Church and Mental Health

4 Mistakes Pastors and Churches Make with Mental Illness

Dec 18, 2019

Jenna Camareno

If you’re like me, you long for church to be a safe haven, a harbor in the storm, a place to rest, and heal, and find shalom. Unfortunately for those of us affected by mental illness – i.e., all of us – church has not always been a fertile ground for healing. At times church has been crowded with thorns and nettles and barbs that keep us from becoming whole. Perhaps It seems like you barely mumble the words “I struggle with depression,” before someone looks at you sideways. And maybe next thing you know, you’ve been “disqualified” from church ministry. 

Ironically, the Christian church sometimes looks at mental illness with a shade of paranoia. Those in shepherding roles have been unsure how to address psychological issues well. This leaves many “sheep” feeling not quite shepherded, and vulnerable to isolation from the flock and further attack.

Often in academic circles, faith and psychology are spoken of as if we ought to “integrate” them. But in reality, the two are inseparable. The word “psychology” derives from Greek and actually means the study of the soul. So there is no divorcing faith and mental health. In his book Care of Souls, David Benner explains,

“One of the flaws of this integration metaphor is that it assumes two things that are basically separate can, by creativity and effort, be connected. This misses the point that they are already connected. The soul is the meeting point of the psychological and the spiritual.”

To this day, few pastors and church leaders see mental health through a holistic lens that recognizes its complexity and layeredness. Thus, few are equipped to facilitate healing in the hurting and broken places of their parishioners’ hearts.

Here we will address a few common ways the church has erred in its care of wounded sheep, especially misuse of the Bible to eradicate certain emotions, the misconception that salvation should cure us of mental illness, a legalistic church atmosphere, and a dismissal of feelings as irrelevant.

PASTORS AND CHURCHES MISUSE THE BIBLE TO ERADICATE PAINFUL FEELINGS IN THEIR MEMBERS

The Word of God is a treasure trove of promises for aching hearts and turbulent spirits. In God’s family, we get to extend these truths to each other as gentle comfort in the darkest moments.

But sometimes we get a little hasty in our use of Scripture. With the best intentions, we throw Bible verses at the situation, hoping to build our spiritual siblings up in faith. Now, far be it from me to discourage courageous use of truth to combat lies. However, let’s avoid being like Bible-horned bulls in the china shop of the soul. Truth is much more palatable when sprinkled with tact. 

It’s important to realize that others’ emotional reactions trigger feelings in us. We often find it difficult to sit with painful emotions. Maybe we see certain emotions like anger as being out-of-place in the Christian life. In our discomfort we just want to “fix it” and make those inconvenient feelings disappear. Unfortunately, we Christians can be poor listeners. We zoom to dispensing advice at breakneck speed.

Too often we apply the Bible like a corset to squish our sister’s emotions into an acceptable, church-approved shape. She may no longer be able to breathe, but she looks Sunday-appropriate with that smile on her face.

Speaking truth hastily feels painfully dismissive to the person suffering. It also fails to dig deeper to underlying issues. When someone is suffering, we are wise to first ask good questions and listen with wide open ears. We have to dig through the “layers of the heart” (actions, feelings, interpretation of experiences, and beliefs) to get to the root before we slap on some scripture like a bandaid.

The layers of the heart aren’t merely cognitive. Many of us Christians know all the “right” biblical answers. What we don’t realize is that those truths have only reached an intellectual level. Even though our head gets it, our heart still doesn’t. Leaning into emotions is the best way to engage the heart. We must embrace tears, not avoid them, offer a tissue too fast, or change the subject. Once the heart is online, it can receive God’s grace and love in a life-altering way.

CHRISTIANS THINK SALVATION SHOULD CURE US OF MENTAL ILLNESS

Many Christians believe that when God saves us, He also frees us from “diseases” like depression and bipolar disorder. They yearn to experience all God’s promises of healing realized in this earthly life. I resonate with the hunger for all to be made right, and to see God’s power manifest in tangible ways. 

But it’s crucial to also recognize the “already but not yet” nature of God’s kingdom here on earth. If we miss this, we’ll be left frustrated and disappointed. We’ll also tend towards sniffing out “sin” in situations where serious mental health issues occur, creating false condemnation and invalidating the faith of the person suffering.

