Ministry Resources

Spiritual Hypochondriacs

Author: Dr. Craig Keener

must confess that I have often been a hypochondriac.

I always want to err on the side of caution, so when I lived in walking distance of my doctor’s office in Philadelphia I got checked on all sorts of things that turned out to be nothing. (My doctor was very patient with his patient.) Of course, lack of caution can be even more problematic. A couple years ago I deferred going to the doctor to avoid being a hypochondriac and ended up in the emergency room with internal bleeding. The ER physician asked why I had waited so long to come in.

Tender Consciences vs. Spiritual Hypochondriacs

Spiritually, however, Western Christians sometimes act like hypochondriacs. We get so introspective that we root around looking for hidden sins (and not just on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday) instead of focusing on Jesus Christ, who saves us from sin and empowers us to live as the new creatures God has made us in him. Again, I don’t want to err too far on the other side: when we are in his presence, the Lord does bring to our attention matters that need correction. Some who want to overlook sin look to Scripture for verses of vague comfort when they need to seek God’s power for consistent victory over temptations of jealousy, hatred, pornography, or sometimes even directly outward sins such as gossip or intercourse outside marriage.

But sometimes we indulge our consciences in tenderness so much that we don’t want to read any verse that speaks about judgment or suffering or the like. We get softer and softer and more and more sensitive until we live in perpetual fear of fear. We are afraid of anything that can make us afraid, whereas facing into the fears is sometimes the best way to overcome them. (This has been true of me at times as well, and I have had to lay hold on “grace” Scriptures with determined faith.)

When I preach, I do want to help those with the most tender consciences to recognize that my strongest words are not for them. (I have a tender conscience myself so I understand that people can heap up guilt that is not about something real; sometimes it is an attempt to dutifully accept the condemnation that we think Scripture or the preacher is sending our way.) Jesus preached harshly, but to the resistant religious people who did not think they needed a savior and oppressed the “real” sinners. By contrast, our Lord welcomed those who understood that they were sinners, who understood that they needed grace. Scripture tells us repeatedly that God is near the broken but far from the proud.

Our backgrounds help shape how we hear harsh words. If we’ve been internalizing criticism all our lives and doing our best to meet up to others’ demands but falling short, we often approach God the same way. It’s too easy for us to forget the central act of salvation history: that God desired our fellowship with him so much that he gave his own Son’s life to bring us to himself. God was more eager for us to be right with him than we were! Nevertheless, the conviction needed to come to him to begin with does not mean we need to keep feeling desperate for God’s salvation after conversion! Instead we should celebrate salvation, even while welcoming him to continue to transform us into Christ’s image. The completion of that transformation at Jesus’s return will be our ultimate deliverance from all sin.

Using Verses to Confirm What We Want or Fear

But in addition to our personal backgrounds, we often become hypersensitive because of how we read Scripture. Some with condemning backgrounds or depressed circumstances have mental red-letter editions that highlight only verses that make them feel guilty or depressed. They often miss the passages most relevant for them. Noting common symptoms, beginning medical students sometimes fear that they have many of the diseases they read about. Beginning counseling students sometimes fear the same when reading about psychological problems. (I did that in my first counseling classes. Okay, maybe you think that I do have some of those problems, but surely not all the ones I read about!) Bible readers who have not yet developed more careful ways of reading Scripture can do the same.

Others, by contrast, become hypersensitive precisely by looking to Scripture only for comfort and not so much for exhortation. In the West, we too often read the Bible in a personalized, proof-texting way, grabbing verses here and there as a fast-food diet rather than reading them more thoroughly in context. If one wants just a verse “on the go,” one probably wants something encouraging, but usually not too challenging and definitely not something that makes one uncomfortable, or makes one have to think too much or research too long. This habit, however, limits one’s repertoire of verses and also takes a number of them out of context.

Not everything in the Bible is directly for each of us personally. Yes, good things about God’s followers can apply to us individually. But so can texts about God’s followers suffering; these can encourage us when we are suffering. And what about God disciplining sins? If it’s not your sin, you don’t need to appropriate any guilt to yourself: if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.

But even if a passage about suffering or sin (or comfort) doesn’t apply to you individually, it’s still important to know, because we live in a fallen world and those passages give us perspectives. The world is full of refugees (Congo-DRC, Syria, Iraq, and so forth). Innocent blood is still being shed, whether by some dictators against protestors, by gangs or drug dealers or sometimes agents of governments on the streets, or even in the sanctity of womb. (If any of these sins involve your past, former perpetrators are forgiven in Christ and former victims find compassion in Christ.) Pretending that sufferings and sins aren’t real may reflect some other religious movements, but they are not the way of Jesus, who healed the sick and confronted injustice rather than ignoring them.

When Spiritual Immune Systems get Bored

Our Western culture can also make us hypersensitive. One theory about the proliferation of allergies in the industrialized world is that our immune systems lack many serious new enemies because we have been immunized against so many diseases. (Whether the theory is true or not, immunization is overall a very good thing.) Thus our immune systems become hypersensitive. I have no idea whether the theory is correct. Certainly I would be glad for our “bored” immune systems to overcome more quickly new strains of colds and flu!

