God does not want you to change everything about yourself. He wants you to be more fully human.
Faith and Mental Health, Part II
Growing up I sat through many religious holidays and church services. When I was young, my faith gave me a community and certainty. But as I have aged, my questions have aged with me. Today I have far fewer answers than I did when I was young.
Yesterday I asked my 14 year old daughter if God cares about our emotions or our mental health. She looked at me, puzzled. The question wasn’t really directed at her. I suppose I was asking my inner 14 year old self.
The church has not always responded well to mental health. I remember hearing that “God doesn’t want you to be happy, he wants you to be good.” When I was young, it all made sense. But as I moved out, had a family and took on a 25 + year career as a therapist, and faced my own experience with depression and anxiety… little that I had learned growing up worked in my life.
For me, some of the most valuable parts of the Bible are the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, along with the words that Jesus actually said in the New Testament. If someone takes even a casual wander through the Psalms or Ecclesiastes they will discover that God really is okay with our happiness because he made us this way.
Asking whether God wants us happy or whether he cares more about our character is unhelpful. Does God prefer that a person remain in their depression, feeling deeply hopeless and dark… yet have good behavior? Does God want a woman, a man, a child to remain in a relationship where they are abused or hit or dominated? Does God want a person to stick with a faith that dictates behavioral rules that are in part intended to keep a person unquestioning, loyal, obedient… “like Jesus”?
Yet just because our questions are complicated and the church has not always responded well to mental health does not mean that faith is not relevant.
Do we really need to separate our emotions from our mind, our behavior, or from our spiritual selves?
I took some time to reflect on the words of Jesus in the New Testament, Matthew 5. As I read through the words that are typically referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount,” I felt awed. My questions fall away as I consider the timelessness of the statements. The men and women who listened to Jesus lived under oppression, abuse, slavery and rigid male-dominated religious and political systems committed to self-preservation… with little regard for human suffering.
Blessed are you when…
Jesus begins by saying “Blessed are you when…” The word blessed affirms the deepest parts of our humanity. It conveys that in spite of all that you have (and will) experience in your mind, emotions, relationships and social context, you are valued. Your life is not lived in vain.
In no way is Jesus asking you or I to separate our emotions from our character, or to affirm one denomination or another. Instead, he is affirming you and affirming how hard and how difficult and how long our living can be. Yet, he encourages you and I to hold on to hope, and to hold onto our worth and our value. Jesus is sharing a vision of what I believe is true mental health. God cares about our humanity and about how we treat ourselves, the world within us… and the world around us.
You recognize your needs…
Our humanity, Jesus says, begins with recognizing our needs and not just our potential. Allowing ourselves to be seen not just as we wish people will see us, but as we are. To learn that we have our faults, yet we can at the same time yearn to rise above who we have been or how we have behaved.
When you mourn and you are sad…
Opening to our loss, our grief will open us in ways that are unimaginable. Pain and loss and addiction and depression and sadness and divorce and betrayal and rejection and secrets. Life can take us through cruelty (our own and others’). We all, at times, will feel lost within ourselves. Yet we can learn that opening to our sadness and loss is not an end… it can be a path to learning to open to something deeper.
You are honest…
In embracing our humanity and honestly grappling with our failings, we find acceptance. Rather than rejecting the dark and shamed and rejected parts of ourselves, we learn to be more fully ourselves.
You find and then embrace your limits…
The American Dream, being a Rock Star, living a Big Life… No one wants to accept our limits. Often what we cling to, what we believe will bring happiness will end up causing us the greatest pains.
Each of us can be caught by envy. We look at the next person and long for what they have: the bigger home, kids, a better or happier relationship, a better job or a bigger office, to have a better body or to be richer. One of the most painful things we have to face is the futility of many of our dreams. Facing futility, facing the reality that we may reach few of our dreams or that our dreams will not make us happy can be devastating. Holding to real hope rather than idealism is one of the most difficult things, but most meaningful things we can ever do.
It is hope that motivates us to invest our time and resources in things that will outlive us, in things that we do to make life better for ourselves and other people.
You seek the goodness in yourself and in others even when you are not being good…
We hear it all of the time, but it can be difficult to deeply know that we are not defined by our behavior. Learning to see past what we do and see the person inside. Seeking goodness in ourselves and in others even when (especially when) we are not at our best. Sometimes our goodness can be hidden underneath layers of history, scars and self-protection. For most of us, that goodness is still there, sometimes deep, but it is there.
You seek peace…
Living and giving the peace that we most long to have inside. One of the hardest things for me is to seek peace in my relationships when I feel anything but peace inside… when I feel anger, and shame, and hurt. Yet we are reminded that we find what we seek.
You stand for something, even when you are rejected…
Being willing to know what is truly important enough to stand for will change you. I have stood for things that seemed so important at the time. What I thought was so important nearly cost my marriage and my mental health. My short list of things that are not-worth-standing for includes perfectionism, holding onto my need for control, refusing to admit my mistakes or my selfishness, or my reluctance to change.
What is worth standing for?
Jesus doesn’t provide us with a long list of things to stand for. He asks people to stand for the one thing that will get under our skins, no matter our political or scientific affiliation: LOVE.
Love asks us to drop our guard, to let go of our sense of superiority, to see ourselves honestly and admit how we ourselves are inconsistent and fall short.
Love is not popular in a culture obsessed with likes, keeping up with others, wealth or power.
Love is always messy.
Love accepts the hard stuff… the inconvenient stuff… the embarrassing stuff that is just below the surface in my life, and yours.
Love is sacrifice and it is lifting up others who we want to reject… and love is humble enough that we admit how much we are alike.
Love does not use truth as a weapon or use rules to keep the peace.
Love is not the property of any political cause or denomination.
Love is found in the willingness to drop our judgment and superiority of other people’s experience: addiction, depression, schizophrenia, disordered eating…
And love does not buy into the religion of consumerism and living for the sole purpose of buying more stuff
(Nice words… and sometimes I actually live them out.)
There are not a lot of answers in this short “sermon”
I wonder what it would be like if our churches had sermons like this one? Nine or ten sentences full of blazing hope that cannot be bought or owned by any political party, denomination or corporation or President… Sentences that are difficult to live out and that we all fall short of. Sentences that can bring life and hope in spite of how hard things can be inside of our minds, our emotions, our thoughts. Sentences that can give us all a little more grace…
It’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that
Changed the world
You can hear the strings…
Grace finds goodness
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings…
Out of ugly things…
• • •
For a related post, see “The Weight of Living: Faith and Mental Health.”
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