Ron Goes for Counseling

After dating several women who told him he had “issues,” my friend Ron finally decided to look for a good counselor.

“That’s a great move,” I encouraged him. It was all I could do to stop short of adding, “And it’s about time, Ron!”

Yet the conversation grew darker when he asked my advice on how to go about finding a counselor who could actually do him some good.

“That’s a tough one, Ron. You’re a pretty hard case,” I chuckled. “And 95% of the counselors out there are either well-meaning but incompetent, or else they’re total frauds, just out to make money.”

I later had to admit that I had no scientific basis for my “95%” statistic. Perhaps the situation in the counseling community is even worse than that!

When Ron asked why I was so down on the counseling profession, I told him my Parable of the Dandelions.

“There are four kinds of counselors, Ron,” I explained. “Picture someone approaching four different advisers for input on controlling the dandelions in his yard.”

Counselor #1: This kind of counselor looks at the yard and says, “I don’t see any dandelions. I think you’re doing great!” This is the counselor of choice for those in denial. The person going for counseling denies he has any addictions or psychiatric conditions, and the counselor comforts him by agreeing!  A variation of this is the kind of counselor who provides reassuring comparisons: “Well, sure, you have dandelions. But there’s no need to worry about it, because all your neighbors have dandelions too!”

Counselor #2: This kind of counselor specializes in validation. After spending an hour with the patient and charging $160 or more, the counselor says, “Yes, you surely are depressed” or “Yes, you really do have a lot of anxiety.” Of course, the counselee already knew  that before spending his $160, but it feels good to have someone validate and confirm all the things he’s been feeling. The problem with this, quite obviously, is that nothing has really been solved  by the counselor. In essence, he’s just saying, “I see the dandelions you’re talking about!” Frequently, this kind of counselor also tries to validate your perspective on the cause  of your problems. By the end of the counseling session, you’ve found other people to blame for your troubles, leaving you guilt-free. “I agree with your assessment that your spouse is a jerk,” the counselor assures you. “So it’s no wonder you have anger issues.” Or you’re told, “Your self-esteem problems are all the fault of your parents.” You feel a remarkable sense of relief in knowing you’re not to blame for your current condition—but your condition never changes when you insist on shifting all the blame to others.

Counselor #3: This kind of counselor goes a little further than Counselor #2. “Yes, you definitely have dandelions, and we’re going to do something to fix that!” However, Counselor #3 opts for the same approach I once took when my dad told me to get rid of the dandelions in our yard: I simply pulled off the dandelion heads, and soon the yard looked dandelion-free. Counselor #3 typically accomplishes this by providing medication to mask a person’s pain, anxiety, depression, or other unpleasant symptoms. The greater the emotional pain, the higher the dosage that is prescribed. I’m sincerely thankful that medication can relieve some of these troublesome symptoms, and some people need that approach, at least in the short run. However, I can’t help but remember what happened when I pulled off the dandelion heads in our lawn. For a few days, it seemed like I was a genius, eradicating all signs of dandelions. But soon the dandelions were back, even more prevalent than before. And that’s why we need counselors like #4…

Counselor #4: I’m convinced that most counselors fall into the categories of #1, #2, or #3. You might wonder how they stay in business when they’re so ineffective. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find: Instead of truly being healed and delivered from their sins and dysfunctions, many people would prefer to live in denial, find affirmation that their problems really aren’t so bad, or find medication that will cover up the symptoms. In contrast, Counselor #4 understands that our emotional “dandelions” must be honestly acknowledged and then pulled out by the roots.

My friend Ron, like so many other people, stands at a crossroads. It’s tempting to pay a counselor to tell him he’s not nearly as messed up as those women say on his dates. And if he had some good medication, he probably wouldn’t worry about their opinions anyway.

The search for competent help won’t be easy, but I’m praying for Ron to find Counselor #4—someone with the spiritual discernment and patience to unearth and remove the roots of his emotional pain.

Tell me what you think. Am I being too hard on the counseling community? What kinds of remedies have helped you  find help and healing for your emotional wounds? Ron could use your advice.

#PrayForRon

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Why Was Elijah Depressed?

