The theory of personality dealing with the Psychoanalytic Social Theory was developed like many psychological theories: to observe a natural problem in human life and find a solution to gaining a healthy identity or idea of personhood. This theory was developed partly by Karen Horney and is perhaps one of the best theories of neurosis we have today.
First, in the presenting of her theory, Horney offered a different way of viewing neurosis. She saw it as much more continuous with normal human life than did most of the previous theorists. Specifically, she saw neurosis as an attempt to make life endurable, as a way of interpersonal control and coping. This is, of course, what we all strive to do on a daily basis, only while most of us seem to be doing alright, the neurotic seems to be sinking fast. Second, the neurotic’s need is much more intense, and he or she will experience great anxiety if the need is not met, or even if it appears that it might not be met in the future. It is this failure to have one’s “needs” not met, of course, which leads to the unrealistic nature of the need and the extremely unstable identity of an individual. Neurotics make what they perceive to be needs central to their very existence.
Horney greatly emphasized cultural influences as the primary basis for both neurotic and normal personality development. She saw modern culture as being based on competition among individuals. That the competitiveness of today’s societies and the basic hostility it generates result in feelings of isolation. According to Horney, those feelings of being alone in a potentially hostile world begin to intensify the needs for affection, which, in turn, cause people to overvalue love. The result of this is many people believing that love and affection will be the solution to all of their problems. While genuine love can, of course, be a healthy, stabling experience, the desperate illusion of need for what is a false love can provide a fertile ground for the development of neuroses.
Horney believed that neurotic conflict can stem from almost any developmental stage, but that childhood is the age from which the vast majority of problems arise. She hypothesized that a difficult childhood is primarily responsible for neurotic needs. Horney believed that “each person begins life with the potential for healthy development, but like other living organisms, people need favorable conditions for growth. These conditions must include a warm and loving environment yet one that is not overly permissive.”
Horney’s theory places the blameworthiness for the development of either neurotic or healthy human personality on culture, especially early childhood experiences within home life and society. However, there is another type of psychological theory and idea of counseling that would claim the cause of an individual’s development of personality goes even deeper than that. In this world, there are only three types of counseling available to deal with human problems. This has always been true, and always will be.
There are: secular psychotherapy, “integrated faith” counseling, and authentic Biblical counseling. The first, secular psychotherapy, consists of the field of psychology and humanistic approaches to people’s difficulties in life. The second, “integrated faith” counseling, in essence, attempts to blend together Scriptures, religious texts, and secular psychology in order to help people. The third, authentic Biblical counseling, relies exclusively upon the Truth and power of God’s Word as authoritative for counseling human problems as guided by God’s Holy Spirit. (It is important to mention that Biblical Counseling does not view or perceive the supplement of medication to help offset what could be described as chemical imbalances in the person as wrong or harmful. Instead, it would emphasize that drugs are not the primary source of hope, treatment, or cure, but are common grace tools to be used to combat this fallen world, with Scripture as the sole authority pointing towards what is our true hope.) As one can see, however, these three categories can really simply be reduced to just two: integrated-secular psychotherapy and Biblical counseling.
Scripture tells us not to trust in the words, knowledge, wisdom, power, or strength of man. It tells us that all truth is God’s truth, all good things come from God, and the real beginning of knowledge starts with a healthy fear of the Lord. Any knowledge that does not encourage one to glorify and worship God is not fully or rightly understood knowledge. All truth exists to make God known, loved, and shown. If it does not have those three effects it is not known rightly and should not be celebrated as a virtue.
So, while this theory is helpful, in light of a Christian worldview, it drastically fails to truly find a permanent solution to obtaining a healthy identity or idea of personhood. Even if one were to meet all ten of their neurotic needs, the individual would still be left in a very dangerous position that would be susceptible to multiple potential problems. This remaining peril is due to the personal, social, and cosmic consequences of sin. While sin is often thought of as the “breaking of divine rules,” the very first of the Ten Commandment is to “have no other gods before Me. The famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard defined it this way: “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God. . . . Faith is: that the self in being itself and wanting to be itself is grounded transparently in God.”
Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, put it this way, “Sin arises when things that are a minor good are pursued as though they were the most important goals in life. If money or affection or power are sought in disproportionate, obsessive ways, then sin occurs. And that sin is magnified when, for the lesser goods, we fail to pursue the highest good and the finest goals. So when we ask ourselves why, in a given situation, we committed a sin, the answer is usually one of two things. Either we wanted to obtain something we didn’t have, or we feared losing something we had. . . . How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose… You drove them from me… You, the Sovereign Joy!”
Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from Him. Sin then, in a sense, is not negative, but affirmative. This being that we are not sinners because we sin, but sin because we are sinners. Sin also always tends to make us blind to our faults. We need community to stop us from deceiving ourselves that what we are doing is not so bad after all. We need a friend to help us overcome our proclivity towards low self-image, inflated self-importance, selfishness, pride, our deceitful nature, our dangerous fantasies, and so much else.
Horney would most likely agree that everyone gets their identity, their sense of being distinct and valuable, from somewhere or something. Kierkegaard goes so far as to assert that human beings were made not only to believe in God in some general way, but to love Him supremely, center their lives on Him above anything else, and build their very identities on Him. Anything other than this, as Scripture teaches and Kierkegaard affirms philosophically, is sin. Therefore, according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things; it is birthed out of a disordered love. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship with God.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his book ‘Twilight of Idols’ that “There are more idols in the world than there are realities.” What many people call “psychological problems” are simple issues of idolatry. “Perfectionism, workaholism, chronic indecisiveness, the need to control the lives of others – all of these stem from making good things into idols that then drive us into the ground as we try to appease them.” A simple definition of idolatry is taking some “incomplete joy of this world” and building your entire life upon it.
Sin is the foundational cause behind our unhealthy identities and the Bible tells us that we are totally depraved by our very fallen nature. Sin has corrupted the mind, so that one does not think God’s thoughts; sin has corrupted the will, so that one does not desire God’s desires; it has corrupted mankind’s emotions, so that one does not feel what God feels; it has corrupted the body, so that one does not experience the health that God originally intended for us; it has corrupted mankind’s relationship with God and other people, so that one is separated by sin; and sin has corrupted human behavior, which includes worship of created things rather than right worship of the Creator. Scripture also tells us that all of man’s sin comes from the very core of his being, or what the Bible calls his heart. Horney’s research seems to also reflect this truth: that as human beings, our need for worth is so powerful that whatever we base our identity and value on we essentially “deify.” We will look to it with all the passion and intensity of worship and devotion, even if we think ourselves as highly irreligious.
Paul summarizes what sin does to all of us in his second letter to the church in Corinth, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that One has died for all, therefore all have died; and He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.” (5:14-15)
This idea of a fallen, broken nature in humanity from ones birth implies that all are inflicted with sin and wrestle with it from day one. Sin turns us in on ourselves. Sin makes us shrink our lives to the narrow confines of our own little self-defined world. Sin causes us to shrink our focus, motivation, and concern to the size of our own wants, needs, and feelings. Sin causes all of us to be way too self-aware and self-important in our own eyes. Sin causes us to be offended most by offenses against us and to be concerned most for what concerns us. Sin causes us to dream selfish dreams and to plan self-oriented plans. Because of sin, we really do love us, and we have a wonderful plan for our own lives.
What all this means is that sin is essentially antisocial. We don’t really have time to love others, in the purest sense of what that means, because we are too busy loving ourselves. What we actually want is for others to love us as much as we love ourselves, and if they were willing to do that, we will all have a wonderful relationship. So we try to co-op our friends and family into willing submission to the plans and purposes of our claustrophobic kingdom of one.
The Bible clearly teaches that one has only the choice between God and idolatry. For if one denies God, they are worshipping some things of this world in the belief that one sees them only as such, but in fact, though unknown to oneself imagining the attributes of Divinity in them. Everyone is building their identity on something and must find some way to justify their existence in order to stave off the universal fear that they have no purpose. Horney seems to realize much of this just from observing the natural behavior of humans. She would probably agree that in more traditional cultures, the sense of worth and identity comes from fulfilling duties to family and giving service to society, while in our contemporary individualistic culture, people tend to look to work or educational achievements, social status, talents, or love relationships.
However, identity apart from God is inherently unstable and a life not centered on God leads to emptiness. If one loses their identity trough the failings of someone else they will not just become resentful, but bitter. If one loses their identity through their own failings, they will hate or despise themselves. “For example, guilt becomes neurotically intensified to the degree in which one idolizes finite values, while bitterness becomes neurotically intensified when someone or something stands in between an individual and something that has become their ultimate value.” Only if one’s identity is built on God and His love can they have a self that can venture anything, face anything, or as Horney might say, “make life bearable.”
