I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
A 30-something male comes to his therapist in a deep despair. A recent breakup—the third in as many years—has sent him into a tailspin. Maybe you know someone like that. Maybe you're that guy. He wonders what creates the profound sadness at the loss of relationship. His therapist invites him to review his past to find any experiences that might be adding emotional weight to his present difficulties. In time, the therapist connects the dots between this moment and the experience of fear he had when his mother went away for cancer treatments when he was four. Disorientation from that fledgling season seems to resurface whenever present intimacy seems at risk of being lost. His therapist helps him understand, in part, what deepens his sadness. But he feels no better.
An affluent man in mid-life bemoans the state of the world, though he himself is mostly insulated from its vicissitudes. While that's his stated reason for melancholy, his therapist helps him to see that what really drives his ennui is connected to how his past shapes his present: the desire to please his father drove him to choose a lucrative yet enervating career. The discovery provides insight into his sadness, but such knowledge fails to deliver him from it; in fact, the realization that he'd allowed himself to cater to his father's whims only exacerbates his depression.
Richard Friedman is a professor of psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College who summarizes these two stories in a recent article in the New York Times. In telling their tales of disappointment in therapy, he wonders openly if a basic premise of most contemporary therapeutic models is essentially flawed. Insight—the modern term for knowledge of the self—has been thought to be, in most cases, the panacea for our mental distresses. Give a person some clarity into the background of their malady, so the premise goes, and the new knowledge will enable them to rise above whatever afflicts them.
But the aforementioned stories are to Friedman more than anecdotal evidence of the inadequacy of insight. Recovering inner stability and wholeness won't be found in that alone, he concludes, because unearthing our motives or mining our past for unconscious memories, while helpful to understanding ourselves, can't quite displace what depletes us. Something more is required. Interestingly, Friedman cites recent studies that corroborate his analysis—studies which also reveal that a trust in the therapist has greater impact on the stabilization of the counselee than even the insight the therapist provides. All to say, we need more than the truth of insight.
Friedman's recent realization is really a longstanding presupposition of the Christian faith. To be sure, there is value to understanding ourselves. Scripture isn't frugal in its commentary about our nature and what drives our choices. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick," Jeremiah warns (Jer 17:9). The apostle Paul laments his agonizing vacillation between vice and virtue: "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (Rom 7:15). These and countless other texts confirm the necessity of seeking to understand ourselves with the same tenacity as those espousing the search for insight. But bare truth, luminous and coveted as it may be, still needs a power to help us embrace it. How many of us "know" the truth but find ourselves incapable of consistently following its lead?
All to say we need more than mere truth. We need, as we heard about last Sunday, the Spirit of truth. That Jesus came to earth confirms our need for truth. But we also needed His Spirit to make us supple to the truth and to enable us to embrace it as truth.
Above all we need to know the truth we hear is truth offered in love. The Spirit of God is singularly suited to that task because He alone is able to convince us of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus. The Spirit authenticates the message of the cross, illuminating the truth that, though we exchanged the truth of God for a lie, Christ died for us in love nonetheless. As that truth takes hold with the help of the Spirit, our losses and laments may stifle us for a season, but they will not diminish us irreparably.
We all need insight into the truth about ourselves and the truth about God. But are you making room in your days to allow the Spirit of God to confirm such truth to your heart? Are you wrestling with God in prayer, asking Him to help you rest in and act upon the truth that He died for you in love?
There is no greater insight.