This is going to be a different kind of review. I do want to share some thoughts about David Seamands’ classic book, Healing for Damaged Emotions, but I also want to use this review as an occasion to address the larger question of reading and studying the works of ministers who have fallen.
Healing for Damaged Emotions was published in 1981. It has sold over one million copies. The book has been on my radar essentially since I began pastoring twenty years ago. Today I listened to my Kindle read the book to me on a long drive. I did so because of some recent counseling situations in which I felt that some of those I am counseling seem so deeply wounded by past traumatic experiences that they are haunted by them and stymied by them in the daily living of their lives.
I’ve been through the book only once, and I gather from some of my research on David Seamands that some consider his teachings to be controversial, but, all in all, I found the book to be very helpful, very practical, and, at points, extremely insightful. I can certainly see why the book would be considered a modern classic. On more than a few occasions, I stopped the reading of the book and highlighted passages that I thought were intriguing. Some areas gave me pause (i.e., his allusion to belief in “Christian perfection” ((Seamands was a Methodist with ties to Asbury)) and perhaps even a few of his comments on temperament). But, again, I thought the book was very strong overall.
Seamands’ basic contention is that people tend to carry deep wounds from the past and these wounds are situated largely in the emotions. He likens these wounds to the biblical idea of “infirmities,” though he acknowledges that this word originally applied to physical defects and deformities. Seamands argues that we will forever be responding to our woundedness and that these scars will manifest themselves through deep character and interpersonal deficiencies until they are honestly confronted, addressed, and handed over to Christ whom Seamands calls “the wounded Healer.”
The ways that these wounds manifest themselves, Seamands argues, is in feelings of insecurity, unworthiness, perfectionism, legalism, and anger. He offers plentiful examples of each of these and others, most drawn from his own pastoral and counseling experiences but some from pastoral, historical, theological, and psychological literature as well. There are some very good illustrations here, and, in Seamands’ hands, they are handled quite effectively.
He rightly situates the wounded believer’s ultimate hope for healing in the cross of Christ. He also rightly argues that the cross destroys any notion of an experiential disconnect between suffering humanity and God, for in Christ God has stepped into and understands and has felt the burden of suffering Himself. This is a very important point and is well made.
Seamands further argues that salvation does not magically change temperament and that the journey of sanctification involves crucial needs like the necessity of healing damaged emotions after one is saved. I am conflicted about this. In general, I agree, and I often say something like this myself, though I am not sure I heard Seamands acknowledge exceptions to this. These exceptions are very important. In short, some people do seem to experience healing, even from damaged emotions, in accepting Christ, though obviously no believer is either exempt from or does not need sanctification. There does not appear to be a normative pattern in any individual area of life (i.e., damaged emotions, alcoholism, profanity, etc.), though the general principle of the believer’s need for sanctification is, of course, absolutely true.
I suppose that some might be uncomfortable with some of Seamands’ imaginative techniques in taking people back to their moments of emotional wounding so that they can address these moments. These kinds of techniques could be taken too far, but, by and large, I consider it an interesting idea and one that, if handled correctly, could be quite helpful and effective. On a side note, it is interesting to think of the parallels between Scientology and what Seamands says about damaged emotions. The great difference, though, is Seamands’ rooting of the healing of these wounds in Christ Jesus, His cross, and His resurrection as well as in the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. This is, of course, a radical departure from the proposed solutions of Scientology.
One final comment on the book. I thought what Seamands wrote about the “super self” and the “real self” was fantastic and very helpful. I backed the book up and listened to that a couple of times, especially to his idea that we (erroneously) believe God hates our actual real self but that He loves the ideal potential self. This leads us to come before God in a spirit of posturing and pretending that we are the super self so He will love us. Even our acknowledgment of our real selves, Seamands notes, is from a position of self-hatred and is itself a way of propping up the super self since it is only as the super self that we, like (we wrongly assume) God, can hate the true self. That was very insightful and a point I will be rereading and revisiting time and again. It hit me hard on a personal level and I’ll definitely be chewing on and thinking about and researching that idea further.
On Reading the Writings of Ministers Who Have Fallen
It was interesting listening to this book, particularly since I was aware of Seamands’ moral failure. A 2005 Christianity Today piece reported the situation:
Pastor, professor, author, and counselor David Seamands apologizes for “breach of trust and moral failure”
David Seamands is a longtime friend of Christianity Today, where he has long served as a consulting editor, so it is with particular sadness that we note his admission of a “breach of trust and moral failure.” The 83-year-old retired pastor of Wilmore (Ky.) United Methodist Church served as professor emeritus of pastoral ministries and counselor in residence at Asbury Theological Seminary, and is the author of several influential books, including Healing for Damaged Emotions. He has also been a key figure in United Methodist Church debates on the integrity and sanctity of marriage.
“One of the roots of my sin has been the sin of pride,” Seamands told Wilmore United Methodist Church on Sunday. “In response to a complaint filed against me of sexual misconduct with an adult female occurring over a number of years, I admit that I have broken my covenantal relationships and have abused the trust of those I have harmed.”
