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Should I Pop a Pill or Say a Prayer?

That’s the choice that thousands feel they are forced into every day.

I know, because I hear their stories, and I’m the one they are trusting as their guide, as their physician.

Susan (not her real name) was in last week.  She had been stable for eight years on clonazepam, which had helped lessen her daily battle with anxiety.  However, she was concerned that being on an “addictive nerve pill” was not honoring to God.  And so I was asked again the question that I had been asked so many times before, “What should I do, doctor?”

I understand where she and so many other of my East Tennessee patients are coming from, for I too grew up in rural Appalachia in a “Bible Belt” culture where to emotionally or spiritually struggle in any way meant something was wrong with you and your relationship with God.  I’ve also seen the flip side within the halls of academia, where fragile hurting souls were shattered by a psychiatrist who had the audacity to tell them they could not even speak the word “God” while they were on “his” hospital floor since “he” was their god while they were under his care.

So, what did I tell Susan in the brief time I had with her?  Did I tell her that if she just prayed a little bit harder, memorized just a few more Bible verses, trusted God just a little bit more, she wouldn’t need drugs?  Or did I tell her to forget her religion and her God, and realize that she was a complex mesh of chemicals, and she needed a drug to help regulate her faulty brain chemistry?

I told her neither, because both of those answers represent a cruel false dichotomy which influences many people’s minds regarding the care of souls.  The reality is that we are both body and spirit, material and immaterial, incredibly complex meshes of chemicals and yet something that can’t be reduced to mere chemicals. We don’t have to give up our spirituality to acknowledge the reality that medical science has something to offer hurting souls, and we don’t have to give up our medical science to acknowledge that our hurting souls need more than the latest drug.

Here is the essence of what I told her:  We are here to love God and walk with Him.  From the earliest teachings of Christ and the church fathers that has been clear.  It’s also been clear that loving God and walking with Him is hard, sometimes very hard.  In theological terms, we live in a fallen world in fallen bodies with fallen souls.  Or put another way, every one of us live with a body that has imperfect brain chemistry, living with people who don’t always treat us as we need to be treated, and with a spirit which still doesn’t understand, love, and obey God as we ought.

In light of this reality, the question of whether to take any type of psychotropic drug is simply, “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?”  In essence it is no different than the question to take a diabetes drug or say a prayer or change jobs or forgive someone— any decision should come down to “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?”  For some people, a drug like clonazepam just dulls soul pain that needs to be dealt with instead of masked, and actually would draw them away from God.  For Susan, the drug helped clear her mind and allowed her to focus on her work, her family, and her God with more freedom.

Yes, I know it’s a simple question, but sometimes simple questions still are the best ones.  “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?” sidesteps all the science vs. faith debates and replaces them with a simple question that can guide any person of faith who is also seeking help from medicine.  In the end, that’s what it’s all about for me, and for you: to learn to live wisely in our journey to love Him and walk with Him.

How to NOT Figure Life Out

 quite puzzling by cayusa via flickr

Life is pretty mixed up at times.  It’s easy to conclude that the only solution to the anxiety and frustration we feel is to somehow “figure life out.”  Until we find THE ANSWER to the question life is posing us, we often find no rest for our souls.

I remember twenty years ago, when I was vexed with not knowing whether I should ask a particular young woman out for a date.  I wanted to BE SURE I was making the “right” decision.  But try as I might, I couldn’t seem to come to an answer that I thought was definitive.

After several months drug by (yes, I was a sad case), I showed my roommate at the time an extensive logic table I had drawn up, showing the various advantages and disadvantages of deciding to ask this woman out vs. not ask her out vs. delaying a decision.  He looked at me with his “What planet did you come from?” expression and said, “JUST ASK HER OUT!”

I had tried to resolve my frustration at not being able to figure life out by, uh, trying to figure life out.  Well, all that got me then, and all it ever gets me now, is just more frustration.  There are some things that just can’t be figured out about life.  Sometimes you just have to live it out.

Today I read a quote from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves … Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.    — ”Letters to a Young Poet”

Ask yourself: Is the thing troubling me really something that I can answer today?  If not, let it go, and spend your life living instead of trying to figure life out.

Fighting Anxiety

Note: The following is article #4 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here.

Chapter 3 of Future Grace is the first of eight applicational chapters, dealing with how we apply the knowledge of faith and grace to actually walking with Christ as transformed, holy people.

Piper writes about his personal struggle with “horrible” disabling anxiety of public speaking. I find it an incredible testimony to God’s plan and power:  Here was a young man uncertain whether he could even graduate from college because he couldn’t get up in front of a class.  But out of this deep pit God was preparing him to become one of the most gifted preachers of this century, with a bold impassioned voice that would impact countless lives for eternity.  God knew exactly what he would have John Piper become, and yet God took him through a dismally dark struggle before revealing his gift and his destiny. Piper describes it:

The anxiety, the humiliation and shame, were so common, as to cast a pall over all those years.  Hundreds of prayers went up, and what came down was not what I wanted at the time—the grace to endure.

