What Is Wrong With Us?

The Question at the Heart of the Counseling Debate

By Dan Allender

Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 4 · Winter/Spring: pgs 9-20.

Something is deeply wrong with us. Something is deeply wrong with me.

It had been a fine weekday morning. The Colorado sunrise combined a pinkish cast with royal, dark clouds and a hint of orange for spice. It was magnificent. Before anyone else had come downstairs, I sat in the living room, unhurried, sipping coffee in one hand, and with the other lingering over articles in the paper that normally I would have passed by with only a casual glance. I was happy and at peace.

My teenage daughter waltzed down the stairs wearing sloppy khakis, work boots, and a white T-shirt. She looked fine, but I made the error of teasing her before she could get to her granola. "Cool," I said. "Are you going to work as a lumberjack or going off to school?"

She responded with a teenage snarl and grabbed my shirtsleeve. My other hand lost balance of my coffee cup, and the coffee spiraled outward, sending a wave of brown liquid over the floor and wall.

I snapped. I yelled. I ranted. I finally calmed down after a minute and realized I had overreacted.

As I rose to return to my work upstairs, I realized I had encountered a beast. The beast was not my daughter. It was an angry snarl in me that had been just below the surface, waiting to roar. It was something inside of me-something deeply wrong.

What is wrong with me? Is it psychological or spiritual? Is it accurate to say that I lacked trust in God that morning, choosing to rely on my own resources, and thus reaping consequences that painfully complicated my life? Or, is it equally accurate to say I have an inability to trust others because of severe childhood pain that has weakened my ego boundaries and eroded my self-esteem? Have I developed dysfunctional coping strategies that actually cause more pain than relief?

The first analysis seems biblical-but it lacks a perspective on the damage done to the soul that comes from living in a fallen world. The second analysis, on the other hand, acknowledges the damage we experience-yet seems to explain away sin or, at least, ignore the sinful heart's struggle with God. Does the answer lie in simply combining both perspectives-that is, in integrating both the horizontal dimension of human relationships with the vertical issues of our relationship with God? Or, are there core issues related to what is wrong with us-issues that do more than simply combine one perspective with another-that, in fact, cut to the core of both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of life?

It is my conviction that truly biblical "summaries" of our problems draw both the horizontal and vertical issues together.

A Multiplicity of Voices

Irrespective of what is wrong, only the most committed cynic or outlandish optimist would suggest we are fine the way we are. One writer surveyed more than 250 therapeutic models and found that each one offered divergent and often contradictory views of what is wrong. Yet, at least there is harmony in viewing humanity as troubled. There may be solace in the nearly unanimous assumption that life is not as it was meant to be. But still that does not answer the question: What is wrong with us?

The multiplicity of voices attempting to answer the question likely have grasped some sliver of truth. For example, professional therapists who espouse a cognitive-behavioral view of therapy might say that what is wrong with us is our faulty thinking-our logical errors. An adult might view her failure to have achieved certain childhood dreams as being tantamount to failing in life. This kind of "catastrophizing" of perceived or actual failure likely is based on the narrow, black-and-white thinking she developed as a child. Such thinking is illogical and needs to be challenged-and new paradigms of more accurate thinking established-in adulthood.

There is a measure of truth to this kind of theory. Yet, in describing the problem as "faulty thinking," does the cognitive-behavioral sum up what is really wrong with us, or does it merely reduce the problem to an element that is true but not comprehensive? Like the blind men who each hypothesized differently about the nature of an elephant by touching only one part of its frame, so are we when we reduce the beast of the human condition to one element. We are misled by our shortsightedness.

When we are misled by our grasp of one dimension of the truth, we usually are unwilling to look beyond what we have understood to see other elements of the whole, which might cause us to alter our initial opinion. All truth may be God's truth, but any effort to cling to a partial truth can overshadow the whole truth.

Our task is to address the question in such a way that our vision is not narrowed. On the other hand, our answer cannot be so broad that it misses the complexity and particularity of our struggles. Let me give an example: The simplest way to answer the question of what is wrong with us is to say, simply, "Sin. Sin is what causes heartache and disharmony." But once stated, this answer offers little perspective on why one man becomes sexually aroused by the sight of his mother's feet, or why one woman becomes depressed when her children grow up and leave home.

We must answer the question of what is wrong with us with a perspective that neither narrowly reduces the problem to a sliver of truth nor trivializes our disease with accurate but simplistic formulas.

What Is Wrong?

