Caring for the Heart Series (Part 2): When Religion Hinders Help

(this is a continuation of Part 1: An Introduction to Caring for the Heart)

Getting Help: Not an Easy Subject

I realize the headline of this article may cause some unease for readers who are active in their faith. But I sincerely believe in many spiritual environments, it holds true. Especially where ultra-fundamentalism is practiced, and a breakaway from tradition is unthinkable. The construct of “this is how we do it and this is how we’ve always done it” hinders the ability to recognize apparent problems, prohibits new ideas and perspective, and prevents flexibility to act in instances where action is required.

In truth, it’s not just ‘religion’ that hinders people seeking help for psychological issues. It’s a very human behaviour to want to appear outwardly composed; we all like to think we’ve got ourselves ‘together’.  Our minds will do amazing things to compensate and restore what we perceive as ‘order’. We adopt some pretty irrational thought patterns to explain why we feel anguish, confusion, depression, frustration, etc. In the end, few people ask for help.

In dealing with our own issues, we can easily accept when our physical health is compromised because “pain” is a strong indicator. We don’t like pain. In contrast, there is a stigma against acknowledging or accepting pain that occurs in the mind or heart (emotional/psychological). The truth is – if you’ve ever seen someone suffering with their feelings or their thoughts, it’s a very palpable, substantial thing that can impact every aspect of day-to-day living. It deserves some exploration about how and why it happens.

The Adversity Against New Methods

So why isolate this issue to religion and how it hinders help?  

On whole, Christianity is often adverse to anything perceived as psychology. It is often called “modernism” and “secular humanism” by critics. In some cases, psychology is labeled as the greatest modern danger to the church. As a message believer, I was very aware of the fact people were against psychology of any kind. I recall sitting in church services where the minister mocked the idea of people needing “help” – and that the solution was to be burnt at the alter of God’s holy fire and refined by the fire of God’s spirit. As we were told, this wasn’t a wishy-washy “hold-my-hand-and-cry” message; the “seed of God” was found on the threshing floor. There was no time to waste for soft hands and sympathy, and if the bare knuckled, rolled up sleeves of old-time religion was good enough for my great grand dad, and it’s good enough for me. I understand that thinking; it’s the essence of fundamentalism.

Perhaps the biggest criticism I heard in regards to counselling was the fact it seemingly teaches a form of self-help theology. The fear is a person will develop a “self-esteem” that bypasses a need for God, and suggest that you should just go inward to fix yourself. I don’t believe for a minute this kind of thinking circumvents the foundational tenant of Christianity. If the concept of Christianity is finding salvation and redemption unto eternal life by the sacrifice of a Saviour, then no measure of “self-help” replaces that kind of theology. You can’t overcome a penalty of physical/spiritual death by living a good life with a healthy state of mind.

That said, what I do believe is that some of the most religious and God-fearing people needlessly live their life trapped in a mode of perpetual anxiety, depression, negative thought, emotional isolation, bitterness, fear and many other dysfunctional behaviours that impact daily relationships. All because they have no options to find help beyond the teaching of their church. These can be detrimental to a quality of life; with yourself and with others. We’re not talking about saving yourself; we’re talking about waking up in the morning without feeling anxiety, fear and dread for everyday situations in your home. Or perhaps just as worse – knowing that you are behaving in a way that is negatively impacting your primary relationships (with a spouse, with your children or other important people) and you can’t seem to stop yourself from doing it.

The Divine Solution &/or Deeper Obedience

The mandate or goal of religious practice is often to lead a person to subscribe to their version of a “divine solution”, which spiritually supplies it’s followers with the supernatural answers to all issues and matters of life.  The “read your Bible, apply wisdom with faith and be well”, “every promise in the book is mine”, “pray earnestly, claim and confess” is one I understand. I did this endlessly for pretty much every personal situation I encountered in my spiritual journey. However, with respect to the faithful, this methodology falls short in many real life issues, which I hope I can elaborate on.

In message churches, aside from the alter calls that offer immediate supernatural intervention, it’s a frequent solution to prescribe a call for deeper obedience and belief.  “Read your bible and pray more, listen to tapes more, come to church more, root out the sin in your life, stay at the alter, submit to God more, give it up/let it go, rededicate your life, get a true filling/refilling, etc”.  Thus, while a person may come expressing specific and deeply personal problems relating to real life frustrations and/or damaging (even abusive) experiences – the solution is reduced to “just move on”, “obey harder”, “believe more”. Wanting to do their best, followers will try to do just that – strive to perform their religion better, deeper and harder. For many people – it becomes a life of spiritual penance; a price of submitting to circumstances, which they pay in order to feel worthy of a relationship with God.

