The Balm of Gilead

We are all injured. Every mortal carries an assortment of chafes, bruises, and malfunctions. Some people’s disorders are more debilitating or apparent, but no mortal is spared.

The worst injuries are spiritual. There are those who are paralyzed by remembrances of betrayal, cruelty, and neglect. There are those held hostage to guilt or anger.

In my work for Auburn University I met a prominent, mid-life woman who was energetic, personable, and bright. We worked together on several projects. After our first planning meeting, several of us went to lunch. As we began the first steps toward getting acquainted, she put a frame around her life by saying that she was in recovery. She had had bad relationships as a child, substance abuse as an adult, and now she was in recovery.

Over the years this woman and I had many professional contacts. Perhaps monthly we met for planning meetings. Regularly the subject of her injuries and recovery came up. She told about her latest forays into counseling. It took me a long time for me to recognize that her old addictions to substances had been replaced with a new fascination with recovery. She really was not well yet; she was merely addicted to treatment. She understood and explained every part of her life through her struggle with addiction.

That woman’s situation is not unusual. Many of us have learned to define ourselves based on some central struggle in our lives. We are overcoming abuse or addiction or trauma or neglect. It is a common way to make sense of our lives. It puts our enemy clearly in focus. Unfortunately the perceived enemy is often really a diversion. There is a persistent and pernicious enemy who may go unrecognized.

There are many traditions in therapy. One is to ruminate on the history of a problem in the hopes of untangling the strands of pain and responsibility. Often we get only more tangled and more confused and more despairing.
One approach to solving problems is to carefully study the behavior and the contingencies that support it. By putting new contingencies in place, the behavior pattern may be broken.

Another tool is to bolster the self-confidence of the victim. “You can do it. You are bright and capable and strong.” But we are all nagged by the sense of inadequacy. We simply cannot do many things that need doing.
Elder Boyd K. Packer has suggested a radical, new approach to therapy:

True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel (Ensign, November 1986, p.17).

“Doctrine therapy” seems hopelessly inadequate and naive for dealing with lifelong problems. Can the study of doctrine really change long-established patterns of behavior?

Jesus believed that it could. Recall Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. She had suffered a long history of failed relationships. She was in fact, then cohabiting with her sixth partner. She had every reason for despair and cynicism. But Jesus offered her sublime hope. He offered her living water.

“Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water (John 4:10).

The woman was mystified. Jesus made clearer the contrast between natural and divine methods of slaking thirst.

“Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13–14).

Jesus declared himself to be the Messiah, the Christ. He was a liberator and a healer.

Jesus did not probe the troubled history of her life. He did nothing to untangle her psychological wiring. He offered himself as the healing balm. For every malady the remedy was the same, whether the woman taken with adultery, the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, or the father who craved healing for his son.

“Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things [are] possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:23–4).

The father’s humble and sincere effort at faith was enough. The son was healed.

Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me,
because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor;
he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives,
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty them that are bruised
(Luke 4:18)

For all who were ever bruised or damaged, He is the liberator.

Of course, God will have us use every practical, medical, and medicinal resource available to us. Anti-inflammatories and wise counsel are still vital. But the most persistent maladies are those of the soul. For them, Jesus is the only remedy.
I learned a valuable lesson about drawing on His power from a member of our branch who came to see me as a friend. (She was not willing to see me as her branch president.) Her life was filled with problems, doubt, sin, and confusion. She felt utterly hopeless. She asked me what she should do.

I suggested that she let Father in to her life to help her make sense of everything. She resisted. “If I let God into my life He will tell me all the stuff I am doing wrong. He will start to make a bunch of demands and insist that I entirely clean up the place. I have enough problems already. I don’t need that kind of help.”

A suggestion came to mind. I suggested that, next time she felt him knocking at her door, she open the door to Him. But tell him that He can only come in to the linen closet of her life. And He can only stay for 10 minutes. Then He must leave without resistance.