To answer the question, "What is wrong with humankind?" we need to be guided by a biblical perspective that summarizes in grand strokes the essence of why we exist-and then work backward from the assumption that we have become the antithesis of what we were meant to be. The first great summary of our creation and calling is found in Jesus' penetrating analysis of the law:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31)

The essence of being human is to love-first of all, God, but never without the love of God transforming the way we love others.

This summary of the law came in response to the attempts by Pharisees and other religious leaders to trap and humiliate Jesus. In answering their questions, Jesus gave them more than they bargained for: he gave the most important commandment first, but linked love of man so closely to it that he inextricably bound the love of God and man together. It is worthwhile to note that the apostle John also linked the two commandments in his epistle-so that if someone says he loves God but hates his neighbor, he proves that he actually hates God as well (1 John 3:16).

A Failure of Love

So, what is wrong with humankind? The answer, working backward from the great commandment, is a refusal to love God as he is and humankind as we have become. If we can assume this much, then we can safely say that the core of all psychological pathology-irrespective of its manifestation, severity, or chronicity (excepting biologically driven illnesses)-is due to a failure of love. All psychological symptoms are related to disobedience-that is, to our failure to love God and others as God intended, and to our refusal to love due to the pain of living in a fallen world.

We are born with a severe heart problem: we naturally resist God and turn from him to gods of our own making (Psalm 51). We are rebels and enemies of God from birth. Yet, the direction and intensity of our rebellion will be shaped by our unique life experiences. Factors as varied as our race, culture, socioeconomic status, physical and intellectual capacities, family of origin, traumas such as death of a parent, harm of an alcoholic parent, or the horror of sexual abuse will set the parameters for how we live out our rebellion.

For example, a person who grew up in an alcoholic home may have learned at an early age that physical beatings and emotional abandonment could be minimized if he joined in the illusion that anything done within the family was both normal and good. In order to keep outsiders from seeing the truth, a duplicity combined with denial was used to create an alternate reality rather than face what was true. Such a pattern-exercised as a matter of survival over years-set the scene for enormous psychological damage. Yet, is the damage-in this case, poor self-esteem, a chronic sense of living as a false self, and patterns of deceit-due merely to having grown up in an alcoholic home? Or is there more involved?

We hurt when we are sinned against. But is hurt the real cause of the damage? In other words, is the soul similar to the body, in that a severe blow to it will likely cause a brokenness of some kind? As a bone is broken, will a severe blow to the soul likewise cause psychological problems? The answer seems to be a complex yes and no; it is not a certainty, because many people suffer crushing experiences without suffering equally severe psychological consequences.

Yet, it is human suffering-loss, shame, and confusion-that provokes us to directly and deeply ask the question, "Is God good?" Indeed, the questions concerning unexplained suffering-whether framed impersonally about life, or asked directly about God-provoke us either to humble ourselves before God or to justify our flight from him. When we flee from God, we bear a suffering that torments our inner being and eventually causes conflicts with others.

Isaiah describes the consequences of our refusal to rely on God in the midst of confusion, fear, and pain as torment. He says:

Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God. But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment. (Isa. 50:10-11)

Soulish torment is the price of rebellion, of choosing to light my own fire. Isaiah's metaphor of "fire-lighting" is one way the Bible describes our pursuit of self-independence. For example, we light our own fire when we refuse to feel heartache and use our imagination as a means of fleeing to an alternate reality. Often in the field of psychology this is called "dissociation." Yet, is this merely a psychological response to pain caused by another human being? In-deed, it is-but it is more. It is also a refusal to wrestle with God and his purposes in the midst of the pain.

We certainly are wounded by others, but real psychological distress comes when we turn away from facing life as it is and refuse to turn to God for the strength to remain obedient to his great commandment in the midst of our pain. Put simply, it is not pain alone that causes us damage; but, rather, it is pain that inflames our suspicion that God is not good-at least not good enough to protect us and provide for us-that causes us to turn away from loving him and others, resulting in psychic torment.

Seeing Our Failures in a Biblical Context

How does this initial statement about our problem help us to understand my failure with my daughter? One might simply say: "You did not love your daughter. You reacted with anger rather than mercy and strength. Change. Repent. Stop it." I know I should do each of these things-but this counsel does not address my real failure of love. It stops at the event and sees it as discrete, disconnected from both my inner world and my recent and longer past. It fails to see the event of failure in context.

Oddly, the same people who would offer the above counsel-"Change, repent, stop it"-would never approach the text of the Bible in such a way. They would read a biblical text in context, asking about the author's intent (motivation), his background (history), the problem at hand which prompts his writing the letter (existential situation), and the framework of his other writings (convictional presuppositions).

