Emotional Chains (and the Gospel That Sets You Free)

4:53 PM

I want to be a Biblical counselor. People kept emailing me and texting me and coming up to me with questions about all things spiritual, emotional and relational, so I finally surrendered: "I get it, God. This is what you want me to do." Lately the questions keep getting deeper and darker -- questions about things this unsocialized homeschooler barely knew existed, much less how they operated and how to get through them. After a week at camp where the same dark problems kept cropping up, I decided that I would get my hands on resources with how to handle suicide, cutting, abuse, trust issues as the result of mean parents and cruel friends and other hard things I could not understand. Surprise surprise, I was able to steal a Biblical counseling textbook from my Biblical counseling major friend. I'm on the second chapter, and now I'm on my knees.

I need counseling.

Seriously, I need help. Why? Because at the core of every hard problem -- pornography, OCD, bipolar disorder, you name it -- lies a sin issue. People sinned against the person in question and the person in question responded sinfully in light of a misunderstanding of the Gospel of God's grace. These are theological problems. These are sin problems. These are Gospel problems.

I cringed as I recognized that some of my own emotional patterns matched more closely with the case studies in the book instead of the counselors' Gospel-grounded wisdom. And that's what I want to talk about -- sharing a little bit of my story and my tendencies and my misunderstanding of the Gospel and how God has been convicting and comforting me through it all.

Let me be blunt: I have emotional issues. No, seriously. My parents don't understand it, my calm and patient sister doesn't understand it, my boyfriend doesn't get it, most friends don't get it -- and the ones who do have no idea what the solution is. I've struggled with depression, with wanting to quit Christianity and other relationships because I can't take the pressure, with insomnia, with trust issues, with controlling my emotions and with staying positive and hopeful. Several friends have seen me sobbing uncontrollably because no matter how hard I tried, I could not stop feeling a deep emotional pain -- or they've counseled me as I've been hard and unmovable, sick of life, sick of God, sick of this whole stupid joke of a Christianity thing -- or they've suffered as I go through long periods of moodiness and pessimism, getting upset at them for tiny things and rarely smiling.

I am not a happy-go-lucky, bubbly, smiley Bailey. I feel pain deeply. My sins overwhelm me. I can go 0 to 60 with my emotions at the drop of a hat. I identified with girls who felt depression or were suicidal or were just emotional wrecks. Nobody believed me when I wanted help. Bailey couldn't be depressed or want to give up on life or be as out-of-control as that person. She's a good girl. So I never got help. I struggled by as "normal" when I knew I wasn't. Especially this past year, when the emotional and spiritual breakdowns kept increasing in number and intensity and the people who used to disbelieve me now stared at me in shock.

Let me pause. This is not a sob story. I just want to let whatever good girl is reading this to know that it's okay for her to not "be normal." And I want to then reassure her that being broken and sinful and out-of-control is, actually, "normal" -- in the sense that we all struggle with it: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). So I just want to share some specific temptations that have overtaken me and the way of escape God is showing me.

First, I'm learning to acknowledge when I have a problem and seek help. It's absolutely humiliating to me to admit that I'm wrong in any way, much less have out-of-control emotional issues. How embarrassing for a good girl. But it's also a relief to acknowledge that hey, I am a sinner. I am not infallible or all-knowing or the paragon of Christian excellence. Jesus died for me because I'm a sinner, not because I am a good Sunday school girl raised in a Christian home and homeschooled all the way through high school. Refusing to recognize yourself as a sinner and refusing to label your problems as sins -- and problematic ones at that -- cuts yourself off from Christ's redemption. You cannot hide your sins. You cannot be good without God. You can't do this alone. Swallow your pride and confess your sins -- to God and to trustworthy peers and mentors who can keep you accountable.

I'm learning to not view myself as a victim. So many times I cut myself off from help because I frame myself as a victim, not as a conscious, responsible sinner who needs to repent and accept God's forgiveness and grace. Instead of dealing with my boiling anger and bitterness towards someone who hurt me, I'm consumed with how could she do that to me? My sinful response goes unnoticed in light of her sinful action to me. Whenever I talk about my emotional issues, I always highlight my need for "just talking" -- "I don't want help, I don't want rebuke, I just want to let it all out regardless of if I scream in anger or sit in despair." It's as if I call a time-out on the Christian life: I can commit whatever sin I want during this period of "talking it out" -- and big-time woe be on anyone who dare tries to gently check my torrent of ungodliness.

