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Stop Demanding an End to the Healing Process

Feb 06, 2023

If you’re in therapy, or working on yourself, and you’ve spoken with other people about it (particularly family), you may find that after a while you’ll start to hear questions like:

  • Aren’t you done with therapy yet?
  • When will you be well?
  • Isn’t it getting worse instead of better?
  • Isn’t it time to get on with your life?
  • Don’t you need a deadline?
  • Why don’t you have a goal in mind?

At the heart of these questions is this: “I will one day be finished with recovery.” People who assume this idea think that spiritual growth is like changing a burned-out light bulb. Take the bad one out, pop the new one in. Problem solved. Life goes on. They think emotional struggles should be treated the same.

Fix a depression.
Cure a compulsive spending problem.
Repair an anxiety attack.

Some psychotherapists support this view. Go to any bookstore, or talk to plenty of professionals, and they’ll tell you that five-to-ten session cures for emotional maladies will work for you. Most of them recommend a talk-to-yourself approach, such as “Start concentrating on positive things, and negative things like depression will go away,” or “Learn proper financial habits so that you can say no to your spending impulses.” When talking to herself doesn’t work, the struggler begins to doubt herself (that is, question the healing process) and to distance herself from the healing agents the Lord may have sent.

Why Growth Doesn’t Have to Stop

“So what’s the problem with that?” You may ask. “I’ve heard horror stories about therapies that go on forever. Therapy has got to stop sometime, doesn’t it?”

True. In fact, the Scriptures teach us that much in life does and should have an endpoint: “Desire realized is sweet to the soul” (Prov. 13:19 NASB). “There is time for everything, and a season for every activity under Heaven” (Eccl. 3:1). In his powerful, final written words, Paul proclaims the value of finishing: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” (2 Tim. 4:7–8).

God himself is a finisher. He created the universe in a finite period of time (Gen. 2:1–3). His work of reconciling us to himself he completed on the cross: “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

So, yes, it is true that whether we pray, study the Bible, see a therapist, or join a support group, we should expect results. A changed, healing life is the mark of the maturing Christian, just as the fruits of the Spirit are the signs of God’s work in us (Gal. 5:22–24).

However, while we do successfully resolve problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, and compulsive behaviors, the sanctification process continues through life. We must be patient with ourselves and others while emotional problems are being worked on. WE must also be patient in the face of our continuing sinfulness and immaturity–even when the psychological symptoms are over.

Yet those who cannot wait patiently for a struggler, those who tire of seeing a friend in therapy for month after month, those who wish their relative could conclude his recover process and get on with life–these people are sidestepping crucial biblical truths about growth. When you believe that an individual will one day be finished with recovery, you bring on several serious problems.

Recovery and Spiritual Growth are Split Apart

In a nutshell, recovery means taking back what we lost in the Fall, recovering our place as God’s image bearers, as stewards of the earth.

Emotionally, recovery means taking back character traits that we were robbed of: the ability to make deep emotional connections when we’ve been unable to, to confront evil in others when we’ve been afraid of conflict, to say good-bye to a perfect picture of ourselves and replacing it with God’s loving acceptance of us, warts and all.

All growth is spiritual if it involves the biblical processes of love, responsibility, and forgiveness. All growth is spiritual if it produces a cheerful heart, concern for others, a deeper sense of responsibility, and an ability to set limits on evil.

We Are Forced into Completing a Task, Not Growing

Sometimes people focus on the law, on completing the task, rather than on the journey, on how you get there. It instances Christians from the love of God and others, driving them anxiously toward the taskmaster of perfection. Arriving becomes the demand that breaks their backs.

The goal is love itself. Love is the process of achieving the goal as well as the goal itself. Learning to trust, to extend our heart, to take ownership over our resistance to love, is all part of God’s recovery program. That’s why people who get stuck on the question “When will I be finished?” miss the whole point.

People engaged in the recovery process learn to love the journey for what it is. They learn to stop and smell the roses, spiritually speaking.

We Lose Forgiveness

We are to heed the direction our lives are taking. Like a navigator plotting a ship’s course toward maturity, we are to look constantly at our bearings and make adjustments. Throughout life we repeat the process: We get off target, make corrections, and get back on course.

Furthermore, it is impossible to be in this process without forgiveness.

Since there’s no condemnation in Christ Jesus, we are never alienated from love in all our overreactions and errors and outright sins.

For a few minutes, take forgiveness out of the picture. Suppose no cushion of grace catches us when we fall. Suppose that when we get off course, we face only condemnation and isolation.

You’d probably plot your next moves very carefully. The cost of failure would simply be too high.

People who are told to ignore the process of recovery, who are told to get their lives together and simply decide to get well–these people are robbed of God’s forgiveness. They are given no room for trial and error, for risk and learning. There is no room for growth built on love.

We Become Proud

If we believe that one day we will be finished, our tendency is to become proud and self-sufficient. We deny that we have much unfinished business, that we are beggars who need to daily cry out to God for the grace to help us with our problems for the grace to help us with our problems, to test us, and to know our anxious thoughts (Ps. 139:23). Any teaching that leads us to think we’ve arrived at a final, satisfactory level of spirituality leads us out of God’s arena and into Satan’s.

The goal of spiritual and emotional growth isn’t becoming perfect. The goal is a deepening awareness of ourselves, our weaknesses, our sins, and our needs. It is an increasingly clearer understanding of how much we need “so great a salvation” (Heb. 2:3 NASB).

We Despair

Finally, if we believe that one day we will be finished with recovery, we will sooner or later despair. If we’re honest, we are acutely aware of our spiritual poverty. We understand that we’ll never be ideal. And since the Bible seems to demand that we be perfect, we experience a loss of hope: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12).

Christians who are surprised by their regressions often despair. After having done well in recovery for a number of months, they begin again to eat compulsively, get depressed, or go into isolation.

Failure and regression are normal. Uninterrupted success and lack of struggle are the exception. If Paul (by his own words) is the chief sinner, if Peter denied the Lord, if a murderer and an adulterer named David is remembered as the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14)–if these are all true (and they are), then we must give up the idealized picture of ourselves, and allow our imperfect selves to be forgiven, loved, and matured.

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