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  • Writer's pictureElijah Blalock

Heal Thyself

Updated: Oct 30, 2021


A while back, I was scrolling through the internet when a relic from my childhood appeared. Steve from Blue's Clues was on the screen. He was talking straight into the camera just like he used to when I watched as a kid. He looked much older, and there was no Blue because this wasn't a message for kids, but for the adults who had grown up watching the show, like me. With the same charming demeanor that he had in the old days, he spoke about the time that he left the show—which I remember. For those who don't know, Steve was the original host of the show, but in 2002 Steve decided to go back to college and left the show to another host. In his final episode, Steve packed his bags, introduced the new host, and said goodbye. In the video just released, he seemed genuinely grateful for his time on the show and the opportunity to go back to school. Then he said, "and look at you, and all that you have done and all you have accomplished." After acknowledging some of the hard times we all have gone through, he said, "I never forgot about you... I'm glad we are still friends." You can watch for yourself here.


The video quickly went viral and became the source of many memes and other jokes (which I enjoyed), but it has a very genuine and kind message. Steve appears sincerely grateful to his past audience, and his encouraging words are obviously well-intentioned. Nonetheless, something about the video did not sit well with me. While the good-heartedness of the video is real, the encouraging message ultimately rang hollow to me. I don't doubt that Steve had the best of intentions and meant what he said, but at the end of the day, Steve doesn't know me. He has no clue what I've accomplished in life. He can't have forgotten me because he never knew me. We can't be friends because we never met. It feels great to know that someone remembers you, is proud of you, and calls you their friend. For my generation, it feels wonderful to think that Steve is our friend, but one can only think that for so long. Ultimately, any encouragement given by the video wears off because deep down we know that Steve doesn't have a clue what any of us have done. We must return to reality, filled with real people, real jobs, real expectations, and real problems. Perhaps that reality is not a fulfilling one that we feel proud of.


Group Therapy

This isn't the only phenomenon that makes me feel this way. It's common now to see people share quotes or Facebook posts that say something like, "You are loved, you are safe, you are beautiful, etc..." All of this, of course, is written by someone who is a complete stranger. Again, I'm sure all of this is written and shared by well-meaning people, but it strikes me as bizarre that so many people take seriously the encouragement of someone who has never met them and likely never will. Because they are strangers, they lack the knowledge to assess our safety, beauty, or talent, and cannot meaningfully affirm anything about us. Now, I don't want to stop anyone from trying to be an encourager. I'm sure this is all done with the best of intentions. But I think there is a key reason that this form of affirmation has become popular.


For this phenomenon to take place, you need more than just encouragers with good hearts and a Facebook account. You need an audience hungry for affirmation—hungry enough to believe it from a stranger online who knows nothing about them. One might point out that we live in an increasingly narcissistic culture brought about by kids raised on self-esteem and participation trophies. I have no doubt this plays a role, but it is overly simplistic to imagine that there are hordes of narcissists who just want to be told how amazing they are all the time. It is rather that our overly psychologized, self-esteem obsessed, happiness driven culture has paradoxically created people who are more anxious, depressed, and lonely.

Carl Trueman writes, "The currency of the contemporary market is the therapeutic." (read his article here). Our culture believes that the most basic meaning of life is to feel happy, and that means that we need to be able to be and do whatever we feel like without shame or judgment. Even more, it is not only that society must not condemn our lifestyle, but they must actively affirm it so we can feel good about ourselves. This is such a powerful force in our culture that it is shaping the economy. For example, consider all of the corporations that added rainbow colors to their logo in June, even though their goods and services have nothing to do with sexuality. They did it because it's marketable. There is money to be made by making people feel affirmed.

But again, this therapeutic culture has not delivered what it promised. From 2000-2016, the suicide rate in America jumped 30%; 1 in 8 12-25 year-olds had a major depressive episode in 2017 (Gen. Z and Mental Health, aecf.org). Further, Cigna has found that Americans are getting lonelier. They found that 61% of the Americans surveyed in 2019 were lonely, versus only 54% in 2018. Imagine what these numbers will look like after Covid-19! Another survey found that in 1990, 27% of Americans reported having three or fewer close friends; in 2021, that number is now 49% (American Survey Center). Despite the affirming veneer, we are sick emotionally and socially, and therapeutic messages from corporations and strangers online won't cure our illness.

What can be done about this sad state of affairs? The church has a cure in two parts. First, through faith in God, we can offer transcendent meaning and value. Second, the community of faith provides the friendships that are lacking in society at large.

