5 false things the church often teaches us about healing

jean vanier quote look at your own poverty

i have a theory about healing:  most of us need it, a lot of us want it, and many of our church experiences have taught us some things that make it harder to get.

this makes me sad, mainly because church is supposed to be a place of healing, the safest place on earth to be transformed, a sacred space to experience God’s love & the love of people and be renewed over and over again.  i have come to believe that those of us who have a strong evangelical/fundamentalist background have the hardest time with believing in the deep places of our hearts that we are worthy, valued, and loved by God and others.  accepting our acceptance is really the root of most of our healing issues!

recently, when i was leaving our wednesday place of healing, a lovely group of men & women learning how to do healthier relationships, i was reminded how freaking hard it is to change painful patterns in our lives.  it doesn’t come cheap, it doesn’t come easy.  and one of the things that give some of us the most trouble is that we haven’t been taught this reality in church.

we have been infused with a false idea that if we just “believed enough, prayed enough, immersed ourselves in God’s truth enough, humbled ourselves enough, did x-y-z enough” that we’d be instantly transformed.

i don’t think many churches realize the amount of ongoing damage these messages about healing cause for people. they leave a lot of us with a “there must be something wrong with me because i am still struggling.”  it’s still wild for me, how strong that pull is even after all these years of a radically different experience.  i will leave certain interactions with believers who sound so strong & certain & “well” that i immediately go to a place of “i must be doing something wrong that i am still struggling.”  it’s so jacked up–and i know better–but makes me realize just how deeply embedded some of that thinking is into the fabric of my christian experience.

a lot of us have been taught false notions about healing in church.  we’ve been lead to believe that:

1. healing is fast.  there’s a very low tolerance in many communities for ongoing struggle. we like victory stories, not “well they are still struggling with that.”  our timeline on change is often months instead of the years and years that deeper healing requires.

2. healing is simple.  with the right combination of God & scripture & doing-this-or-doing-that-or-reading-this-or-reading-that, that we can get our marriages back on track, kick that nasty addiction, and be transformed.  we want it to be less complex than it really is.  sometimes when people intersect with the refuge they have this feeling like the pain there is too great and it must mean that somehow people aren’t letting Jesus work in our lives.  that couldn’t be further from the truth!  but because it looks and feels messy, there’s an inclination to want to “clean it up.”

3. healing is linear.  so many of these things fit together, but the thought that healing is like climbing a ladder, one rung at a time, the past behind us, moving forward, can deeply harm us. transformation is much more like a spiral, and we will hit our same stuff over and over again, thankfully always at a different place.  i have to catch myself all the time on this when i am talking, yet again, about my struggles and that little naggy voice says that i shouldn’t anymore.

4. “needing” is bad.  the church’s message “you just need God and God alone” has really damaged a lot of us. to make God uninvolved with us through people is not a biblical concept. the much bigger story is the body of Christ being a tangible reflection of God.  the early churches’ “need” for each other was truly a matter of life and death.  the reality is that it still is, but life and death just looks different now.  i am supposed to need you and you’re supposed to need me. we are supposed to be needy, but we have often been sent a message that we’re not.

5.  healing is just a “heart issue”.  in other words, if we can get our hearts right, then everything will flow out of that.  i can’t tell you how many years i tried to get my heart right and never could. what did start to transform me, though, was when i started taking practical active steps in a new direction while my heart was still a big hot mess. that’s why going to recovery meetings, healing groups, whatever-different-way-that-might-look, is so important–our actions often precede our beliefs and we aren’t going to wake up one day with our hearts in exactly the right place for something to happen. yes healing is spiritual, but people are complicated and every area needs attention.

i know some of these are generalizations, but i also know that some of you have been on the receiving end of them in a huge way and it has messed with your head.  it’s one of the reasons so many people have had to leave church in order to get healthy.  i respect that even though it makes me so sad.

i also know that most church’s heart are to be a place of healing. the problem is that the realities of healing does not “sell” because we have misinterpreted what it’s supposed to look like and are disappointed when it doesn’t meet our criteria.

healing is never simple, fast, linear or possible alone. 

in reality, it is messy, ugly, long, weird, uncomfortable.

healing requires not just a humble month or two when things get extra-hard but a humble way of living and seeing ourselves & God & others.

no wonder why it’s so hard.

and no wonder why it’s so good.


ps: i didn’t post here last week, been extra busy diving into the new year, but did have two other posts up:

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Yup you are right Kathy, at least from my perspective. A year or so on I can now share one or two things that I couldn’t have before. Wahy particularly resonated with me is what you wrote with “so many people have had to leave church in order to get healthy”.

    For me, it was needing to go to my doctor and being given 6 sessions of compassion therapy and a course in mindfulness meditation. I now am part of a Christian meditation group and have changed churches having learned to be more guarded and less involved in church as I was before. and more looking to be involved with things “out there” where the kind of issues you have talked of in church don’t exist.