She was aghast at the presumption. But, with encouragement, she resolved to try. The same woman returned to my office a week later, subdued and peaceful. She closed the door and sat down. “I invited him in and told him He could stay only for a few minutes.” She paused for a long time. “I have never known such joy. He taught me. He loved me. He encouraged me. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that God was like that?”

Perhaps His healing powers are the best-kept secret in the world. Because of him we have nothing to fear. We are infinitely better off in His hands than in Satan’s, or even our own. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

In many situations it is difficult to find the limits of our responsibility. The Prophet Joseph Smith must have had a similar question as he languished in Liberty Jail while his people struggled. The Lord instructed him:

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power [whether much or little, we do all we can and we do it cheerfully]; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance [What a picture of faith-filled serenity!], to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed [In the final analysis, he does the miracle]” (D&C 123:17).

I am a professor of human development. I am not trained as a therapist. I believe that skillful therapy can play a vital role in helping people heal. But there is more. The relentless message of scripture is that we may “look to God and live” (Alma 37:47).

In my own life and in the lives of those I love, I have repeatedly witnessed the transforming miracle of His goodness. Only He can provide the mighty change of heart that ultimately makes us right. Over-reliance on human remedies will leave us still sick. The doctrine of Christ, His goodness, His healing balm, are our only hope for curing the pervasive, latter-day, spiritual maladies.

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  • Reply Lynn May 23, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Thank you! You may have just given me a way to frame that invitation in a way that one of my struggling children would be willing to receive.

  • Reply Candleman May 24, 2009 at 9:00 am

    This is wonderfully taught Wally, thank you. Recently a good friend who has attended the LDS Addiction Recovery Program for years, had yet another relapse.

    She loves the meetings, attends regularly, and persistently lies about how she’s doing. She pretends to be in recovery, but having refused the Savior entrance into the dark corners of her life, her effort is like a house of cards that periodically comes crashing down.

    Now lest anyone think that LDS ARP is just another therapy program, I feel compelled to explain. Week after week the power of the Atonement is taught and testified of. Week after week the miracle of delivery is manifest in people’s lives. My own recovery came as a result of reading and believing Mosiah 7:33. “But if ye will turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, and put your trust in him, and serve him with all diligence of mind, if ye do this, he will, according to his own will and pleasure, deliver you out of bondage.” It worked for the people of Limhi and it worked for me.

    The effort to deliver myself was fraught with disappointment, discouragement, and set backs that were every bit as discouraging to me as they were to Limhi’s subjects. The losses compounded the problems. The only way out in both cases was to turn to the Lord. It is significant that when I face God my problems are behind me. And when I face my problems God is behind me. It is that simple…. and profound.

    Finally, I mention recovery a lot. It is a big part of my life. I lead as many as four LDS ARP meetings each week. I am called and set apart to do so. Even if I weren’t I expect to attend for the balance of my life. Why? Because recovery is a daily process, not an event. God and my Savior grant me that gift on a daily basis. Like Paul I have not been granted complete release from my thorn in the flesh, for I need it. It keeps me humble, and only when I’m humble am I able to remain sober. Only when I am humble am I strong enough to be of service to my Jesus.

    • Reply admin June 2, 2009 at 11:21 am

      Thank you, Candleman! I love how you have described the key: humbly submitting ourselves to Jesus.


  • Reply Kristen May 26, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Beautifully said. This brings to mind three people I have learned from and am still learning from:
    Dr. Carolyn Myss, who has a lecture on tape called “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can.” She introduces the word “wound-ology” (always speaking of your past wounds) and how forgiveness is the way to heal;
    Sister Colleen Harrison, author of “He Did Deliver Me From Bondage,” the 12-step, Book of Mormon-based program on relying on the Lord rather than your addictions;
    Brother Terry Warner’s talk on tape “Why We Forgive,” a powerful example of how forgiveness is more about HOW we handle what has happened to us, than WHAT has happened to us.
    Your article here expresses the same principle: Christ is the liberator. Faith in Him is freedom.

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