Something secular psychology fails to understand and teach is that there is no way to avoid this insecurity outside of God. Even if one says, “I will not build my happiness, sense of worth, or significance on anyone or thing,” they will actually be building their identity on their idea of personal freedom and independence. Once anything at all threatens that, they will again be without a true identity or secure idea of self.
“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” – Blaise Pascal
The Bible teaches that an identity not based on God will inevitably lead to forms of addiction, depression, anxiety, loneliness, hostility, fear, bitterness, guilt, worthlessness, and other unhealthy forms of self view to varying degrees. Horney’s list of ten categorical neurotic needs also shows how, even from just human observation through a secular lens, there is something inherently wrong with the human personality. The Bible’s answer is that the human heart is an “idol factory.”
Every human being must live for something and build their identity, sense of self, or worth upon something; failing to find a sustaining foundation results in anxiety. Horney tentatively identified ten categories of neurotic needs that are quite compatible with the Biblical teaching of idolatry and characterizes neurotics in their attempts to combat anxiety and depression. These ten categories overlapped one another, and a single person might utilize more than one. Also, as humans are relational beings, each of the neurotic needs relates in some way or another to other people.
The first category of neurotic needs is the neurotic need for affection and approval. In one’s quest for approval, a neurotic will attempt to indiscriminately please others. They try to live up to the expectations of others, tend to dread self-assertion, and are quite uncomfortable with the hostility of others as well as the hostile feelings within themselves. If one centers their life and identity on relationships and approval, they will be consistently overly hurt by criticism and thus will struggle with losing friends. They will fear confronting others so much that they will be nearly useless as friends. “We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”
However, a neurotic is one who takes this to an extreme, unhealthy level with misguided love and affection. Through Horney’s research, she observed that “many such relations are carried on under the camouflage of love, that is, under a subjective conviction of attachment, when actually the love is only the person’s clinging to others to satisfy his own needs.” The Bible addresses this fear in declaring that, “A man should place such complete trust in God, that he has no need of comfort from men. When a man is troubled, tempted, or vexed by evil thoughts, he comes more clearly than ever to realize his need of God, without whom he can do nothing good.”
The second category is the neurotic need for a powerful partner. Lacking self-confidence, neurotics try to attach themselves to a powerful partner. This need includes an overvaluation of love and a dread of being alone or deserted. Horney’s own life story reveals a strong need to relate to a great man, and she had a series of such relationships during her adult life. If one centers their life and identity on their spouse or partner, they will be emotionally dependant, jealous, and controlling. The other person’s problems will be overwhelming to them. “Making an idol out of love may mean allowing the lover to exploit and abuse you… to practice idolatry is to be a slave.”
No marriage will be unaffected when the people in the marriage are seeking to get from the creation what they were only ever meant to get from the Creator. The only true source of love is Christ. No husband or wife can “complete” one another, satisfy their deepest longings, or fill the “eternal hole” in the other’s heart. Neither can be the source of identity for the other, or the object of worship.
The third category is the neurotic need to restrict one’s life within narrow borders. Neurotics will frequently strive to remain inconspicuous, to take second place, and to be content with very little. They downgrade their own abilities and dread making demands of others. If one centers their life on pleasure, gratification, and comfort, they will find themselves getting addicted to something. They will become chained to the “escape strategies” by which they avoid the hardness of life. However, the Christian faith teaches that “we are to suffer with Christ, and for Christ, if we wish to know and reign with Christ.”
The fourth category is the neurotic need for power. Power and affection are perhaps the two greatest neurotic needs. The need for power is usually combined with the needs for prestige and possession and manifests itself as the need to control others and avoid feelings of weakness and stupidity. We all seek strength, but the neurotic may be desperate for it. This is dominance for its own sake, often accompanied by contempt for the weak and a strong belief in one’s own rational powers. “A proud and avaricious man is never at rest; but a poor and humble man enjoys the riches of peace.” If one centers their life and identity on a “noble cause,” they will divide the world into “good” and “bad” and demonize their opponents. Ironically, they will be controlled by their enemies. For without them, they would cease to have any purpose.
The fifth category is the neurotic need to exploit others. Neurotics frequently evaluate others on the basis of how they can be used or exploited, but at the same time, they fear being exploited by others, or looking stupid. In the neurotic, it can become manipulation and the belief that people are there to be used. It is quite common that the people who really enjoy practical jokes cannot take being the butt of such a joke themselves.
