by Tasha Levi
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says, "We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
If you’re going through a difficult break-up in your life, grieving the loss of a loved one to cancer, or having a hard time at work, as a Christian, how are you attending to your pain? Are you barely surviving or are you thriving or coping well with these issues in your life?
A few years ago, I grabbed coffee with the Director of Counseling Services at work. It was her last week of work and she was telling me about the next chapter in her career. She was going to start working for a college closer to her home in Queens and she was also starting a ministry to help Christians grieve openly, unashamedly, loss and transition – a necessary process she felt was too often and too easily overlooked.
I nodded emphatically as she continued to express her vision for this new venture, knowing all too well my own fights with my tear ducts. I have a tendency to grab a shovel made up of prayer, fasting, and scripture, and shove those feelings down hard and fast. But as I listened to her, everything she said was relatable and made sense in theory. The problem is that in reality, we don’t practice emotionally healthy ways of grieving. We’ve all been cut off in the middle of an emotional rant by a well-meaning Christian who insists we are in that state because our faith has wavered (and by the way, if you’re that person, please stop. It doesn’t help).
Thus, I embarked on, as it turns out, a lengthy journey into the world of Christianity and mental/emotional wellness. Over the past several months, I’ve sat down with Christian mental health professionals such as Eileen Hawkins and Abby Crews, and read books by psychologists like Susan Johnson. All this to help me better understand the mind and emotions from those who know them best and to cover topics like: depression, grief, mental illness, and therapy.
[Please keep in mind: I am not a mental health professional. My hope is that what I’ve learned will be a resource for the church, the institution, and the individual, that continues a more informed conversation about mental and emotional health.]
There are two seemingly opposing schools of thought. On one hand, many people will tell you to be real with God and that He can handle your pain, others will tell you to “buck up (or shut-up)” The truth is that we don't spend enough time talking about the tension in the middle of these two ways of coping.
The sentiment that we ought to dust ourselves off and be encouraged is more commonly preached than the proclamation that it's okay to not be okay. So we get lost in the cracks and the nuances of what is said versus what is expected. We often hear explicit, verbal direction but the actions and implicit nonverbal cues are the loudest.Those cues consist of the following:
1. Listening to sermon messages and devotionals that detail how “good Christians” handle adversity, all the time.
2. Opening up, even for the first time about something plaguing us to that friend or mentor, and they prescribe more scripture reading, more prayer, more fasting.
These things cause us to believe that essentially we can heal ourselves if we do “x” more often, more sincerely. Despite the five chapter collection of poetic laments over the fall of Israel, Lamentations, and the largest book of the Bible, Psalms, filled with anguish and praise, loss, and triumph -- the dichotomy is washed over with one simple bottom line: good Christians don’t grieve.
Eileen Hawkins said this of Christianity and emotional health: “Mental and emotional health can be hard to talk about in the church because they see it as a sign of spiritual weakness. It’s not that prayer and accountability aren't helpful. I think we tend to oversimplify it and see it as the only solution.”
Abby Crews says, “Sometimes when a friend is taking a long time in the grieving process, it can be from unresolved past trauma.”
Dr. Susan Johnson says,"[A] survivor's sense of self is often damaged and infused with shame and self-denigration. Survivors tend to blame and denigrate themselves for what has happened to them, and those closest to them often unwittingly magnify this response."
When we feel like grieving is a form of failure, that exacerbates the pain. We cannot actualize our own healing. Many times, we believe that God isn't healing us because we’re failing this cognitive realization. Thinking that spirals into more self-denigration, self-blaming, and so the cycle continues. Allowing yourself to grieve is also a major part of the healing process. Bishop T.D. Jakes often says, “You cannot overcome what you will not confront.”
Charles Loram says, "In order to understand this dilemma of trauma and loss we need to understand the correct theological basis for our human position and condition. Most believers will feel that all believers should have euphoric feelings daily and be totally unaffected by "negative" human emotions and feelings like disappointment, depression, loss of a limb, loss of a life, loss of opportunity, loss of potential, heartbreak and trauma. When these very human events take place and the subsequent resulting feelings and emotions; most believers feel they are letting the Lord down, denying their beliefs and failing in their faith and relationship with the Church."
Many preach from their personality and don’t show compassion for their Christian brother or sister. Their personality, upbringing, or compounded trauma from previous hurts informs their grieving process. We come into faith with different toolsets. As the Holy Spirit works through us, perfecting us in Christ, the fruit of that looks different. We aren't all going to respond to pain the same way. Some might grieve longer than others. The Bible isn't a rulebook that tells us how long that should take or what that should look like. Are we becoming emotional management legalists adding more laws to the text than it requires? More hoops for people to jump through in order to reach Jesus? The scandal of the cross is that Jesus comes to us as we are, filthy, lost, depraved, hurting. The Perfect One crowns the imperfect ones. We start off knowing that, but over time, we start working for our healing.
Jesus was compelled by compassion to the hurting and the lost. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. To proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Luke 4: 18-19.
In this passage, he says it is essentially His job to heal the broken heart, the downtrodden. It's why He came, and why we are helpless without Him. It's why He is God and we are not. Because with Him, in Him and by Him, we have hope in difficult times.
When the focus shifts from Jesus as the absolute solution, we move into a works-based faith. It is different than the one post-modern Christianity repudiates, but it is works-based all the same. We are working to fix ourselves, by ourselves, with the best intentions at times, asking Him to bless it.
Think of it this way: If the reason I'm not whole is because I can't think myself whole, I'm screwed and, all the more, in need of a Saviour, One Higher and Greater than me to rescue me from me.
Free yourself. Let yourself grieve and trust God that there’s purpose even in that process. Trust that there’s beauty in those ashes. Don’t mask your mess from the only One qualified to clean it up. You cannot do it, that’s why the Father sent His Son, Jesus.