“The only army that shoots its wounded is the Christian army,” said the speaker, a psychologist who had just returned from an overseas ministry trip among missionaries. He summed up the philosophy of the group he worked with as:
1. We don’t have emotional problems. If any emotional difficulties appear to arise, simply deny having them.
2. If we fail to achieve this first ideal and can’t ignore a problem, strive to keep it from family members and never breathe a word of it outside the family.
3. If both of the first two steps fail, still don’t seek professional help.
I have been a Christian for 50 years, a physician for 29, and a psychiatrist for 15. Over this time I have observed these same attitudes throughout the church—among lay leaders, pastors, priests, charismatics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals alike. I have also found that many not only deny their problems but are intolerant of those with emotional difficulties. Many judge that others’ emotional problems are the direct result of personal sin. This is a harmful view.
At any one time, up to 15 percent of our population is experiencing significant emotional problems. For them our churches need to be sanctuaries of healing, not places where they must hide their wounds.
THE EMOTIONAL-HEALTH GOSPEL
Several years ago my daughter was battling leukemia. While lying in bed in the hospital, she received a letter, which read in part:
You do not know me personally, but I have seen you in church many times….I have interceded on your behalf and I know the Lord is going to heal you if you just let Him. Do not let Satan steal your life—do not let religious tradition rob you of what Jesus did on the cross—by His stripes we were healed.
The theology behind this letter reminded me of a bumper sticker I once saw: “Health and Prosperity: Your Divine Right.” The letter writer had bought into a “healing in the Atonement” theology that most mainstream evangelicals reject. According to this traditional faith-healing perspective, Christ’s atonement provides healing for the body and mind just as it offers forgiveness of sins for the soul. The writer meant well, but the letter created tremendous turmoil for my daughter.
While evangelicals have largely rejected “health and wealth” preaching—that faithful Christians will always prosper physically and financially—many hold to an insidious variation of that prosperity gospel. I call it the “emotional-health gospel.” The emotional-health gospel assumes that if you have repented of your sins, prayed correctly, and spent adequate time in God’s Word, you will have a sound mind and be free of emotional problems. Usually the theology behind the emotional-health gospel does not go so far as to locate emotional healing in the Atonement (though some do) but rather to redefine mental illnesses as “spiritual” or as character problems, which the church or the process of sanctification can handle on its own. The problem is, this is a false gospel, one that needlessly adds to the suffering of those already in turmoil.
This prejudice against those with emotional problems can be seen in churches across the nation on any Sunday morning. We pray publicly for the parishioner with cancer or a heart attack or pneumonia. But rarely will we pray publicly for Mary with severe depression, Charles with incapacitating panic attacks, or the minister’s son with schizophrenia. Our silence subtly conveys that these are not acceptable illnesses for Christians to have.
The emotional-health gospel is also communicated by some of our most listened-to leaders. I heard one national speaker make the point that “At the cross you can be made whole. Isaiah said that ‘through his stripes we are healed’ … not of physical suffering, which one day we will experience; we are healed of emotional and spiritual suffering at the cross of Jesus Christ.” In other words, a victorious Christian will be emotionally healthy. This so-called full gospel, which proclaims that healing of the body and mind is provided for all in the Atonement, casts a cruel judgment on the mentally ill.
Two authors widely read in evangelical circles, John MacArthur and Dave Hunt, also propagate views that, while sincerely held, I fear lead us to shoot our wounded. In his book Beyond Seduction, Hunt writes,
“The average Christian is not even aware that to consult a psychotherapist is much the same as turning oneself over to the priest of any other rival religion,” and, “There is no such thing as a mental illness; it is either a physical problem in the brain (such as a chemical imbalance or nutritional deficiency) or it is a moral or spiritual problem.”
MacArthur, in Our Sufficiency in Christ, presents the thesis that
“As Christians, we find complete sufficiency in Christ and his provisions for our needs.”
While I agree with his abstract principle, I disagree with how he narrows what are the proper “provisions.” A large portion of the book strongly criticizes psychotherapy as one of the “deadly influences that undermine your spiritual life.” He denounces “so-called Christian psychologists and psychiatrists who testified that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people’s deepest personal and emotional needs,” and he asserts, “There is no such thing as a ‘psychological problem’ unrelated to spiritual or physical causes. God supplies divine resources sufficient to meet all those needs completely.” Physically caused emotional problems, he adds, are rare, and referring to those who seek psychological help, he concludes: “Scripture hasn’t failed them—they’ve failed Scripture.”
