“If Jesus were sitting right here right now next to you on this couch, what would you ask him to do for you? Joel. what do you really want Jesus to do for you?” Jonathan asked me “the question” at the end of our first intensive therapy session.
After three hours, the conversation revealed that I wasn’t really sure whether I believed God could work significantly, redemptively in my life. What’s more, I came face to face with the question of whether I even wanted to be healed.
I came to a crossroads.
Did I really want to be healed by God? Did I really believe God would heal me if, in fact, I wanted it?
The question behind all the questions.
But why wouldn’t I want to be healed? It seemed like a ridiculous thought, a broken person not sure if they want to be whole. The truth, however, was far from ridiculous: a state of bentness was all that I have known as an adult. I couldn't imagine a different kind of sexuality; no, correct that, I couldn't risk imagining a different one.
I had already told Scott, my therapist back in Chicago, in our very first counseling session months earlier in the summer of 2013, I was afraid of the person I would end up becoming as a result of the therapeutic process.
"To be honest," I told him, "I like who I am." The lack of self awareness in that statement is breathtaking! But from where I was sitting at the time I felt I had worked very hard to be successful, spiritually, relationally and professionally.
I had accomplished significant things.
I had a strong work ethic.
I was a survivor and heroic.
I was successful.
My survival strategy had worked effectively for a very long time.
But this was not the truth.
The truth was that my marriage of 20 years was struggling to keep a pulse. I had a lack of sexual desire and avoided intimacy. I was emotionally shallow and lived with a hermit-like independence from others. I had sexual struggles I couldn’t seem to conquer in spite of tremendous spiritual and behavioral effort over decades. I was a pastor who found little enjoyment from ministry with people.
The truth was I had a deep ambivalence (a double-mindedness) about my life of which I was barely conscious at the time.
In view of my own life experience and that of many other pastors with whom I have the privilege of hearing their stories, I believe that pastors are some of the most self-unaware people on the planet. And this, despite thinking and assuming otherwise.
I am the poster child for the self-unaware pastor.
The path toward healing was extremely unpredictable - too unpredictable for a hyper-viligant person as I was and still am - and the goal was worse than unclear, it seemed impossibly out of reach.
What if I don’t like the person I became?
What if I’m not as accomplished and productive?
What if I really do begin to connect emotionally to people and to life?
What kind of mess would that affect create in me?
And worse, what if I risked vulnerability only to be disappointed or more deeply hurt?
I came into that first session of intensive therapy with Jonathan uncertain about what I would really be getting out of it. Wonder why I had come?
I had flown from Chicago to Denver on an early October day in 2013 to see Jonathan. But I didn't really know anything about him. He was recommended to me as an Allstar therapist.
His office was in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. The “Office Center” at 9200 W. Cross Drive where he had an office is a six-floor building. The structure looks like it was modeled after a communist-style headquarters, the kind you see in the Czech Republic or some other Central European city. It towers awkwardly over a generic shopping mall that one can find in every suburban city, the one with the J.C. Penny’s and Dillard’s.
The first floor of the office building contains a Wells Fargo bank and an American Family Insurance branch. The suite number for Restoring the Soul is #650, so I assumed it is on the sixth floor. I get into the elevator with two older gentlemen. I don’t’ remember much about the two except that one of them was hobbling around determined to get wherever he was going with only one good leg. I couldn’t help but simile to myself as each man exited, first at the third and then the fifth.
If they only knew why I was going to the sixth floor. That I was headed to talk to a shrink, a person I had never before met, about my story of sexual abuse and its impact. I could be totally wrong, but these two grizzled seniors, who could have very likely seen the evils of war and tragedy the likes of which I could not even begin to imagine, would not be caught dead sitting down with someone to talk about their “dark sexual stories.”
I recognize that I’m part of a generation that had a choice about being in war and is flabby and weak by the ease of wealth. I’m part of a different generation than these honorable men to be sure. But our generation has the will to fight a different, but no less wounding war.
I kept riding the elevator to the sixth floor because I had begun to appreciate the harm that was done to me. I had begun to recognize the damage I had done and was doing to myself. And I had acknowledged the wounds I’m inflicted on others. I had grown disillusioned.
I entered the suite where Jonathan's office was and after sitting for a minute in the waiting room, he walked up. He looked young, but I had expected as much. He wore cool chunky plastic framed glasses with combed back and slightly greying short hair. He had a Christian hipster persona. He was dressed in an un-tucked plaid short-sleeved short with a skinny tie, blue jeans and Chucks. My first impression was a good one.
After getting some coffee, Jonathan steered me to the couch in his office; he sat in a vintage cloth armchair. His whole office had a distressed wood aesthetic, really cool. Among the décor was an old wild-west wood jail door he picked up in an antique shop in Central City, a town just over the mountains. The door was propped up in a corner of the room. At one point after a break we talked about the door. “Oh, that old jail door?” he said. “I plan one day to make it into my desk.”
The door had a rectangular shape. It was probably six feet tall and not much more than two feet wide. The top half of the door had a wide opening with a number of rusted steel bars. A slatted wood plank was hinged over the bars that could be opened from the outside.
