We all get sad. We all go through rough times. We all experience tragedy. It’s simply one of the realities of living East of Eden.
And just as we all encounter sadness, we all have our own coping mechanisms, many healthier than others. But one of the criticisms often lobbied against Christians, somewhat understandably, is that we have a simplistic approach to recovery. The criticism is probably, at least sometimes, fair. Are there some Christians who think that God will heal them irrespective of any other treatment, merely through prayer? Yes. On the other end of the spectrum, are there some Christians who will use any medical means available to them without consulting God or ultimately relying on him? Yes.
My point is this: are there some Christians who have a relatively simplistic (and inconsistent) approach to health and wellness? Yes. Does that mean that the Bible has a simplistic approach to health and wellness? Not at all. If the default position of the human heart is unbelief, then we should assume that the approach of some Christians to healthcare is perhaps a bit off and shouldn’t be received as gospel truth or “the Christian way.”
There certainly are many times in the Gospels when Jesus directly heals the sick. He even extends that power in some respects by sending his Spirit into the early Church. But the question of what God “could possibly do” is unproductive when it comes to lifestyle approach. It’s much more helpful to ask, how does God typically operate? What’s his basic modus operandi in helping sick people recover?
Let me give you one biblical example that I think demonstrates the multifaceted approach of God to guiding humans down the road to recovery.
Case Study: Elijah (1 Kings 19)
Elijah, the great prophet of God, had just defeated the prophets of Baal and the wicked king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, in dramatic fashion on the top of Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:16-42). You’d think this should be a time of jubilant celebration. Instead, Elijah goes and sits down with his head between his knees. Why? It’s very interesting. For a believer in a sinful world, a spiritual victory is only a temporary victory. The world doesn’t tend to smile too approvingly at the believer’s success. Not for long. Elijah understands this. He understands he’s going to have to get up and fight the fight again tomorrow. Sure enough, within hours, Queen Jezebel has sent him this message: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of (the killed prophets of Baal).” (1 Kings 19:2)
Elijah feels like a man who has been lonesomely, unceasingly, taking on the world. So he naturally responds in the way just about any human who has received death threats would. “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life…He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life.'” (1 Kings 19:3-4) In the same way that every human only has so much physical energy, we all only have so much emotional energy. That is to say, if you went outside and started running at a full sprint, eventually something would have to give. Either you’d dehydrate, your muscles would cramp, and you’d collapse. Or, more likely, you’d simply get exhausted and be in such pain that you had to stop. Either way, your energy is out, your tank is empty.
What happens in the physical universe often mirrors what happens in the psychological and spiritual worlds as well. In other words, just like we only have so much physical energy, we also only have so much emotional energy. There’s a great deal of caution here then about what we choose to give our emotional energy to, i.e. if you care too much about lesser matters, you will not have enough energy leftover to give to more important matters. Regardless of what you give your energy too, however, you only have so much. Emotional energy is a finite resource, just like physical energy. Consequently, if, like Elijah, you are pressed on every side too hard and for too long, your body will eventually shut down. In mental health terms this is generally called depression. Prolonged stress and anxiety will eventually land you in depression. The math is not tough.
But how do you get out of that funk? If it’s possible for the great prophet Elijah to struggle with depression, surely it’s not beyond any of us. Just look at how God helps him recover.
“All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank…The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food…” (1 Kings 19:5-8)
It hasn’t been until recent years that I actually started taking inventory of what I was putting into my body. It dawned on me in my late 20s that God might not have intended processed foods like Cheetos or anything whipped up by Little Debbie to be the staple of my diet. Yes, I’m a late nutrition bloomer. But it makes sense that for as much attention as I give to how I manage my time and my money, that God would desire for me to wisely manage the very thing that he refers to as his temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20) as well.
“he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb” (1 Kings 19:8)
It’s not a coincidence that treadmills weren’t invented until after cars and planes were invented. Humans naturally gravitate towards the path of least resistance (again, universal physical principle here). Consequently, movement is often avoided if possible. Inactivity can cause physical and emotional health problems. But in ancient days, forty-day trips would involve a decent amount of sweat, which again, is good for BOTH your physical and emotional health.
“He ate and drank and then lay down again.” (1 Kings 19:6)
Lutherans aren’t typically inclined to shout “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” But I’m gonna do that, as well as dance, clap, and sway my hands here. I cannot tell you how much I love the fact that Elijah TOOK A NAP! The world will rarely applaud you for not working so hard. Your boss will rarely encourage you to not work so hard. Typically, workaholism gets you promotions, not rebuking. But God commands sabbath, i.e. rest. You either voluntarily submit to his directive, or you will eventually be forced, with health complications, to submit to this directive.
4) Biblical Counsel
“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord (vs. 11)…What are you doing here, Elijah? (twice, vss. 9, 13)…Go back the way you came…” (vs. 15) (1 Kings 19:9-17)
The Lord is regularly dialoguing with Elijah in this account – giving instruction; asking pertinent, thought-provoking, introspective questions; and offering advice. So, when faced with recovering from grief, while the Bible doesn’t advise that you only sit in your house and pray and read Scripture, it definitely advises that you should, in fact, be doing that. MULTIFACETED approach.
5) Believing Company
“Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” (vs. 18)
I wasn’t sure exactly what term to use here. Sometimes words like “community” or “friendships” or “meaningful relationships” or “support groups” are used here. Those can all be misunderstood if it’s not clarified that you have to have Christ-like, gospel-driven BELIEVERS actively involved in your life. Like really involved. Why should Weight Watchers and AA have a monopoly on this universal principle – change happens in community. Americans who consume self-help literature like it is candy generally refuse to recognize this truth, the truth of “the Church,” the truth that positive transformation typically involves connection to others. You have to have strong Christian friends to 1) reach your potential as a Christian, 2) to know and understand God, and 3) to be resilient/recover in the face of sadness.
We Christians are oftentimes foolishly simplistic. That’s really not a Christian problem, however, but a human problem.
The Bible doesn’t have that problem though. The insight and tenderness with which God goes about healing humans is beautiful. His treatment recognizes that we humans are creatures with interconnected minds, bodies, and souls. God recognizes that we’re unique individuals that need unique care plans (e.g. take note of the nuanced way in which Jesus treats Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death – John 11:21-23, 32-34). But God also recognizes the commonness of the human condition. Jesus truly is the Great Physician (Matt. 9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31) – the only one who can make us well.
The one who can raise the dead clearly understands recovery. Therefore, his diagnosis can be trusted, and so can his recovery plan.