A dirty word for a messy world
This blog is for people living in a messy world. The evidence of the mess is all around us. I grew up towards the end of the Cold War and remember the day that the Berlin Wall came down. We were promised that this would usher in a new era with a peace dividend. One writer even claimed that we were seeing the end of history. We seem to be a long way from that day now. 9/11 shattered those hopes so that we now live once again under a shadow of war and terrorism.
I also remember listening to Bible talks as a child where a quaint illustration was used about the boy who redeemed his property from the pawn shop. It was quaint because back then, you would need someone to explain to you what a pawn shop was. These places where you could hand in your possessions as security against a loan had long since disappeared from our high streets most people had a reasonably secure standard of living, whether through paid employment or the support of the Welfare State. Today, walking through our local shopping street, it seems that every other shop is a pawn shop or offers to buy your jewellery or will provide you with a pay day loan. The shadow of debt hangs over many lives. Our church participates in a food bank service and each week we meet a steady stream of people whose lives are messy and full of hurt.
But it’s not just something out there. The mess is something that starts at home and seeps out from it. I spend a lot of my time talking with people whose personal and family lives are messy, chaotic and painful. There’s abuse, marital breakdown, loneliness, self-harm, addiction, guilt and shame. Most of us, if we are honest, will want to admit that we cause mess; that we inflict pain. We lash out at those who love us, we let down those who trust us, and we hurt those who help us. Indeed, we often hurt the very people we want to love.
The response to this mess has been a plethora of advice. The world is awash with self – help manuals and DVDs. Whisper it quietly, but you sometimes wouldn’t be able to distinguish a Christian self – help book from a secular one.
I want to suggest a different solution and it’s a surprising one. It’s going to involve something that has become a dirty word amongst Christians: “doctrine”. You see, the root of our mess starts with a question of truth and that’s what doctrine is all about: how we separate truth from lies.
In my study are lots of books. There are plenty of slim, glossy paperbacks offering practical solutions for living in a messy world and then there are the big heavy hardback books – the doctrine or theology books. In our minds, that’s the distinction: practical, easy to read, useful and interesting versus dull, heavy (literally and metaphorical), difficult to read doctrine. The practical paperbacks are easy to come by. You can walk into any Christian bookshop and buy a copy; we have a church library with shelves crammed with recycled copies of such books. The big heavy doctrine books take a bit more searching out through Amazon or a Theological College’s Library. That sends out a message – doctrine is for an elite group of people, professional theologians and nerdy introverts. This is a big mistake to make. If doctrine is simply about helping us to know the truth and avoid error, then it is useful, practical, interesting and relevant for all.
How belief shapes our lives
The idea that what we believe affects how we live is well known to modern Psychology. In fact, it is a central premise to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
CBT identifies four aspects of our lives that are affected by each other and by the environment we find ourselves in. These include:
What we think (Cognition, beliefs)
How we feel (Emotions)
Our physical state (Health)
What we do (Behaviour)
So, helping a person face difficulties and mess in their life, means treating the whole person. When someone’s life is disordered, and particularly when that displays itself in aberrant behaviour or emotional problems such as depression, then there are a number of interrelated factors at play Their emotional state and behaviour are affected by their cognition: in other words, the thoughts and beliefs that they carry in response to the environment in which they live. This, in turn, can have a knock on effect on their physical health so that, for example, someone can start believing something that isn’t true: that everyone hates them and is talking about them. This might lead them to isolate themselves from social situations, leading to loneliness and depression. This depression will have a physical impact as the person becomes lethargic and feels physically unwell.
It can, of course, work the other way. Someone who is physically ill and in a lot of pain may well be prone to depression. This won’t help if their illness disrupts their social life, leading to isolation and loneliness. In this desperate emotional state, there is the risk that they will begin to doubt things that they should know to be true: the kindness of others, the goodness of creation, that there is a God who is love.
So there’s a strong connection between our beliefs and our physical and emotional state. Responding to the whole person means taking all of these factors into account. One of the ways we have responded to this at our church is by providing pastoral care workshops which include Biblical teaching on counselling with information about medical conditions and their impact. This is because:
– if someone is sad, unwell and/or tired, it will affect how they think and their spiritual health
– if someone is spiritually in rebellion, it can lead to emotional and medical problems
The good news is that God is concerned with the whole person and one of our desires is to see people living healthy lives, simply because a healthy life is better than an unhealthy one. This does not mean that we turn physical health and emotional well-being into idols. Living in a messy, fallen world means that we are likely to suffer and the Christian Gospel isn’t about escaping suffering. It’s simply about recognising that health and wellbeing are good things.
Now let’s take a further look at our beliefs. This is based on a diagram that Mike Ovey, Principal at Oak Hill Theological College in London, used to use to introduce his doctrine classes. Mike suggested that we can identify four doctrinal loci on which we choose to believe either truth or error. These are:
-Who is God and what is he like?
-What is creation and what is it like?
-Who am I and what am I like?
-What is the New Creation and what will it be like?
In other words, the mess that we see in our lives and in our world can be traced back to wrong understanding about these things. Good Christian Counselling will take us back to each of these points and make sure that we know, believe and act on the truth about each of them.
 Based on diagram at David Westbrook, Helen Kennedy and Joan Kirk, An Introduction to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Skills and Applications (London. Sage, 2007), 6.
 See D Martyn Lloyd Jones, Spiritual Depression (Rpr. Glasgow: Pickering and Inglis, 1972), 14-19. (See especially page 18).
 Cf 3 John:2