I also rarely mention my sin during the whole situation. If I do, I gloss over it with some pathetic excuse that makes my sin look good and justified. I've been proud of some of my sinful responses because of this attitude. Ultimately, I'm trying (either purposefully or subconsciously) to present the facts in a way that makes me look like a victim and the offender like a fiend. We all feel pity for victims and have a vast resource of patience for those who've been hurt deeply. I know this. I use it by crying, saying dramatic things, referencing some trauma in my past ("It's probably because of when so-and-so did this to me and I just don't know how to handle it now"). Whenever someone tries to offer hope, I wallow in despair. It's all about getting attention.

God's been calling me to embrace the strength He's given me to confront hurts, past and present, and handle them in a mature, self-controlled way. Responding emotionally to a hurt is natural and not wrong, but as soon as anger, bitterness, self-absorption or any other sin enters the scene, I'm abusing natural things and turning to sinful emotions.

On a similar note, I'm learning to not use the past as excuses to ignore doing hard things. For instance, it's hard for me to trust people because I was previously stuck in the idea that love must be earned, that I'm not good enough for love, and that the minute I mess up, the people I love will leave me. This makes relationships difficult at times. When I mess up, my immediate response is to pull away and fall into hopelessness: I just messed up everything, so why even try? If the person wants me back, he can come find me. My friend (another Biblical counseling major) pointed out to me that by persisting in this attitude, I was violating God's command to love -- because love "believes all things" and thinks the best of others. Currently I'm working through lovingly confronting and working through problems in a mature way or ignoring problems altogether, believing that the friend didn't mean to hurt me (or meant something entirely different than I understood) and still loves me just as much before a bad incident. No need to freak out! Just because I've been hurt in the past doesn't relieve me of my responsibility to do hard things in order to love others and love God.

I'm learning to put my hope in Christ, not my own abilities or tendencies. If I only had the resources in my own strength to confront my sins, I would give up and die now. I just can't do it. My emotional habits are too tangled up to unwind. This used to bowl me over to the point of paralysis: I would just lie underneath my covers and tremble all over, afraid to get up out of bed. But you know what? Christ came because I am hopelessly unable to conquer my sin in my own strength. That's the whole goal of the sanctification process. The Christian life is not about displaying near-perfect people for God's glory -- it's about fixing up the broken and disciplining the sinful for the glory of God. I have infinite hope because God is way bigger than all my sins, He's totally stronger than any of my strongholds, and He's already got the victory for me. I've got nothing to lose. That encourages me to throw everything I have into defeating sin -- because I know I will win.

I'm learning to put my identity in Christ's righteousness, not my sins. People have called me a rebel, not conformed to Christ, led by Satan, a prude, a Jezebel, judgmental and a drama queen -- among other things. These labels hurt like heck -- and the worst thing is, I can't deny all of them completely. Yes, I'm sometimes rebellious, often judgmental and almost always a drama queen. This discourages me so much because I see myself as hopelessly identified with these sins. No matter what I do, I think, people will always see me as a judgmental drama queen. What a huge relief to embrace the reality that my Abba Father sees me as none of these things. He views me as Christ's righteous, redeemed beloved. Whose opinion is greater -- oft-mistaken humans or the Lord of all creation? I'm given an option to see myself as people (and I) see me or to see myself as God sees me. That's the crazy awesomeness of Christianity at work. Even though I am still sinful, I don't have to identify myself as a sinner. I can identify myself as a saint.

