Ministering to the Emotional and Mental Needs
“Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” (1 Thess. 5:14) How best to “comfort the feebleminded” and “support the weak” can reveal differences of approach between us as ministers. Unresolved past trauma or abuse as well as a multitude of mental disorders present themselves. How are we to do? How do we respond when told we just “don’t understand”? Are these issues increasing? It would appear that with a growing awareness comes a growing cry for help. It is hoped that, by and large, we are approaching these challenges in a united way. However it does appear that this unity is tested at times. It is the burden of this writing that we would be united on a Biblical foundation in how we approach emotional and mental challenges among us.
Many times as ministers we harken back to a simpler time. We are concerned lest we lose our simple trusting faith in God. It is easy feel threatened by the thought that we do not possess the special knowledge needed to understand such conditions. We may even question whether the issues are real or legitimate. We are concerned that our brethren who are more involved with counseling work will deviate from the old-time gospel of repentance and trust in Jesus; instead leaning toward modern psychology with its many pitfalls.
Then there are those who have, for various reasons, become involved in the work of helping the wounded and hurting among God’s people. Some have acquired specific knowledge (often from having personally gone through hard times) relating to depression and other mental illnesses. These brethren can find themselves in the somewhat awkward position of listening to brothers and sisters who have not felt understood by their home staff. These brethren can carry a concern that their fellow staff brethren will not truly hear the cry of the wounded heart but will be too quick to pass judgement of a spiritual nature. Challenging questions come from time to time about whether all the abuse is real. These questions are unsettling to those listening to the broken hearted among us, whose hearts have been shattered by events beyond their control.
One can easily see where tensions could arise and suspicions take root. No doubt the evil one would love to divide us on this issue. Meanwhile, the hurting sheep are caught in the middle. We understand our calling as ministers to be the spiritual welfare of the flock. We are called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. In so saying we readily admit that we are not called to be medical doctors or professional therapist, nor should we try to become such. Yet there lies within the realm of our pastoral work some areas that touch on the emotional and mental struggles. These areas can strain us as brethren at times in how to best approach the need.
Should we first try to judge the spiritual need? Should we hear the cry of the heart even when that cry can seem quite critical and offended? At what point should we be clear in asking for repentance? These type of situations can be perplexing and also can lead to divisions between brethren.
Surely foundationally we are all striving to help as best we know how. On the one hand, it is to be admitted that, at times, modern thinking has slipped in, and some have leaned too much on the arm of flesh and secular ideas. On the other hand, it is also to be admitted that some have not always fully understood the biblical framework for ministering with the heart of a shepherd. In their haste, they may have unwittingly broken the “bruised reed” and quenched the “smoking flax.” (Matthew 12:20)
God created us with three parts; in some mysterious way like unto His own triune nature. We could say we are made up of the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual. Though corrupted through the fall, all three parts were originally lovingly created by God and pronounced “very good”. We could picture a circle with a smaller circle inside it with a smaller circle inside it. The innermost circle could be our spiritual part. It is the core of who we are. Next could be our emotional part, our feelings. The outermost band could be labeled our physical part, our body with its organs, including the brain. It would be accurate to say that the spiritual part is the most important part. It is, after all, the part that lives eternally. We do not seem to struggle in how to relate to someone with a purely physical problem, for example, cancer or a broken arm. We are quick to express care. We are also quick to recommend medical attention. The problem arises in the less easily defined union of the physical, the emotional/mental, and the spiritual. Just where is the line between the physicality of the brain,
our will and reactions and our hearts our minds?”
“For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14) As our Creator, God fully understands our makeup. A Bible example found in 1 Kings 19 bears this out. After a great victory on Mount Caramel, Elijah found himself running for his life from wicked queen Jezebel. A deep and profound despair settled over Elijah, to the point that, “he requested for himself that he might die.” (1 Kings 19:4) God through an angel found Elijah where he was and prepared him a meal. Twice the angel “touched” Elijah. Finally, after another forty day’s journey, God came to Elijah in the Mount of God as a “still small voice” with hope and direction for his future. It is noteworthy how God ministered to Elijah. God knew that Elijah had a physical body (he hungered, he was weak) that he had an emotional makeup (he felt alone and needed touch and connection) and most importantly, God understood the spiritual cry of Elijah’s heart (he needed direction, hope, and rest). God so lovingly ministered to the Elijah in a complete way. It is also worth noting that God did not immediately address Elijah’s spiritual need, nor did He ignore it.
