A physician, a homemaker, an executive, a college student, and a pastor: what do all of these individuals have in common?
Each of them suffers from a psychological disorder. Each of them has sat in my office seeking help to deal with the mental conditions that plague their lives. They suffer from illnesses with menacing names such as Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These diagnoses leave people feeling isolated, but they are not alone. An estimated 25 percent of all people will experience a diagnosable mental disorder at some time during their lives according to the World Health Organization.
Look around your church and recognize that at least 2 out of every 10 people you see are struggling mentally and emotionally. The question is not whether people with psychological problems are in our churches, but rather, how can we respond to these individuals with the redeeming love of Christ? How can we walk lovingly beside our brothers and sisters who are hurting?
The first step to becoming more compassionate is to examine our expectations and beliefs about psychological conditions. Commonly, I hear my clients express fears that having psychological problems means their faith is not strong enough or that they are failures in their Christian journeys.
While unconfessed sin can result in emotional turmoil, most psychological disorders develop outside of a person's control, resulting from such factors as trauma, genetics, and biochemicals in the brain.
Just as we would not say, 'John would not have diabetes if he had more faith,' we should avoid saying the same thing about Margo's struggle with depression. We are called to lovingly accept our brothers and sisters with these conditions as opposed to labeling them as spiritual failures.
In addition to changing our expectations, we may also need to change our words. Simple answers in response to psychological pain will not fix the problem. Merely telling a struggling individual to 'give it to God' discounts the depth of their pain. Improvement often comes from a combination of faith in God, counseling, and medication. Our job is not to solve the problems of the one who is hurting. Rather, we become a healing agent when we offer our presence and a listening ear.
Quality time spent in engaging with the person is worth exceedingly more than a Bible verse offered in haste or a vague promise to pray. The weight of despair caused by a psychological disorder becomes a little lighter when a loving member of Christ's body is nearby.
Regularly, take the time to visit those who are in the midst of a struggle. You will not have all of the answers, but your presence will help a hurting individual see that God is still there.
Showing God's grace to an individual who is struggling emotionally often requires us to look past what we 'think' we are seeing. Those who struggle with anxiety may come across as angry and those with depression may appear aloof. Unfortunately, this pushes people away at a time when friends are needed most.
If we could see past the anger and aloofness, we would find a fear of being rejected or of being a failure. Do not let their negative emotions push you away. By recognizing that a harsh countenance usually reflects a damaged soul, we can more easily find the compassion to show divine love. Just as we serve a God who faithfully stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, we are called to persist with the one who is emotionally lost.
As we strive to be a source of light for those going through a dark valley, recognize that no one is defined by their problems. Rather, we are defined by how God sees us'as His dearly loved children. Those who are suffering psychologically are more than the diagnosis they have been given. A diagnosis is only a collection of symptoms and does not define one's identity. While psychological disorders impact many aspects of people's lives, they still possess dreams, hopes, and desires that are greater than their present circumstances.
Do not be afraid to talk about the everyday joys of life. We acknowledge the 'wholeness' of a person when we engage in conversations about more than just their problems.
Finally, let your hope for their personal healing be seasoned with grace. People make progress at different rates of speed. Depending on the struggle, emotional recovery may happen after a few months or may require years of work. For others, a disorder means a lifelong struggle of peaks and valleys. By trusting that God knows the heart as opposed to judging where you think people should be in their healing, you can invest your energy in being a friend on their journey.
Be an encourager by taking note of any improvements that you see. Offer support when they decide to seek help. You may even want to accompany them to an appointment if they are feeling apprehensive. Understand that recovery will involve setbacks and failures. By having faith, not in the individual, but in the One who gives strength in weakness, you can offer the strongest reason for hope.
When people are hurting in ways that we do not understand, the easy response is to avoid them and say, 'This is outside my area of expertise.' Yet, when we do this, we are no better than the religious leaders who walked by on the other side of the road from the man who had been robbed and left for dead (Luke 10:25-37). May God give us the eyes to see those who are hurting and the mercy to initiate a loving relationship with them.
Jason Gunter, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist at the Oklahoma Christian Counseling Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Holiness Today, September/October 2010.