However, “were God Himself the sole and constant object of our desire, we should not be so easily distressed when our opinions are contradicted.” If one centers their life and identity on money and possession, they will be eaten up by worry and jealousy about money. They will be willing to do unethical things in order to maintain their lifestyle, which will eventually blow up their life.
The sixth category is the neurotic need for social recognition or prestige. Some people combat basic anxiety by trying to be first, to be important, or to attract attention to themselves. A person exhibiting the neurotic need for prestige evaluates all things, which include: people, money, qualities, activities, events, and emotions all based on their recognized, prestigious value. The person then aspires to only surround himself or herself with the things that hold a high enough prestigious worth. All things are a means to the end of holding a prestigious value in the eye of the public, and one’s worth is then based off of this public perception of prestige that is embedded in the things rather than the person.
There is nearly a universal agreement (verbally at least) that materialism leads to nothing but emptiness, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. However, materialism is just the tip of the iceberg in the neurotic need for prestige. Material things are not the only means used to transfer a false sense of worth; immaterial things such as events or actions are also used for this promotion. This is derived from a view of self that is incapable of handling the pressure of being worthy in and of itself. Peter warns against this when he addresses women saying, “Do not let your adorning be external – braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” Material things of this world are finite and passing away, therefore they cannot possibly carry the weight of satisfaction throughout a lifetime, let alone throughout eternity.
The seventh category is the neurotic need for personal admiration. Neurotics have a need to be admired for what they are rather than for what they possess. Their inflated self-esteem must be continually fed by the admiration and approval of others. When a person looks upon their own outward or inward self and deems it to be incompetent of fulfilling the expectations they have for themselves or that others have for them, they can create a false view of a self that is capable of meeting these expectations. Therefore, in search for admiration from both oneself and other people, the person will begin to act as they believe one should act that is capable of meeting these expectations, therefore acting as someone other than themselves.
This can take place in multiple ways; from trying to emulate and copy a single person, a combination of people, or a fictitious and idealistic version of the self they wish to be. There is obvious conflict involved in acting in such a way that is not consistent with reality. Hypothetically, if John acts as Greg, and John is indeed not Greg, John is therefore acting against the way things really are. In addition the flaw of acting inconsistently with reality, there is a fallacy in the logic of pursuing admiration by creating an entirely different self.
Usually, a person who operates according to the neurotic need for personal admiration has a narcissistic and arrogant persona that appears to be confident and highly self-esteemed. However, as previously established, this persona is rooted in a self conscious, lowly regarded self. Therefore, the logic that believes a person with the incapability of meeting expectations has the ability of creating a person with the capability of meeting expectations is faulty.
The eighth category is the neurotic need for ambition and personal achievement. Neurotics often have a strong drive to be the best – the best employee, best athlete, best student, best lover, best parent, etc. For them, it is not satisfying enough to work to become better than they previously have been, they must defeat other people in order to confirm their superiority. According to Horney, people push themselves to achieve greater and greater things as a result of basic insecurity. These individuals fear failure and feel a constant need to top their own earlier successes, and to especially accomplish more than other people.
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” – Ernest Hemingway
If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose your family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression. As Thomas á Kempis says, “A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, but always think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom and perfection. . . . Should you see another person openly doing evil, or carrying out a wicked purpose, do not on that account consider yourself better than him, for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace. We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself.”
The ninth category is the neurotic need for self-sufficiency and independence. Many neurotics have a strong need to move away from people, thereby proving that they can get along without others. The playboy who cannot be tied down by any woman, or that superstar athlete who has to be the sole “top dog” on his team exemplifies this neurotic need. While the neurotic may feel like any kind of commitment, dependency, or relationship is confining because it robs them of their liberty, they are actually enslaving themselves to a far more damaging form of constraint. Neurotics that fall into this category often have a very unhealthy, warped view of love, liberty, freedom, and relationships.
They often become angry, jealous, and extremely distrustful of others they see as any kind of threat. You cannot stay angry, bitter, or resentful towards someone unless you feel superior to them. There is no bitterness without pride. You tell yourself you would never do anything like what they did to hurt you. If you struggle with anger and bitterness, it is because pride is at the root of it. Your own pride makes you the fool and robs you of more joy than any wrong that has been done to you.