In my estimation, the study of the "text" of a person ought to bear striking similarity to the study of the text of the Bible. In other words, to understand the event and my reaction, it is not enough to say, "You sinned. Stop it." Rather, it is imperative to understand how infrequent it is that I have quiet, peaceful, contemplative moments in the morning. It would also be helpful to understand why the last year has been more painful, uncertain, and hopeful than any in my life. Further, it would help to know about the wonderful discussion I had had with my daughter the night before, about matters of her heart and faith that had caused my soul to soar in hope. If those stories could be told in light of how often I have felt duped by hope in my past, then one might gain a sense of the darkness in me that sets into motion when things go well-when, simply, a morning is enjoyed.

Unwittingly, my daughter ran into a man who did not want anything or anyone to cast a pall over the rare lightness of being that surfaces when he feels giddy happiness. My remark to her had been playful, but she had heard it as cruel. Her tug had not been mean, but it had stirred ever-so-slightly in me a fear of betrayal in her act-and it had brought forth a rush of indignation: how dare she ruin my joy?

Was my sin against her? Yes. But the real issue is that I do not trust the pleasure God occasionally offers me as a momentary rest in the midst of the battles of life. I do not love him well. My heart is suspicious of his intentions, even though I rested and thanked him for the colors of glory he allowed me to observe and applaud. And I failed to love my daughter in my dark moment of disappointment, because my heart was unwilling to enter pleasure and then relinquish it when God's plan invited me to be saddened by a small misunderstanding.

Quite simply, I will never truly love others until I oddly love whatever God chooses for me to encounter in the tumult-and-rest of a day. My failure to know my allergic response to hope-to know my past and to hunger for what could be godly about my soul-left me susceptible to deeply failing my daughter in the present. My failure of love was at core a failure of worship. And it is only as I remain open to worship that I will begin to offer my life as a sacrifice of love.

A Failure of Worship

The apostle Paul also looks at this issue from the perspective of worship. Paul assumes that humankind is created to worship and serve God. In reality, we may not worship and serve God, but we will worship something. After all, worship is as core to being human as breathing is to life; we are incurably religious. But when we refuse to worship God, we turn our awe and gratitude to that which is not God. We worship the creature-ultimately, ourselves. Paul writes:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They ex-changed the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator. (Rom. 1:18-25)

This passage is a gold mine of biblical reflection on what is wrong with us.

First, we suppress truth. This is a radical phrase. It implies that we do more than merely believe the wrong things. We choose not to see the external data of God's glory and the internal workings of our conscience. To "suppress" means to actually hold something down so that we are not troubled by its reality. When we suppress, we live with the illusion that our life, both internal and external, is not as it is. Over time we become so good at living this lie that we actually believe-to the point of causing death and destruction-that our fabrications of reality are real.

Our thinking (far more than mere cognition, and including our whole heart) then becomes futile and darkened-and we turn our hunger for God's glory to created things. Our passion for God is exchanged for idols that are under our control. So, God gives us over to our desires, and we become slaves of the gods we once made and controlled.

Paul writes of our proclivity to worship "images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles." Our idols are indeed material, but Paul's letter should not be viewed as restricting our gods to merely physical manifestations. On the contrary, it is the power that comes from these manifestations of physical potency that we worship. Does an investor on Wall Street worship the "bull"? Of course not-he worships what the animal represents for its sense of mastery and ownership of life.

We live in a chaotic, unpredictable world, and we crave mastery over the uncertain. Thus, our gods provide us with an illusion of contact with unseen powers we believe can aid us in keeping life intact as we face the horror of death and decay. We have a passion to submit to something greater than us, but which is still utterly under our power.

The physical idols Paul mentions were more than mere power symbols; they also bore strong sexual overtones. The gods of the mystery cults common in Paul's day often were symbols of fertility, sexual potency, and pleasure. It is no wonder a darkened heart that worships the creature rather than the creator easily slides into sexual struggle. In fact, sexual bondage may take the person so low that he (or she) succumbs to same-sex, violent perversion. But before that depth of sin is reached, there are many other levels of struggle that reflect our war against God's design.

Our predilection to suppress truth, turn from awe of and gratitude to God, and construct gods to worship will inevitably involve a struggle with sexuality-or, in a broader sense, with what it means to be a man or a woman. We are meant to reflect God through our gender. And when we turn from worshiping him, we will also turn from the way we have been made.

God made us both male and female not only for the sake of sexual pleasure, but also to reflect something of the diversity and depth of his character. We are his image-male and female-and, therefore, each gender reveals something about God that is complementary though different from the other.