    It’s easy to say this particularly relates to evangelicalism or fundamentalism but it we are honest, we can experience similar difficulties in liberalism or feminism. No human structure will ever provide real security.

  • Thanks for writing about this. I think I am one of those people who needs to get away from church for a while to let the healing happen.

    My church in Texas had a large recovery program where people found community and stayed for years. This was viewed as a waste of leaders’ energy and resources to keep pouring into these people and the pastors eventually tried to sell CR as a “triage” center: you come in when you are really hurting and only stay for “a season,” learn the biblical truth you’ve been missing, the absence of which must be causing the pain in your life, and then leave to go be a normal, functioning part of the church. The tag line was “this is a place where it is ok not to be ok, but it’s not ok to stay there.”

    • I make apologies and explanations for why I don’t currently attend church. Truthfully, I needed to know God in a very personal way and being away has helped me to do that. Strange and so contradictory to what we really hope for in a church and what we think church should be.

      Wouldn’t it be so great for churches to say: “this is a place where it’s okay not to be okay and where the hope is that you will stay, as you are for as long as you are, and be fully as you are and never leave. this is a place where we know how life spirals up, down, all around and that we’ll never fully arrive at a place of perfect okay. So as life whirls and twirls, come and join us, and let it and you simply and truly and fully Be. rest in the knowing we are all broken, holey, fragile and in need.”

    • thank you so much for your honesty, justin. it’s just such a big mess, what we’ve made of healing and the church. very hard to unwind. i was at the place of healing group today, listening to everyone share our stories of change and hope and healing and struggle and the-mess and thought about how there is nowhere i’d rather be and that part of my ongoing spiritual and emotional and practical health is to stay there. not because i’l be the same in a year, but because in a year, i will continually be healing and growing and need a place to be challenged and loved.

  • Oh, yes! I totally agree, Kathy, and what you have shared here really help affirm what I have known about myself (and others). Your words breathe life and says “you aren’t crazy” and “you didn’t make this stuff up”. Church has felt so arms-length-away-standoffish. Stiff, almost. Totally not a place to be messy and just as we are . . . for long. There’s a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” and get on with it kind of mentality. Do this and do that for His Kingdom, versus just be and let Him do the work through us. I am so passionate about wanting to see that change . . . us all change from the inside out in our perspective of what church is and should be and who and how we should be within it. It comes with a willingness to lay it all out on the table, say it how it is, and to be willing to accept the mess; to live with it and let it be and not try to fix it or solve it or identify the “why” of it. You’re right in that we’ve been so quick to want to make ourselves and each other better and really, the grace is in just learning to live in it and let HIM do the work in us, in His time, through the experiences He takes us through. I still struggle with “shoulding” myself and with a timetable that is suffocating and totally unfair. I need a community who reminds me and who encourages each other to let His economy be as it is; to envelope His acceptance of us and to give each other permission to crumple up the check-list of performance-based good Christian solution list that we crazily think is the fix for all our fumbling, and instead to just talk openly and honestly about our stuff and encourage a stepping out and just being, as we are . . . for as long as we are.

  • THIS is healing. through words. thank you as always for your raw vulnerability which is balm to those left with a confused wound from church.

  • This really resonates. I’ve felt pressure to heal faster than was possible for me, but I wonder how much of that came from me and how much of it came from outside. Probably a mix, eh? I was lucky to encounter some gem-people who were familiar with pain, and knew about how healing works. There are people like that in churches, helping others muddle through some really dangerous teaching, and for that I am so grateful.

    • thanks emily, i really do think it’s probably a crazy mix, internal stuff combined with the outside damaging messages that can make for a dangerous cocktail. i appreciate your sharing.

  • I am not sure if you meant this to be mostly about emotional or spiritual healing, but even if you did, it really applies to physical healing too. My mother had cancer for 14 years, and we prayed for healing for a long time. I was so devastated when she died, not just because I missed her, but because I felt like my prayers for healing had failed somehow. Looking back, I think my understanding of healing was very narrow and linear, whereas God’s is so much broader and long-term. It doesn’t make me less sad that she died, but it does give me a sense of peace, knowing that God wasn’t just ignoring me.

    • i am so glad you shared this because i know so many who have experienced that exact thing, praying for a healing is sincere but what happens when it doesn’t. always pointing the finger toward ourselves–“we must have done something wrong” seems to be the first response and oh, i know that feeling. i really appreciate your honesty. peace to you from afar.

  • Awesome post! You have expressed what many people for years (including me) have personally struggled with. Thanks for posting!

