Years ago, I realized that as a church leader I did not know enough about how to think, pray and teach in a way that addressed the emerging realities of mental health. I sensed we were just scratching the surface of a complex and growing area of research that required our renewed attention.
One hurdle I needed to address resulted from my own theological training. For too many, learning about the Bible and the work of pastoral leadership is presented in binary categories. For example, concepts about God, how to live and even how to interpret parts of the Bible were stated as either Good or Bad, Black or White, Right or Wrong. While this can be helpful at times, it can be a set-back when guiding those with deep disorientation and sadness.
These approaches can force people to make a choice to clarify how to feel or act when all they may need is time to revisit certain fears and weather the storm.
This awareness led me to some thoughtful voices. One person, in particular, was Amy Simpson. She writes from a perspective of having experienced, first hand, the pain of mental illness. Her writing also emphasizes the important role that churches can play in helping people with mental health issues. As part of that front line learning and support she writes,
…among those who have pursued help for mental illnesses, 25% first seek out a member of the clergy.
While this was a reassuring first step, many still feel alone.
CHURCHES MUST MODEL GROWTH AND LEARNING
Pastors and spiritual leaders need a renewed vision rooted in their responsibility to grow and acknowledge areas of growth as it relates to Mental Health. It may come as a surprise, but the topic of mental health is not clearly defined in the Bible. One can’t just look up the words ‘mental health’ or ‘mental illness’ and find a few Bible verses to tweet. Some might try, but
those of us journeying with someone in a difficult season of pain know that spiritual maturity means learning humility.
The way forward is likely a longer and more patient process. It is one that will require deeper theological reflection, expert advice and the wisdom to learn together. Dr. Stanford is correct when he observes that when it comes to mental health ‘our lack of understanding in the church is rooted in spiritual ignorance and fear.’
It has never been more important to map a thoughtful and theologically-grounded approach.
One way to affirm a learning approach is to admit when previous methods have not been helpful. I want to focus on three that I have noticed in the context of Christian community. I have made these mistakes and have regretted clouding issues for people when I was trying to help. In addition, let’s remember that what we say to other people reveals what we believe about faith, God and human relationships. It is my hope that by paying attention to these three concepts we will create room for a fresh season of hope for many carrying unimaginable burdens and doubts.
I. DON’T SAY: JUST READ THE BIBLE MORE
Reading the Bible more isn’t going to help if you are not hearing it properly. Bible study within a larger communal conversation must include pastoral wisdom and relational trust. This is an essential piece to noticing those struggling with deeper emotional distress. Hearing one’s questions or particular remarks could be a sign of some deeper issues that need to be addressed.
When guiding someone with mental health struggles, a ‘read your Bible more’ approach often moves people to a place of isolation and confusion.
Often this stance is rooted in a view that the Bible is a “fix-it manual”. It misses the truth that God doesn’t just “fix us” but draws us into a loving community that becomes the space which restores our inner world. In this context, the Bible is coupled with faithful witness, loving accountability, pastoral wisdom and spiritual discernment.
This provides a safe context in which healing can become tangible and present.
While reading the Bible is essential, healthy churches that inspire hope will move from saying “Read the Bible more” to saying, “Let's learn the Bible together’”. When we slow down to spend time learning together, we return to a common way the Bible was meant to be heard; in community. Further, it is a key way to correct the misconceptions that trick us into believing that there might be a quick fix through a season of pain and emotional confusion.
II. DON’T SAY : JUST PRAY MORE
For years, I often thought praying more was the solution to everything. This was shaped by a simplistic view of healing. When this isn’t corrected, ‘just pray more’ adds a new burden to those struggling with mental health challenges.
In my first years of ministry, I worked with closely with teenagers and families. I slowly learned to hear beyond their silence and silliness. In those moments, I remember how they and their parents had developed a view that prayer was a type of magical tool for getting problems addressed by a Higher Power.
When we take that view, we fail to realize that even the most ancient prayers of God’s people provided room to embrace the messiness of our human condition.
Rarely did things suddenly get better. Prayer was not a tool that instantly made everything better. It was a timely practice of turning to God in our pain and disorientation to rest in his unfailing love.
Consider this prayer: Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Psalm 139:23
The promise is that anyone struggling with anxious thoughts can rest in the assurance that God is there at work whispering amidst the loud expectations. Jesus, our image of an invisible God, revealed this in new ways as well. His promise was that even when we fumble our way through prayer, God, as a loving father, listens and knows us in our most inner thoughts. Even the interior places we often struggle to understand ourselves.
Churches committed to create safe spaces for those struggling in silence and sadness move from saying “Just pray more”, to “Let’s wait and listen to God together”.
This approach affirms that it is okay not to hear God clearly and that in those moments of confusion, we can be confident that we are not alone.
It may also provide room to discern the many medical options that are in themselves a sign of God’s gracious provision.
III. DON’T SAY : JUST BE POSITIVE AND TRUST GOD MORE
We are addicted to presenting ourselves as positive people. Imagine what it is like to live with a mental illness in that kind of world. Churches should be celebrating the Good News that teaches us to live with a deep sense of joy alongside those who are sad, angry and even negative at times. Churches that confuse faithfulness with fun create new hurdles for those working through anxiety and depression.
One writer notes “the techniques of positive thinking…include the reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news.” This has clearly made its way into the church. When we hear bad news we look for ways to explain things away or, at worst, some embrace a type of escapist theology promising that we get to fly away from our difficult problems.
This approach is not one that will help those struggling with mental illness. Those with mental health concerns, and those of us trying to help, need to know that Jesus offers a joy that can handle grief as we accompany people in moments of painful awareness. Churches that embrace this way of relating to others will consistently move from “Just be Positive” to “There can be joy in this storm.”
SELF HELP HAS MET ITS MATCH
The three statements mentioned above fit naturally in a world shaped by self-help values. These reactionary responses are informed by spiritual language yet focused on an individual attitude to go work it ourselves. To make it worse we present strong leaders as those who are self-made women and men. But that’s just not true.
Let’s admit that a ‘do it yourself’ mantra might work for fixing a leaky pipe but does not apply to the gentle work of caring and loving well. This requires human interaction which awakens us to the realities of human frailty.
When it comes to mental health no one gets better by themselves. That’s Good News. It means we can and must come together and acknowledge our universal need for empathy, kindness and patience as we learn and love. Can you imagine if we took seriously this ancient spiritual command to ‘Share each other’s burdens…’ Perhaps, then we would be seen as churches and leaders that want to play a greater part in the struggle to end the stigma and sting of mental health.