Wrestling with God

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There is a story in the Bible where God wrestles with Jacob (Genesis:22-32). He is alone, anxious and facing death by his brother. He has sent all of his family over to the other side of the river and there he meets a man/angel at night with whom he wrestles with. Before the match is ended Jacob demands a blessing and states that he will not let him go until he gets one. He receives a new name, not Jacob but Israel “because you have struggled with God, and with humans and have overcome.”

Recently I was unexpectedly admitted into the hospital for a surgery because of a serious infection that had developed quite rapidly. It was there that I was alone, at times praying desperate prayers of healing from an unbearable fever, prayers that a doctor would come and announce that my surgery was no longer delayed, and then prayers to be released home.

The struggles people come to in therapy are equally formidable, like a gash or a wound that ceases to heal instead of languishing in their pain or ignoring increasing symptoms someone decides to enter the battle of inner pain. They may face the taunts that were said to them earlier in life, the pain of loss or abuse, and struggle through them as they sit with a therapist. This struggle itself may bring up strong emotions, including anger, resentment that have not before been voiced.

I always wondered at the story of Jacob. How could someone have the audacity to struggle with God? How could he win? How did he know to ask for a blessing? Similarly, how do we know when is the right time to face the hurt that lingers? How do some overcome quickly and others take years to feel healing emotionally?

I recently took a course in Emotionally-Focused Therapy for Individuals. One primary thing I learned was that behind every emotion is a need- sometimes we need to ask a part of ourselves- or God for this to heal, just like the blessing that Jacob asked from God. From fear we may seek safety and reassurance. From sadness we may want comfort or love. On each of our journey I pray that we have the will to engage in the struggle through hard emotions and hard times and the courage seek the blessing that we need to heal.

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The Sins of our Fathers..

In the bible there are numerous passages in the old testament that reference later generations bearing the iniquity of their fathers (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9, Exodus 34:6-7).  When I first read these passages I thought this was especially cruel and unfair.  Why should those who have done nothing suffer because of the sins of others? 

What I realized recently while working in mental health is that this is not an order of divine punishment but it is the unfortunate effect of sin.  When a father sexually abuses his daughter she will likely suffer greatly in this life through the destruction of her self-image and sense of safety. She may have lifelong depression, borderline personality, an eating disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other verses point that one should not be punished for the sins of their abuser (Ezekial 18:20) in this present world.  Justice should be fair- the victim should not suffer further or be blamed.

Unfortunately blaming the victim has been part of our world for some time, even in Jesus’ time people were looking to understand suffering and illness and pinpoint to a person’s sin.  For example Jesus is asked whether it is the sin of the blind man or his parents that caused him to be blind from birth.  This seems so foreign today to us as we know that blindness is a generally a genetic condition. 

However mental illness is a good comparison: even counsellors find ourselves asking is it this person’s “negative thinking pattern” or “lack of motivation”,or  “personality traits” that keeps them ill or is it “genetic” or due to childhood abuse/trauma.  We want to know the why because we think it can free a person from its trap.

Jesus does not buy into this dualistic thinking as he simple states that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” This statement alone would seem to mock the person’s plight and suffering if Jesus did not continue to bring miraculous healing and restore the man’s sight.  In this instance Jesus not only cures the sight of one man but brought new perspective to the discliples, the man’s family, and the larger society on illness, sin, and God’s restoring love for broken and wounded people.

Judging from the last few posts you may start to understand that I am starting to feel the weight of trauma, hardship and suffering that I am beginning to witness in my work.  I grieve the sins of fathers, neighbors, mothers, grandparents, wars, and societies that have hurt children; I wish that children did not have to bear that heavy burden as alluded in the old testament.  I have clients that say they cannot remember anything from their childhood and call it “horrible” and “awful”.  Although Jesus does not join in the condemnation of parents or the blind man in the aforementioned story he does have strong words for those who harm children. 

 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. ” (Mark 9:42)

For all those affected by the sin of their fathers that I work with I hope to develop Jesus’ view of seeing them as instruments of God’s grace and restoration, rather than just as people I am “helping” or providing “psychoeducation”. I hope that Jesus’ promise for freedom could be experienced by all like the woman who had bled for twelve years. That those who have been hurt and metaphorically bleeding out could courageously reach forward to Jesus and receive these words “Daugther[son], your faith has healed you. God in peace and be freed from your suffering”.  (Mark 5:34).

 

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Healing from God and Healing from Therapy

The most visible part of Jesus’ ministry was healing people.  Jesus healed people of long-lasting illnesses, defects from birth, demon possession, raised the dead, but most of all he healed people from their sins.  His physical healing always had the ultimate message that pointed to the redemption of the whole person: body, soul and spirit.  I similarly believe that God has the power to heal today into our broken world- that this is his way of showing signs of his Kingdom for the lost and weary travellers of this earth.