Elijah cave

Elijah has always been one of my favorite Bible characters, and I’m particularly intrigued by the chapter where he fights deep depression (1 Kings 19). The mighty prophet had witnessed amazing answers to prayer, stopping the rain for years before starting it again. He had multiplied a widow’s meager supply of food and raised her son from the dead. And for good measure, he called down fire from heaven and slayed the false prophets of Baal.

Huge victories, to say the least. Impressive demonstrations of faith. Causes for great celebration, we might think.

So how in the world did Elijah become utterly depressed—to the extent that he wanted God to end his life?

Although some people act as if depression has only one cause, in Elijah’s case we see this simply isn’t true. You might come up with a different list than mine, but I’ve found 7 lessons about depression we can learn from Elijah’s story:

  1. Be careful what you listen to. The onset of Elijah’s melancholy can be traced to 1 Kings 19:2: “Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah.”  Every moment of every day, we are bombarded with messengers, aren’t we? God is speaking. The devil is speaking. And we receive countless positive or negative messages through the people around us and diverse forms of media. Beware: The spirit of Jezebel is still speaking, my friend! And if we listen to that diabolical messenger, we’ll inevitably become depressed, just like Elijah.
  2. Avoid the tendency to go it alone. Elijah made two mistakes that contributed to his downward spiral. First, he left his servant behind (v. 3). During the prophet’s dark hours in the cave, no one was with him to cheer him up or offer helpful perspective. But an even worse problem was his disconnect from the God-fearing Israelites who could have been his allies: the “seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal” (v. 16). It’s depressing to feel all alone in a daunting mission—but sometimes we just need to connect with those who would happily be our comrades.
  3. Recognize the physical factors influencing your state of mind. Depression isn’t just a spiritual or psychological condition. Often it’s greatly influenced by factors that are physical or chemical in nature. If you study this chapter in detail, you’ll see that Elijah was extremely fatigued, deprived of adequate sleep for several days. He also was dehydrated and lacking in nutrition until God sent an angel to give him water and food (vs. 5-8). On top of everything else, he had faced a period of great stress, which often results in adrenal exhaustion and other deficits in a person’s body chemistry.
  4. Assess whether you’re in the right place. Twice in this passage, God asks the prophet a fascinating question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verses 9 & 13). If you’re feeling depressed today, it’s good to ask whether you’re “out of position” in some way. Are you in a job or ministry where you don’t fit? Are you remaining in the wrong city or country, when the Lord has been nudging you to move somewhere else? Are you staying in a toxic relationship, when you know you don’t have God’s peace?
  5. Beware of the egotistical view that everything depends on you. When you try to play God, you will inevitably become both exhausted and depressed. Elijah told the Lord, “I alone am left; and they seek to take my life” (v. 10). He knew there was a lot more work to be done in bringing repentance and national restoration to Israel, and he felt the job depended entirely on him! When we get stuck in that kind of overwhelming mindset, we need to pause and (1) cast our burdens on the Lord, and (2) recognize our need to team up with other people in order to fulfill the remaining mission.
  6. Amid whirling circumstances and activities, make sure you don’t lose touch with God’s gentle whisper and still small voice. While it’s clear Elijah knew a lot about intimacy with God, it seems he slipped away from that intimacy amid the busyness of his life and ministry. Can you relate? In the midst of the busyness of “serving God,” it’s all too easy to neglect spending quality time with Him. In this case, the Lord showed Elijah “a great and strong wind…an earthquake…and a fire” (vs. 11-12), but the divine message came with His gentle whisper instead of any of these dramatic events. Ask yourself: Can you still hear the Lord’s quiet voice when you’re by yourself, or do you only feel His presence when the worship band is blaring?
  7. Find hope in remembering your mission—or in finding a new one, if necessary. Elijah had already accomplished a great deal. It was understandable to wonder if his life’s mission had already been completed. But it’s incredibly depressing when you no longer believe God still has an important purpose for your life. A major breakthrough in shedding his depression came when Elijah was recommissioned by the Lord with a new calling—to anoint some kings and “anoint Elisha as prophet in your place” (v. 15-16). Perhaps this is a message for you as well: It could be time to equip the next generation and train your replacement!

Action Steps

Most of us have faced a bout of serious depression at one time or another. Hey, if it could happen to Elijah, you and I certainly aren’t immune.

However, you don’t need to stay in the “cave” or the valley of despair. Learning the lessons from Elijah’s story, you can believe God’s promises and quit listening to the messengers of condemnation and defeat. You can learn to rely on the Lord and your comrades instead of carrying the entire load on your own shoulders.

