A few years ago, I participated in a local community health symposium to specifically address the Church’s response to those struggling with deep emotional and mental discouragement, even crossing into mental health conditions. Several questions emerged regarding experiences within the Church when we’re feeling overwhelmed. With fresh insights and forward-thinking hope, here are three important questions that were asked, how I answered them and some encouragement from the discussion:
Question 1: In your experience, whether personal or professional, what are some challenges that people with emotional or mental distress (and “mental health” issues) face in regards to their life in the congregation?
After years of working with hundreds of individuals, families, couples and churches across the nation facing deep emotional and mental distress and even mental health disorders, there are three different issues I see:
A. The Misunderstood “Silent Sufferer”
Sometimes when we experience emotional or mental discouragement or challenging distress, it is spiritualized as a weakness of faith, a sin issue, a spiritual attack/warfare or even demonic oppression. Any of us may experience discouragement and/or distress from our life circumstances — stress from feeling overwhelmed by school, work, family, finances or all of the above. And that feeling of distress can be compounded if we are more sensitive to situations because of depression or anxiety.
Regardless, there are usually many aspects of the emotional or mental distress. But when it is seen as only a spiritual issue, it makes people feel trapped and not wanting to say anything, which causes people to become isolated as “The Silent Sufferer.”
B. Counseled to “Fight the Good Fight”
If someone in distress is only seeing their challenge as a spiritual issue, then the only remedy they see is spiritual. Unfortunately, the counsel they often receive in a church setting has the theme of “fight the good fight.” They are given, or create on their own, various formulas or a set of rules to fight off their weak faith, fight off their sin issues, fight off “the enemy” through spiritual warfare, fight for the breakthrough they need, fight for more of God to heal them.
As sincere and well-meaning as this is, it actually ignites more distress and their condition worsens to deeper levels. This type of counsel subtly communicates to the person that they are not safe, they are doing something wrong, they are reaping their own despair (disobedience to God) and they need to work to get back into God’s grace or get more of God. Yet, through Christ, we’ve actually been given the opportunity to rest in God, not having to earn His love or affection.
C. Exciting & Overwhelming Environments
Many churches today have large congregations with an exciting worship experience (loud music and cool lighting effects) as well as inspiring and exhorting preachers/teachers who are real, honest, and engaging. The whole experience is incredible!
While many enjoy these inspirational environments, people who are experiencing anxiety may be extra sensitive to these settings. Individuals who are experiencing anxiety are actually getting more blood flow and energy to the threat centers of their brain, leaving them on high alert. Thus, many end up being over-stimulated in these church environments, igniting more anxiety, tense feelings, nervousness, or even agitation. It can make it hard to process the worship and message, especially if it has the tone of the above points (“fight the good fight”).
Ultimately, the person ends up feeling a sense of failure for not being able to handle going to church and they may even stop going altogether. In many of these situations, they are blaming themselves without ever realizing that it is the environment (and sometimes, even the message) that is getting them worked up and making it difficult for them to connect and participate.
“HOWEVER, WE’RE SEEING THAT CHURCHES ARE READY, WILLING AND WANTING TO SEE LIVES TRANSFORMED!”
As we work with many churches across the country, we give them simple understanding and always find church leaders extremely open and intrigued, asking lots of questions. In fact, some of these church leaders honestly say, “Ugh, we’ve been doing it wrong for so long … I’ve never known this, please show us how to make this better.”
We never blame or point fingers, but rather empathize with their confusion: “Hey, we did it wrong, too, we get it and we’re here to help us all learn!” We focus more on having an informative and open dialogue with church leaders so they have more understanding, education, and even training with different skills and tools.
The church is on a learning curve with those in distress … notice I said “learning” and we need to give room for this. I remember my own learning process with my wife and family. As I learned, everything got better with incredible results. So, we give grace and patience for the church’s learning curve because we know that, as they learn, they will see incredible transformation of lives.
Question 2: Some of the challenges seem to be centered around how different people perceive and define emotional and mental distress (and “mental health” conditions.” While some may see it as a physical condition, others attribute it to sin or to other spiritual principles. How do you personally and professionally make sense of this … even mental illness? Do you think this has any spiritual connection?
It’s interesting how this question comes up in most Q & A panels (or sometimes they avoid it). Most answer this by explaining that our mental distress or disorder is a result of living in a fallen world with our “fallenness,” sin or sin nature, or in other words, our “brokenness.”
I think one way to look at this is by asking any parent how they feel about their child living with any type of challenge, disability, or even a mental illness. You will hear a different story than a story of brokenness. You’ll hear their absolute love for their child (with tears) and almost never hear them refer to their child as the result of fallenness, sin, or “brokenness.” They always refer to their child as pure love, joy, and they are absolutely perfect to them. Despite their child’s condition, they always see their child as a masterpiece of unique love.
Isn’t that how Jesus always sees us … even when we experience overwhelming discouragement, distress, or depression? Isn’t that how Jesus sees our constant spiritual connection? Isn’t that the spiritual story we are always working with?
“IN JESUS, WE’RE IN A WHOLENESS JOURNEY, NOT A BROKENNESS JOURNEY.”
Our spiritual connection is constantly associated with God’s love and grace regardless of our physical condition or circumstances. Before “The Fall” or “original sin,” I see original goodness, original love, and original innocence. In Genesis chapter one I see a God who was able to create life from chaos, “formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep…” (Genesis 1:2 NAS). He created everything good, always being in and acting in Love, that’s who He is (1 John 4:8).
Even when Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree, God didn’t abandon them, He covered them and went with them, they left the garden together! Why? Because, for me I see a God who is always working with a love story, not a sin separating story.
From before the foundation of the world, or the fall, I see a God who was always committed to His love story for us (Ephesians 1:4-5). It’s not about what we’re not doing right or not enough of, that’s more of a sin-story, however I think we’re now experiencing a love story with unmeasurable grace. In Jesus we are restored, renewed, revived to that original goodness, love, and innocence … That’s another fun way to look at being made complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).
So, in Jesus, we’re in a wholeness journey, not a brokenness journey. I think that’s a better story we can work with those who are experiencing deep distress and mental health conditions or disorders. That changes the spiritual conversation from “a brokenness that causes a broken life” to a “the wholeness of grace that we already have in Christ (and Christ in us) to improve and get better … that’s the spiritual connection.
Question 3: In your opinion, what are practical things that congregations can do to appropriately respond to people struggling with more serious emotional or mental distress?
Overall, the three elements the church can have in place is 1) good education, 2) training, and 3) simple community small groups designed for those in this journey. I have seen the church be incredibly creative within all these aspects to encourage and empower their congregation (and see a huge response). One church announced they were going to start offering our Grace Groups and the first night, about 80 people showed up! All of this can be done in an inviting, humble, learning spirit … and it works!
How would you answer these questions and how do you see the opportunity in the church?