True freedom is not being unshackled to create your own truth, or be literally anything you want to be, but is actually the liberating submission to the Truth. Freedom is not the complete absence of any restrictions, but rather the presence of the right restrictions put in place. For example: a fish out of water. The fish is not more free when released outside of the confines of the water, but instead his ability to enjoy life is drastically hindered and he is sure to die.
Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints, but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us. A love relationship limits your personal options. “Human beings are the most free and alive in relationships of love.” We only become ourselves in love, and yet healthy love relationships involve mutual, unselfish service, a mutual loss of independence. As C. S. Lewis eloquently puts it: “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.” The only place outside of heaven that one can be safe from this kind of heartache is hell.
The tenth category is the neurotic need for perfection and unassailability. By striving relentlessly for perfection, neurotics receive “proof” of their self-esteem and personal superiority. They dread making mistakes and having personal flaws, and they desperately attempt to hide their weaknesses from others. However, inside the Christian worldview “a man who truly knows himself realizes his own worthlessness, and takes no pleasure in the praises of man.” If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self-righteous, and cruel. If you don’t live up to your standards, your guilt will be utterly devastating.
Horney believed that neuroses grow out of basic conflict that usually begins in childhood. As people attempt to solve the different conflicts they face, they are likely to adopt one of the three neurotic trends: namely moving toward, against, or away from others. Each of these conflict solving tactics can produce temporary relief, but eventually they drive the individual far away from actualizing their real self and send them deeper into a neurotic spiral. The Scriptures would agree with Horney’s observation of how these problem solving tactics always fail, but the problem is believed to far deeper than just early childhood conflict.
The general goal of Horneyian therapy is to help patients gradually grow in the direction of self-realization, with the more specific aim to have patients give up their idealized self-image, relinquish their neurotic search for glory, and change self-hatred to an acceptance of the real self. While patients look for quick cures or solutions to the present problems they have, Horney claims that only the long, laborious process of self-understanding can effect positive change. She also claims that self-understanding must go beyond information; it must be accompanied by an emotional experience. This is actually somewhat similar to what the Bible teaches, in that something must capture our imaginations, our heart’s most fundamental allegiance and hope, but “without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, that object will never be God Himself.” So, when the magnitude of what Christ did for us dawns on us, “it makes it possible finally to rest our hearts in Him rather than in anything else.”
According to Horney, when therapy is successful, patients gradually develop confidence in their ability to assume responsibility for their psychological development. They move toward self-realization and all those processes that accompany it; they have a deeper and clearer understanding of their feelings, beliefs, and wishes; they relate to others with genuine feelings instead of using people to solve basic conflicts. However, Horney fails to define how this would actually look in one’s life. The goal in Biblical counseling and what would be considered successful in this type of therapy is much greater. The Bible teaches that “the only way to free ourselves from the destructive influence of counterfeit gods is to turn back to the true one.” The living God, who revealed Himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you serve Him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail Him can truly forgive you.
Biblical counseling claims that secular therapy and the theories put forth by Horney fall short of genuinely being able to successfully heal a person or bring them to having a truly healthy identity. A person will never be whole or have a stable identity outside of building their entire self upon the one triune God of the Bible. The reason that one will never be able to invent or find some kind of lasting happiness for themselves outside God, or apart from God, is that God made us. No finite created thing could ever bear the full weight of godhood; the weight carried by the infinite triune Creator God.
A metaphorical way to view this is that God created man as man invented an engine. Certain car engines are made to run on petrol gasoline, and would not run properly on anything else. God designed the human machine to run on Himself. “He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion or faith. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
This is why Biblical Counseling, in light of the claims of the Gospel of Christ, believes that our problems with psychosis are so much greater than we realize. The Bible declares that our greatest need is God Himself. God is the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God saves. It is the historical narrative of the triune God orchestrating the reconciliation and redemption of a broken creation and fallen creatures from Satan, sin, and its effects to the Father and each other through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and future return of the substitutionary Son, by the power of the Spirit, for God’s glory and the Church’s joy.
Our problem with this is that we don’t like difficulty of any kind. We hate pain and despise suffering. There are many of us who would rather have an easy life than a God-honoring one. So before we ever battle with ourselves or one another, we are actually battling the Lord. We are fighting His plan. We are critiquing His will. We bring Him into the court of our judgment and find Him unloving and unwise. We begin to wonder if what we have believed is true and if following Him is really worth it. At the very same time, as our hearts are pondering these things, God is near and loves us with transforming love. He is carefully bringing us to the end of ourselves, and He is making us into people who find joy in loving others with the same kind of costly love He has given us.