It can be a temptation to reduce man to one of the three. Some reduce man to only the physical. “All you have is chemical imbalance. Here’s a pill to correct that.” Some reduce man to only the emotional. “All you need is for someone to listen to you. You just need some therapy. That will fix your problem.” Perhaps closer to home, some reduce man to only the spiritual. “You just need to pray harder, trust God more and so on. You are struggling, so you must have a spiritual problem.” Likely all three areas will need help. The affected person will, like all of us, need a surrender of their will, a Calvary experience. They may have a genetic predisposition to depression that will need medical attention. They also may have, for example, as in the case of early childhood abuse, a problem relating to the physical structure of the brain that will need continued help and retraining. We should not expect repentance to fix the physical aspect of someone’s problem. Through it all they will need someone to stand by them with a listening ear and a gentle hand on the shoulder. We would do well to note how God worked with Elijah in a holistic way.
We can divide between the physical, emotional, and spiritual in a way that is not biblical. For instance, we might not be as quick to pray about a physical or emotional issue as a spiritual one. Since God made us, we can rest assured that He is interested in every facet of our life. He may not always choose to heal our physical body, but He walks with us through life’s many challenges. We should seek His leading no matter what type of issue are facing. Paul brings this out so beautifully. “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication let your request be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Phillipians 4:6-7)
Sometimes we wonder if mental illness is a modern phenomenon. In Matthew 4:24 we find a very instructive verse. “And his (Jesus) fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic…and he healed them.” Of note is the division between “divers (different) diseases and torments” and those who were “possessed with devils.” Mental illnesses were around in the time of Christ. They were and are, no doubt, part of the “divers diseases and torments.” They appear to be increasing in our day, perhaps because of genetic weakening in the human race, as a whole coupled with the complexity of modern life and its information overload. This does not diminish the spiritual battle that rages as well, and the fact that evil spirits often prey on those with mental and emotional challenges. Of concern today is the independence manifesting itself among our people. It leaves us with questions when someone comes to us, and we find out they have been seeing a secular councilor for some time. We are rightfully alarmed with the dangers inherit in the world of modern psychology. It concerns us that they were not more open early on in their struggle. There are spirits today that are exploiting the modern interest in mental health. These spirits of pride and independence effectively hide behind the guise of a mental or emotional condition. This is not true of all cases and we should be cautious in coming to this conclusion too hastily. Some people, unfortunately, would rather talk about their problem than receive help and healing. They may desire healing, but they want it on their terms. This can be frustrating to both sides, but let us remember, we do not have any answers for anyone who is not sincerely open to help. A sincere cry for help is the essential condition for true healing to be found. This of course requires trust and trust is not easily earned, particularly when dealing with the wounded among us.
We should not be too quick to assume that the lack of openness in our people is entirely their fault. It would be well for us as ministers to ask ourselves some questions. Have I been approachable? Have I taken an interest in the everyday life of the brotherhood? Have I cast an aura of authority that planted fear in the struggling heart? Have I taken time to listen? This is our first responsibility.
Those we are endeavoring to help also have a responsibility. Every human of normal intelligence (no matter how wounded they may be) has a will which they are accountable for the use of. It is doubtful that one will get help unless there is a surrender of the will. In the case of a mentally unstable person, a surrendered will could be defined as a willingness to listen to what those who love and care are saying. If ones will is surrendered, then there is good reason to believe that help will be found through whatever means God may use, a caring brother, a licensed therapist, or a medical doctor.