  • Thank you so much for this. Every word resonated with me. I’m in therapy now, have been on and off for a few years, and often run into the very things you speak of. Coming away from the “something must be wrong with me if I’m still struggling” and “God will only love me when I get it right” is very much swimming upstream for me. To know that there are so many others out there who feel this way is a huge source of encouragement and helps with the healing.

    • i always say that those who go to therapy (and 12 step/recovery groups) are the most healthy people i know. it is misperceived in so many ways and in the end, the integration that comes is so freeing. it is so sad to me, how the message has been passed on to us that if we are “still struggling” something is wrong with us. peace.

  • So. good. I always felt worse after some church class, conference or bible study since it didn’t feel like it “worked”.

  • SO GOOD! Yes I was shouting. It is so good. I have been stuck believing these in the past. Only after I let go of these false beliefs did I grow and heal.

  • Thank you, Kathy! This is the heart of what I have called Purple Martyrdom the past seven years or so. I, personally, have been on a 14 year journey of brokenness … and I can attest to each of your thoughts — especially that the church does not get it right very often and that they particularly hard a hard time when a pastor’s life is full of so much messiness. My days/years in “purple” have been the best of times and the worst of times. And I’m just now seeing the other side. No magic wand, but coming to understand and embrace what I call Perichoretic cHesed.

    So, when you feel that “should” falling in you, your wee purple abbess will be here holding you up, sister!

  • I wrote a songs last year about this ..ur says Now that you see me here/how do you feel/broken and tired again/how do you feel/yeah it goes too long/but no it’s not the same/it hurts when you come and do this thing/I don’t know where you are/I can’t find anywhere/The answers to my questions now/

  • Between this piece and the one on mental illness and how badly it is often handled within the church, you have spoken deeply to me, Kathy. thank you for your vulnerability and honesty. Thank you for not shying away from these difficult topics and challenging us to do better and be better. I miss you, KE.

    • you too, my dear. dreaming of doing a faith shift thing in charlotte at some point. i want to hang out with you guys again! thanks for reading and for your honesty and hope.

  • Yea and amen, friend. NOTHING in life is truly linear. I tell people who come for counseling or direction that the same issues they were dealing with in their 20s will circle around again in each decade, presenting themselves from a slightly different angle because we’re moving along that crazy spiral in the sky. We have to revisit the old stuff as we age, to divest ourselves from the pieces that we didn’t have eyes to see when we were younger. Life long healing is a life long process. Period. Good stuff, as usual, Kathy.

    • thanks, diana, yeah, the themes are always the same and God keeps working. embracing that is such a gift and so freeing instead of being so pissed off at ourselves that we’re back again for another layer of transformation.

  • LOVE this and so wish we lived closer so we could talk this one out. You nailed it so good, and yes, even though it’s generalized, it is Accurate. Especially the one about Time. Healing is not instantaneous, and often is stalled for long periods of time. We are impatient, and like Job’s friends, put the burden on the wounded to hurry up and get on with it by getting more of GOD into the picture.

    I thought for years and years that if I only had enough knowledge of the love of God that this would be the healing balm for all that ails me.

    Well, in some ways I have experienced healing and peace as I grew deep in knowing that I am loved and Beloved….. yet not all things are healed despite my soul being anchored that I am loved with a No-matter-what kind of love. But it is comforting… knowing that I am loved no-matter-what and no matter how effed up some parts of me still are. I take responsibility for my life and owning who I am and how I am. Yet I cannot always heal myself. Where healing is delayed or even nonexistent, I am reminded that even in weakness I am strong for my Creator is with me with all my scars and scabs and bruises. The no-matter-what Love of God comforts what is not healed and that makes it bearable….I had to learn this through the fire of life. No one ever preached this sermon or discipled me this way. I thought for the longest time that I was defective in truly having a security in the love of God –for wouldn’t my depression be cured and my anxiety and my cravings for soul-numbing comforts disappear??

    I take my meds.

    I live in the glory of knowing I am loved, no matter what.

    This comforts me and helps me not numb so much.

    God is so kind to the broken hearted, weak and infirmed like Me.

    (LOVE you!!!!!! btw, Rose landed in Ireland this morning!)

    • oh how i love you, let me count the ways. hope i get to see you in 2014! thanks for your honesty and hope and beauty. i will tell julia, too, as she really wants to go to ireland. so do i someday! that’s on my list. hugs and love.

  • Yup, so spot on. One of the best pieces of feedback about healing is that idea of the spiral staircase. I think it is really hard because from a PR perspective, yeah, it doesn’t look too pleasant. For sure have continued to try and try and try to be all better, and leaning into a lifetime of healing Grateful for the multiple reminders of the long view. #holyunlearningbatman

  • beautiful and true. having struggled with my own healing issues i often clashed with other members of my local community because fundamentally i knew that my healing was a hard struggle and not an overnight miracle. Thank you for your words.. in themselves they are healing… blessings.


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