A PLACE FOR PROFESSIONALS
When adherents of the emotional-health gospel say that every human problem is spiritual at root, they are undeniably right. Just as Adam’s fall in the garden was spiritual in nature, so in a very true sense the answer to every human problem—whether a broken leg or a burdened heart—is to be found in the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. The disease and corruption process set into motion by the Fall affected not only our physical bodies but our emotions as well, and we are just beginning to comprehend the many ways our bodies and minds have been affected by original sin and our fallen nature. Yet the issue is not whether our emotional problems are spiritual or not—all are, at some level—but how best to treat people experiencing these problems.
Original Sin Or Epigenetics Since there are innumerable passages of Scripture that clearly and unambiguously tell us that no person can bear the guilt (or innocence) of another, but will answer for their own sins and misdeeds and that our eternal destiny is determined by our conduct, not by inheritance, …we can not simply accept that we are sinners because Adam sinned. But, on the other hand, what we can not ignore is that Paul does make a direct connection between the sin of Adam and the fallen condition of the entire race. In Romans 5 Paul seems to be saying that something happened to all humanity because of Adam’s sin. Which begs the question… What exactly was it that Adam passed down to his descendants?
Many followers of the emotional-health gospel make the point that the church is, or at least should be, the expert in spiritual counseling, and I agree. Appropriate spiritual counseling will resolve issues such as salvation, forgiveness, personal morality, God’s will, the scriptural perspective on divorce, and more. It can also help some emotional difficulties. But many emotional or mental illnesses require more than a church support network can offer.
I know it sounds unscriptural to say that some individuals need more than the church can offer—but if my car needs the transmission replaced, do I expect the church to do it? Or if I break my leg, do I consult my pastor about it? For some reason, when it comes to emotional needs, we think the church should be able to meet them all. It can’t, and it isn’t supposed to. This is why the emotional-health gospel can do so much harm. People who need help are prevented from seeking it and often made to feel shame for having the problem.
Thankfully, more and more people in the Christian community are beginning to realize that some people need this extra help. If professionals and church leaders can recognize the value of each other’s roles, we will make progress in helping the wounded. Forty percent of all individuals who need emotional help seek it first from the church, and some of these will need to be referred to mental-health professionals. Church leaders should get to know Christian therapists in their communities so they can knowledgeably refer people with persistent emotional problems.
Lurking beneath the stigma that many Christians with mental and emotional problems face is a simple question: Can a Spirit-filled Christian have emotional problems? The emotional-health gospel overlooks the record of the Bible itself and church history, just as health-and-wealth gospels must ignore the history of not-so-rich saints (not to speak of Jesus himself).
The Reformer who penned “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Martin Luther, in 1527 wrote: “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost.” According to Luther’s famous biographer, Roland Bainton, Luther found himself “subject to recurrent periods of exaltation and depression of spirit.” Luther himself had written that “the content of the depressions was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me.”
The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon, who lit the fires of the nineteenth-century revival movement, struggled so severely with depression that he was forced to be absent from his pulpit for two to three months a year. In 1866 he told his congregation of his struggle: “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go [through].” He explained that during these depressions, “Every mental and spiritual labor…had to be carried on under protest of spirit.”
In the Bible we find that Moses, Elijah, Job, and Jeremiah suffered from depression, often to the point of being suicidal. Elijah’s miraculous victory over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 is followed in the next chapter with Elijah despondent and trembling with fear: “And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life…and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die” (1 Kings 19:3-4; all verses quoted from the NASB unless otherwise noted).
I’ve heard Elijah here described as being a coward or accused of having a grand old pity party. Such interpretations fail to see God’s compassionate response to his cry: “And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you’ ” (19:7). Far from criticizing him, the Lord allows him to rest and twice sends an angel to feed him.
Job cried out in the midst of his suffering, “I cannot eat for sighing; my groans pour out like water…. My life flies by—day after hopeless day….I hate my life…. For God has ground me down, and taken away my family…. But I search in vain. I seek him here, I seek him there, and cannot find him…. My heart is broken. Depression haunts my days. My weary nights are filled with pain…. I cry to you, O God, but you don’t answer me'” (3:23-24; 7:6, 16; 16:7; 23:8; 30:16-17, 20, LB). Notice that even with his depression, the Bible says, “In all this Job did not sin” (1:22). Moreover, God reproves Job’s friends for accusing Job of sin and for their “failure to speak rightly concerning my servant Job” (42:7-8).
