So we’re reading a book about pastoral care in one of my classes, and it’s frequently making me cry. Because too many of the scenarios mentioned are too similar to things I’ve walked through, and yet they’re presented as if there is a spiritual side to them, a side that can be addressed by wise people of faith—and yet I’ve never personally gone through these experiences and felt there was spiritual “medicine” for the wounds they inflicted—that the pain they inflicted could be fully worked through in this earthly life. The pain could be born in faith, of course, but the solutions too often seemed beyond all of us.
All we had to offer was the silence of Job’s friends, the long silence that might’ve been a comfort before they opened their mouth to their hurtful words—the hope our mere presence meant some comfort because our own mind was in a whirl of struggle—no, I don’t know what God means by this either. And our own soul slowly succumbed to the effects of the experience of living: bruised, beaten, and then even bleeding.
How many of us have walked through these situations alone, without advice, thinking that was just reality, the way things were? Bracing ourselves to walk into a circle of grief without a thought this grief of others or ourselves can be navigated, only endured. And then there’s books like the one I’m reading for class that mention scenarios like this and stir up deep longing within you—what if during those dark times we had had someone who had applied the supposed spiritual cure? What if there are actually “cures” that exist–that a spiritual application could be poured into certain situations and reframe it, and cause healing? The answer is that I should’ve been mature enough to be my own guide, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that I’m not.
Because, in theory, what are supposedly spiritually healthy people supposed to do in these situations? Pray. Read the bible. Go to church. What does the book I’m reading say spiritual medicine even is? Applying God’s word to the soul. There is no reason I should not be able to do that. So if I’ve struggled—perhaps I am not one of the spiritually healthy.
To be clear, I’ve never characterized myself as one of the healthy—I am using this more as a convenient term for those who do not need constant spiritual intervention by those in authority over them in faith—those who can be trusted by the church to travel onwards in the Christian life without constantly being shoved in that direction. We’re all directed to grow into a maturity of faith, and part of becoming mature is to learn to apply Scripture to your own faith, to see God’s work in the world for yourself, to know how to be a hand and a foot to other people. The mature learn to stand in the storm, and those around them don’t worry that the next time they see them they will have collapsed out of sight. And so I start to feel that perhaps I have not really reached maturity in that way, that I need constant leading by the hand like a little child, and constant advice and wisdom given to me.
But how can this realistically be provided? Anyone who has a wisp of spiritual maturity is run off their feet already. It is important that at least some sheep are independent enough to not constantly run back to the wise with questions. And maybe it is just me, and not necessarily a common problem after all–I do remember sitting in math class in high school and needing to ask the teacher to walk me through every single word problem in the assignment, because I just could not grasp how to put my knowledge into use in the context of a new problem with different numbers–maybe it is just that I am a fragile person who needs constant feedback on my thought processes, and all this musing about care for the spiritually healthy is really only applicable to me in my own personal situation. When I say I need spiritual guidance, people tend to take that as a veiled hint that I’m saying I need a husband, which maybe goes to illustrate how foreign this concept I’m voicing is to others, and how maybe it’s not easy for others to relate to. Maybe others out there don’t feel so much like they need this interaction to navigate their path. But maybe there’s a few out there like me, who do–which is the reason I write.
After all, I think we all desperately need guidance in our spiritual life. No matter how much you learn, no matter how much life experience you obtain, it’s difficult to form yourself to be more and more like Christ without any outside perspective on what you’re actually like. I’d say it’s impossible, if I’m allowed to make such a firm pronouncement. You can be taught about your own tendency towards self-deception, but unless someone with a more objective viewpoint steps in and helps you see exactly where you are deceiving yourself, you’re stabbing in the dark trying to find what you’re blind to. You might be aware you have failings, but again it’s a guess as to how to work them out–are you too selfish or self-effacing, and how can you tell which one you are when? You might know you’re not fully conformed to Christ, but have no idea what particular area is an area that you can make a realistic plan to fix. How do you see these things from within yourself? Don’t we all need an extraordinary amount of guidance and advice as we walk?
Maybe—and I hate to give suggestions like this but I don’t think I can avoid it if I write on this topic–maybe it’s possible that those who are spiritually healthy, those who can be characterized by spiritual independence, need spiritual care just as much as anyone else. Maybe they need wisdom from external sources, and someone to check on the cracks in their spiritual life.
There must be something between needing discussion and advice and reassurance for every step you take, and complete, self-contained spiritual independence. Both extremes are, well, extreme. However, the path that moves away from these extremes are not always clear. If you need every step explained, how do you gain the maturity to grow away from that? Not towards a self-contained, spiritual independence, but rather towards a path that interacts with other believers and yet is directed.
Now, most will point to Christian community at this point. It’s not like Christian friends and communities don’t talk about life together. But there’s a difference between sharing life experiences with each other, and recasting your life experiences as part of a path to greater maturity. There’s a difference between friendship and mentorship, I suppose, or between empathy and true guidance. Most people will not give advice, and this is probably a correct approach in a majority of cases. They will not say, no, you’re wrong, or stop it! And it’s right—no one can solve your problems for you. No one can fix anything except you—you HAVE to take responsibility for what you decide to change, and what you decide to do. And yet, and yet, and yet—I have to think there’s room for someone who really does know, to say, “you do have a problem, it’s X, and here’s what I recommend to fix it.” There’s room for diagnosis of issues you’re too blind to see.
How then can spiritual care be provided to the spiritually healthy? I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about a problem I don’t know the solution, but at the very least I thought it was worth it to frame up the issue. I think first we might have to recognize that everyone needs spiritual care. The actual realities of providing it is somewhat overwhelming, as humans face the hurdles of growing in wisdom to the point that they actually can give advice, and then growing in courage to actually give that advice. Another issue arises is that when there is a wise person, they often struggle to deal with the demands for guidance, and are limited in the amount of personal relationship they can provide to all of those who need it. The best guidance is provided in the context of a relationship with someone who actually knows you, and this can’t be achieved for every person that exists. No wonder we have to hope a lot of people can function in life a little bit independently! So all in all, I don’t really know how these hurdles can be overcome.
Anyway, we can at least start with the recognition that no one is fully independent and finished growing, nor should we be! Any further thoughts can be entered in the comments below 🙂