Seeing God Differently Will Change You
By M. Kathryn Armistead
Once you see God differently, you will be profoundly transformed.
Fred was a healthy twenty-five-year-old married to his high-school sweetheart, Emily. One day he began having terrible headaches. When Fred went for a check-up, the doctor could find nothing wrong. But the pain persisted and Fred started requesting more medication. Because the doctor couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary, he decided that Fred was faking just to get drugs. Knowing that he wasn’t an addict and angry at being written off, Fred left the doctor’s office feeling dejected. (All names and personal information have been altered to protect confidentiality.)
Despite the pain, Fred and Emily decided to visit family in a nearby city. As the evening wore on, Fred felt worse and worse. Finally, Fred’s dad drove him to the emergency room at the university trauma center and demanded that Fred see a specialist. The doctor ran tests and discovered that Fred’s trigeminal ganglion—a nerve located near the temple at the side of the head, in front of the ear—was dangerously enlarged. The doctor had no doubt that Fred was in constant pain. She admitted Fred for additional tests.
Alone in his hospital room, Fred tossed and turned. Just as he was falling asleep, Fred sat up with a jolt. Initially blinded by a bright light, he squinted. There at the foot of his bed was a man dressed in white—someone Fred thought he recognized. It was Jesus! Then Jesus said softly, “Your sins are forgiven. You are healed.” Jesus vanished. Fred put his hand to his head. He was pain-free. Fred grabbed his phone and called Emily. “I’m healed! I’m healed! Jesus healed me!”
As the doctor made her rounds the next morning, Fred told her that he was fine—no pain. He did not, however, inform her that Jesus had healed him. He didn’t want her to think he was crazy. The doctor examined him and found that the nerve was indeed its normal size. She scratched her head and said, “It’s a miracle. But let’s go ahead to do more tests anyway.” Fred replied, “No, I’m healed. I’m going home.”
Everyone was elated to see Fred back to normal—his old self. Everything was fine…for three months. Then the pain returned. “Jesus took it back,” Fred told his pastor. “Jesus took my healing back. Why?” Fred was crushed. When he returned to the hospital for follow-up, the doctor tried different treatments, but nothing worked. Finally, the doctor said, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing else we can do.”
Fred tried to cope with the pain, but he had to quit his job. He filed for disability but was denied—twice. Now his marriage was on shaky ground too. His friends drifted, and Fred lost hope altogether. When Fred came to counseling, he was a shell of the person he had been. He also felt angry and abandoned by God. He asked his therapist: “Why did Jesus heal me just to take it away? Why is God punishing me?” During the therapy that followed, Fred spent hours unpacking what happened. He especially reflected on Jesus’s words: “Your sins are forgiven.” What did that mean?
Religious experiences—vividly real personal encounters with the divine, while not commonplace, are surprisingly common. This is because, in our culture, everyone has idiosyncratic images of God based on their developmental history—people, North and South, in urban and rural settings, senior citizens, adults, youth, children over five, believers and non-believers—everyone. And these various images and understandings compete, engage, and sometimes interfere with the God of the Christian faith as portrayed in the Bible and church tradition. Also, religious caregivers do not have the luxury of saying that a vision with religious ideation is simply a psychotic episode or a psychological response to crisis. But we do need to be discerning and guided by our approach and our own informed understandings of God. While it is significant that Fred experienced his vision during a time of acute distress, it is not satisfactory to say that is all that it was and dismiss Fred’s healing as only “in his head.” This would shortchange and dismiss all that is at stake for Fred and others like him.
Fred was convinced that God was present with him in a powerful way in that hospital room; because it was, as he said, “the most real thing that had ever happened” to him. Yet, Fred was afraid to ask the question that most concerned him: Why did God fail me? Until he could wrestle with that, Fred lived with a punishing sense of guilt, which underscored Jesus’s statement about Fred’s sin. It was also easier for Fred to feel that he deserved God’s punishment than to risk exploring the possibility that God failed him. To him, those were the options.
It is a long-standing observation in the fields of psychiatry and pastoral counseling that a change in the client’s God signifies a change in the client. That is, when there is a change in a person’s image of God—the way a person sees God—there is also change in the person’s sense of self. This was certainly true for Fred. During therapy Fred came to realize that he believed in God despite God’s fickle behavior. He also discovered that he did not like this God—one who could give healing and then yank it away. Who could trust a God like that? Yet Fred kept seeking.
Through therapy, Fred gained insight into what he was asking for when he called on God. Sure, he wanted pain relief, but it also dawned on him that he was asking for God to shore up his shattered and wounded self. He wanted his Heavenly Father to rescue him, like any father would do. But it wasn’t until Fred was able to let go of who he thought God was and what God should do that he was able to experience a deeper understanding of who God could be for him. Slowly Fred began to see God differently. Of course, there is a lot more to the story, but over time and with counseling, God became more loving, accepting, and yes, forgiving—someone who could be trusted. Fred also began to have more self-confidence, because he trusted himself more too. In addition, his sense of humor resurfaced—an indication of growing wholeness and increasing psychological maturity.
As Fred was better able to manage his anxiety, he reported that he felt as though a burden had been lifted. He connected this with God’s healing. Fred said: “God is a lot more, much bigger that I knew. Yes, God did heal me in that hospital room. God is still healing me. I may still have pain, but God stands by me, sustaining me. God never left me. I was wrong about that. Now, I use the pain to remind me to lean on God. I’m becoming more forgiving of myself and others too. My wife has certainly noticed.”
In Fred’s case, the more trustworthy God became, the more resilient Fred became; such that, armed with renewed hope, Fred went back for additional tests and later surgery. The surgery was successful for the most part, although Fred still experienced pain from time to time. But he had enough relief that he was able to return to work and get on with his life.
The presence of God is often experienced by persons as immanently real. It is sometimes understood as a sign of divine favor and received as a precious, although heavy gift. These experiences may be understood as signs of God’s personal and abiding love. For some, it is only in this relationship that they sense acceptance and affirmation of their fragile sense of self. Because understandings of who God is and what God does are forged within a particular sense of self, they reflect the history of the self, both conscious and unconscious—a person’s story as lived in a particular context. Although it must also be said that some religious experiences are not happy occasions but rather, horrifying indications of mental illness and instability. Yet, through the care of a religiously-informed therapist, persons can gain a clearer understanding of who the Divine is to them and how this particular understanding came to be part of their story. And as God’s steadfast lovingkindness is experienced more fully, transformation in the direction of wholeness is not just possible but likely.
M. Kathryn Armistead is Managing Editor of Methodist Review, an academic, peer-reviewed journal. She earned her PhD from Vanderbilt University and is a retired Diplomate in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a United Methodist clergyperson. Her latest book is Live Faith. Shout Hope. Love One Another. (Market Square Books, 2022). Find her at www.kathyarmistead.com.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love