Ultimately, I'm learning to react in accordance with the Gospel and not in accordance with shame. I'm not a competitive person by any means, but lately I've become a sore loser. If I do an amazing job and then lose -- well, I'm content with that. But if I look like an idiot while losing -- it's just not a pretty sight. I always rationalize my loss, try to blame it on my opponent, justify my idiotic decisions during the game and turn bright pink with embarrassment. This alerted me to how badly I deal with shame (which is really wounded pride). Strong emotions build up whenever I look inadequate next to anybody, whether that person is an online stranger or my own boyfriend. Shame keeps me from asking for help. Shame builds up walls between myself and people I love. Shame busies me with trying to make myself look good and hide all my imperfections. Shame makes me angry and defensive. Shame prevents me from repenting of sin, because in order to repent of sins as horrible as lust or anger or jealousy or chronic emotional distress, I have to acknowledge I sinned in the first place.

I hate that. It's humiliating. And what will people think of me?

I'm afraid of the shame people will heap on me, of the labels with which they will slap me, of the dropped-open jaws of the people I want to love and respect me most. So I bristle. I tell "it's nothing." I make excuses. I cry. I beat around the bush. I blame other people. Anything to get away from admitting the crippling shame.

You know what? In Christ, there is therefore now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). I put that on a t-shirt: the front says "I am forgiven," the back quotes the above. Because I need to remember this. I need to let it sink down into the core of my being. The Gospel frees me from condemnation -- from God's condemnation, from others' condemnation, from self-condemnation. God isn't surprised or disappointed when I sin. He's sanctifying me because He knows I'm still sinful all over. He has delivered and He is currently delivering me from my sin.

And what if other people condemn me? Well, He provides enough grace and strength to bear with the judgments of others, and He calls me to respond in a gracious, humble way. And if I condemn myself? I'm not allowed to do that. Anyone -- me, my close friends, even Satan himself -- who tries to come between my Father and me and accuse me of being a sinner undeserving of salvation and instead deserving of shame and ridicule -- Christ steps right in front of that accuser and says, "Sorry, you've got the wrong girl -- because this one's mine."

I preach the Gospel to myself moment by moment. The Gospel frees me from sin. It frees me from condemnation. It frees me from shame. It frees me from myself. I know I have a problem -- a deeply-rooted problem that's going to take so much effort and grace to pull out -- but I have a God who's bigger than that, a Savior who paid for all my sins, and an Advocate who declares me righteous regardless of how messed up I still remain.

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7 impressions

  1. Bailey- thank you for sharing, even when it hurts.

    It is such a blessing and comfort to know we have a God who understands. I did something rather unlike myself a few weeks ago, though I believe you will identify. I've been struggling lately with some dreams that I've had forever, prayed over, seen come true again again for friends and strangers alike, hoped for, and still no sign of my particular dreams coming anywhere close to reality. As I was walking to an evening Bible class, in front of me, I saw an example of that dream right there. Tears filled my eyes and I darted off the path crashing through the woods with my Bible in hand. I sat on a rock, high above a lake and cried. Tears I cried, and prayers I cried. I told God I was tired of all this, tired of seeing the dreams I know are God-honoring never being fulfilled, tired of perpetually being the one who cheerleads others, rejoices with those who rejoice all the while not experiencing the reciprocation of others rejoicing with me. Tired of being the encourager, the supporter who always is ready to listen. Tired of being the 'good girl' who always supports her parents even when their decisions though right for the family, are incredibly painful. I don't know how long I alternated praying and crying, but after a while I opened my Bible. I'm not sure exactly how, as I was reading I came to Psalm 103. The whole thing was like God wrapping me up in a big bear hug. Particularly verses 10-14:

    'He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
    For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
    as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
    As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
    For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust.'

    First of all: blessing. He does not treat us as our sins deserve! What blessed forgiveness He freely grants!

    2nd: He is steadfast. He doesn't move or change. In spite of our sinful selves, He loves us.

    3rd: He removes our transgressions. Need I say more?

    4th: He shows compassion. He truly is our heavenly Father.

    and 5th: He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust.

    'He remembers that we are dust' repeated over and over in my mind like a refrain. Like you wrote, God is not surprised by our sin! What comfort to know that He fully grasps and understands our weaknesses and struggles. He gets why I'm out crying on a rock better than I do! And all I can do is what the Psalmist did at the end of Psalm 103- bless the Lord, O my soul.