So the answer to our question is a definite yes: Spirit-filled Christians can experience emotional problems.
Those who adhere to the emotional-health gospel often believe that negative emotions are in themselves sinful. We need to ask them how they account for the displays of Christ’s emotions. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he “began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death’ ” (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus, in coming to earth, took upon himself the form of a human with all its frailties, yet he did not sin.
Paul writes with affirmation, “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). Later he wrote, “We were afflicted on every side; conflicts without, fears within. But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Cor. 7:5-6).
Consider this thought experiment. Give me the most saintly person you know. If I were to administer certain medications of the right dosage, such as amphetamine, thyroid hormone, or insulin, I could virtually guarantee that I could make this saint anxious with at least one of these agents. Would such chemically induced anxiety be explained as a spiritual sin? What if the person’s own body had an abnormal amount of thyroid hormone or insulin and produced nervousness? I have seen patients in this precise predicament.
While the church should never condone willful sin, it must learn to accept that people within it may suffer from emotional symptoms that are not the result of personal unconfessed sin, as many proponents of the emotional-health gospel suggest. We must take seriously Paul’s injunction to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men” (1 Thess. 5:14).
CALLING WOUNDS SCRATCHES
Which brings us to the heart of the problem with the emotional-health gospel. Followers of the emotional-health gospel often have a nave understanding of the nature and cause of mental illness. Is mental illness always due to sin? Can people cure themselves by doing or thinking the right things? What role do chemicals and genetics play? What part can good, biblical counsel have in restoring people? How we answer these questions will dramatically skew how we deal with those suffering emotional problems.
It is tempting for people experiencing everyday stress and its accompanying anxiety or depression to think that those with severe emotional problems feel much the same as they do—only a little worse. After all, isn’t depression merely feeling blue or down, and anxiety just plain worry or nervousness?
One minister writing on depression stated that he was “depressed” for several days after a property contract had failed. He wrote, “As a basic rule I never sympathize with depressed people…. These people have already pitied themselves excessively, thus generating their depression. What they need is help, which comes by gently getting them to see that they are indulging in self-pity.” From the experiences of the many patients I have observed, I strongly doubt this author has experienced or understood clinical depression.
Recent studies of more than 11,000 individuals found depression to be more physically and socially disabling than arthritis, diabetes, lung disease, chronic back problems, hypertension, and gastrointestinal illnesses. The only more disabling medical problem was advanced coronary heart disease. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that individuals who have suffered both emotional illness and cancer report that their emotional illness caused them the greater pain.
Deep depression is not just self-pity. The level of anxiety of those with generalized anxiety and panic attacks is significant even during sleep. If you can imagine the anxiety of being on a hijacked airplane and seeing several co-passengers shot, you can begin to grasp the level of anxiety some people suffer for days at a time. Even people with moderate clinical depression (dysthymia) feel pain on their best days.
From a research perspective, the emerging answer to what causes emotional illness involves three components: nature (one’s biological, chemical, and genetic makeup), nurture (environment, circumstances, teachings), and personal choice (which can but does not necessarily include sinful choices). Not uncommonly, the cause is a combination of all three of these.
While research into these matters is still in its infancy, some conclusions are already clear. Any paradigm that judges all mental illnesses to have the same cause (whether it be “sinful choices” or chemical imbalances) is too simplistic. We are a complicated and dynamic amalgam of body and spirit, nurture and nature. Any attempt to reduce our holism dishonors the Craftsman who made us.
Let me provide some examples of how these factors interact. More than a decade ago I experienced a severe depression caused by an external event: a patient for whom I cared very much committed suicide. For over three months a devastating sense of doom kept me feeling desperate and hopeless. I forced myself to socialize, exercise, and think on positive things. I spent additional time in the Word and in prayer. But I couldn’t shake the depression until I asked for the help of a colleague. A circumstance in life (nurture) had thrown me into a tailspin I couldn’t handle any more than I could a car out of control. At the height of my depression, I am sure my brain chemistry was affected. Still, God chose to preserve me through talking with a colleague, which had the effect of restoring me emotionally and, theoretically, chemically.