The Gospel solution when a person is paralyzed by a sense of guilt or unworthiness or uselessness is not to increase self-esteem; the Biblical answer to a paralysis of low self-esteem is not cultivating a high self-esteem. It’s sovereign grace. (Fear not you worm… Isaiah 41:13). We actually do ourselves a disservice when we try to act like we’re more central to the universe than we really are. Discipline and self-control are actually much easier for us when our hearts and affections are stirred for something greater than ourselves. As Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, once wrote, “We love the truth when it enlightens us, and hate the truth when it convicts us (John 7:17-18, Romans 1:18-32).”
So, as this essay continues, I would like you to consider these questions: Whose kingdom shapes your life? Whose kingdom defines your dreams? What really makes you happy? What is it that you want so badly for your life to be? Could it perhaps be that what you thought was love was not really kingdom-of-God, other-centered, other-service love? Could it be that what you actually wanted was for everyone else to love you as much as you do? Could it be that your anger reveals how zealously committed you are to the purposes of your own kingdom? Could it be that your depression reveals your loyalty and desires are not ultimately for Christ? Could it be that the troubles you face in your life, both big and small, are not so much hassles as they are opportunities? Could it be that just when you thought God had abandoned you in your life that He is really very near, giving you the best gift ever – transforming grace? This grace rescues you from the one thing that you cannot rescue yourself from – you.
I would contend that no one has lied to you more than you have. No one has betrayed you more than you have betrayed yourself. You can blame or point fingers at whoever you want to blame and point fingers at, but the biggest liar you know is you. And you are not going to be able to fix you. If you disagree with that, well, we just have all of human history to back it up. If God would be merciful enough to give you just a clear picture today, you’d feel the weight of it.
Now I would never want to minimize your pain or take away from your hurts, doubts, and fears. None of this is meant to dismiss any of your feelings. They are legitimate and real. However, while our feelings are an essential part of our right response to reality, they should never in themselves be the determiner of reality. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, “No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical, but they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head; but it can, and should, obey it.”
So, here’s the point, here’s what you have to understand. You cannot fix this. You cannot fix yourself. You cannot save yourself. You are not awesome. You are not God. And that is actually the foundation of your greatest joy. Because it will set you to seeking something outside of you to solve it. But that can be a trap too. So, we need to find something that is not limited like we are limited in regards to time and scope to solve this issue.
Biblical counseling teaches that an individual cannot actually understand themselves or live inside of true reality without having a relationship with Jesus Christ and building their identity solely upon Him. Thomas á Kempis states it well: “Had you but once entered perfectly into the Heart of Jesus, and tasted something of His burning love, you would care nothing for your own gain or loss; for the love of Jesus causes a man to regard himself very humbly. The true, inward lover of Jesus and the Truth, who is free from inordinate desires, can turn freely to God, rise above self, and joyfully rest in God.”
That idea seems to scare some people and sound very stifling to them, however everyone lives for something, and if one doesn’t live for Jesus they will live for something else. If one lives for their career and they don’t do well it may punish them all of their life, and cause them to feel like a failure. If one lives for their children and their children do not turn out as well as they had hoped, they could be in absolute torment because they may feel worthless as a parent. If Christ is one’s center and Lord and they fail Him, He will forgive them. Your career cannot die for your sins. . . . we all are being pursued by guilt because we must have an identity and there must be some standard to live up to by which we get that identity.
John Piper has said it in this way, “The soul tends to shrink to the size and quality of its pleasures.” Whatever you base your life on – you have to live up to that. Jesus is the one Lord you can live for who died for you – who breathed His last breath for you.” As Saint Augustine said, “if there is a God who created you, then the deepest chambers of your soul simply cannot be filled up by anything less. That is how great the human soul is.”
A man who doesn’t understand the gospel lets his past destroy him. The man or woman who understands the gospel lives today in the grace and mercy of Christ that covers all of yesterday’s mistakes, today’s shortcomings, and tomorrow’s troubles. The gospel that defines our Christian worldview allows our minds to rest and our hearts to rejoice in the gracious rescue from just being accidental atoms beating air, carrying on and on, unwittingly as orphans of an unyielding despair.
