Authentic Healing vs. Theological Abstraction

This was not always true, but nowadays I find – often to my own great surprise – that I have a real heart for people who struggle to reconcile the acknowledged truthfulness of Jesus and the life-giving beauty of the Christian faith with the on-the-ground, often-messy realities of their lives in a broken, jacked-up world. For many people, it would seem, the entirety of the Christian life is lived out in ongoing anticipation of the Great Heavenly Reward that awaits us all upon death; the chances for redemption and renewal in this life may seem remote, or perhaps even nonexistent.

Maybe one of the reasons that God has given me such a heart for people trapped in day-after-day despair is because I also long to see the truthfulness of the good news of Jesus played out in the everyday issues and conflicts that tend to consume our lives. It’s all too easy, I think, to lose sight of the possibilities offered to us once we have accepted our freedom in Christ. Sure, we may very well understand that Christ is totally committed to us (Romans 5:6-11) and that He lives to intercede on our behalf on That Great Day (Hebrews 7:22-25), but we are often terribly short-sighted and slow to understand that we have also been set free in this life (Luke 24:19-27).

I must have hundreds of books on doctrine and theology stacked up inside my home, and yet it was SpongeBob SquarePants that provided me with a profound illustration of Christian short-sightedness. Yes, it is exceedingly rare that I walk away from watching an episode of SpongeBob having gained a useful theological insight, but one episode in particular provided a tremendous analogy that even a small child (or a hard-hearted adult such as myself) could understand.

In “Sleepy Time,” SpongeBob discovers that he can magically insert himself into the dreams of his sleeping friends to experience whatever it is they secretly long for. Most of his pals in Bikini Bottom dream big. Their minds construct elaborate, grandiose alternate worlds in which their wildest fantasies have all come true. Gary the Snail is a super-genius worthy of Mensa leadership, Squidward Tentacles prepares to play a flawless clarinet solo for an 18th-century European king, etc. However, when SpongeBob crawls into the subconscious of his none-too-bright best friend Patrick Star, he finds Patrick dreaming that he is riding a coin-operated mechanical horse. Underwhelmed by his good buddy’s limited imagination, SpongeBob attempts (in vain) to get him to aim a bit higher:

SpongeBob:
“You know, Patrick, this is a dream…you can do anything you want.”

Patrick, entirely devoid of emotion/excitement:
“Yup.” (Continues rocking back and forth.)

And it gets worse, of course. SpongeBob offers Patrick a few vivid examples of the limitless nature and power of their time together: “I can be a skyscraper!” “I can make myself into a million SpongeBobs!” And so on. Failing to impress his dull friend, SpongeBob exits Patrick’s dream, looking for better action somewhere else. As soon as SpongeBob departs, the mechanical horse stops rocking. Patrick reaches into his pocket for another quarter, but accidentally drops it down a sewer grate, exclaiming, “Shoot! That was my last quarter!”

We all laugh at how slow and desperately unimaginative Patrick is when it comes to how he exercises control over the limitless world of his own dreams. (Maybe, right now, you’re laughing at me for finding theological word pictures tucked inside an inane Nickelodeon cartoon.) My own kids have (more than once) supplied the obvious critique, more or less to the effect of, “Dad, Patrick is so dumb…why doesn’t he just dream that he has all the quarters in the world, or dream that his horse doesn’t need quarters to begin with?!” True enough, and that is what makes this absurd situation funny.

We all tend to stop laughing, however, whenever we consider the seemingly-opposed ideas of the limitless powers of an almighty God, Who (for whatever reason) has nevertheless ordained that we endure a season of suffering, or that we stay trapped in an addiction, or that some other person remain totally committed to the destruction of our happiness. “Why,” we ask, “doesn’t an all-powerful, all-knowing God see how truly desperate I am and respond by changing my heart, or at least changing this situation? How long must I suffer under this incredible burden before I will get some relief? Why won’t God heal me?” Just for the record, I have wept over all of these questions myself. Many times.

As I approach these challenging ideas in my own life, I see on the one hand “limitless power” in the death and resurrection of our Lord. And many Christians, me included, believe that the limitless power of Christ was inaugurated into this fallen world with His resurrection from the dead. In other words, the Kingdom of God has already “broken in” to this dark and dying world such that believers have the ability to access that power and become part of the redemptive story themselves. Christians can, by fully surrendering their lives to Jesus and co-laboring with His Spirit, effect amazing change in their own lives and the lives of others.

And yet, on the other hand, I am daily confronted with my own weakness and poverty of spirit. I am painfully aware of my own limitations, shortcomings, hang-ups and foolishness. Why, I frequently wonder, has God not chosen to apply His boundless resurrection power to this one area of my life that so obviously needs serious repair? Why has this entirely-sincere and God-glorifying prayer for assistance not yet been realized? What am I missing?

In the opening sentence of this blog, I confessed that God has really given me a heart for other people struggling to make sense of the suffering that they are forced to endure; I also indicated that this has not always been the case. In fact, I am embarrassed to say that the majority of my adult years were lived out with a self-focus so intense that I could scarcely be bothered to worry about someone else’s problems. “I have plenty of problems all on my own, thank you very much! Maybe once I get my head screwed on straight I’ll have time and energy to listen to your bellyaching!” (Or words to that effect, perhaps only slightly less harsh.)

Whenever someone (typically, my wife) takes the trouble to point out to me the obvious differences between who I am today and who I was even just a few short years ago, it has the much-needed effect of reminding me how poor and limited I am in my own thinking, how single-mindedly focused I have been on “this one thing over here” while ignoring “a thousand amazing things over there” that God has been doing in me, around me, through me and (mostly) despite me. As we begin to mentally stack up the miraculous ways in which God has actively been answering prayer, changing hearts and very obviously moving His Kingdom forward, it shames me into realizing that my complaints against God make about as much sense as Patrick Star using up his all-powerful dream life to sit on a motionless mechanical horse.

For whatever this is worth, I have found that God often does His most amazing work in me and through me as I pour myself out into the service of others. Selfishly, I would much prefer Him to “fix me” before expecting me to be properly motivated to work in His Kingdom; I want my prayers answered before I move on to assist others! But God, ever patient, seems best pleased to work out the knots in my own life when I trust Him with my deepest needs and desires, and simultaneously move on to serve others.

The implication for lifelong healing, I think, is obvious. In The Parable of the Persistent Widow, Jesus teaches us that it is good and right to pray repeatedly for something that we desperately desire, assuming of course that what we desire is God-glorifying. So I would never suggest that any person abandon prayer simply because years have gone by and the desired result has failed to materialize. Instead, I suppose I would recommend that anyone seeking after a soul-level change of heart continue to pray, trust God with the timing and the results, and not wait to also become a part of His kingdom work – simultaneously committing themselves to an appropriate area of ongoing, faithful service to others.

As the car commercials like to say, however, “Your mileage may vary.”

All I can tell you is that – to this very day – I continue to grapple with several problems and heartbreaks that are soooooo much bigger than me, absolutely beyond my strength, ability and/or wit to bring to resolution. Nevertheless, God has been pleased to use me in Christian service to others for five years (or thereabouts) and in that amount of time He has been faithful to heal me, too. This says very little about me, and very much about the faithfulness of a patient, all-powerful Creator God who promises to live within us if only we will seek, ask and find.

Luke 18:1-8 (ESV, emphasis mine)
“The Parable of the Persistent Widow”
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Matthew 6:31-34 (ESV, emphasis mine)
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

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