I ask a LOT of questions every day in the office. Most are routine and expected, questions such as “Where does it hurt?” or “How long have you felt this way?” Of all the questions I ask, few are as impactful as the one I asked not so long ago, “Have you killed any Christians lately?”
The patient has been in my practice for a while and is well-known and well-liked by the staff. Her visits have been more frequent as of late as she has struggled to deal with a lengthy illness that has made it impossible for her to work. Anxiety and depression have overwhelmed her. I started antidepressant medications a few months ago with no visible response. She was not doing well.
One look at her face when I walked into the exam room told me that the most recent medication adjustments were not working. Her face revealed her anxiety and sadness. I asked her what was going on and she shared that she had started drinking again, heavily. I had to ask her several times before she would tell me exactly how bad the problem was. She was binging, drinking as many as 18 beers in a day. In my mind I ran through possible reasons for such a sudden increase in drinking, remembering that binge drinking can be associated with the manic phase of bipolar disease and that anti-depressants can send a bipolar patient into mania. I wondered, "Maybe she isn’t simply depressed. Does she have Bipolar type 2? (Bipolar type 2 is a depression dominated form of bipolar disease.)
Bipolar disease would explain the poor response to anti-depressants and the drinking. With this in mind I asked about other signs of mania such as poor judgment and impulsive behavior. “Have you been making any other poor decisions in your life? Spending money you do not have or being more promiscuous?”
Tears immediately filled her eyes and flowed down her cheeks. “Just this weekend,” she replied. She went on to tell me about a sexual indiscretion, an encounter she normally would have avoided. I knew it pained her to share this with me as she had made many statements about her faith in previous visits and the behavior she described was completely opposite the faith she had professed. My heart ached for her. I knew that her mental state must have been truly weak for her to engage in activities that were in such blatant opposition to her beliefs and values.
I tried to proceed with gentleness. I encouraged her to seek out a psychiatrist, sharing my concerns that she may not be on the best medications for her. Because she was doing so poorly I encouraged her to get a second opinion as soon as possible. Before she left the room I gave her a hug and told her to take care of herself. As we stepped into the hallway she turned back to me. The tears returned and her shoulders quivered as she said, “I am so embarrassed and ashamed!”
I pulled her back into the room. “There is no place for guilt. We all make mistakes,” I said. “If you are worried about having messed up, take a number and get in line. Behind me! We all mess up!” I shared that while we each may struggle with different sins, we ALL struggle with something. (My personal struggles are a "wonderful" combination of insecurity, impatience and anger.)
“But I have done such terrible things!” she responded.
Then came the question. “Have you killed any Christians lately?” A puzzled look came over her face. I reminded her of the story of the Apostle Paul, who prior to his conversion to Christianity was actively involved in persecuting Christians and having them put to death. “God forgave him and he became the greatest evangelist ever. If God can forgive Paul killing Christians he can forgive you.”
The flow of tears slowed as the meaning of the words sunk in. I encouraged her again to see the psychiatrist, and to talk with a pastor. “There is no shame in needing help or in asking for help! We all need help. If you refuse to admit you have a problem and refuse to get help I will let you feel ashamed about that. Otherwise shame has no place!"
A few minutes and another hug later I sent her on her way, praying that she would experience the peace that comes from forgiveness, both the peace from being forgiven by God and the peace that comes from forgiving herself.
Next time you are down on yourself and wonder how God can ever forgive you, take a moment and remind yourself of God's capacity for grace and forgiveness. You probably have not killed any Christians lately! It is not about how "forgivable" we are. It is about how forgiving He is.
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