It’s also important to regularly monitor the physical factors you’re dealing with. Are you getting enough sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition? Do you need to take steps to eliminate some of the stress in your life?

Perhaps it’s time to ask yourself the “placement” question God asked Elijah. Are you in the right place…the right role…with the right people?

If, like Elijah, you’ve lost your sensitivity to the Lord’s gentle whisper amid life’s busyness, I pray you’ll hear it once again. And when you do, don’t be surprised if He reaffirms your calling—or gives you a whole new mission.

I’m praying your best days are still ahead!  

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Job’s Melancholy Birthday

Job's birthday

At my age, birthdays are something I would prefer to forget rather than celebrate. Yet the greetings of “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” continue, and I’m always grateful for the nice sentiments.

This got me thinking of the story of Job. He had a happy life at the beginning and the end, but the middle was pretty rough.

Thankfully, we don’t have to get stuck in the middle of the story.

At one point, Job was not a big fan of his birthday. A season of incredibly severe trials had begun, and he cursed the day he was born:

Obliterate the day I was born.
    Blank out the night I was conceived!
Let it be a black hole in space.
    May God above forget it ever happened.
    Erase it from the books!
May the day of my birth be buried in deep darkness,
    shrouded by the fog,
    swallowed by the night.
And the night of my conception—the devil take it!
    Rip the date off the calendar,
    delete it from the almanac.
Oh, turn that night into pure nothingness—
    no sounds of pleasure from that night, ever!
May those who are good at cursing curse that day
(Job 3:1-10 MSG).

Wow. An extreme reaction, don’t you think? But at that moment Job had forgotten his past blessings and wasn’t anticipating a better life in the days ahead.

I hope you  never have a melancholic birthday like Job was experiencing. But even if you do, his story provides good news—a happy ending!

God blessed Job’s later life even more than his earlier life…Job lived on another 140 years, living to see his children and grandchildren—four generations of them! Then he died—an old man, a full life (Job 42:12-17 MSG).

How cool that 140 years after Job wanted his life to end, everything had changed. He was experiencing a full, blessed life, all the way to the end.

So…I hope all your birthdays are happy ones. But even if they aren’t, you can find hope and comfort in the story of Job. God is a God of turnarounds and new beginnings. Your “later life” can be even more blessed than your earlier life!

Like Job, you may be facing pain in your body or losses of your property and relationships. But we’re told that “God restored his fortune—and then doubled it!” (Job 42:10 MSG). Yes, Job got double for all his trouble.

It may take 42 chapters, as it did for Job, but your story can have a happy ending too. You don’t have to get stuck in a melancholic birthday. The Lord can restore what you’ve lost—and even given you more.

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The Cure for Bone-Deep Pain

bone-deep-pain

I once met a man who had become addicted to prescription painkillers.

“That must be terrible,” I empathized. “Where is your pain located?”

I expected the man to tell me about migraine headaches, pain in his back, or some other kind of physical agony. But, to my surprise, he took the conversation in an entirely different direction.

“Well, my wife left me a few years ago, and I’ve been really lonely. I’m also having conflict with my kids, and I don’t like my job. I basically hate my life and feel like a total failure.”

I wasn’t prepared for his explanation. What did any of those circumstances have to do with getting hooked on prescription pain medicine?

However, as our conversation continued, I began to see the connection. While some people become dependent on pills to alleviate their physical  discomfort, this man was desperately trying to numb his emotional  pain.

Perhaps you can’t relate to this. I hope  you can’t relate!

Yet here’s the sad reality for many people: There’s a kind of pain that goes far deeper than pain in our physical body. It goes to the very soul—to the core of our being.

I call this “bone-deep” pain, but it’s actually much deeper even than that.

King David seems to have been quite familiar with bone-deep emotional pain. While some of his psalms are exuberant and celebratory, many describe his deep internal agony, all the way down to his bones:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled…
(Psalm 6:3).

My life is spent with grief,
And my years with sighing;
My strength fails because of my iniquity,
And my bones waste away
(Psalm 31:10).

When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long
(Psalm 32:3).

