This lovely meme crossed my path today. I was going to print it out and hang it on my refrigerator next to the magnet with the plumber’s name and number, but instead I thought I’d share it here.
Despite my issues with the presentation and substance of this meme, I want to make it clear that I do think we should turn to God when we’re afraid or depressed or worried or sick. I think that’s great. But I don’t think we should reduce God to a trite set of platitudes, for in doing so, we’re at best offering nothing more than a Biblical placebo, and at worst we’re actually contributing to the very problems we’re seeking to address.
I certainly don’t think we should treat the Bible as some kind of DSM-5, a quick and easy guidebook for how to maintain our mental health. The Bible’s a complex book and always requires careful consideration of the wider textual context from which we quote. There’s nothing inherently wrong with referencing a Bible verse, but single verses rarely do justice to the complexities of real-life issues.
Let’s take a look at the actual text behind these “hotlines”:
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Pet 5.7)
This is fine for what it is, but does nothing to address the real issues in someone’s life. Stressed about your job, your spouse, your money, your kids, your health? No worries — God cares for you!
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isa 41.10)
This certainly sounds good, and I do think that God can provide such encouragement to us — but that’s not what’s being said in this verse. This is written to the nation of Israel, not to individual Christians. Appropriating God’s words to Israel as a personal antidote against fear is Biblically dishonest. Is this how we should read the Bible? Pulling out whatever phrase we find meaningful and using it to convey our own message regardless of the original context?
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Cor 10.13)
Paul is primarily talking about idolatry in this passage, and while there’s nothing wrong per se with his words here, verses 5 through 12 place this encouragement in a sobering light: in the past, those who faced temptation and failed faced the severest of judgement. True temptations and trials are not simple matters, and the “way out” that God might provide is often far from clear.
“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Rom 10.17)
Here Paul is talking about preaching the Gospel to Israel. There’s a lot of theology wrapped up in how one understands the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles, between Christians and Jews, between Christians and non-Christians and how the Gospel does (or doesn’t) relate to all those groups. What is clear from this passage (and from common sense) is that you can’t directly believe in Christ without knowing about him — to be a Christian, one must first hear the message of Christianity. How that ameliorates one’s doubts, I have no idea. I fear that what’s being said is not that it’s okay to doubt and ask questions about faith, but that when one encounters doubt, the message should simply be spoken louder.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53.5)
Part of the famous “Man of Sorrow” passage in Isaiah, this verse is usually viewed by Christians as referencing Jesus. If so, the context is then Christ’s death on the cross and the resulting effects of the Atonement. Regardless of one’s particular understanding of the Atonement (or lack thereof), one thing is certain: Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t cure all the sickness in the world. If you’re sick, whether with a cold or with cancer, saying “Jesus died on the cross, ‘by his wounds we are healed'” makes a mockery of our plight and of Christ’s death.
“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psa 34.18)
Whenever Biblical remedies for depression are offered, huge red flags should go up. Sure, if you’re feeling a bit down, there’s much encouragement to be found in the Psalms. But depression can’t be wiped away with a few lines of ancient poetry. True depression is a serious medical condition that requires professional treatment. The idea that a Bible verse can cure depression is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.
“The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deu 31.8)
This verse has absolutely no relevance to loneliness. It’s Moses speaking directly to Joshua telling him to lead Israel to invade the land of the Canaanites. It’s part of a pre-battle pep talk, a precursor to war and genocide. A few verses earlier Moses says to the people of Israel: “The LORD your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land…The LORD will deliver them to you, and you must do to them all that I have commanded you.” If psyching yourself up for battle makes you feel less lonely, I suggest that you have deeper problems than mere loneliness.
Perhaps this meme wasn’t worth dissecting, but I think how we view the Bible and how we view our relationship with God is important. These seemingly well-meaning summations of “Christian” principles for self-help are theologically, psychologically and even physically dangerous — and all too many Christians seem content to perpetuate this problematic version of “faith.”