by Dale & Juanita Ryan
The God of the Bible is a God who saves and heals. The Bible is clear about this: “He will deliver the needy who cry out, he will rescue them from oppression and violence.” (Psalm 72: 12 &14) When we see our need, acknowledge our inability to save ourselves, and cry out, God delivers us. God rescues us from oppression and violence. Whether it is the oppression and violence of our compulsions and addictions or the oppression and violence of abuse and neglect, God delivers us and heals us. God is powerful enough and loving enough to deliver us from all of the oppression and violence we face.
This is the good news proclaimed in Scripture. And it is the basis for our hope on the recovery journey. We cannot save ourselves. Or heal ourselves. But God can. And God will.
Sound simple? It turns out to be anything but simple. There are several reasons for this. First, we find it hard to believe that God is powerful enough to help us. Or that God loves us enough to help us. And, secondly, we experience terrible shame about our need. We don’t want to bother God, or his people, with our neediness. And, thirdly, we find it difficult to believe there is help available. We have had to ‘go it alone’ for so long that having help may seem ‘too good to be true.’ As a result of our fears and shame and isolation, we often find it extremely difficult to do seemingly simple tasks like asking for help.
The purpose of this article is to review five basic truths about asking for help:
1) it is okay to need help and to ask for it,
2) help is available,
3) there are many sources of help,
4) we resist getting help and
5) in spite of this resistance, it is more than worth the effort to persevere in getting help.
It’s okay to need help and to ask for help
Most of us have received a life-time of messages which suggest that it is not okay to need help or to ask for help. On a cultural level, we live in a society that values individualism and self containment and which shames interdependence and need. On a more personal level, if basic emotional or psychological needs were not met in childhood, we may have learned that having such needs is a bad or shameful thing. This combination of cultural messages and family messages can leave us believing that we must be strong, independent and self-reliant in order to gain love and approval. When we believe this, we have a powerful motivation to hide our weakness and need – often even from ourselves. As a result, finding the courage to expose our need and to ask for help can be a difficult process.
God has a very different perspective about what it means for us to have needs. Doing great things for God is not the heart of the spiritual life. It is not leaping tall buildings in a single bound, not flying faster than a speeding bullet that attracts God’s blessing. It is, rather, coming to the end our own resources – it is recognizing our need and asking for help – that is the beginning and foundation of the Christian life. The biblical text is clear about the spiritual meaning of our weakness. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. This is no mere Hallmark one-liner. It is one of the foundations for all spiritual growth. If we insist on navigating our spiritual life within the relative safety of our gifts and strengths, we will stay in the shallows. It is only when we launch out into waters far deeper and more treacherous than our own resources can handle that we will encounter God’s strength and provision. It is when we lean into our weakness rather than running from it, that we experience things unimaginable in the safety of our comfort zones.
Jesus put it simply and unmistakably. “If you are well,” he said, “you don’t need a Physician.” Jesus was saying that until we acknowledge our need and ask for help, God cannot help us. Rather than saying it’s okay to need help and to ask for it, it would be more accurate to say that it is essential that we acknowledge our need and ask for help. It is essential because until we do so we shut God out. It is essential to acknowledge our need for help because that is what’s real. It is what is honest. Anything short of this is self deceit and pretense – from which no healing can come. Any attempts to save ourselves or heal ourselves by ourselves are attempts at playing God. What is true is that we need help. We need God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. To acknowledge this is simply to tell the truth. And when we acknowledge the truth, we open the way for God to respond.
Contrary to all of our instincts, then, the neediness which can be so terrifying to us is, in reality, the opportunity which makes it possible for the Physician of Wounded Souls to begin the healing process.
There is help available
As we struggle to acknowledge our need for help, it becomes very important that we have hope. We need to have hope that the help we need is available. Without this hope, we will not have the strength or courage to get help.
The good news is that the resources we need for recovery are not just available, they are abundant. We don’t mean that there is an abundance of support groups or treatment programs – sometimes these resources can be scarce. But these are tools – important tools, but not the fundamental ingredients of recovery. Fundamentally, help is available and abundant because God’s grace and love are abundant. There is no shortage, no scarcity, of grace and love. All of God’s grace is available to us. All of God’s love is offered freely to us.
No matter what our struggles are, God is prepared, ready, wanting to help. And if God is for us, who of any particular consequence can be against us? This is the fundamental reason for optimism about recovery. God is not indifferent. God is not impotent. Rather, God is continually, compassionately reaching out to us. And God is powerfully able to save and heal us.
Of course, it is not always easy to hang on to this hope. It is not always easy to remember who God is. Fortunately we do not need enormous amounts of hope to make progress in recovery. According to Jesus, only a speck (a ‘mustard seed’) of hope will do. And, also fortunately, there are some practical things we can do to nurture the hope which is growing within us.
