Misdiagnosing the Disordered Soul

I left home for a breakfast meeting early one cold morning a month or two ago, and my car refused to get up and go. A half-mile down the road and I still hadn’t reached thirty miles-per-hour. I had already noticed a serious decrease in gas mileage, so I knew I had a problem. When I got to my meeting, I asked my car-guy buddies about it, and they pointed the finger at my transmission.

Having been through two transmissions (and thousands of dollars) on another vehicle, I quickly accepted their diagnosis. They explained that some cars were very sensitive to transmission fluid levels, and the first thing to do was to make sure the fluid was at the proper level.

On the way home, the car behaved itself and I had no problem driving at posted speeds, though the engine rpms went through the roof as I went up a small hill. I intended to take it to the shop at my earliest convenience but life wasn’t particularly convenient, so days and weeks passed.

Last week I took the car to a mechanic friend and asked him to give it a long overdue tune-up and flush and fill the transmission. He called a few hours later to say there was nothing wrong with the transmission. The diagnostic equipment revealed an ignition misfire, which he said could explain the symptoms I was experiencing. He expected the tune-up would fix the problem and said he would try to save me the expense of new coil boots by applying a silicone grease.

But the tune-up didn’t fix anything. The plugs weren’t the problem. The transmission wasn’t the problem. So my friend installed new coil boots along with the little resistors (not sure that’s the right term) that come with them. And that solved the problem.

I had jumped at my breakfast buddies’ explanation – they certainly know more than I do – but they were mistaken. Even my mechanic’s first solution failed. Cars are complex enough that similar problems can be caused by very dissimilar malfunctions.

People are more complicated than cars. Their problems can result from a variety of causes, some spiritual, some physical and some mental. Take, for example, the man who once confided in me that he was experiencing suicidal thoughts. He acknowledged a history of depression, which had worsened in recent months.

I might have assumed the cause for his depression was spiritual and counseled him to fast and pray and read Scripture. Or I might have located the source of his problem in his failure to get sufficient exercise and encouraged him to get a gym membership. But after talking to him several times, I sent him to a doctor who prescribed medication. Within two weeks his suicidal thoughts were gone and his depression had begun to lift.

I’ve heard of people whose depression has been unsuccessfully treated by casting out a demon. I’ve known people who have tried to treat physical disorders with spiritual disciplines and spiritual disorders with antidepressants. Forgetting that people are embodied spiritual beings with cognitive/emotional processes is like forgetting that a car has an electrical system as well as mechanical and exhaust systems. To try to solve every problem with the same solution is to assure failure, both in cars and in people.

But in people as in cars, problems are often layered. A genuine spiritual problem may be concurrent with genuine physical and psychological issues. People of faith have often been accused of blindness in this area, but they’re not alone. People in the medical and social services fields often try to fix problems without regard to underlying spiritual causes, and the results are equally unsuccessful. A tablespoon of God may not cure a toothache, but neither will an antibiotic cure a disordered soul. Many people go to the doctor who would be better served by joining a church.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/2/2016

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