After I completed my university work, I was just getting started as a teacher and counselor. A letter came from a rural Kansas town extending an invitation for me to come for a week to lecture on a Biblical view of mental health.
This town was surrounded by beautiful, rolling hills and lush, productive farmland. The air was fresh and clean. There was lots of sky, and we enjoyed glowing sunrises, spectacular sunsets, and beautiful moonlit nights. There were prosperous farmers who lived in large, lovely homes with all the conveniences anyone could ask for. They looked out of their picture windows at their oil wells pumping black gold 24 hours a day. Everyone had several big cars in their driveways and we ate sumptuous meals. The people were elegantly dressed. The church was beautifully furnished.
You would think if there were any place in the world where people would be content and satisfied, it would be in this town. No doubt these people could teach me a thing or two about mental health.
To my surprise, I was swamped by people who requested counseling. There were many troubled hearts in those beautiful homes. People were lonely, worried, disillusioned, and fearful. Many of them tossed and turned in their comfortable beds and often wet their soft pillows with bitter tears. Human nature is the same wherever you go, and sad to say, luxury and plenty do not quiet the human heart. These people pleaded for me to tell them what to buy, or eat, or drink, or where to go, or what to do to find some relief for their tense, anxious bodies.
Christina was from one of those lovely homes. She drove to my office in a fine luxury car. She was beautiful. The skillful use of cosmetics gave just the right touch to her complexion and eyes. Every hair was in place. A carefully chosen dress complemented her body. She was married to a handsome, hardworking husband. They lived in a roomy, nicely furnished house. They had one child and planned to have at least two more.
She had the same questions that I have heard repeated hundreds of times since. Christina wondered, “I have everything I ever wanted. Why do I hurt? Why can’t I relax?”
She had consulted a physician because she was experiencing occasional pain in the chest area and she struggled with a shortness of breath. After looking at the test results, her physician gingerly asked if she might be having any personal or family problems. He suggested that she consult a psychiatrist. She felt insulted, so she indignantly proceeded to get a second opinion. It was the same as the first.
As this story tumbled out, it was easy to see that she was a tense, stressful young lady. She couldn’t imagine why she needed a counselor. She had a good life and a good marriage. Why, then, did she have chest pains and shortness of breath?
I urged her to go home and think about the possible causes of her symptoms. Was there anything in her life that made her feel angry, resentful, bitter, or rebellious? She told me immediately that she had no such problems and promptly left.
Christina called me the next morning. “Could I come in?” she asked. “The sooner the better.” She was ready for some help.
Apparently that night, after she had talked with me, she and her husband watched a football game with another couple. During the game, her husband yelled at the referee and argued loudly with his friend several times. Christina didn’t say anything, but by the time the game was over she was disgusted and embarrassed. Her husband sensed something was wrong, but she simply told him she was tired.
Christina told me that she discovered soon after her marriage that her handsome, hardworking, fun-loving husband was also gruff, rude, and demanding. When he wanted to speak to her he would do so from wherever he was–even if he was upstairs in the bathroom and she was downstairs in the kitchen. He would shout loudly enough to be heard and expected her to reply immediately. If she didn’t, he would come storming to her and give her an angry tongue-lashing for not listening to him. If he was watching a ball game on TV, he would cheer or boo or yell at the umpire as loudly as the people in the crowd at the stadium. During the evening news he would react loudly and give his opinions as though he were addressing an audience. Yet when there were guests in the house he would speak in a conversational tone, so Christina’s friends had no idea what she endured.
She discovered that this was a family pattern. They were a loud bunch who turned down the volume when company came. While Christina and her husband were courting she was company. Now that they were married, she was family.
Christina was a soft-spoken person. She was accustomed to conversational-level talk. No one ever shouted in her family, especially from one room to another. Any effort on her part to get him to see her side of the issue was just brushed aside. After several tries failed to get him to at least discuss the problem, she gave up and never brought it up again.
I reminded Christina about the words I asked her to think about the day before. We ended up agreeing that she deeply resented her husband’s behavior and his total disregard for her style of communicating. Outwardly she was friendly, but last night she almost lost control. “He has no idea how I feel and couldn’t care less,” she said bitterly and burst into uncontrollable weeping. After she quieted down she said she felt as if a heavy load had been removed from her shoulders.
Finally she was able to admit to herself that her response to her husband was a miserable concoction of resentment, anger, hatred, and rebellion. She was simply covering it all over with behavior that made her look perfectly happy.
Here was a beautiful, perfectly groomed lady. She drove one of the finest luxury cars on the market. She lived in a spacious home that she helped to design and furnish. Her husband was a leader in the church. But she was hurting with chest pains and had trouble breathing. She did not want to acknowledge her own feelings of resentment and rebellion. She could not enjoy life because of a tiny word that has been banished from most people’s vocabulary: “sin.”
Let’s take a look at two Bible verses that give us instruction on how to deal with our anger:
“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:31)
To come to the decision that will lead you into the pleasant valley of peace is to struggle with your own will. Let me illustrate this by noting the experience of Jerry.
Jerry was a department foreman at a manufacturing firm. One day his boss called him into the office and said, “Jerry, as you know, things are a bit slow around here these days. I realize you have worked hard and run one of the best departments in the company. But my orders are to cut one supervisor, so I am letting you go.”
Jerry was stunned. He was the only Christian among the foremen. The other supervisory personnel, including his boss, liked to go out drinking and had some wild parties together. As a result, their work sometimes suffered and Jerry had to step in to rescue them. He had worked hard and now this was his reward.