The key to the story is “what came down”—grace.  We commonly teach that God gives three possible answers to our prayers— “yes” “no” or “wait.”  But in reality, God gives one answer—”grace.”  And it is more than simply a reply, it is the inexhaustible power of God.  He gives us the grace to handle the task, the grace to right the wrong, and yes, sometimes the grace to endure the trial.  But the answer to every Christian’s prayer is always grace.

So, how does grace and faith deal with anxiety?  First, Piper points out that faith really is the key.  In the middle of the longest passage in the Bible on anxiety (Matthew 6:25-34), Jesus makes it clear:

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

What is the root of anxiety?  Too little faith.  So how do we increase our faith?  Through believing the promises of Scripture coupled with reliance on the Holy Spirit.  Piper reviews over some of the many promises in Scripture, including seven in the passage in Matthew.

I was impressed by how God knows that we are but dust, and he knows we will fight against anxiety.  Psalm 56:3 states, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in You.”  Not IF,  but WHEN. 

Over 20 times in the chapter Piper uses the words “fight” “struggle” and “battle.”  Anxiety, like any sin, is an enemy, one that we all must face, and one that we all must fight.  Paul urges us to “fight the good fight of faith.”  Armed with the promises of God and the Spirit of God, let us then valiantly fight this good fight of faith.  Though the battle may be long and weary, we have been promised that we will be more than victors in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Moving Beyond “Little Faith”

Four times in the book of Matthew Christ uses the term “little faith” to challenge the disciples to grow deeper in their spiritual walk. Each time He spoke to a different aspect of their(and our) life of faith:

1. Learning that Anxiety is Unnecessary

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious… Matthew 6:30-31 ESV

The first “little faith” lesson in Matthew is in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is speaking to His followers, people who by faith had come to realize that He held the words of life.

His message is that anxiety is unnecessary. Isn’t it interesting that the largest section of the Sermon on the Mount(besides the Lord’s prayer) is devoted to anxiety? And even though we all know that passage well, how well do we apply it every day? Just as Jesus described, we worry about food, about clothing, about everything. We aren’t sure what the future will hold, and so we worry.

Jesus gives us 3 keys in the passage to defeat anxiety. First is to remember how valuable we are to the Father(v. 26). Only when we are convinced of God’s boundless love for His children can we ever be free of anxiety. Second is to remind ourselves that God knows our needs(v. 32); He knows better than we know, and He alone has the power to ensure that our needs are met. Lastly, Christ instructs us to focus our lives on the needs of the Kingdom rather than our own needs(v.33). God “has our back”—the knowledge that He will provide our needs can free us from anxiety and free us to plunge forward to accomplish great things for His kingdom.

2. Dismissing Fear When We Follow Jesus

And when He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but He was asleep. And they went and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And He said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Matthew 8:23-26 ESV

There is so much treasure to be mined from these few verses that are so familiar to us. First notice the two-fold faith of the disciples: First, they followed Jesus; they had the faith to want to stay close to Him. Second, they had faith that He could do something about the storm and so they cried out to Him.

So far, so good. So where was their faith lacking? Their cry for help was not borne out of calm and trusting dependency, but out of sheer desperation. Fear had gripped them, fear that, like their anxiety, was unnecessary. Fear is lack of complete trust in God for the present, while anxiety is lack of trust for the future. Both anxiety and fear can weaken and paralyze us from moving, physically and spiritually.

How can we dismiss fear from our life? By realizing “what sort of Man is this, that even winds and sea obey him”(v.27). We must let the truth of Christ’s infinite power grip us, and be convicted that as long as we are in the boat with Him, we have nothing to fear from any storm in our life.

3. Defeating Doubt in our Life

And Peter answered Him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Matthew 14:28-31 ESV

Compared to most of us (and the rest of the disciples), Peter had great faith, not “little faith”. He was the only one who got out of the boat, in fact he is the only man in history whose faith was great enough that he walked on water.

So where did he fail? Just where I do too—with doubt. I have faith, I believe that God is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do, but when the wind is fierce, I look at it, I look at the intensity of my problem, my battle, my lot in life, and I take my eyes off Jesus. Anytime we are looking at any problem in our lives more than we are looking at Christ, doubt will come. And when doubt comes, we sink.

The answer to defeating doubt and keeping our head above the water? You already know the answer—to keep our eyes on Jesus.

4. Looking at life from God’s perspective rather than man’s

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves saing, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive?” Matthew 16:5-9 ESV

How often I am guilty of exactly this—like Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6, my eyes see the immediate situation, the armies arrayed against me, and my eyes are not open to the armies of God. That is the situation the disciples found themselves in—it was not simply misunderstanding Christ’s metaphor, it was their entire world view that took in only their human perspective and not God’s perspective.

Again, they had “little faith”—if they had no faith, they would not have been listening to Jesus at all. Their “little faith” propelled them to be with Jesus and listen to Him, but they were still having trouble understanding Him because their perspective was still rooted in their old nature.

How do we change our perspective? Jesus told them one way, to remember what things God had already done for them. When we bring to mind God’s hand, both in our lives personally, in the lives of the saints whose biographies we can read, and through the Scriptures, our spiritual eyes are opened, strengthened, refocused to see God’s hand, and to both walk in His way and to bring vision to others around us.