Faith

We begin with faith. Steve tells us that we have accomplished so much, but in truth, Steve doesn't know any of us or what we have accomplished. It is a nice gesture, surely made with kind intentions, but his words can only be taken so seriously because he doesn't know us. What if the people who do know us tell us that we are worthless? What if the people in our life send conflicting messages about our value? Our value is merely a matter of opinion, in this case. Who is to say that one person's opinion of us is better than another's? So long as our value is tied to the opinion of people, our value will be volatile. We can choose one of two paths. We can believe only those who tell us what we want to hear about ourselves, which is narcissism, or we can believe that our life has no consistent value and is simply a matter of the latest person's opinion, which ultimately leads to nihilism and depression.

We find ourselves in this quandary because we are Godless. However, if there is a God, there is someone whose thoughts of us are not a matter of mere opinion. His thoughts and words regarding us are the truth. His evaluation of us is transcendent—not tied to any circumstance or opinion. And what does He say? He says we are worth dying for. God made us in His image (Gen. 1:26-27), and although we quickly rebelled against Him and marred His image in us (Rom. 3:23), He loved us enough to come as a human and suffer and die on our behalf (Rom. 5:8). What are we worth? God says we are worth the blood of His only Son (John 3:16).


To be sure, God does not affirm all that we are. The cross also speaks of the terrible consequences of our sin and God's judgment against that sin. It demands repentance. However, when we see how great our sin is, we see that God's love is even greater. When we minimize our sin, we minimize God's love shown on the cross. Further, we make God into a flatterer. Few things hurt like receiving encouragement from someone only to find out that they didn't mean it. If an affirming word is only spoken because it is what we want to hear, then it is less than meaningless—it is insulting. However, God tells us what we already know is true: we are not what we ought to be. In fact, according to God, we are worse off than we realize! And yet, He still loves us.


The question is whether or not we believe Him. What evidence could I offer that God loves you? I have a book that speaks of His love, but I can't make you believe it. I don't have a video of the cross and resurrection, and there is not a voice from heaven we could go hear to prove His love. On the contrary, there is a world that sends us mixed messages. Perhaps it tells us that we are valuable if we are useful, or that we are worth nothing at all and that our existence is meaningless. Maybe, it flatters us. Whatever it says, it seems so much more real than the voice of God because it comes from people that we can see and hear, and whose opinions of us have real-life consequences. But God's voice must be simply believed, regardless of the circumstance (Heb. 11:1). We must by faith say, "let God be true, even though everyone is a liar" (Rom. 3:4). Faith is a difficult thing, but it is only by faith that we find our true and unchanging meaning and value.


Furthermore, believing this allows us to say to strangers that they are loved and valuable, not because we say so, but because God does. I don't need to know anything about a person to speak of their inherent dignity and value or to know that they are loved and that their life has a purpose. God has already determined that. I don't need to know anything else because their value is not tied to my evaluation of them. A non-believer may say to a stranger that they are worthy, but they cannot say on what basis. Is the stranger worthy because they said so? What if another person had a different opinion of the stranger? Or what if their opinion changed after learning what that stranger was like? But a believer has something more than a mere fallible opinion to offer. They offer God's unchanging Word. Perhaps the stranger is reprehensible, but it doesn't matter. We can say truly that their sin is worthy of condemnation, and yet that they are loved because God Himself has said so.


Friendship

As we come to faith in God's Word, we enter into the community of faith where we find true friendships. One might see a contradiction here. If God's Word is enough to establish our sense of meaning and value, then why do we need people at all? Some may even see the need for community as a sign of weakness or lack of faith. However, the God we have put our faith in created us with a particular nature. To fight that nature would be to rebel against God and destroy oneself. The first thing that God calls "not good" in the Bible is that man was alone (Gen. 2:18). At this time, man was in perfect fellowship with God, and yet it was not good for him to be without other humans.


It is no wonder that mental illnesses have risen alongside friendlessness. According to the studies above, Generation Z is more likely than any other to seek help from a mental health expert, but they are also more likely to report being lonely and friendless. It is good that the stigma on mental health is going away. However, I can't help but wonder if many people, especially young people, need a therapist because they have no one else to talk to. Many people have casual friends they share fun and small talk with, but they don't have friends with whom they can safely share their deepest hopes, desires, fears, and insecurities. They are ever more connected via social media, but ever more isolated in terms of true friendship.