While my depression had been triggered by an outside circumstance, Marty’s* was the result of a physical cause. A popular Big Ten athlete and a committed Christian, he encountered his first major depression the year after college. While at times he experienced tremendous highs, other times it took incredible effort for Marty to get up in the mornings, go to work, play with his young children, or go to church.
He was afraid of discussing his problem with friends because he believed it was a symptom of sin. He prayed, struggled, asked God to forgive him, and looked for what God might be teaching him. The only answers he heard from conference speakers and church leaders were prayer and confession. He wondered if demons caused his affliction.
When his problem was diagnosed as a physical one—bipolar disorder—I started him on lithium. The results produced an emotional stability that has lasted to this day—12 years so far. He is very active in his church and is involved in discipling a number of young men. But because of the stigma, only his wife and I know of his condition or that he is taking medication.
A number of studies point to a genetic origin of bipolar disorder. They show that while close relatives and the second fraternal twin have a 15 percent probability of acquiring the disease, the second identical twin has a 75 percent chance of acquiring it.
While Marty’s illness had an internal cause, it resulted in external behaviors. The same is true for the cure. Does the physical cause of his illness mean that he was not responsible for his behaviors? No. We all have to stand before God for what we have done. Yet independent of what one does, we know that a person with a bipolar disorder is helped by chemical therapy.
Pat* provides an example of the inadequacy of a rigid physical/spiritual distinction and of the interplay between nature, nurture, and personal choice. A vivacious 23-year-old secretary, she had been extremely healthy until her car blew a tire on a busy but unfamiliar Los Angeles street. When she noticed the graffiti on the walls and people of another ethnic group who seemed to be watching her every move, she grew frightened. Subsequently, whenever she drove more than a few miles from home, dreadful panic attacks ensued. She feared, she said, she would “go Loony Tunes” or die. These attacks soon began to control her life, even when she was in “places that were perfectly safe.” She also began to withdraw socially.
Her agoraphobia, as this kind of fear is called, had occurred in her family before. Her maternal grandmother and an aunt had experienced panic attacks, and her mother was afraid to ride elevators. As Pat sat in my office for her first appointment, she asked, “What is the cause of these attacks—physical or mental?”
“The answer is both,” I told her, explaining that these factors cannot easily be separated. Studies show that 7 percent of the population develop panic attacks (with or without agoraphobia) during their lifetime, and 25 percent among those with close relatives with the problem. Which raises the question: Does agoraphobia run in families because of genes or environment?
In 1946, it was observed that patients with panic attacks often have an intolerance to heavy exercising. Researchers found that during exercise the body normally produces the chemical sodium lactate, but at higher levels in those who suffered from panic disorders. In 1967, Ferris Pitts injected sodium lactate intravenously into individuals prone to panic and found that the injection usually brought on attacks similar to the patient’s worst attacks. The fact that individuals not subject to panic disorders in the first place did not develop attacks when given the sodium lactate pointed to a chemical difference in the individuals who experienced the panic attacks.
A later study showed that if patients with panic attacks were given certain medications, such as an antidepressant or a benzodiazapine tranquilizer, they greatly decreased or prevented panic attacks from developing when the sodium lactate was later injected. These are the medications we now use to help individuals such as Pat.
Interestingly, doctors also discovered that telling their patients to relax in order to relieve their anxiety usually did not work. In fact, for six out of ten patients, trying to relax actually brought on a panic attack.
With this medical evidence, it is obvious that we cannot attribute such panic attacks to wrong thinking or choice alone; there are clear underlying biological and chemical factors. The latest research shows that in anxiety disorders, the nerve endings overfire and excite the brain with chemicals called catecholamines. Medications we use to treat anxiety help reduce this overfiring to a normal level.
So what caused Pat’s panic disorder? Her history suggests a very strong genetic-biological vulnerability to develop panic attacks. The fact that her grandmother and mother often communicated their fears to Pat while she was growing up points to a developmental influence, as does her learned fear of neighborhoods painted with graffiti and populated with people of a different ethnicity than her own. The threatening experience of being stuck on that unfamiliar street provided the environmental trigger that precipitated her first attack.