There is time to advise a sound assessment by a reputable medical doctor. Various factors can lead to mental instability and it is wise to cover the basics in searching for solutions. Sometimes professional counseling is in order and can be recommended in good faith. Some examples of cases that might benefit from counseling could be cases of extreme early childhood trauma, early childhood sexual abuse, and certain anxiety disorders. In certain cases of abuse, counseling may be a legal requirement. Not all therapists are the same and a good one can be difficult to find. The philosophy of humanism (that man is basically good and that he can find the answers to his problems by looking within himself) is prevalent in modern phycology, so it is important to approach outside counseling carefully and prayerfully. The wrong sort of counseling can very detrimental, however a good therapist can be the conduit through which God’s truth comes. It is in order, when more drastic measures need to be taken, to do so with the support of the local brethren who are involved. There is a difference between someone going to counseling in avoidance of the brotherhood, and someone going to counseling with the encouragement and blessing of the brotherhood.
The following are points to keep in mind. They are by no means complete or a replacement for the Holy Spirit’s direction. It is of utmost importance that we be Spirit led.
1. Listen with the intent to fully understand what is being shared. Our first duty is to be a sounding board. This does not mean we should agree with all that we hear or become permissive toward sin. The opportunity or need to judge the spirit or situation may come later. Often listening is all that is needed. Many times a struggling person already knows the answer and will come to it themselves which is far better than us having to force it on them. Listening can soften the heart and open the door to share the truth where needed. As the late president Theodore Roosevelt so aptly stated, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” We should always strive to live out James 1:19 “…let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak…”
2. Closely related to the preceding point would be to understand the difference between “sympathy” and “empathy.” While there is doubtless a right form of sympathy, the following distinction may help. Sympathy says, “I’m on your side.” Empathy says, “I’m by your side.” There is a profound difference between the two. Our people need someone to stand by their side not necessarily someone to be on their side. They may want “sympathy,” but they need “empathy.”
3. Our core beliefs are what motivate us in life. Core beliefs often lie beneath the surface of our conscious thought. These beliefs need to be true and based on the Bible. Healing comes from allowing God to replace twisted core beliefs with the truth of the Gospel. “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8:32
4. Learn to recognize the signs of unresolved past trauma. Doing so will require us to look past the person’s behavior to what may be underneath it. We should not assume that people will readily share about a painful past. Carefulness is in order here, lest we try to explain present sin or weakness by looking to the past in a way that takes away personal responsibility. While it is not helpful to make someone feel like a victim, it is important to acknowledge past hurts. They were real and have left their mark. This truth does not diminish a person’s present responsibility for their choices in life. If the past is hindering, acknowledge it and let Jesus heal those deep wounds as only He can. It is not the will of God that any soul would be stuck in the past, or endlessly digging in the past to explain the present.
5. “Self” can hide behind a diagnosis or a past hurt. These people find it very difficult to take responsibility for their actions and reactions. They can be quite sensitive to being told they have a spiritual need. We would do well to deal gently here, yet there is a time to be very clear and firm.
6. “Mental illness” can hide behind a perceived spiritual problem. A person can become convinced they have fundamental spiritual issue when they do not. A common manifestation of OCD affects those who are tended toward perfectionism in their Christian life. They become tormented and in bondage about endless details and whether they are saved or not. Understanding the mental component of their struggle can help us help them to develop healthy thinking patterns.
7. “In the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14b) We will not be able to personally help every situation, but help will come from someone whom God has touched and who can in turn be an instrument of his grace and healing. In short, help is available, and we will need to prayerfully seek it out. This will, at times, include seeking (with God’s leading) professional help. Also, we need to be careful not to develop an unhealthy dependence on us in those we are trying to help. We should, as we say of good missionaries, always be trying to work ourselves out of a job.
8. Speak the truth in love. There is a time to share the truth gently but firmly. These may not be easy conversations to have, but they can be a great help if done in love.
9. Our greatest need is spiritual healing. It is the only lasting solution to the deepest cry of the heart, and it is found only in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness and reconciliation through the Gospel bring healing at the deepest level. And it is available to every soul! Our greatest desire should be to know our people are saved and walking humbly with God.
Many, if not all, of the heartbreaking situations we deal with have their roots in a deviation from the Bible way. It is the authors conviction that much heartache could be prevented by cultivating the Christian virtues early in life in structured, loving homes and in healthy congregational settings. Yet as long as this world continues, the opportunity to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1) will always be there. A united approach among us as ministers will be necessary for this noble work to be effective. May the “Spirit of the Lord” be upon us in all we do, and may God bless us as we labor together.