    Nothing has changed since my time of prayer, study and worship. Nothing's gotten better, nothings gotten worse. I still have days of struggle, but God is faithful in reminding me that I don't have to feel guilty that I'm human. He doesn't want me to try and 'fix' everything, He wants me to trust Him and obey Him, loving Him and understanding that it's only by His grace through His strength that I can do anything at all. And God is good. All the time.

    Forgive me for rattling on, you are the only one I've shared the entire story with! Thank you for sharing your stories with me and your other readers.

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  2. You will be an incredible Biblical counselor.

    And seriously, we all need help.

    What you said about having your identity in Christ's righteousness, rather than your sins...and about not being allowed to condemn yourself...this one's Christ's - I don't often comment, but that was so, so good. God is that good...and I think I will put down what you said in those paragraphs in my quote book, because I too need to preach the Gospel to myself moment by moment, and I love how you phrased all that.

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  3. Do you not believe that sometimes people can have issues outside of the help of the Gospel? Things that medications and therapy can ultimately help? My sister was diagnosed bipolar ten years ago, and medication (along with the aid of the Gospel) was one of the best things that ever happened for her.

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  4. Bailey, there's something in your post that concerns me. If I understood correctly, you mentioned OCD and bipolar disorder as being sinful reactions to trauma. I don't know very much about either, but it seems like I've always heard of medication as being essential for treatment of bipolar disorder.
    The nouthetic counseling movement (not sure if your counseling book subscribes to that view) says that psychological disorders are all the results of sin. I think this is a very dangerous idea that has the potential to lead to abuse.
    We would not tell a person with stomach ulcers that they *only* need to focus on their relationship with God--even though stomach ulcers are often associated with anxiety and worry, which in most cases is probably an improper, if not outright sinful, response to stress. Instead, we would ideally treat the person's disorder with traditional medication, as well as advise lifestyle changes to deal with stress. (A Christian would also provide a God-oriented approach to anxiety.) It would be irresponsible to refuse any allopathic treatment unless the person had first 'gotten right with God'.

    I realize that it is sometimes difficult to know when a person needs medication or other, more 'traditional' counseling methods (cognitive behavioral therapy for instance), and I think that medication has risks in many cases. However I believe that bipolar disorder in particular is very physically based, probably as much as the hypothetical stomach ulcer case. Depression, as well, is often treated as a sin problem...but it definitely has physical causes and treatments (and genetic predispositions).

    I don't mean to ignore the role of a good relationship with Christ in healing, or responsibility for our own sins and inappropriate responses. I think it's key...but I think there is the potential for huge damage if we blame the victim for diseases that are so largely 'medical' in nature. It's a very common thing in the Christian community, and I have recently heard a lot of stories of people who have been greatly hurt and shamed by it--particularly in response to depression.
    I hope I haven't been offensive or hurtful. I agreed with the vast majority of your post, and perhaps I am overreacting to that one sentence, based on my appraisal of the nouthetic counseling movement. (By the way, there are groups who believe that all medical ailments are results of sin....I'd like to note Jesus' reaction to the Pharisees, who asked who sinned, the blind man or his parents...'Neither!' was the response!)
    I do think that counseling sounds like a great option for you, by the way! Man, now I want to see what counseling classes I can find to take at my college.. So far I have had just Intro to Psychology, but am looking forward to Psychology of Gender in the fall :)
    P.S. I emailed you :)

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  5. trying to remember this.
    trying,
    trying,
    trying,
    desperately.

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  6. Bethany and Anonymous,

    Since I'm not trained as a counselor -- nouthetic or otherwise -- I don't claim to know how to treat all disorders. From what I know of nouthetic counseling, the first step is to rule out physical causes for problems -- anything from simply proper rest to genetic predispositions to physical problems that cause depression and other mental illnesses. Nouthetic counselors work with medical personnel and NEVER advise going off medication without a physician's go-ahead. Nobody ought to be shamed for having a physical problem that manifests itself in mental or emotional problems.

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  7. Bailey, thanks for your response. I'm glad you're aware of the need to include medical responses to illness. Glad to know that about nouthetic counselors, too, though I still have grave reservations about that branch of counseling.

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