For so many Christians, the church is essentially a market for inspiration. You show up to hear an encouraging song and message and maybe give your time or money in exchange for it. It's a place you visit to receive a spiritual good. The church is the service, and preachers and worship leaders dispense the church's goods to its audience. While it is true that the church through its ministers does offer a message of hope and inspiration, that is not the essence of the church. The essence of the church is its people. It is the community of faith, adopted as sons and daughters of God and now made brothers and sisters to each other (Eph. 1:5, 2:19). What marks us as Christ's people is not signs and wonders or even preachers and worship pastors. It is love for each other (John 13:34-35).

I'd challenge you to read through the epistles in the New Testament and note how often division and quarreling are addressed. Unity was a big deal. It was unacceptable to the apostles for churches to form along Jewish and Gentile lines, or for the rich and free to enjoy privileges over the poor and slaves. It was unacceptable for churches to tolerate gossip and slander. It was unacceptable for members to fight with each other and leave the problems unresolved. It is not enough for us to merely tolerate one another for one hour of the week. We are family, and we must learn to live like it. That requires more than toleration. It requires love. It means that we need to be friends. In a culture dying of loneliness, we can be friends. How much greater would it be if, instead of looking to strangers online, people could call a friend and be encouraged?


Help my unbelief!

I was pumping gas at a station with tv screens on the pumps. I hate those things. I just want to pump my gas and leave in peace without having ads blasted at me at a deafening volume, but there I was. On the screen, a woman popped up to offer the mental health tip of the day. She said that in a bout of anxiety, I could calm myself by rubbing my belly and repeating to myself, "I am safe." Self-care has been thoroughly commercialized! But consider the message: heal thyself. Care for yourself. You must fix yourself by repeating the creeds of self-love and placing your faith in them. You must come to believe, all on your own, that you are loved, worthy, valuable, and safe.


But Jesus tells us something different. Mark 9:14-29 is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Jesus finds a crowd arguing with his disciples. A man there explains that his son has a demon that makes him unable to speak and at many times has tried to kill the boy by throwing him into the water or fire. The father is desperate to save his son. There is nothing he can do. He is completely powerless to help his son, but he's heard about Jesus. Now, you can already imagine how the story ends. Of course, Jesus will cast out the demon and heal the boy. However, there's something in the middle of the story that we shouldn't miss. The story begins with a father who wants his son healed, but the son isn't the only person healed. The father asks in verse 22, "if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us." Jesus responds, "'If you can?' Everything is possible for the one who believes." The father cries out, "I do believe; help my unbelief!" After this, Jesus heals the man's son, but in the process, the father was also healed of his unbelief.


None of us comes to Christ with perfect faith. All of us harbor some kind of unbelief in our minds. To be healed, the world tells us to believe in ourselves and banish all doubts. The healing won't happen without perfect faith. But Jesus welcomes us in our faithlessness, helping us even in our unbelief. In fact, apart from Him, we will never have perfect faith. We cannot muster it up on our own apart from His grace. Fortunately for us, our salvation is not dependant on the size of our faith, but rather on the object of our faith. We too can cry out, "help my unbelief," and Christ will answer!


Perhaps you struggle to take God at His Word. It can be hard to believe that there is a God—much less that He cares at all about you. You might question your value and purpose in life, and whether or not anyone at all cares about you. But God has spoken at the cross; you are precious to Him, and your life is not an accident. You might find that unbelievable and therefore unhelpful, but there is more good news: you don't have to muster up enough faith to be saved and healed. God will help your unbelief. You may not have great faith, but you have a great God.


So, is it a bad thing that Steve shot an encouraging video? Is it bad that you may have liked it? Not at all. We should make the internet a more positive place, but we need more than just that. We need a reason to believe that our lives matter, and for that, we must look to God. Then, having come to faith in God, we must find community with His people and form the friendships God made us to have—not online friendships, where everything is polished up and reality is hidden behind the screen, but face to face friendships where we share the love of Christ in the good, bad, and ugly of life. We cannot heal ourselves; the answer isn't in us. It's in Christ. Find some friends who will point you to Him, and if you share encouraging things online, don't forget to share an encouraging word with your real-life friends. You might save a life.

I’d love to hear your comments! Feel free to agree, disagree, share a kind word, or ask a question. However, please be sure you have read the entire post before you comment, and please limit comments to the topic at hand. You don’t have to agree with me to comment, but you do need to be kind and respectful, especially to other readers.

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