“You know the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?”
In our busy, frantic, and divided lives, most of us long for a type of rest that seems constantly elusive. Even when we do get physical rest or take a vacation, we still feel overwhelmed by hurry and worry. Pastoral counselor Chuck DeGroat draws us into this common bind as he recounts hearing this question posed to an old poet. If rest isn’t the answer to exhaustion, what is?
“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”
Wholehearted living. How could this be?
In his new book, Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self, DeGroat, who teaches pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan, seeks to “re-imagine holiness not through the lens of perfectionism but through the lens of our utter oneness with God” (5).
Have you ever felt pulled in a thousand directions? Do you frequently wonder if it’s even possible to attain a sense of balance and harmony? Do you feel your relationship with God has been replaced by the demands of relentless duty? Perhaps you even feel utterly exhausted, at the end of your rope, about to give it all up. What’s the path back from such burnout and despair?
DeGroat suggests these experiences arise not from busyness, physical fatigue, or lack of effort, but instead from the divisions in our lives. We may be worn out from an inner sense of perfectionism or from a lack of rootedness in our identity in Christ. To develop new habits and disciplines that promote flourishing, DeGroat focuses on a path to holiness described by Jesus (e.g. Matt. 11:28–30) and supported by a wide range of biblical texts, poets, and researchers in psychological and social studies. DeGroat first provides a synthesis of research to help us understand the common experience of dividedness, then suggests we learn from three seemingly disparate tribes of thought: Christian contemplative literature, the liturgical tradition, and developmental psychology.
Taken together, we can slow down our busy lives, center our thoughts and affections on the Lord Jesus, and experience renewal and wholeness—all without necessarily retreating to a monastic life or spending decades in therapy. Impressively, Wholeheartedness practices what it preaches: it brings about seemingly disconnected ideas, theories, and subject matters, and weaves them together into a single narrative.
Assuming DeGroat is writing for a Christian audience (given his vocation and that Eerdmans is the publisher), Wholeheartedness starts with what will be unfamiliar for most of his readers (neuroscience and poetry) before describing the familiar (Scripture’s teaching on the subject). Hopefully, no readers will be lost before DeGroat’s entire argument comes together—and that critics won’t read only the opening chapters and write him off.
Gospel, Psychology, and Wholeness
Most notably, some readers may be skeptical of DeGroat’s background in and use of psychology (he holds a PhD in educational psychology). Wholeheartedness contains numerous psychological concepts, and he quotes as comfortably from popular psychologist Brené Brown and neuroscientist Daniel Siegel as he does from Martin Luther, John Calvin, and C. S. Lewis. Many of his concepts—from the Internal Family Systems Theory to Siegel’s developmental approach to the mind—will be new to the average reader.
Of course, few topics are as controversial for the church today as the role of psychology in Christian counseling. DeGroat’s model of spiritual formation and soul fits in both the transformational model and the Christian psychology approach to pastoral counseling. More so than the biblical counseling model, Wholeheartedness embraces a psychologically informed approach to transformation in Christ. (See Five Views on Psychology and Christianity for a helpful overview of Christian counseling approaches.)
The most important test for any Christian counselor or author is his or her own fidelity to the gospel. Although Wholeheartedness is not explicitly “gospel-centered,” I would consider it “Christ-centered”—focused more on the person and presence of Jesus than the announcement of his work on the cross. I count at least three ways in which DeGroat applies aspects of the gospel to personal change.
First, DeGroat affirms the necessity of God’s self-giving presence in our healing and transformation: “Fractured and divided, we stumble our way around, choosing whatever path seems to lead up to the holy place. This is why God comes. Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes down to meet us in our despair, our exhaustion, our shame. God bears it all—shame, humiliation, persecution” (98). Indeed, there is no healing without atonement.
Second, as DeGroat reflects on our longing for wholeness, he points us back to our union with Christ. Where do we turn amid anxious thoughts and constant temptations to sin? DeGroat reminds us that the church has always practiced the Lord’s Supper as a means of remembering our oneness with our risen Lord: “Bread and wine. Body and blood. Christ dying, Christ rising, Christ coming again” (169).
Third, DeGroat encourages churches to boldly preach the gospel as the means of forming believers: “[Preaching] is where pastors offer verbal testimony to the One who bridged the gap—Jesus—whose very being as fully God and fully human provides the ultimate picture of a divided cosmos made whole. Jesus is central because Jesus is Wholeness among us, the incarnate God embodying, abiding, suffering, dying, and re-merging from death’s door of division to make all things new” (181).
Personally, I wanted to see DeGroat articulate the good news clearly and demonstrate its centrality to personal change in a more comprehensive way. I’m also concerned that Wholeheartedness makes little to no mention of conversion, which raises the question, “Can a person grow into wholeness apart from new life in Christ?” I believe DeGroat would say “No,” but the book does not make this point clear.
Nonetheless, this volume makes two helpful contributions to Christian formation and counseling literature. First, Wholeheartedness strongly advocates for spiritual life existing within the daily life of a local church community. Too often Christian psychologists and therapists present personal change and growth only as an individual endeavor—a weekly professional session with personal homework. But DeGroat puts the Christian community—and specifically the local church—as the God-given, non-negotiable place of personal transformation.
In keeping with the Christian tradition, DeGroat affirms our human need for belonging (29), the context of healing within regular relationships (151), and the community’s role in revealing our lack of wholeness in Christ (167). In his own words, he suggests we make it our goal to “offer a pathway to wholeness and wholeheartedness that doesn’t circumvent the church” (172).
Second, I was moved by DeGroat’s vulnerability. Too many Christian authors posture themselves above the regular struggles of real-world believers, but DeGroat presents himself alongside the reader, struggling with failed strivings after holiness, wrestling with the complexities of life in a broken world. His suggested way forward, awaking to the glories of God through a busy schedule, comes from experience. This is not simply the work of an academic; it reads as the reflections of one who has suffered, counseled, and learned through persevering reflection.
These two qualities, taken together, give us an accessible and honest (even if incomplete) view of the Christian’s spiritual life.
So the challenge today is to find wholeness right where we are—in the world, amid broken and divided souls like us, and in imperfect churches with imperfect pastors and imperfect singing and imperfect community. The challenge is to move into dark places, both in our own hearts and in our own communities, and bring them light. And while we may separate from others for a time, we must recognize that wholeness never comes in isolation. (186)
Though the book will leave the reader with as many questions as answers (which DeGroat seems comfortable with), Wholeheartedness is a useful addition to the church’s resources on spiritual formation and soul care, and anyone with an interest in spiritual renewal or pastoral counseling can thoughtfully engage it. Though DeGroat and I may not see eye-to-eye on every point, his book ministered to my soul as I read it, and for that I’m deeply thankful.