Jerry soon faced a financial slump. He had been making payments on a new home and a car but when his salary was suddenly cut off, he was in trouble. He lost both the house and the car and had to move in with his parents. While with them, he had nothing to do but sit in a comfortable chair and mull over his experience.
“So this is the reward for hard work and clean living” he said to himself over and over. The more he thought, the more bitter he became. He found it hard to eat and harder to digest what little he did eat. He suffered from painful cramps. His physician told him that his condition stemmed from his emotions. But most of his friends reassured him that he had a right to have some emotional problems.
Twelve years later, time seemed to have healed the wound. Jerry found another job and was quite successful in it. He was, in fact, the general manager of a manufacturing outfit with eight plants. One day while he was inspecting one of the plants, the personnel director asked him if he would like to meet the plant’s new chief engineer. Of course he would, and did. Jerry found himself face-to-face with the man who fired him 12 years before. Here working for him was the person who had caused him so much grief, pain, and embarrassment.
“I sure made a terrible mistake back then,” the engineer said to Jerry when they were alone. “Will you forgive me?”
“Oh, certainly. Forget it,” Jerry replied.
Jerry told the man that he would forgive, but within himself he nursed a gnawing bitterness. His stomach problem returned and he began reliving those confusing, painful days of long ago. He had thought this period of his life was long forgotten, but now he found himself fuming in his plush office, wanting only to get even.
One day he related the experience to me, then asked how one could work with a person who had treated him as this man had.
What would have been your reply?
I pointed out several Scripture passages to Jerry. One describes the work of the Holy Spirit:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
The apostle Paul spoke here of trouble, perplexity, persecution, and rejection. All these had happened to him. But Paul also said there is a power that will enable a man to face such treatment without distress, despair, self-pity, or ruin. It is the power of God. I discussed this with Jerry, but at the time it seemed to mean little to him. I then spoke of the end products of distress, pointing out that definite bodily changes are involved. “Your blood pressure, respiration, and digestion can be affected,” I said.
“Are you suggesting that I am my own problem? Would you have acted differently had you taken what I took?” he asked.
I reminded Jerry of one of Jesus’ statements:
“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
Jerry became furious with me. How could I be so lacking in sympathy and understanding? Now he was upset not only at the engineer, but at me as well.
Who was Jerry hurting when he carried his grudge around within himself? Who was affected when he sat in his chair and seethed over a man who wasn’t even in his presence? Himself, of course. Jerry argued that he had a right to be bitter. I agreed he did and I would agree with anyone who stands on his right to be angry and unforgiving over a wrong done to him. It is your privilege to be upset and miserable. But as long as you remain angry, you will be miserable.
There is a power that will enable you to face your circumstances without distress. It is the power of God, made available to you through the dying of the Lord Jesus. God’s power and His alone can make you want to forgive a person who has misused you. But Jerry did not want to forgive that engineer; he wanted to get even.
For many people yielding bitterness and hatred in exchange for a tender heart toward someone who doesn’t deserve it would not be a blessed relief but rather a great sacrifice. Like Jerry, untold numbers of people would like to be free from their aches and pains. But if you say that means they must relinquish a long-standing grudge, they say they would rather ache.
There in Jerry’s nice walnut-paneled, softly lit office we were locked in a struggle. If I had told him that his grudge was normal and that I probably would have acted the same way, he might have enjoyed some relief, but the inner sore would have continued to fester and spread its poison.
The only solution is for a person to quit fighting and turn to God for a spirit of love toward someone who does not deserve it. And when you yield, the problem is nearly over. The Bible says it is your move: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
One day, Jerry finally did turn to God for help with his bitterness and hatred. His digestive disorder disappeared and his aches and pains went away. He was at peace with himself and with the man he felt had treated him unfairly. Jerry was able to enjoy God’s peace in his life.
How did this change come about? By confessing or acknowledging that he had done wrong–that he had sinned. David wrote this about his sin: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).
When Jerry paid attention to and took care of his own reaction to the other man’s sins instead of concerning himself with what the other man had done, he found himself on the road to peace.
To acknowledge your own sin is disturbing only if you fight what you discover. If, instead, you admit it and seek help from God, the result is not guilt but an overwhelming sense of forgiveness, cleansing, renewal, and peace.
Unfortunately, the word “sin” has almost completely disappeared from our vocabulary. One of the reasons is that we rely on the medical profession to prescribe mood-altering drugs that provide patients with a temporary escape from pain, anxiety, boredom, and remorse. While these can often be helpful, they can also enable us to put off dealing with the real issues in our lives.
People steadfastly resist the diagnosis of personal sin. It is much easier to accept that our symptoms have some underlying pathology. There is no reason to turn to God; what we are experiencing is a human problem caused by social interaction and it must be solved on a human level with the help of trained human beings. This is the approach taken by most government, education, medical, and psychological professionals, and by a rapidly growing number of church-related personnel.
The pathway to spiritual peace is a struggle. Discover the truth about yourself and you will naturally shrink from it; become offended and defensive and you will be bound in the strong fetters of your sin. What a difference you will find if you just heed the promise of Jesus: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
Why did Jesus come to live among the people, die on a cross, and rise again? Matthew 1:21 gives us the answer: “… because he will save his people from their sins.”
Identify the sin in your life, ask God to forgive you of it, and experience His peace!