The wood of the door was full of scars. And at the bottom of the door was a six-inch gash. The door was like a character out of a wild-west film with a rugged story to tell.
For now, the old jail door just leaned up against that wall. It was a powerful symbol in a therapist's office.
Jonathan talked also about his vocation as a liberator of prisoners, the breaking down of jail doors in human hearts. So it was not only a very cool piece of décor, but it was also a profound emblem. And I was captured by Jonathan’s imagination of his therapeutic vocation as jailbreak.
My experience of him over the course of our seven plus hours of our work together reflected his vocational ambition.
He was on a mission, in his own words, “to come and get me!" His strength, confidence and tenacity was both bracing and comforting. Someone was finally noticing I was jailed deeply buried behind the illusion of freedom and power I had projected. I could let someone else save me.
I certainly came to his office seeking the freedom Jesus made possible in his death and resurrection at exceedingly deeper levels of experience. I came to his office to see the jail door of my heart broken down; or at least I thought I had until he asked "the question."
When Jonathan asked me what did I want Jesus to do for me, I felt what maybe the cripple at the side of the pool of Bethesda in John 5 did when Jesus asked him a very similar kind of question.
Jesus comes to this man and asks what was a patently obvious question, “Do you want to be healed?” The nameless man had been crippled for nearly fourty years we’re told by the narrator. Could there be any more obvious question?
We also are told that he had been there in that position for “long time” waiting, waiting for what though?
The KJV, which is based on a much later set of Greek manuscripts, adds that the man was waiting to be helped into the pool when angels stirred the waters, as it was believed to be a healing movement. Whether or not we should take that additional information to be factual, it remains the case that the man was languishing in his harm alongside a “multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.”
Jesus walks up to him and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” the man might have thought to himself. “Why do you think I’m here?”
I feel the audacity of Jesus' question.
Through Jonathan's question I heard Jesus asking me, “Do you want to be healed?” And I ask myself, “What do I want from you, Jesus?” I say to him, “Isn’t it obvious? Isn’t being here evidence enough that I want something different; I want a change in my life; I want healing?” Jesus says to me, “Yes and it’s a start.” “But here’s the thing”, he continues, “Neither the crippled man nor you need to be anywhere, not in a pool or on a therapist’s couch. I have come to you right here where you are, right now.”
I reacted, “But Jesus I came all this way. I am paying all this money. Of course, I want to be healed!” “Really?!”, Jesus replies, “I am ready and able to give you what you say you most deeply want, so the question is not from my side. It’s from yours.
What do you really want from me?”
“Ok”, I said. I pause and reflect for a few seconds. The thought unconsciously rolls off my tongue: “Whoa, this is dangerous moment.” “Ok, Jesus,” I went on, “My whole life is invested in this relationship with you. I prayed the sinner’s prayer when I was five years old; but the truth is I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t believe in you. Even in my most rebellious periods as a teen I have never doubted your existence or that the gospel was true. That five-year-old boy praying that prayer in the basement of our Baptist church in New Jersey was the consequence of a heritage of belief. I have spent my entire adulthood either preparing for the ministry and teaching of the gospel or doing gospel ministry and teaching.”
But there, in that moment, I faced the jail door in the deepest part of my soul where the enemy of our souls has imprisoned me and I must decide if I do really believe.
Do I believe Jesus has the power to free me?
Does the gospel really matter for my most painful wounds?
I trusted in Jesus for my salvation from hell at five, but now at forty-six will I believe the gospel is actually a word-act of restoration for here and for now?
Does it really matter in the most significant things in my life?
Then I thought, “If the gospel is real, it must! What’s the point of Christian belief, if it can’t; if the gospel isn’t the ‘power of God for salvation?!’”
But I felt the question like a weight around my neck, “Do I have the courage to believe it for me? Am I willing to wager a faith I have spent my life affirming?”
I am an evangelical New Testament scholar. I teach and publish on Jesus and the gospel message. I am a pastor; I have proclaimed the gospel many times. I have discipled many people in Christian faith through my adult life. So in this question, I sense that everything I’ve build my life around is at stake.
Do I entrust myself to the gospel I say I believe or don’t I? But here’s the dangerous truth: If a relationship with Jesus doesn’t affect my life now in this most significant thing, why should I have any confidence that he matters for the life-ever-after?
But for a while in the early hours of an October morning in 2013 in the fresh air of Colorado I wondered, “Do I really want to know the truth? Am I willing to risk so much?” I’m tempted by what I imagine to be no less than Evil himself to retreat from the question, to pretend that I never asked it. But I know that I can’t do that. Such a move would lack integrity and would get me nowhere. I knew I had to move. But boy it felt dangerous!
Jonathan is a really good reader of people and of the stories they tell, both verbally and non-verbally. As I was leaving that first session, he said he saw a tension in me between faith and hope on the one hand and doubt and pessimism on the other. He sent me out of his office with the question:
Will you believe the gospel?
And I heard that jail door rattle.