Besides nature and nurture, a third part of the equation—personal choice—must be factored in to understand her attacks fully. Her later avoidance behaviors (such as not driving far from home) decreased Pat’s panic attacks for a time, but they also allowed her fear to fester and grow. Even after we talked about how avoidance can make panic worse, and I had encouraged her to take steps to counteract it, she had a hard time following through on the assignments. She also continued to feed her fears with the notion that she was going crazy. Such “catastrophizing” often leads to a debilitating fear of having panic attacks. Since agoraphobia increasingly incapacitated her, I recommended some medications that often help. To date she has refused them—another choice.
So are Pat’s problems caused by sin? If her pastor tells her simply to trust in the Lord, to pray more, and to meditate more on Scripture (all of which is generally very good advice), have we really understood or helped Pat with her problems?
WHAT THE WOUNDED NEED
An issue of Moody magazine several years ago addressed the debate over Christian counseling. A number of writers took a strong stand against it. But Joseph M. Stowell, president of Moody Bible Institute, offered the balanced view I am arguing for. He said, in part:
There is often a need for well-trained counselors to lead the broken to healing.
Does that mean the Scripture and the Spirit are not sufficient? No….
While much that is taught and practiced in secular counseling is unbiblical, it is also true that there are many helpful insights to be gleaned from this field….
We live in a season when life is increasingly complex and the fragility of precious souls is demonstrated by growing brokenness and complicated conflicts. We dare not waste their sorrow on the battlefield of careless counsel that violates biblical parameters or with simplistic, unqualified solutions that plunge them ultimately into deeper despair.
What the emotionally wounded need is for the body of Christ to be a place of love, acceptance, encouragement, forgiveness, and compassion. They need a place where Christ is lifted high and God’s Word is never compromised but also where there is openness to use all available methods of healing that are not contrary to his Word. This kind of environment will not only foster emotional growth, but it will make this healing effort a spiritual service pleasing to God.
Dwight L. Carlson, M.D., is the author of several books, including Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded? (IVP), from which this article has been adapted. He lives with his wife in Torrance, California.
The belief that professing Christians should gather together as members of a local church is waning in many sectors of Christianity today. Some feel that faith should not be “institutionalized” and should be a private matter between individuals, not something to be experienced in community.
Here are five reasons why I feel Christians should be members of a local church. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these reasons give Christians a biblical framework to think through why they should be members of a local church.
First, The Bible clearly teaches that God made a distinction between His people and the world (Lev 13:46; Number 5:3; Deut. 7:3). Christ says that entering the Kingdom of God means being bound to the Church “on earth” (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:17-19). The New Testament refers to some people being inside the church and some people being outside the church (1 Cor. 5:12-13). The church in Corinth consisted of a definite number of believers, such that Paul could speak of a punishment inflicted by the majority (2 Cor. 2:6). Not only does the New Testament speak of the reality of church membership, but its dozens of “one another” passages are written to local churches. The “one another” passages in the New Testament fill out our understanding of what church members should look like practically. Biblical church membership is important, because the church presents God’s witness to Himself in the world, and displays His glory. In fact, non-Christians should see in the lives of God’s changed people that God is holy and gracious and that His gospel is powerful for saving and transforming sinners.
Second, the Epistles were all written to local churches. A brief sampling of Paul’s epistles make this abundantly clear:
1 Corinthians 1:1-2,
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:”
2 Corinthians 1:1-2,
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia.”
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”
“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:”
1 Thessalonians 1:1-2,
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”
Third, Christ saves Christians to live in community with other believers. Christ calls believers to local church membership not just for our spiritual growth, but also so that they may use their spiritual gifts in the context of the local church.
Fourth, it was the model of the early church. Some people think that meeting together with other Christians is not important because the early Church only gathered in small groups in Acts 2:42-48. However, this view ignores history. As the Church continued to grow, they gathered together in large gatherings. There were small group meetings, but there were also large gatherings. Regardless if the local church meets in a building or in a home it doesn’t matter. The Church is comprised of people who have been regenerated by the work of the Spirit. The people of God are to gather to worship together in Spirit and Truth, to hear the preached Word, participate in communion, baptism, and then scatter to spread the Great Commission in their families, neighborhoods, cities, and to the nations.
While many people have a problem with the “local church” the Bible clearly teaches that professing Christians are to be members of local churches. While local churches may have many issues, the Church itself is purchased by Christ to be counted blameless. The members inside the Church are justified sinners, meaning they are made right with God through the blood of Jesus but still growing in Christ-like character.
