Why the Picture of God Matters
Published on 03/01/2019 |
Every patient has a picture of God. And this picture of God shapes how they relate to Him. Particularly, one’s response to suffering reveals a glimpse of that picture.
One patient of mine, Sean1, came in for mood problems. He talked about how difficult it was to remain calm. Little things, usually not bothersome, were very irritating. Eventually he disclosed the source of his stress. His daughter had been diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder. After initial normal development, she failed to reach milestones in her speech and movement. Furthermore, she was subjected to frequent seizures and breath-holding spells.
Sean wasn’t dealing very well with his daughter’s condition. He would be walking through Walmart and then notice a young daughter arguing with her father. Everything would zone out around him; he would focus squarely on this scene for several minutes. In fact, it took someone almost shaking his arm to snap out of the trance.
Sean carried an incredible amount of guilt. He couldn’t sit on the couch longer than 20 minutes before feeling obligated to be doing something for his daughter, such as earning more money to care for her needs. After playing catch with his son outside, he would quickly feel the need to go back into the house and attend to his daughter.
I told Sean that he was carrying too much on his shoulders. If he continued like this, he would be crushed underneath the weight of it. Somehow he needed to take this weight and turn it over to God. We were now going into more of a spiritual realm, and so I asked about his religious background. He identified with the Catholic faith.
Sean explained the following: “I have a relationship with God. But how can I turn this problem over to someone that caused this to her? I know I love God, but I feel like he has broken my heart by causing this to happen to my daughter.”
Now there were tears streaming down his eyes. I could see the struggle on his face as he elaborated and then seemed to come to a conclusion: “I know you’re right. I need to surrender. But I’m just not there yet.”
The Main Question
One question that is particularly at the forefront when someone is going through suffering is this: Is God for me or against me? Is He someone who will bless, help and prosper me? Or is He a different sort of God, one who withholds, abandons or even harms me? How a person responds to this question reveals their picture of God.
One view of God leads toward deeper trust, more gratitude, and a greater capacity for love. The other leads one toward anger, resentment, and less capacity for love.
Suffering is not optional. We all face it. But our response is a choice. I can choose to be bitter or better. I can open up my heart to what God is revealing to me in the suffering. Or I can close myself off to Him and harden my heart.
The duty of a Christian medical provider is to gently lead the patient down a path that will help them become more open to God. This is done less by actively defending God and more by engaging in words or acts that seek to bless someone in the name of God.
The view of God as harsh or demanding, exacting or punishing doesn’t come from a flawed theology (though it could). Primarily this view is born out of experience. It is born out of a hard life. These people’s hearts have hardened after a time of suffering – an unexpected diagnosis of cancer, an early death of a spouse, an unfair loss of a job, the surprising illness of a child. Or it can be something intensely personal. They were bullied or sexually abused or treated badly by parents.
Another patient, Susan, wrote me an email about her financial difficulties as a barrier for why it was difficult for her to follow up at our office. At the end of her long email she wrote, “Thanks for the good wishes, but I am totally convinced that God hates me. When I prayed for help I lost my job, acquired massive medical bills and was dealt additional medical conditions, adding to the peril I was already trying to resolve. Job’s life was easy compared to what I have been through and am going through.”
How We Can Change the Picture of God
A few intellectual tweaks don’t change the patient’s past. Theological or intellectual arguments aren’t going to make the difference. The only hope I think is for us to perform these two actions:
1. Carry the Name of God
When we carry the name of God we become His representatives. Communicate to your patients that you live and act on His behalf. This can be done through pictures in our office, through quotes we hang on our wall, through a cross we can put on our desk. We represent God and, therefore, become an extension of God’s hands and feet.
2. Love in the Name of God
These people don’t feel the love of God. But we can love them. And by our so doing, they will one day attribute that love to God. I remember listening to my patient Susan and letting her get out her frustrations. I left her with the following, “No matter what you’re going through, even if you feel like the world is against you, we are for you in this office. We are on your side. We will treat you with the respect and care you need.”
If one day she opens up her heart to God, she will remember how an office who represented God treated her well.
The Rest of the Story
It was time to wrap things up with my patient, Sean: “Let me tell you something, Sean, every day we pray that God will bring us a patient we can minister to. Today, I think that patient is you.”
Sean nodded his head and replied, “You know, it’s interesting because I don’t know how I ended up in this particular clinic. I was looking down the list and I just chose you guys. But I think you’re right. God led me here.”
Sean still has a skewed picture of God. But in that moment God was present. And through our interaction, I hope his picture of God straightened out just a little bit.
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