“Who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.” – Ephesians 2:14
The Bible teaches that our fallen, natural inheritance from our father Adam is depravity, destruction, and death. In man, in our earthly inheritance, we have no hope… we really are doomed orphans of utter despair. But in Christ, our heavenly Father adopts us. He bestows upon us an inheritance we could not earn or find on our own. Through His Son, God imparts to us an inheritance, a righteousness that we could not obtain apart from His gracious and merciful intercession. Jesus Christ is the good older brother missing from the parable in Luke 15, He leaves His rightful possession as sole heir and comes to find, save, redeem, and return us to our Father. His love is overwhelmingly fierce and unfathomabley unwavering.
So while secular therapy may be able to assist a person in dealing with a few particular symptoms of the sin in their life or help them overcome a single neurotic issue, it cannot truly aid them in developing a secure identity. Because we are far worse than we ever dared to imagine, yet in Christ, we are far more loved than we ever dreamed we could be. Some of us are still wrestling with this in monumental ways; still walking in doubt because we just doubt God’s affection for us. And that’s idolatry, because what you’re doing in essence is looking at the bloody cross of Jesus Christ and going, “That’s not enough. You’re going to have to show me something bigger than that to convince me You really love me.” Some of us are still wrestling with all of this because we doubt Christ’s affection for us despite the fact that He went to the cross and died for you. He went to the cross despite knowing you, despite knowing every stupid thing you’ve ever done, as well as every single dumb thing you have yet to do. When you say “I can’t forgive myself,” that is another way of saying, “Even though Jesus forgives me, there’s another god above Jesus whose opinion matters more: me.”
Apart from the power of the gospel to transform human hearts, renew minds, and redirect human lives to live for God’s glory, man would never comprehend or realize the purpose for which he was created: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Because in Jesus Christ, God put on flesh, and became man. In Jesus, the world saw a man who was ferociously humble. A man who was love incarnate. A man who suffered and was tempted, yet did not sin. A man who was steadfastly obedient until death, even death on a cross. A man who while being the very essence, being of the very nature and substance God, did not consider Himself equal to the Father, but submitted to the will of God and gave up His life for people undeserving of His love. In Christ’s death, He paid our debt at infinite cost to Himself. God paid our debt with His own flesh. Jesus paid our ransom to uphold the justice and righteousness of our Father; so that He could justifiably look upon us and lovingly call us son and daughter. This good news is the substance and meaning of the gospel in which we celebrate: that God became man, to save us from ourselves, and give us life. He came just like He promised, and His love will not be silent.
Your real god is what you most effortlessly think about. So, whatever controls your heart, whatever occupies your mind, will control your behavior. Your functional treasure is whatever sits on the other side of your “if only.” Everyone has to live for something. Whatever that something is becomes lord of your life, whether one thinks of it that way or not. “Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive Him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail Him, will forgive you eternally.”
Sometimes, maybe even often, it is difficult to keep believing in what we cannot always see. It is not easy to trust that everything happens for a reason, especially the worst that life brings. But I would plead with you, that some day, things that look like broken glass to us here will make sense. Augustine likened all of life’s pain to a stained glass window; shards of jagged glass that had no beauty when examined individually, but when viewed through the halls of time, create an extraordinarily stunning masterpiece. If you’re reaching for an answer, if you don’t know where to go, what to do, who to talk to, or what to pray, try opening up the Scriptures and letting His Word be your daily strength. Because when you are in moments of pain or shock, the things that come out of your mind and mouth are the most primal things in your being; and when Jesus was in such moments, out came the words of the Bible.
Sometimes though, there is no catchy phrase or philosophical explanation to quickly take away the current pain, but we can weep with our brothers in hope. Hope that is birthed out of a knowledge of something greater than ourselves and greater than our present circumstances. And, again, the Gospel is the hope we all need. We need the hope that we have been justified by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. And we need the hope of the promise of Romans 8:28, that God will work all things, even the fallout from our past sins, together for good for us.
Hold on to the promises of God. Jesus is alive, our God has not failed. Paul tells us in Romans 8 that all things work together for the good, for those who love God. That He holds back nothing that will heal you, not even His own Son. God’s love is everlasting, His grace is overwhelming, and His faithfulness is unending.
So when you feel weak and hopeless, while it might sound trite and empty in the midst of despair, all we can do is hold on to the promises of God. Because neither life, nor death, can separate us from the eternal love of our God who saves us.