As a part of the Methodist disciplinary process, overseen by Kentucky Bishop James King, Seamands will take a one-year leave from all ministerial functions.
Seamands died in July of 2006, shortly after his confession.
The reason I am commenting on this is because of my increasing (and depressing) awareness of the number of famous ministers and theologians whose writings are highly esteemed but who had moral failures. Off the top of my head, I think of Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, George Eldon Ladd, and, though he is on the other end of the spectrum theologically, Paul Tillich. The particulars of these situations are not important, but I will say that each of these men have many people in the Church who respect their work and each of them fell in the area of sinful sexual behavior.
So for some time now I’ve been pondering the question, “What do we do with the writings of ministers and theologians who committed sexual sins?”
In a sense, of course, it is a very easy question. For instance, if the question is reframed like this, it seems less difficult to answer: “Should we read the writings of sinners?” To which we would have to respond, “But, of course! What other kinds of writings are there?” And this is no insignificant point. Every book ever written in human history was written by a sinner and by a person who was sexually broken (though perhaps not physically adulterous).
Furthermore, I consider this question also to be fairly easy to answer: “Is what a person said rendered true or untrue by their moral standing?” Well, of course not. We need look no further than Paul’s discussion of those who were preaching out of impure motives in Philippians 1 to see that truth is not determined by the moral standing of the one who says it. So, for instance, if what David Seamands’ says is true, it is true whether or not he was involved in an adulterous relationship when he said or wrote it.
Even so, there is a feeling of unease when it comes to ministers and sexual sins in particular, isn’t there? For instance, there seems to be an unspoken agreement that sins of sexual violence warrant at least recognition and some such sins would likely cause most of us to refuse to read certain works. For instance, the works of John Howard Yoder are now apparently marked with a statement from the publisher acknowledging that Yoder had attempted to have inappropriate sexual relationships with numerous women in an aggressive manner.
Take an extreme hypothetical. Would I read the writings of a minister or theologian who was found guilty of pedophilia? No. I would not. I simply could not remove that fact from my mind while reading, nor do I think I should. (Though, I hasten to add, I would not thereby be saying that I thought he or she could not be forgiven and saved.)
Where do we draw the line?
We read the writings of Luther who wrote some unbelievably grotesque things about the Jews late in his life. We read the writings of Calvin though, however you spin it, he had the blood of Servetus on his hands (at least to some extent). We read the writings of numerous Magisterial Reformers who either directly or indirectly encouraged the killing of the Anabaptists. We read the writings of church fathers who oftentimes defended slavery as a necessary reality. Etc. etc.
So where is the line? What sins lead us to say, “I will not read that!”?
I do not know. I do not pretend to know.
In my opinion, perhaps it is right to have the notice put on Yoder’s works. But somehow I would be uneasy if an acknowledgement of Seamands’ adultery was printed on the cover of his works.
Or is the problem the gross hypocrisy of a Christian author committing a sin in the area upon which he or she is supposedly highly gifted and skilled and perhaps even an expert? Is the hypocrisy heightened when this happens? Probably so. For instance, is it worse that Seamands’ carried on a long-term affair while writing about and practicing a famed ministry of Christian counseling to married couples? Perhaps it feels worse in such cases. That is understandable. It certainly struck me as painfully ironic to hear some of Seamands’ comments about Christians who have fallen into sin in Healing for Damaged Emotions. (It also, I should add, struck me that Seamands returned to the issue of sex and sexual sin a good deal in the book. He also commented often on this or that woman being attractive or pretty in his illustrations. All of these are things I likely would not have thought much about without knowing Seamands’ story.)
What, then, are we to do? At the end of the day, this question, like so many others, will have to be answered by individual Christians. We should be honest to our own scruples our own consciences and our own levels of discomfort. We should avoid the one extreme of saying that something like a long-term adulterous affair (or a short-term affair!) is neither here nor there. No, it is here and there and it is a serious thing.
On the other hand, let us not forget: all the books we have are written by sinners and even by people who sinned in the area in which they were supposedly experts. A moral failure does not render truth untrue. It renders the author a hypocrite but not the truth false.
Finally this: were we to refuse to listen to the wisdom of sinful people, we would have nothing to which we could listen and, most significantly, nothing which we ourselves could say. We are all cracked vessels. Every book I have on my shelves, including the ones I highly value, were written by sinners and moral failures.
I am not saying that we should never say, “I will not read his works.” I am simply saying that we will most often have to say something like this: “That person had some real failures in his life. So do I. But to the best of my knowledge he is a brother in Christ who is especially gifted in this area, even if he himself did not always live harmoniously with what he knew to be true. That is unfortunate and regrettable. But the Lord often blesses us through broken vessels, and when He blesses us through others He always blesses us through broken vessels. So I will read that person not with their sins ever before me, but with the cross that is his and my and our hope ever before me. I will listen for the voice of Christ mediated through this author’s own broken voice and will thank the Lord that He is able to use His flawed people in such wonderful and powerful ways.”