The evil one wants to destroy both our enjoyment of being men and women and the sexual pleasure God intended for us to enjoy. Satan does so through the agency of sexual violation and/or immorality. He taints the joy of gender by causing either undeserved shame (violation) or unforgiven shame (immorality). In any case, once sexual shame taints our identity as men and women, we will flee from living out our unique calling as men and women and resist anyone who invites us to be true to our calling. This "flight and fight" can be seen in either repressed and deadened sensuality, or in dishonoring indulgence in sensuality.

If every psychological struggle is related to a failure of love, then all psychological symptoms reflect idolatry. They are part of our effort to suppress truth, to extinguish awe and gratitude, and to create gods that are under our control. Moreover, every symptom involves a war with our gender and sexuality, so that it becomes less desirable and possible for us to live for the glory of God.

Again, how is all this demonstrated in my failing my daughter? First, my daughter unwittingly invited me to be a man. She invited me to enter the labrinyth of adolescence, where one moment is sweet and hopeful and the next is theatrically dark and foreboding. As I encountered her, I had forgotten about my battle with hope. I had unconsciously dreamt of another connecting, lovely encounter, but she awakened me to the dirge of reality. At that moment, I could have offered her my strength and kindness: "Sweetheart, you are a pill. Get a rag and clean it up. And next time, let me tease you without having to face the part of you that really is like a lumberjack."

The scenario would then have been a passing moment-lost in the cornucopia of largely unimportant moments that reflect imperfectly the glory of our God. Instead, it was yet another proof to my daughter's young heart that love is fickle, grace rare, and desire foolish. And it was, for a time at least, a proof to me that I have little to offer those I most deeply love. I hated my failure; yet, sadly, I hated even more the desire aroused by my early-morning joy.

I learned long ago that it is dangerous to be a man. The sexual abuse I suffered as a child taught me that it is foolish to desire. Over the years, I found that the desires of my heart would only lead to more danger and shame. In short, the more I wanted, the more I hurt-and the more I hurt, the less I wanted to desire. It seemed like a vicious joke. On the one hand, I was compelled to desire because I was made in the image of God; but, on the other hand, the risk of hunger seemed to erode my humanity. Why should I want, when desire mostly degenerated into disappointment? In that sense, safety from desire became as much of a god to me as the "bull" is to those on Wall Street who bow before silly symbols of power.

Safety can become a god. We can have a passion to have no passion. Yet to serve and worship the Creator is to open our heart to awe, to wonder, to gratitude; thus, our desire can soar to joy and plummet to despair. We are caught on the horns of a dilemma: Should we shed our humanity-that is, our being made in the image of God-because of the potential dashing of our desire? Or should we desire, and enter the risk of humanness that struggles with God and surrenders to his heart?

If I can be grasped by the beauty of a sunrise, drawn into the splendor of rest, and amazed at the sweetness of hope, then I am unable to harden my heart. I may not worship-but I cannot be human until I do. Desire draws us to the precipice of danger, where we abandon our heart to cry out in gratitude and to weep in awe. Frederick Buechner writes, "Tears like praise came unwittingly and fiercely; it was not a choice." The service of empty gods leads to a deadness of soul that only the fierceness of true worship can break. We were meant to live even in the darkness of failure with our passion.

As much as we may turn a deaf ear to truth, kill our hunger, and serve false gods, we are unable to ever fully deny our hunger for God and the call to know him. We are meant to live with faith, hope, and love. They are as much the core of our being as breath is to our body.

A Failure of Faith, Hope, and Love

Jesus summarized the law in terms of loving God and others. Paul took this summary and considered all failure of love for God as leading to idolatry, addiction, and perversion of human relationships. Any psychological theory that does not address these "core" issues fails to take into account a biblical analysis of what is wrong.

However, we can go a step further in considering all human psychological ills. Paul further summarized his view of life from the trilogy of faith, hope, and love. He wrote:

Now we see but a poor reflection [as in a mirror;] then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:12-13)

When Paul addressed his letters to the various churches, he usually began by thanking them for their faith, hope, and love. Similarly, when there were difficulties in a church, he viewed the "core" problem in terms of the same trilogy. He told the Corin-thians and Philippians, for example, that they needed to grow in love. On the other hand, he told the church at Ephesus that he was praying their eyes might be opened even more to the glorious riches of the hope that awaited them. The three terms-faith, hope, and love-are interdependent, yet each relates to a different dimension of our being.