Some of David’s psalms attribute his bone-deep pain to things like grief, betrayal, and the torment he frequently received from his enemies. But other passages, such as Psalm 39, acknowledge that some of his emotional pain was the direct result of his own sinful, foolish choices:

O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your wrath,
Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure!
For Your arrows pierce me deeply,
And Your hand presses me down.

There is no soundness in my flesh
Because of Your anger,
Nor any health in my bones
Because of my sin
.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.
My wounds are foul and festering
Because of my foolishness…

I am feeble and severely broken;
I groan because of the turmoil of my heart 
(Psalm 39:1-8).

Fortunately, there’s hope for those who are suffering bone-deep pain. David goes on to conclude that God is with him and well aware of his turmoil (v. 9). Even though there is no lasting relief for such pain through prescription painkillers, alcohol, or illegal drugs, David has found the only source of true hope: “In You, O Lord, I hope; You will hear, O Lord my God”  (v. 15).

David had experienced the incredible pain of internal torment, but that gave him authority to speak with great eloquence about the Shepherd who offers to lead us to a place of peace, safety, and renewed joy: “He restores my soul”  (Psalm 23:3).

Let those four beautiful words sink into the core of your being today: “He restores my soul.”  The Lord understands the severity of your pain, and He offers to penetrate—bone deep and beyond—to restore your soul.

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A Ray of Hope on a Gloomy Day

Are you bummed out about something today? Perhaps the condition of your nation…your church…your health…your finances…your emotions…or your family? Then I think you’ll find hope and encouragement through the words of the prophet Jeremiah, sometimes called “the weeping prophet.”

As Jeremiah wept during the devastation of his beloved city, Jerusalem, his initial reaction was not to blame the Babylonian invaders for his agony. He blamed God, concluding that his nation’s afflictions had come “from the rod of God’s wrath” (Lamentations 3:1-20 TLB).

You have to admit, this was a logical conclusion. The Lord had promised to defend and protect His people if they walked in His ways. So the Babylonians weren’t actually the real problem—it was an issue between God and His people.

As Jeremiah witnessed the troubling events befalling his nation, he reasoned, “[God] has turned against me…and surrounded me with anguish and distress.” And he also was baffled by the fact that “though I cry and shout, he will not hear my prayers!”

Jeremiah was having a very bad day, and God didn’t seem to immediately come to his aid. Perhaps you can relate.

To make matters worse, Jeremiah felt “stuck,” unable to find any quick or easy solution to his pain: “He has walled me in; I cannot escape.” Perhaps you’ve wanted escape too. In frustration, you’ve been tempted to leave your country, your job, or your marriage. But escape is rarely the answer.

While Jeremiah knew that God promises freedom to His people when they trust and obey Him, he must have been horrified by the realization that “he has fastened me with heavy chains.” How traumatic!

But the chains of the Babylonians were not much different from the chains of debt we now find ourselves in as a nation. One estimate says that every baby born this year will immediately owe $250,000 as their share of the national debt. Chains of bondage, don’t you think?

Jeremiah probably once had a nice plan for his life, but now everything had changed. Instead of getting closer to his destination, just the opposite seemed true: “[God] has filled my path with detours.” Perhaps you’re one of the thousands of people who’ve had to defer your retirement plans because of “detours” in the economy. I can relate.

If you find yourself lamenting today, you no doubt feel a need for comrades who understand and sympathize. But Jeremiah wasn’t given this luxury. He felt very much alone, even rejected: “My own people laugh at me; all day long they sing their ribald songs.”

Hmmm…sounds like a cultural war is going on, doesn’t it? While Jeremiah lamented, the people around him laughed. Seemingly without a clue about the destruction they were facing, people mocked God’s prophetic message and chose to flaunt their worldly ways. Jeremiah must have faced opposition from leaders who, like some today, belittle godly people for “clinging to their guns and religion” instead of embracing cultural trends.

Recognizing peace and prosperity as two key pillars of every nation truly blessed by God, Jeremiah was disturbed to realize that both were slipping away: “All peace and all prosperity have long since gone, for you [God] have taken them away.”

As Jeremiah surveyed this dismal situation, he made another quite logical deduction: “The Lord has left me…All hope is gone.” Who could blame him for feeling melancholy, hopeless, and even bitter?

Fortunately, this wasn’t the end of the story. Jeremiah went on to describe how the Lord broke through the dark clouds of disillusionment and gave him a sudden ray of encouragement:

Yet there is one ray of hope: his compassion never ends.