There is a statistic from the World Health Organization that in 2030 depression will be the world’s largest health burden affecting more people than any other disease.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8230549.stm

If this will be the biggest disease burden of this world, where is Jesus and how is he working in the world for the healing of this condition?

We have often looked to Jesus to only heal physical symptoms, and are hesitant to ask God to heal mental health conditions, like depression.  This is in part because the church has viewed mental illness with stigma and often blames the individual, or family.  It is also because people, like myself, have prayed for the healing of people’s minds and addictions to no avail.  It is hard to find many stories of God’s miraculous healing of depression or schizophrenia.  Perhaps we lack faith, perhaps we do not fully understand the spiritual-socio-biological interactions of depression.

In fact, this is probably one of the main reasons that I decided to get training in social work and counselling.  I wanted more skills and tools to support, love, and promote the healing of people around me who struggled with trauma, addiction, and mental illness.  In our little church of about 20 or so people on any given Sunday I would guess that about 50% of people in the room have a diagnosed mental health condition (including substance abuse).  Some are on the paths to healing by slowly regaining independence and faith in God, while others feel like they haven’t received much relief from God or from therapy or medications.

I wish God would simply heal people, that we wouldn’t need psychotherapy or pharmaceuticals for mental health issues. I also wish that we did not need anti-retrovirals or chemotherapy for HIV/AIDS and cancer, but we do.

As a Christian therapist I have read the scientific research on mental illness.  Most medications address symptoms, rarely do they provide a cure and its’ success varies widely depending on the condition and the medication.  Similarly, psychotherapy fails many people and is not the cure-all for mental health issues although some forms of psychotherapy can provide lasting and improving relief from symptoms.  Interestingly enough, some people do not develop long-term symptoms and may have spontaneous remission or “natural” recovery with limited or no pharmaceutical or psychological interventions.

Prayer does not always cure.  The church regularly fails to care and love those struggling in their midst.  We fail to be a family of faith that treats each person as an equally beloved child of God.

Although the role of the therapist is not explicitly a biblical one, it will become increasingly important as the mental illness becomes more prevalent and recognized in our world.  Being a Christian therapist allows one to offer the most effective treatment available, while also believing in God’s ability to take care of a person in a way that reaches beyond what our limited understanding has discovered. Being intentionally open to the Holy Spirit, while using sound therapeutic judgement and evidence-based practices are ways of operating ethically and faithfully as a servant of Christ working within a secular medical system.

What are your experiences with mental illness and Christian faith/the church?

If you are a Christian therapist, how have you seen God work or what success have you seen within therapy?  What has surprised you?

What tension do you see between healing from God and healing from therapy?

A Vision

Today I had a vision/idea. I have had this idea in my head for some time, but it is now taking shape.

I’m very interested (like most social workers) in the influence of trauma in a person’s life.  The ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences- http://www.acestudy.org/) found that adverse Childhood experiences correlate with negative long-term health in generally, poor mental health and even a shorter life expectancy.

In the Downtown Eastside it is hard to find a person who has not experienced trauma.  It seems like drug addiction has become an ingrained coping method that effectively masks the emotional hurt of the past.  We have many health clinics, and outreach teams, and church missions in our area.  However, I wonder how much treatment for trauma is actually taking place.  Pharmaceuticals help with the pain, but I think there is more that can be done.

One of the obstacles in providing any kind of help here is the chaotic nature of people’s lives- which begs the question how much healing can take place within an environment that often recreates trauma (like our neighborhood).  I have a neighborhood friend who I have spent time on and off for the past 4 years.  It is hard to even make an appointment with her to do something fun like go swimming.  How hard would it for her to go to counselling, or even focus in a session?

I wonder about clinically skilled, but harm reduction outreach counselling for those at the margins?  Also: I would love to do this from a Christian perspective as I believe that God has an amazing unpredictable power to heal and comfort that even the best counsellor cannot provide.  I will have to do some research but for now I’m getting in touch with friends who are knowledgeable in this area of work in the neighborhood, and researching online.

I think especially the integration of horticultural and art therapy would be really neat to accompany first stage trauma treatment. When I say first stage trauma treatment I mean teaching skills like grounding, containment, and journalling (see Lori Haskell’s book http://www.camh.net/Publications/CAMH_Publications/first_stage_trauma_treatment.html).  This step is one that some suggest to provide a sense of safety and self-awareness  before they are ready to tackle intensive therapy for trauma like Cognitive Processing Therapy or EMDR with a skilled therapist.

An idea.  Let’s see where God takes it.  I love dreaming.