But spiritually, we can often become hypersensitive because we are too inwardly focused. So much of Western Christianity is focused on how we feel, a focus for which our spiritual immune system was probably not primarily designed. If our focus is outreach to others, or we are facing persecution, or even we are working very hard to earn our living, our spiritual immune systems may become less inward-focused than if we spend our days hiding from ourselves in videogames, entertainment, or even work.

An outward focus can also run from intimacy with God and inward healing, but some of us need to balance our inward focus with more of an outward one. If we are regularly sharing the gospel with unbelievers, we grasp the true power of the gospel in a way that we do not when we are trying to get it to always speak to us as if we need to be continually reconverted. Worship celebrates the gospel and inculcates intimacy with God; outreach balances this by making us conduits for God rather than us being flooded vessels because of broken pipes.

Hypergrace Reacting against Hyperguilt

Such hypersensitivity, reinforced all the more by preaching that emphasizes condemnation even for God’s children, can make us vulnerable to a form of hyper-grace message that makes us allergic to anything in Scripture that seems uncomfortable. And it is true that someone who has overdosed on such condemnation needs some safe space to recover from it. But just as the goal is for physical wounds to heal, God can give us the grace to heal enough to mature and move on from those emotional wounds. He can give us faith to stand firm that the message of the cross is our salvation, not our condemnation.

Paul was sensitive to the “weak” and warned the “strong” not to cause them to stumble (Rom 14:1; 15:1; 1 Cor 8:9-12). But he also encouraged maturation in faith that ideally enables us to draw boundaries in the right places, rather than too tightly (or loosely). If people cannot be justified by keeping biblical law (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:21; 3:11; 5:4), we certainly don’t get justified by keeping laws of our own modern or historic making. And what matters objectively is not feeling justified all the time, but our status of justification before God accomplished by Christ (Rom 5:1, 9; 8:30; 1 Cor 6:11).

Faith Affirms Truth that is Higher than Feelings

In other words, instead of waiting for feelings that assure us of God’s faithfulness, we need to exert faith—which is not a feeling, but often simply a raw commitment to truth or a raw determination to affirm it. Rather than waiting for a feeling, we can acknowledge that in Christ we are justified. (Feelings are great too, but the Bible never says anything about being saved by feelings.)

Once we have welcomed Christ as Lord and Savior, we must embrace the gospel not as a continual summons to get saved, but as a continual celebration of the good news that we are saved in Christ. (I am not denying the possibility of apostasy here, a denial that I believe is refuted both by Scripture and human experience. But apostasy is walking away from Christ, not merely a personal struggle to overcome temptation and certainly not a bad feeling.) Feeling quite often flows from faith, but waiting for feeling to verify faith is counterproductive; it puts the cart before the horse. Horses are meant to pull carts, not to push them.

Implications for Preaching

When preaching the gospel to polytheists, Paul summoned them to turn from idols (Acts 14:15-17; 1 Thess 1:9). When preaching to believers, he offers himself as an example of sacrificial service and provides warnings to watch out for even Christian leaders being turned away by worldly temptations (Acts 20:17-35). But his message was a message of the new covenant, depending on the Spirit (2 Cor 3:1-18). That is, preachers shouldn’t deliberately guilt-manipulate their hearers (sticking in the knife and them sometimes turning it for good measure). Our job is to speak the truth, lovingly but without compromising God’s message, yet depend on the Spirit to change people through the truth. We don’t assume the Spirit’s job; God can do that well enough on his own, but we must be faithful agents of his message.

Those with hardened hearts may need preaching like Jesus’s preaching to the religious elites of his day. Those with vulnerable hearts need more the message of kingdom embrace that Jesus gave to sinners, inviting them through repentance to a new life. Those in Christ still need periodic warnings, but the nature of this differs from congregation to congregation. Corinth needed serious pastoral reproofs; Philippi needed a bit of exhortation to unity, but mostly warranted encouragement; Thessalonian Christians needed reminders about a disciplined life, but especially reaffirmation of God’s faithfulness in the face of their hardships. One sees the same variation in the letters of Revelation 2—3 (which should put to rest any belief that all prophecies to churches must be positive, or that all must be negative).

Reading the Whole Bible but in the Right Way

Those of us who are too sensitive sometimes have to just exert raw determination, insisting that the gospel is so true that it applies even to us; God’s grace that saves sinners has saved us.

We also need to learn not to apply every text directly to ourselves. The solution is not to ignore the other texts. The solution is to realize that it’s not all about us individually, but about our God’s purposes in history. Then we can apply all the Bible in the right ways. Even texts about God judging sin can encourage us that he does not look the other way in this world of pain and injustice. Texts about grace apply to all who acknowledge Jesus’s sacrifice for us and his triumph.

Let’s not be spiritual hypochondriacs, anxious about diseases we don’t really have. Let’s be strong in the Lord and the power of his might.

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