The psalmists often nurtured hope by recounting the ways in which God had met their needs in the past. Or by recounting the ways God had met the needs of others. This discipline of remembering nurtures hope because it reminds us who God is. It reminds us that God is powerful and loving; that God is active in our lives- saving, healing, restoring, comforting.
There are many ways we might put the discipline of remembering into practice. We remember who God is every time we take the bread and wine of communion. We remember who God is when we read the stories of Jesus’s healing ministry. We remember who God is when we attend twelve step meetings or support groups and listen to the stories of others’ healing and recovery. And we remember who God is when we recount past experiences of God’s help and healing in our lives.
There are many sources of help
It has been our experience that there is no one-size-fits-all recovery plan. God is a God who seems to delight in diversity. God made us as unique individuals and responds to our specific needs with respect for this uniqueness. God is not limited to counselors, or to pastors, or to twelve step groups to get us the help we need. God often chooses to use counselors or pastors or twelve step groups, but whoever God chooses to use in our lives, it is always God who is bringing the healing. It is God’s Spirit who is our Counselor (John 16: 6); it is God’s Spirit who “helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26); it is God’s Spirit who “strengthens us in our inner beings so that we can grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is” (Ephesians 3:16-19).
God uses many different means to respond to our need for help. God uses friendships, churches, support groups, counselors, treatment programs and other resources. Often, God puts together a network of support – a kind of search and rescue team to provide the help we need. Whatever resources God uses to deliver us and heal us, our part is to continue to acknowledge our need for help and to persevere in seeking help wherever it is available to us.
Often, God uses friendships to bring healing. Friendships can provide many gifts that other resources may not be able to provide. First of all, friendships are mutual. We listen to and care about and support our friends. Our friends listen to and care about and support us. Secondly, friendships can be spontaneous. We don’t have to limit our interactions to prearranged times and places. We can call each other and be with each other as the need arises. And finally, friendships provide intimacy on many levels. We can socialize together, play together, talk together and pray together. The richest friendships are often intentional, committed friendships; that is, friendships that are not only spontaneous, but which are also planned and scheduled on the calendar. Friendships have limits and they are not always helpful – but often God uses them to bless us with love and grace.
God also often uses churches as places of help and healing in our lives. Church can offer us a place of worship, a place of community, a place to focus on God’s Word, a place of spiritual counsel, and a place for prayer support. In worship and in communion we are reminded of who God is, of his love and his active commitment to us in our brokenness. In community we are reminded that we are not alone. By focusing on God’s Word and receiving spiritual counsel we see God’s grace more clearly. With the support of a community of prayer, God’s healing presence can be experienced in powerful ways. Churches have limits and they are not always helpful, but often God uses them to bless us with love and grace.
Another resource God uses is support groups. Support groups, whether they are twelve step groups or groups focused on a specific struggle (such as recovery from sexual abuse), provide a place where we can focus in a very clear way on our needs and issues. They provide a place of accountability and a place of special grace and understanding. People who are facing the same struggles we are facing can break the isolation that comes with our addiction or our pain. Support groups offer a place to celebrate growth in recovery. And they are a place of commitment; a place where we commit to meet with others to do the work of telling the truth and asking for support. Support groups have limits and they are not always helpful – but often God uses them to bless us with love and grace.
Sometimes God uses counselors for a season in our lives. Counseling offers us an opportunity to focus in a very specific way on our needs and struggles in life, with the help of someone who is professionally trained and experienced in the complexities of human development, family dynamics, addictions, trauma and the interplay of psychology and physiology. Counseling provides an opportunity for gaining self understanding, being accountable, taking in feed back, learning new skills, receiving nurturing and care, and doing the hard work of changing with the support of someone who has come to know us intimately. Counselors have limits and they are not always helpful – but often God uses them to bless us with love and grace.
Another resource God may use is a treatment center. Treatment programs provide a time out to work intensively and with lots of support on issues such as addictions, co-dependency, eating disorders, depression and abuse. Such programs offer a rich mixture of resources that typically include medical care, support groups and counseling. Treatment programs have limits and they are not always helpful – but often God uses them to bless us with love and grace.
We resist getting help
In spite of the abundance of God’s love and grace and the many ways in which love and grace are available to us, we do not easily reach out for the help we need. Even when we have acknowledged our need for help, we may find ourselves hesitating, finding excuses, resisting. Resistance to getting help is often the result of a mixture of fear and despair and shame.
It can be frightening to get help. In the process we feel vulnerable and exposed. Jim’s Dad had made cutting remarks about him all his life. Jim was so accustomed to hearing that he was lazy and stupid and irresponsible that every time he shared in his support group, he expected to hear these same hurtful comments in response. Even though people didn’t respond this way, Jim imagined that everyone must be privately thinking these things about him. As a result, he would sometimes begin to share only to freeze with fear and find himself unable to talk.