Finally, there is no lone-ranger version of Christianity; we are called to Christian community. Those who object the loudest to this often think that they can be Christians and not be in the Church. From even a cursory examination of the Scriptures, the lone-ranger view of being a Christian is not biblical. Christ saves Christians to live in community with other believers. Christ calls believers to membership in the local church not only for their own spiritual growth but to use our spiritual gifts in the context of the local church.
WHY DOES CHRIST CALL CHRISTIANS TO LIVE IN COMMUNITY WITH OTHER CHRISTIANS?
Because it provides accountability and spiritual growth!
Because it is used to grow us in likeness to Jesus Christ!
Because it empowers believers to minister in and through their local churches in order to reach one’s community, city, nation and the world with the Gospel!
Christ doesn’t save sinners so they will live in isolation or be lone-rangers—He saves them so that they will be in community with one another, speaking the truth in love to one another, “one anothering” each other, and displaying forth His character and glory to a watching world.
Righteous lips are the delight of kings,
and they love him who speaks what is right., (Proverbs 16:13).
The politician promised so many wonderful things. His constituents wanted to put their faith in him. They kept hoping someone would come along who cared about their plight. Every time new promises had been made, the hopes of the people soared. Each time, though, their hopes were dashed to the ground, and the great talk dissolved into the wind. This time they hoped it would be different. They had to hold onto something. Promises were the best they could find. If even half the talk resulted in action, they would be a great deal better off than they were now.
Talk without action can be destructive. If we make a promise, we must be committed to following through. Jesus told the people of his day that they should not swear, because when they did not do what they said, it was a sin.
But I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:34-37).
It is good for us to commit ourselves to helping other people, but when we make empty promises, we are being cruel and unloving. It is through actions, not mere words that we show how much we care. Actions speak louder than words, and action done in love speak the truth of Christ in our lives. Besides, it has been said that one of the highest accolades is the comment, “if he says so, you can take it to the bank.”
Let us always strive to follow the example of Christ, saving our words until we are ready to act.
Dealing with difficult people not only tests our faith in God, but it also puts our witness on display. One biblical figure who responded well to difficult people was David, who triumphed over many offensive characters to become king of Israel.
When he was only a teenager, David encountered one of the most intimidating types of difficult people—the bully. Bullies can be found in the workplace, at home, and in schools, and they usually frighten us with their physical strength, authority, or some other advantage.
Goliath was a giant Philistine warrior who had terrorized the entire Israelite army with his size and his skill as a fighter. No one dared to meet this bully in combat, until David showed up.
Before facing Goliath, David had to deal with a critic, his own brother Eliab, who said:
“I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” (1 Samuel 17:28, NIV)
David ignored this critic because what Eliab said was a lie. That’s a good lesson for us. Turning his attention back to Goliath, David saw through the giant’s taunts. Even as a young shepherd, David understood what it meant to be a servant of God:
“All those here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17:47,NIV).
While we should not respond to bullies by hitting them in the head with a rock, we should remember that our strength is not in ourselves, but in the God who loves us. This can give us confidence to endure when our own resources are low.
Dealing with Difficult People: Time to Flee
Fighting a bully is not always the right course of action. Later, King Saul turned into a bully and chased David throughout the country, because Saul was jealous of him.
David chose to flee. Saul was the rightfully appointed king, and David would not battle him. He told Saul:
“And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds, so my hand will not touch you.’ “(1 Samuel 24:12-13, NIV)
At times we must flee from a bully in the workplace, on the street, or in an abusive relationship. This is not cowardice. It’s wise to retreat when we are unable to protect ourselves. Trusting God to exact justice takes great faith, which David had. He knew when to act himself, and when to flee and turn the matter over to the Lord.
Dealing with Difficult People: Coping with the Angry
Later in David’s life, the Amalekites had attacked the village of Ziklag, carrying off the wives and children of David’s army. Scripture says David and his men wept until they had no strength left.
Understandably the men were angry, but instead of being mad at the Amalekites, they blamed David:
“David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters.” (1 Samuel 30:6, NIV)
Often people take their anger out on us. Sometimes we deserve it, in which case an apology is needed, but usually the difficult person is frustrated in general and we are the handiest target. Striking back is not the solution:
“But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” (1 Samuel 30:6, NASB)
Turning to God when we’re attacked by an angry person gives us understanding, patience, and most of all, courage. Some suggest taking a deep breath or counting to ten, but the real answer is saying a quick prayer. David asked God what to do, was told to pursue the kidnappers, and he and his men rescued their families.