It is only the Lord’s mercies that have kept us from complete destruction.

Great is his faithfulness; his loving‑kindness begins afresh each day.

My soul claims the Lord as my inheritance; therefore I will hope in him.

The Lord is wonderfully good to those who wait for him, to those who seek for him (Lamentations 3:21-25 TLB).

What an incredible change in Jeremiah’s perspective! Even in his gloomy place of lament, he saw an amazing ray of hope. From the pit of despair, he saw the Lord’s compassion and faithfulness. From an attitude of blaming God for his anguish, he ended up praising God and declaring His goodness.

So what about you? If you are experiencing a time of lament today—concerning your own life, your loved ones, your church, or your nation—may the Lord break through the clouds and give you a fresh glimpse of His faithfulness.

Like Jeremiah, the apostle John faced some frightening times when he wrote the book of Revelation. Yet everything changed when he saw “a throne in heaven and Someone sitting on it” (Revelation 4:1-2).

Praise God, He is still faithful and still sitting on the throne of the universe.

 

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What LeBron Is Feeling Now

I’ve never met LeBron James, and I probably never will. So I guess it’s presumptuous to tell you how he’s feeling after winning his second straight NBA title and MVP award.

But I will tell you anyway, because there’s a lesson here.

Reading between the lines of various comments LeBron has made, you can see he has a chip on his shoulder. He’s had many detractors since entering the NBA, especially after failing to win championships with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And then he was criticized for his decision to movie to South Beach in pursuit of a championship with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the Miami Heat.

Even after winning the Heat won the championship last season, the critics didn’t go away. Nor did LeBron lose the chip on his shoulder.

One championship wasn’t enough. LeBron still had to prove something.

It has never been enough to display his spectacular physical attributes or be considered the best basketball player on the planet. LeBron had to win championships—lots of championships. Especially since everyone keeps comparing him to Michael Jordan.

How would you  like to be competing with the ghost of Michael Jordan? That would be a tough assignment for anyone, especially if their entire identity was wrapped around the game of basketball.

So LeBron has worked hard. Yes, he has had an “attitude,” but he has used it well—to motivate him to keep improving his game. Several times in this year’s championship run, he almost singlehandedly snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. Kudos, LeBron.

So he has every right to be extremely happy…proud…ecstatic about what he has achieved.

But here’s the sad part: Despite his amazing accomplishments, the great King James isn’t feeling so great. At least not right now.

This is actually quite predictable. Yet I’m sure LeBron is feeling baffled by his melancholic reaction to his amazing success—especially when surrounded by people who assure him he should be  quite pleased with himself.

Instead of euphoria, here’s what LeBron is feeling at the moment: After two NBA titles, two MVP awards, and even an Olympic gold medal, it’s still not enough. After all of his superhuman efforts, there are still detractors out there. Michael Jordan still  has more championships, and it looks ever-harder to surpass his record.

Within days, if not hours, of his new championship, LeBron looks ahead to having to get on the treadmill of achievement once again. How can he keep doing this, again and again and again? Will it ever  be enough? Will he ever  feel truly satisfied…truly good about himself?

And what will happen when LeBron’s basketball days one day come to a close? Will his self-image as a person be able to make the harsh transition from Superman to Clark Kent?

Although I haven’t always cheered for LeBron on the basketball court, I am pulling for him as a person. Yet in some ways I find myself feeling sorry for him. It’s an awful thing to be on an endless treadmill of trying to feel good about yourself…and the treadmill of proving something to your critics.

I’m praying for LeBron to find deep peace and satisfaction at last. But I know he won’t find contentment on the basis of accomplishments alone. Nor will it come because all the naysayers have become convinced of his worth.

But LeBron’s predicament is actually a challenging lesson for all of us. Are we still trying to prove something, to ourselves or to others? Are we still on a never-ending treadmill, unable to find true inner contentment?

The message today—whether to LeBron James, to you, and to me—is found in the wise words of Augustine: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

So if you don’t seem likely to win an NBA championship anytime soon, that’s okay. Lasting satisfaction and fulfillment will always prove elusive if they are based on our accomplishments. Instead, they must be found in God’s unconditional affirmation and love. That’s the ultimate ring we should be chasing.

 

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