Our own experience has been that many different kinds of fears surface when we start to reach out for help. We may fear that if we are known we will be rejected or judged. Or we may be afraid that our vulnerability will open us to the possibility of being hurt or even abused. Or we may be afraid that change will mean breaking long-established family rules such as “don’t talk,” or “don’t feel” and this could have unpredictable consequences. We may fear change of any kind – the misery we know may seem preferable to the uncertainties of change.
We may also resist help because of despair. Like fear, despair can take many forms. We may despair because we think of ourselves as beyond help. Or we may despair because we think of ourselves as undeserving of help. Or we may despair because we have difficulty imagining that help could actually be effective. One person we know put it this way “Just thinking about getting help increases my despair – imagine how depressed I will be after I’ve invested several years in recovery and there still is no hope for me!”
Where did we learn that our problems are unsolvable? Despair is often a sign that we have looked for help in the past and found none. We may resist help today because we have tried getting help in the past, only to be disappointed. Joe was sexually abused by a coach when he was ten years old. He told his parents. But they didn’t believe him. Joe learned from this experience that it doesn’t help to ask for help. Trying to get help and being hurt in the process can lead to despair.
We also may resist reaching out for help because we are full of shame. Shame is usually the result of experiencing rejection, judgement, ridicule or abuse from others because of our limitations, our weaknesses, our failures, our vulnerability. These things are unavoidable parts of being human. But we have come to see them as something terrible about us; something we need to hide and deny.
Sometimes we experience shame in very general ways: “What if people knew?!” But often it is specific people who we imagine in times like this. What if Betty knew? What if my parents knew? What if the pastor knew? Whatever the focus, this is the experience of shame. We fear what people will think of us, and what we will think of ourselves, if we are exposed as the broken, struggling, frustrated mortals we really are.
John put it this way “When I first went to the AlAnon group at church I experienced incredible shame. I had to walk past the choir room to get to the room where the AlAnon group met and I had this terrible sense that everyone in the choir knew exactly where I was going and why. I felt completely exposed – like everyone now knew all of my worst secrets.”
Is this an unreasonable fear? Unfortunately, no. Some people will shame us for getting help. It is a common dynamic in dysfunctional families and other dysfunctional systems that the first person to get help is often responded to like this: “Oh, I knew all along that something was wrong here. I guess I was right. There was a problem in the family – and it was you!” In situations like this it can feel like you are swimming upstream against generations and generations of shame.
Its worth it to get help
In spite of our struggles with fear and despair and shame, it is worth it to get help.
First of all, it is worth it to reach out for help because if we don’t get help with our compulsions, addictions and unresolved wounds, not only will our problems not get resolved, they will get worse. Time heals few wounds. It is much more likely that the passage of time will increase the probability that a wound will become infected. And the destruction to ourselves and to our relationships that results can mean years, potentially a life-time, of tragedy. Without help, the denial, the blame, the addictions, the hurt, the fear, the shame, the despair will poison our relationships, and end up being passed on to another generation.
The second reason why it is worth all the struggle and risk to get help is that, when we do get help, we begin to change. We begin a process of transformation. In the process we give up our addictions and compulsions. Old wounds heal. We learn that we are forgiven. We learn that we are loved. We grow in humility, courage and hope. We learn greater honesty and vulnerability. Our compassion deepens. We become freer to be the person God made us to be.
It is, in short, worth it to cry out for help because the recovery process eventually leads to joy. When we cry out to God for help, we learn in a deeper way how much we need God and how much we need others. The goal of the healing process is not to get to the point where we no longer need help and support. The goal is to make dependence on God and interdependence with others a way of life. Jesus used a word picture with his disciples when he was talking to them about relationships and joy. “I am the vine, and you are the branches, abide in me and your joy will be full.” His point was that we need to stay closely connected to him. We can no longer pretend to be self-sufficient. As we daily acknowledge our need for help – as we live increasingly in love and less frequently in fear, despair and shame – we discover to our amazement that we are capable of experiencing joy. We don’t mean the illusive pleasures that once helped us to numb our pain. We gradually learn, rather, to experience a real, deep-down joy that is not rooted in denial but which has its roots sunk so deeply in the soil of God’s love that no wind or storm can threaten its vitality. And that’s a pretty good reason to get help. There will be times when the cure feels worse than the disease – but keep your eyes on the prize. God’s has plans for you – plans rich in grace and love!
Dale is the CEO of Christian Recovery International and Associate Professor of Recovery Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary. Juanita is a therapist in private practice (www.juanitaryan.com).