Dealing with angry people tests our witness. People are watching. We can lose our temper as well, or we can respond calmly and with love. David succeeded because he turned to the One stronger and wiser than himself. We can learn from his example.
Dealing with Difficult People: Looking in the Mirror
The most difficult person each of us has to deal with is our self. If we are honest enough to admit it, we cause ourselves more trouble than others do.
David was no different. He committed adultery with Bathsheba, then had her husband Uriah killed. When confronted with his crimes by Nathan the prophet, David admitted:
“I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13, NIV)
At times we need the help of a pastor or godly friend to help us see our situation clearly. In other cases, when we humbly ask God to show us the reason for our misery, he gently directs us to look in the mirror.
Then we need to do what David did: confess our sin to God and repent, knowing he always forgives and takes us back.
David had many faults, but he was the only person in the Bible God called “a man after my own heart.” (Acts 13:22, NIV) Why? Because David depended completely on God to direct his life, including dealing with difficult people.
We can’t control difficult people and we can’t change them, but with God’s guidance we can understand them better and find a way to cope with them.
Many times in my Christian walk I’ve tried to do something different and unique for the Lord. Something no ones ever said, done, or created. Most of the time I find myself in the same place, but everything’s already been said, done, or created… How can I ever say or do or create anything so inspired that it reaches people for the Kingdom? Who am I? I’m a nobody, with no influence, and with no formal education in anyway. Once in a while I’ll recognize that as a lie from the enemy, his sly little ploy to trap me into doing nothing. Right where he wants me, ineffective and not a threat to him and his plans. But what does the Word say about being inspired? As I went on a hunt for the Truth about His plans for the talents He’s given me, I wasn’t prepared for what I’d find. Or what would be laid on my heart…
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
In other words, I need to start listening to the Holy Spirit and quit listening to the lie that I’m not good/old/wise enough to serve my God. I am called to serve Him faithfully, considering all the great things He’s done for me. (1 Samuel 12:24)
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
This verse blows my excuse, “I don’t know what to say/do/create” right out of the water. I know this scripture is talking about prophecy, but I know everything has been produced by God; including the seed He’s planted in my heart. So why would I put a limit on His power to complete the work He’s started in me? (Philippians 1:6) Or believe that He hasn’t equipped me to do it? (2 Timothy 3:17)
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”
Now that I know God has a plan and a purpose for my life, all there is left to do is to figure out what it is and DO IT! Pray and fasting and reading His Word are always the way to go, but sometimes we find ourselves in the company of other Christians. (I know, it’s amazing right! That there are other people living in this same world, reading the same Word, crazy right?!) While encouraging each other, remember that people are fleshy beings and once in a while you’ll run into someone who’s had a bad day or isn’t fully committed to this walk. Avoiding ‘heathens’ can seem easy, but remember to keep your eyes out for wolves in sheep’s clothing too. (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22) (Hebrews 13:5-7) (Hebrews 10:24)
God’s will is simply that we live today for Him, giving our lives sacrificially to Him, and He in turn gets us to where He wants us to be and uses us as it pleases Him. We are to pray seeking God’s will and making ourselves available. If we have the desire to teach or even be a pastor or missionary….we should seek to determine if we have the God given ability. Then we wait ready for God to open a door or means to use the talent. If it is God’s will…the door will open and the means to use our God given gifts will present itself.
Finding the will of God is as I said in the beginning…it is quite simple. Finding God’s will comes when one lives his life daily for the Lord. It comes or is revealed as we obey God. That is God’s will…that we obey Him daily trusting in Him. We need to address our lives and through self examination determine is how we are living is in accord with the Word of God. It there is any sin or unfaithfulness in our lives we are to confess it and in repentance turn from it unto the Lord.
We should not concern ourselves with seeking God’s will in the sense of trying to know the future, but rather seek to obey God, and thereby be in His will. Ecclesiastes 12:13 after looking at all the follies and short comings of man says, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
We need to realize that God rarely lets us know the future and He has a reason for doing so. If we knew the future….it would be our natural reaction to work toward accomplishing it. But God does not want us to accomplish His will for us in the flesh and in our human power, but rather being dependent on Him….let Him bring about that will in our lives. Then what is accomplished will honor the Lord and He will be able to use us to reach others for Christ.