Why telling people with depression and anxiety to be more 'spiritual' never works?
12 August 2018
What do you do when you see people you care about suffering from depression or anxiety? Our reaction reveals our belief. We offer the same 'fix' we cling to when we suffer from the same thing.
Christians like to encourage each other to pray more, memorize more Bible verses, love Jesus more, trust God more etc. These things are all great. But, sadly, telling people who are suffering emotionally and mentally to be more 'spiritual' hardly ever works.
Ultimately, what is mental health? Often mental problems are defined only by their observable symptoms (as you see in how diagnostic statistical manuals are used), not by what really caused them in the first place. This is because we are still learning what they are.
But one common feature across many mental conditions is the obsessive compulsion to live up to an unrealistic, perfectionist self-image that is impossible to achieve. For Christians, this is a spiritual image of 'What I should be' to be an acceptable Christian. This self-imposed idealized image becomes the source of security. It becomes a god. This is the root of a spiral vicious cycle of 'Am I good enough?' and 'I'm still not good enough.'
This is why telling depressed and anxious people to be more 'spiritual' could possibly make it worse. It simply reinforces the same mentality that has caused the problem in the first place: by feeding the same faulty belief that it's about what I do and how well I do it. It confirms the same 'conditional acceptance of self': I don't have enough faith. I'm not reading the Bible enough. I don't love Jesus enough...
This is the exact opposite of the Gospel message.
The Gospel message says it's not about me or how good I am. When I ask 'Am I good enough?' I'm simply asking the wrong question. Whether I'm the best or worst person in the world, I still need God's mercy completely. The more I ask, 'Am I good enough?' the more depressed I become. The right question is: 'Is God good enough?'
And the answer the Bible gives is an indisputable 'YES'. This affirmative answer is completely independent of our performance and how we feel.
But sadly, we often can't feel it. So the next question is, 'why can't I feel God is good enough?' It's a very difficult question for Christians even we somehow know intellectually that God is good enough. There is always an inner conflict between what we think we should believe about God (theologically) and what we really feel about Him (emotionally).
Acknowledging, not covering, this discrepancy is the key. This is where utter honesty with God and with ourselves comes in. Sometimes acceptance of this reality is the foundation of mental health, and the beginning of salvation.
So embrace the darkness at the deepest bottom of our pit and acknowledge that is where we are. Admit all the defeats, disappointment and hopelessness. This is where God meets us. Many Christians who have struggled with mental illnesses finally found healing when they stopped trying to be 'better' Christians and simply come to terms with where they are at.
We all want to deny this darkness and defeat, because 'good' Christians are meant to be victorious and rejoicing, right? Well, if you think you're 'good', you're far from God's salvation (Luke 18:9-14). There is no such thing as 'good' Christians, only honest and pretending ones.
The very heart of the Gospel message is God meets us at the very bottom of our pit, not the top, not in the middle. It is Jesus alone who achieves the victory. We are simply sharing His victory because His blood covers us. We do not, and cannot, achieve any of the victory over emotional brokenness with religious activism. This is why a lot of the 'self-acceptance' talks we hear in both secular and Christian self-help discourse never work. It takes people away from where they will find God. It's because it's never about what we do, but what God has done.
Tim Keller once explained a fundamental understanding of the Gospel called 'the Order of Grace'. Our relationship with God must be in this order:
First, God loves us.
So God saves us and frees us.
As a response, we obey God.
The Pharisees and other religions will tell you the order goes the opposite way. The reversal of this order is impossible, and is the root of many perfectionism-related emotional problems we see among many Christians today.
Go to the very bottom of the darkness and cry out for God, and He will meet you there. We can see ourselves in the stories of the woman at the well (John 4), Lazarus and his sisters (John 11), Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10), Zacchaeus (Luke 19), the bleeding woman (Luke 8), and the father crying out to Jesus, "Help me with my unbelief!" (Mark 9).
These individuals were completely stuck, whether emotionally, spiritually, physically. None of them had to change or do a thing. It's not about the quantity of faith or how hard they work, but the utter honesty of their desperation that brought true healing.
This is NOT to say spiritual disciplines such as praying and reading the Bible are not important. They are of great importance. But they are not for you to create your own 'spiritual image' to work your way to acceptance. So don't try to climb up your pit and think you can convince God (or others or yourself) to love you more. God already loves you 100%.