Most churches do a decent job responding to physical illness by visiting in the hospital, bringing casseroles and praying. But few churches know what to do about spiritual sickness, when neither a hospital visit nor a casserole fills the bill.
As a result, spiritual sickness too often is allowed to fester, to metastasize and to go untreated.
By “spiritual sickness,” I mean diseases of the heart and spirit that cause emotional and relational trouble for the afflicted and those they afflict. When we sing the old spiritual that says, “There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul,” we most times think of this as a one-time cure for original sin. What we seldom own up to is that even those who profess faith in Jesus as Savior can fall into several kinds of spiritual sickness:
Spiritual wounds. When someone has been deeply hurt — sometimes by the church or sometimes by family or friends or the world at large — the emotional wound that occurs can easily become infected. Left untreated, spiritual wounds cause us to react in pain and cry for help. Someone who has been rejected by the church because of divorce, for example, may have difficulty accepting the embrace of another church because the heart remains so tender. What appears to outsiders to be lack of interest in the church might instead be fear of being hurt again.
Spiritual malnutrition. Believers who do not grow in their faith may easily become malnourished. The Bible has much to say about those who start the journey of faith but waste away over time. There’s another variation on spiritual malnutrition, though, caused by an imbalanced diet. Just as we may become sick from eating only sweets or only carrots, so may we become spiritually ill by rejecting the whole counsel of God.
Sen. Marco Rubio recently was criticized for his daily Bible tweets because they come exclusively from the book of Proverbs. Nothing wrong with Proverbs, but a balanced biblical diet would demand reading the pithy self-help lines of Proverbs alongside the laments and prayers of the Psalms. Likewise, it is easy for preachers to fall into the habit of only studying and preaching from the parts of the Bible they most like. That’s why preaching from the Lectionary is a good spiritual discipline.
Unlike preachers, lay Christians are prone to take up a spiritual diet that is too rich in sweetness and light or in judgment and fear. On the one hand, this quickly leads to a “Jesus and me” theology that is all lovefest and not much discipleship or to an “angry God” theology that is all judgment and no grace.
Spiritual paralysis. Believers who become rigid in their faith suffer a form of spiritual paralysis. Seeing the spiritual life or church life only through the lens of your own experience breeds a stiffness that can lead to becoming a spiritual corpse. Healthy faith exercises the mind and the spirit by exploring new ideas and weighing them against something more than the measure of your own experience. Being present with people who look different than you and think different than you — and really listening to them — is a good cure.
There’s another kind of spiritual paralysis, though, that may have a sudden onset. This is the kind of paralysis caused by fear. I have a fear of heights that has only gotten worse with age. There are vistas I will never see and bridges I will never cross because my body and mind physically seize up with fear. As much as I try to tell my brain that the overlook or roadway is safe, even as I see others passing by safely way up there, something inside me still freezes. The same is true with spiritual paralysis when fear — whether fear of being discovered for who we really are or fear of betraying the faith of our childhood or fear of disappointing family — keeps us from exercising our spiritual muscles.
Spiritual virus. We know from our human experience that it is possible to look fine on the outside and yet carry disease on the inside. And doctors tell us that the most contagious period for viruses usually occurs before symptoms start showing. The same is true for those who carry spiritual viruses. Some discontent, some agenda, some slight takes hold of the central spiritual system and begins to infect the rest of the body. Sometimes this takes months or years to do its damage, and sometimes the virus lies in wait for an opportune weakness to show in the body.
This kind of spiritual sickness can easily spread throughout a church or a family or a social network. Whether spread by one carrier or passed among others who then also become carriers, this illness creates viral discontent within a community and has the ability to sicken even otherwise healthy believers. Just a spew of this virus through a passing conversation can take root in others and begin to grow — especially if no remedy is sought or provided.
What is the cure for spiritual sickness? The first step is to acknowledge that it exists. Even minor illnesses can become life-threatening if left untreated. And yet denial of the spiritual sickness among us is the path of least resistance, the road most taken. Give yourself a spiritual health check-up now and then.
The second step is to be spiritually active: stretch your mind, stretch your spirit, work out your faith. Get up off the pew and do something. Go to church to be challenged, not to be comforted. Engage in robust discussion with people who see the world differently than you do. Read parts of the Bible you don’t like. Confront the anger inside you and question what motivates it.
Finally, ask yourself what you’re spreading. If your kind of faith were to be viral, would it make people spiritually healthy or spiritually sick?