Finding Perspective & Courage to Go Against the Grain

As I attempted to learn more about effective counselling, I had to confront my own apprehensions and fears about this. I did not want to bypass the foundation of the gospel – and disarm people of faith in God. And yet – for the many times I stood in prayer lines hearing people confess their traumas and frustrations of not being able to overcome fears and sins – I couldn’t help but think that some people needed more help than what an alter call, a public confession and a searing prayer from an evangelist could provide.

I watched some people go to the alter week after week after week – often for the same issues. I watched the same people struggle with relationships and marriages. I watched young people slowly collapse inwards until, eventually, they would one day stop coming to church at all. I watched people sit silently in their pew for years – with virtually no expressiveness and very little to give to any spiritual context. It was easy to remind them that God loved worship and that their ‘amens’ operated the gift of the preacher. But with little response to “pulpit pressure”, I just wondered what was going on inside them – why was there little evidence of joy or abundant life – especially after so many years of hearing the word?

Telling them something was wrong with their spiritual experience didn’t seem to be a constructive admonition; it was only applying guilt and pressure. One could prescribe a spiritual diagnosis for the observed ‘lacking’ – or one could actually begin to care about the person, and want to go further into the question of “why are you locked? Is there an actual problem below the surface?”. Maybe something happened to them in a really negative way – and it gnaws on how they function as a human being?

Pleasing People or Helping People?

Discovering Caring for the Heart wasn’t intended to be a fix-all. I can’t even say I agree with everything the actual material supports as a method for helping and healing. Nor do I believe it’s a magic solution and an antidote for what may lack in traditionalism. But I do think it (or any similar approach) fills some massive holes in a lack of caring and support for people.

Although it’s unconventional and will offend the person determined to stick to tradition, frankly, I stopped caring about “convention” and catering to what the church tradition demanded. If someone was sitting in front of me suffering within – this was about helping them, not appearances, propriety and appeasing the criticism of men.

Much like Jesus healing on the Sabbath in Luke 14, wherein the Pharisees were watching carefully with a critical eye – what was most needful? Jesus asked them if they had an child (or ox) fall helplessly in a well on the Sabbath, would they not jump to help – though it betrayed “the law”? I was done with men-pleasing when I knew something more could be done.

A Common Sense Frame of Mind

If I may offer an example: consider a person who is in the process of a heart attack. Sweat is pouring from their brow, their chest is compressing in pain and their breathing is impaired. You recognize the symptoms to know something is desperately wrong. If you are a person of faith, is it sensible to pray? By all means – pray! But – do you not also pick up your phone, and call for immediate medical assistance? Is that a betrayal of faith? One part is action of belief – the other is knowing that the situation requires some more extensive help.

That is a dramatic example. But the same applies to more mundane ailments. You have a headache, a broken bone, a aching tooth. Sure – by all means, pray! But how many of us know that a trip to the drugstore or a medical clinic can offer some relief too? Or perhaps you know some other way of addressing the issue that requires application of practical wisdom. Regardless of what you may do – there’s common sense that we often apply that has little to do with staunch spiritual remedies. It’s not dismissive of faith.

Now take another example. Consider what you do as a pastor if you learn someone had been sexually abused by someone in their church or family. Imagine the perpetrator is a figure who is supposed to represent unconditional love and ‘safety’ to a child; like a parent. As a pastor, how do I deal with that? Some pastors will not want to cause alarm or conflict within their church, nor to make it a ‘legal’ matter which involves authorities. So nothing will be made of it beyond the pastor’s office. In that office, what if the only thing offered are exhortations of God’s power to heal the broken hearted, some quotes from the prophet, with heartfelt prayers and assurance that things will get eventually get better?

Those are kind comforts – but sincere as they may be, common sense suggests that further help is absolutely necessary. Somehow, when it comes to issues deemed to be  “spiritual” (matters of the mind/heart) – there’s is often no urgency to provide further help.  To do less would be alarmingly negligent. Again – I do not belittle faith, no more than praying for the heart attack. But issues like this are not deemed important on the level of physical ailment. That, to me, is acute lack of awareness and education on mental health and wellness.

Again, this is a more dramatic example. However, the same can apply to issues like depression, marriage/family relationships, temperament, childhood trauma/disappointment, fear/anxieties, moral issues, bitterness, perpetual negative thoughts and other similar things. How will a pastor, parent or spouse care for these? Does it dismiss faith to explore the more human side of how our mind was shaped by experiences, past and present?

In the next part of my Caring for the Heart series, I’ll talk about my experience of bringing this method of counselling into the Message.  

James Rozak

Creator of Morning Mercy & Former Message Associate Pastor.

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