I have a friend whose right knee is stronger than his left. He has the scar to prove it – on his right knee. Dave’s scar began as a scab after reconstructive surgery for a tennis injury. Now that he’s healed, only the scar remains. Permanent scars and temporary scabs used to be part of the Christian story. That’s not the case so much today. It seems to me we’ve become more Freudian than faithful to our heritage.
Scars occupy a sacred place in Christian tradition. When the resurrected Christ appeared to his followers, they freaked out thinking he was a ghost (Luke 24:37). Jesus allayed their fears by pointing to his scars: “Look at my hands and my feet. Touch me and see.” Thomas was dubious when he later heard this. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (24:25). Christ made the same offer to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.”
Scars were part of an ancient apologetic – a ten-dollar word meaning to defend, explain, or justify the faith. For the apostles, apologetics was more tactile than tactical. “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (I John 1:1). They discovered that Jesus’ healed scars could overcome healthy skepticism.
We too sport scars. But our healing involves a long lost art – a skill we see in King David and the Bathsheba debacle. After David had conquered most of his enemies he made a tragic series of choices that involved adultery with a married woman named Bathsheba, getting her pregnant, deceiving her husband and then having the poor guy murdered. Strike Four. When Nathan confronted him, David didn’t defend his actions (“she shouldn’t have been bathing midday!”). He came clean. “Against you, you alone, I have sinned and done evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). David wasn’t a perfectly holy man; he was a healthy man (a man after God’s own heart). He confessed his sin.
I have a modest proposal – why don’t we restore the long lost art of confession? “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” is how James 5:16 reads. Confession comes from the Greek, “to say the same thing as.” It means saying the exact same thing that God says about sin. It’s not explaining or justifying – that’s apologetics. Healthy people like David have no hesitancy confessing their collapses. Every time they sin, they confess. It’s that simple. So why has confession become a dying sport? Part of the answer is in how Freud reframed faith.
“Religious man was born to be saved; therapeutic man is born to be pleased,” wrote Philip Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud.1 Rieff showed how Freud created a world where virtue gave way to “values,” “finding myself” was more important than conforming to reality, and confession gave way to comfort. Religion was reframed as therapy and feeling “safe.” The odd thing is that Jesus and the church had never been imagined as “safe.” ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver… ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. but he’s good,’ wrote C. S. Lewis.2
Freud reframed the church as a safe hospital. Confession however is not safe; it’s scary. In Christian tradition it meant publicly repenting and repudiating my sin. This doesn’t mean counseling is bad. It’s not if it results in appropriate confession. Confession heals according to James – agreeing with God about my sin while not minimizing my culpability. In a Freudian world on the other hand, feeling safe and “being me” is what we get. But this only produces scabs. If we never confess, we never heal. Healthy confession turns scabs into scars. It’s not “safe.” But it’s sane. And it’s healthy.
A while back I picked a bump on my neck that wouldn’t stop bleeding. A Band-Aid slowed the hemorrhage so a scab formed. But it didn’t heal. That required a simple operation, digging out the benign basal skin cancer. This is the fallacy in the adage that ‘time heals all wounds but is a lousy beautician.’ Yes, it is a bad beautician. But time heals nothing. It only yields ugly scabs.
My friend Dave doesn’t talk about his healthy right knee. Why should he when it’s healed? The aim of the gospel is health, said the prophet Isaiah; not reveling in being “wounded.” My esteem for Jim Bakker shot up when he said: I was wrong. Period. His wife Tammy Faye never really did confess and died a tortured soul. When we unwittingly adopt Freud’s notions we become a Society of Scabs. Scabs are only healthy as rest stops on the road to healing. But that highway passes through confession. Scary. Not safe.
“The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets,” writes Annie Dillard.3 She’s not a fan of “safe” churches. Turning away from Freud will require restoring the rigors of repudiation and repentance – a breath of fresh air that yields healthy scars. And healthy scars are often what skeptics seek.
1 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, Second Edition, 2007), p. 19.
2 C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: First Collier Edition, 1970), pp. 75-76.
3 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1982), p. 40.