Faith: Grounding Our Past in the Story of God

Faith is centered on our memory of God's redemption in the past. We have faith when we are confident of God's goodness as experienced through his provision and protection of us. The two great events of redemption-the Exodus and the Cross-are the pivotal events of faith. We are to remember these stories as we struggle with our own uncertain and unredeemed moments. It is faith that allows us to face clearly the confusion and pain of the past and present.

In light of God's past redemption, we are to cry out for his present salvation. We are free to doubt, to hurt, and to plead for his presence now. Faith frees us to live in the midst of heartache with the confidence that God loves us and will struggle with us to a good end.

All psychological problems begin with an unwillingness to honestly and deeply struggle with our story. As we face questions about our past sexual abuse, the death of our parent, or the shame of our family's poverty, we are invited to look at those realities in light of God's redemptive plan. To do so does not take away the pain, nor at times the confusion; but it does set our experience in a context, which allows us to struggle toward comprehending God's mysterious purposes for our life.

A person who has lost his past-his story-has also lost his identity and unique calling. To regain faith, he must do more than merely believe; he must come to comprehend the depth of paradox in Joseph's remark, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." Joseph minimized neither his plight nor his suffering, and he was able to see both in the light of purposes greater than his own life.

It is faith that allows us to suffer and struggle, yet also to rest in the confidence that a larger story is being told in and through our lives. Faith is the anchor that roots us to the bedrock of God's goodness amid the tumult of unexplained suffering.

Hope: An Imaginative Vision of Our Future

Hope is faith applied to the unseen tomorrow. It is a memory of the future; indeed, it is almost always connected to Christ's coming.

A day is coming when all things will be put right-when every tear will be wiped away and every wrong judged and recompensed. The Day of the Lord is our assurance that mercy and justice will prevail. Thus, to live with hope means to lean into the future with the confidence that God's goodness will not be thwarted by the machinations of evil. If faith frees us to struggle, cry out, and ask, then hope frees us to rest in the midst of uncertainty and heartache.

In one sense, faith and hope are the same: both free us to struggle and to wait, to ask and to receive, to move and to rest. They enable us to pursue righteousness and shalom now, and yet also know that our hunger for wholeness will not be satisfied until Jesus returns.

Hope frees us from the demands of legalistic guilt and condemning shame. We are not perfect, nor will we be until we reach heaven. Most psychological symptoms are rooted in the idolatry of perfectionism and the resultant shame and hiding when we are ex-posed as lacking. Hope compels us to face that we will never be fully free until the day of final redemption.

But hope is more than the antidote for a chronic sense of failure. Hope also assures us that we will one day be even more complete and whole than we can imagine. We are called to anticipate and desire that day more than any other, yet without condemning nor minimizing the glory that is to be enjoyed now. Hope frees the heart to be imperfect and restless, knowing that perfection and rest lie ahead. Hope frees the heart to risk in the present, knowing that victory is assured and no loss today can be measured against the gain of heaven.

At the root of all psychological problems is an unwillingness to risk the potential shame and loss of risk-gone-bad. Psychological symptoms are a form of anesthetic that numbs the inconsolable desires which only heaven can satisfy. If I have no hope in heaven, for example, then I must dull all my desires that relate to hungering for forgiveness and a reconciled relationship with God. In a sense, psychological symptoms are a way I guard against the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Hope allows us to desire and imagine the glory of perfect relationship and justice. It is the energy that moves us forward toward God's goodness amidst the tumult of unexplained suffering.

Love: Living Out the Character of God Now

Love is making known the character of God in order to invite others to the joy of relationship with him. All love is in essence symbolic of a greater love and sacrifice. When we know the goodness of God in our past and for our future, then we are freed to sacrificially offer a taste of God's mercy and strength in the present. Love is a taste of goodness that relentlessly and perseveringly pursues another for the sake of God.

Love arises in us when we are in awe and grateful for being forgiven. And when we become aware of being forgiven, we will love (Luke 7:47). Love is always a by-product of being loved-therefore, love needs faith. We cannot love without the memory of God's goodness in redeeming us. Love also needs hope. We cannot love without a vision of God's goodness in coming to fully perfect us. With faith and hope, then we can love-imperfectly, but progressively, moving with a sense of God's love and purpose for us.

There is no way for me to take away the sting of my failure with my daughter. I cannot "make it up" to her. But I am amazed by what God has done in me in the hours since my failure. I am not hard. I am not minimizing the harm. I have had moments of rest that feel like a respite, perhaps for the war that will begin when she returns home. I will fail again, but evil has not won. I am reminded by my God that my past drives me back to his grace. My fu-ture-open and unformed-allures me to desire. And I am capable of offering my daughter a taste of color that fills the late-afternoon sky with hope.