing awareness of our common humanity. And, finally, we took Psalm 23 and turned it upside down. The “antipsalm” mapped into the five lifestyles – and captured the madness in each of us. But the real Psalm takes us by the hand and walks with us into sanity.
If you’ve followed me so far, you might feel a question nagging at the back of your mind. Why don’t we hear more of this refreshing and realistic way to think about people? What’s the purpose of tagging people with diagnostic labels, of piling on the heavy freight of “disease” and “syndrome”? Why doesn’t the therapeutic establishment use human and humane terms to describe Garrett and the rest of our friends? Their stories describe things we can all understand and identify with. Why does God explain behavior, emotion, and the human heart in such a different way from the labels? And why do the therapeutic answers never offer anything remotely like the intimacy of Psalm 23?
The answer to these questions is complicated. But it boils down to two things.
First, if you face our problems for what they actually are, then you have to acknowledge the problem of evil. What’s wrong is much more serious than a sickness or syndrome. Evil operates on the inside – bad zeal and selfish ambition. And evils come at us from the outside: betrayal, false values, poor role models, shallow relationships, a body going out of sync, injury, aging, death. Both sin and suffering characterize the problem of evil. But the diagnostic labels (and street wisdom, and even our five friends) never mention the E-word. What distorts our lives? Evil. What breaks our lives. Evils, both inside and out. Something very dark and very complex is going on. Bad stuff comes at you, and bad stuff is an operating system inside you. No one can fail to see evidence of evil. You feel it. You participate. But people don’t want to name it for what it is. We might admit the evil of a Hitler or a suicide bomber killing innocent children. We fail to see the evils operating in normal problems.
Second, if you acknowledge the scope of the problem of evil, then you realize you need the Savior of the world. If evil infects us all, then someone not under the power of evil must bring light and life from outside the system of darkness and death. That person is Jesus Christ. Garrett’s consuming “I insist on my way” is a sin of the heart against God, who alone is King, whose will is that we love him utterly. Garrett needs what only Jesus can give, comprehensive forgiveness and a complete turnaround. Sarah’s endless striving up the ladder of idolatrous slenderness is a sin of the heart against God, who calls her to love him with all her heart. She needs powerful mercy. And so it is with Lise, Matt, and Chandra, each putting their own spin on our need for God. Like all human beings, they are by nature lost in the antipsalm. We need him to save us from the inner logic of our hearts. We need him to save us from suffering and death. If Garrett manages his temper a little better, if Sarah eats a bit more healthily, they’ve barely dented the surface of their problems and their need. They need mercies. They need a change of heart, a different Savior, a different Lord. They need Psalm 23. We all do.
But if you don’t want to need Jesus Christ, then you must deny the depth and scope of the problem of evil.
We sought to make sense of these five stories through God’s eyes. We approached people with troubles in the light of God’s mercies and power in Christ. His love is candid, patient, and effective. He intends that we each know our need, and find him true. Then we, too, grow more candid, patient, and effective in our love for other strugglers.
The persuasive voices in modern culture look through different eyes. The diagnostic system now in vogue makes problems seem smaller and solutions seem easier. It explains problems as genetics plus the social environment, with a nod in the direction of how you talk to yourself: “nature + nurture + self-talk.” It sounds so appealing. With the right medication, the right kind of friends, and the right affirmations to boost your self-confidence, you can fix your kind of syndrome. Is that so? The Savior of the world plays no part in the solution, because alienation from God plays no part in the problem.
There’s a wide gap between medical-sounding labels and the Bible’s straightforward teaching. There’s a wide gap between therapeutic solutions and self-sacrificing love. Why the gap?
It’s hard to face reality.
In T.S. Eliot’s words: “human kind cannot bear very much reality” (“Burnt Norton,” Part I). Here’s a longer answer, again in T. S. Eliot’s words. When church tells of Jesus, she tells people
… of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
– “Choruses from ‘The Rock,'” part VI
The man that is shadows every pretense. Goodness is our greatest need. There is darkness both outside and within. There is tender mercy where we least expect it. And there is the hard reality that without such mercy, you die. Jesus calls for change of heart.
How much the perfect systems would like to forget all that.