Search for the Center, Living the Examined Life
It was Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi who observed that thinking people, although in agreement with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, seem to believe that the examined life is too tough to live. Let this brief article represent a call to Christians everywhere, but especially to Christian counselors, to never be satisfied with ideas that obscure rather than engage life’s toughest questions.
For some fortunate people, such as my mother-in-law, simple faith is real. It doesn’t paper over terrifying confusion. It simply sees no need to wrestle with it. Its realness is evidenced by the quality of life lived – sacrificial, serving, sincere, and straight-forward. I have no doubt she was given a standing ovation when she entered heaven’s doors. Her wisdom was deep in its innocence, not in a fought- for simplicity that survived complexity. She was good to be with and richly impactful in her own way. But she was not the kind of person to whom you would bring inner life troubles or struggles with irresistible temptations.
Most of us, I suspect, unlike my saintly mother-in-law, live on the surface of life because we’re afraid to look beneath. We manage surface reality well enough with Christian platitudes that we mistake for embraced doctrine, with Christian principles that serve as recipes for arranging life to our liking, with Christian passions sustained more by gushes of spiritual hype than by fire-tested convictions. Those with the courage to rip away the comfortable veneer and face the fearsome mysteries in the center come up with world views ranging from Bolshevism to hedonism and religious philosophies stretching from liberal Christianity to radical Islam. Convinced evangelicals like myself too easily become cultural evangelicals who use truth to keep tough questions comfortably tucked away beneath a well managed and relatively satisfying life. The result is a Christian appearance with little of Christ’s power.
When evangelical Christianity is reduced to a tidy formula that prefers the power of control over uncertain contingency and hides mystery beneath manipulation, an understanding of Christian counseling emerges that is not Christian at all. Technique nudges aside relationship, soul-to-soul connection is thought to be achieved with empathy skills, clinical interpretation masquerades as spiritual discernment, re-arranging the flesh to relieve symptoms obscures the absence of spiritual formation, and a proliferation of counseling models and methods leads either to muddled eclectism or prejudiced loyalty to one preferred therapeutic position.
My call is this:
THINK! ASK QUESTIONS! WONDER! EXPLORE! SEARCH FOR THE CENTER!
If Christianity is true, it can handle the assault. If the God revealed in Jesus Christ exists, if He is the behind-the-scenes author of the Bible, then troubled, curious, sincere, desperate seekers who look deeply into their own souls, who long for quality relationships that never quite develop, who open their eyes wide enough to be overwhelmed by world conditions and human suffering will, as psychiatrist John White once put it, “be destroyed then remade by the Bible”.
Paul told Timothy to continue in what he believed and was convinced of (II Timothy 3: 14). Ask whether what you believe about life and maturity is meaningfully rooted in the biblical story. Does our counseling encourage others to tell with their lives the story that God is telling in the Bible, the story that Jesus told with His life?
Explore what you and your clients most deeply fear. Nothingness? Isolation? Death? Pointlessness? A life that is no more than another wave splashing on the shore of history then receding forever? Punishment? Hell? Consider whether what we label as psychological defenses in fact serve to keep at bay, not merely the wounds of childhood but far more the terrors of existence, and therefore get in the way of the search for the center, the search for core truth that could set us free to live the way our Creator designed us to live. I wonder if we know how far short we fall of that design. Only those who realize how far short they fall of relational glory are lifted high into relational grace.
Search through the rubble of fear and short-falling for the center of desire. Examine what C.S. Lewis believed, that no desire exists without provision for its satisfaction. Be humbled by the awareness that you long for what you cannot manage, for what no blessing from God can fully satisfy. Embrace the truth that it is God Himself that you want and that as a Christian saved by grace you can know Him best by telling His story with your life, by relating to others in a way that reveals His glorious character and releases His love into their souls.
Make it your driving ambition to discover the story He is telling. To do less is culpable laziness and proud indifference. To search for the center of His story’s plot indulges your deepest desire, to know Him, to know His ways, to know His love.
Let your search lead you to ask the most important question a Christian can ask:
Am I asking God to help me tell my story as I want it told or am I trusting God to empower me to tell His story by how I relate to Him, to others, and to myself?
To ask that question is to live the examined life. And living the examined life is what most qualifies you to offer counseling that is truly Christian. Knowing God and telling His story captures you with the beauty of God and releases you to enjoy what you were created to enjoy, God Himself and your calling to glorify Him by revealing Him, to become, as Lewis put it, “an ingredient in the divine happiness”.
My call to myself and to you:
search for the center.