It requires discernment to pray for healing and deliverance, while at the same time holding the reality that God has not yet finished making all things new.

On another note, I think it’s problematic to call emotions “disease”. Emotions are tools God has given us that “take the temperature” of what’s going on inside of us, sort of like a soul thermometer. To call the emotions the sickness misses that point. Our hearts and our souls may be sick, but the emotions are not the sickness; they are the thermometer.

When God saves us, He makes us new creatures, free from sin’s bondage. But what He doesn’t do is take away our soul thermometers! We continue to be emotionally sensitive to what is going on in and around us. Until Jesus returns and finishes the work of renewing heaven and earth, we will at times feel pain. We forget that this is a gift, not a curse. It’s part of what makes us human, and alive.

CHURCHES SCARE AWAY THE MENTALLY ILL WITH LEGALISM

Evangelicals know that salvation is a free gift. But then we immediately get tripped up thinking sanctification is performance-centered.

When I start measuring my status before God by my behavior, I get reduced to my scorecard. Then I start keeping an eye out for other people’s scorecards too. If grace isn’t the sanctifying force, it makes us anxious, cold-hearted, judgmental people. I alternately judge others in my heart, or see their lives and feel “less than”. Such a legalistic environment leads to hiding, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 

When people experience mental health struggles in this grace-less atmosphere, it is tempting to avoid community and vulnerability. No one wants to open up about their emotional struggles just so they can get beaten down by Bible-quoting Christians who seem to have their lives together. 

On the other hand, in an environment bathed in grace, mental health struggles lose some of their scariness and shame. They start to be held with gentleness, care, and holy curiosity by our brothers and sisters. Vulnerability and honestly exploring the layers of the heart become possible.

PASTORS AND CHURCHES DISMISS THE EMOTIONAL LIVES OF THEIR MEMBERS

Do you remember the “Fact, Faith, Feeling Train”? Popular a decade or two ago, this cutesy Christian graphic portrays a 3-car train. Facts drives the train as the first car. Next, Faith follows behind as the second car. This shows that our faith should be grounded in the facts. Meanwhile, Feelings trail along as the rear car. The point is that we should never depend on our feelings to determine what truth is. The Feelings flow from our Faith in the Facts. The Train nicely illustrates a point that our feelings can be deceptive and we should not look primarily to them as the basis for what is true. This is an important lesson, especially in the current cultural push to idolize our feelings.

I have nothing against the Train except that somehow it seems to have turned many American Christians off to the idea of feelings at all. As they should, Christians hold to the importance of facts, but in the process often dismiss the role of feelings. There is a classic human error of reacting against an offense by swinging too far on the pendulum in the opposite direction.

Jesus communicated the value and dignity of emotions as part of the faith-filled life. He wept when his buddy Lazarus died. He flared up in anger when the moneychangers defiled His Father’s house by swindling temple visitors. We see His burnout as He sneaks away to be alone with His Father; irritation with people who refused to have faith; and anguish in Gethsemane as He anticipated the cross. Jesus, as the perfect human, was filled with a rainbow of emotions, just like you and me.

Jesus’ life models a “new humanity” that we as His church live into. The God-man displays a remarkable synthesis of the fragility of humanity and the righteous nature of God. 

PASTORS AND CHURCHES CARE MOST EFFECTIVELY FOR THEIR SHEEP WHEN IN TOUCH WITH THEIR OWN BROKENNESS

Well-meaning shepherds often let down the sheep in their care through misinformed responses to mental health issues. Indeed, it is almost impossible to tend to another’s suffering unless you have faced your own darkness.

One of the most powerful ways to grow in caring for people’s hearts is to allow God to do healing work in us personally. It’s so important for church leaders to go to their own therapy and do some quality emotional work on themselves. Engaging in our own healing process gives us the grace and skill to open rather than close the doors for God’s healing work in another.

The Gorgeous Life is about all the facets of female life in Christ Jesus. You’ll find tips to cultivate glowing health, be more present in your relationships, develop inner and outer beauty, and laser-focus your sense of purpose in the world.

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