God’s Answer to Emotional Difficulties
This is the closing article in a series of four articles on this subject. This article will make more sense to you if you have read the first three in the series.
The Bible Says…
The Bible has some clear instructions for those who are helping others. Paul closed 1 Thessalonians with the words, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). He told the Galatians, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). If we want to help those with emotional difficulties amongst us, we need to be ready to sacrifice self and do what these verses say.
The popular approach today is to consider all emotional sufferers to be mere victims of circumstances. Certainly this is sometimes true. Other times they have made mistakes that have triggered the problem. And sometimes it was triggered by a spiritual struggle against conviction. The Bible does call for a different approach, depending on the situation. “And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 22, 23). We must always seek the wisdom of God in facing such situations. But in any case, our help must be motivated by love for the individual. Otherwise our efforts will fail.
In most cases, the solutions for the church’s problems are found within the brotherhood. If love and care prevails in the leaders and membership, struggling members will find the help they need.
Things to Look Out For
We need to be sure that we are not creating emotional traps within our congregations. If congregational life is the peaceful brotherhood experience it should be, we will not have as many emotional needs amongst us. Or they will be easier to deal with when they do arise. Church problems often cause emotional difficulties. If we can learn to tolerate unimportant differences in detail, and deal judiciously but kindly with issues that do need to be looked after, we will make life easier for all our members.
God designed the congregation to benefit and strengthen His children. It is true that we need to keep the church pure, and not allow it to become the habitation of devils or an influence for wrong. Yet it is also true that the needs of God’s children are of equal importance, or greater, than any organization or system we may produce. The Pharisees made that mistake with the Sabbath day. We need to be careful that we do not emulate them. If we get this turned around the wrong way, we should not be surprised to face a wave of emotional difficulties in church life.
A Christian husband should be the first to note that his wife is losing ground, especially if she has had prior struggles with emotional difficulties. He should take immediate steps to try to alleviate the stress. He can give help with the children and household chores. Perhaps he can arrange for a visit away from home. Maybe he can hire a girl to help with the work. But most of all he needs to be understanding and not apply pressure on his wife that she cannot handle.
Similarly, a wife needs to be sure that she does not add pressure to her husband’s load. Often emotional difficulties in men are triggered by financial difficulties and nagging wives. Put the two together and you have the potential for a serious problem. A wife should never dangle financial difficulties in front of her husband’s nose because he is probably already struggling with inferiority. Instead she can quietly encourage him, and do her part by living frugally, and helping him to bear up under the load. The assurance of his wife’s love can go a long way to help a husband stay on top. (Wives in such a situation should also read 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.)
Most emotional sufferers feel caught in a trap. They are in a tunnel with no light at the end. They are in a corridor that ends in a solid brick wall. They are in a box with the lid nailed on. Their despair comes just as much from the fact that there seems to be no answer for their problem as it does from the problem itself. The problem itself can be almost anything: a problem child in the home; a sense of inferiority and failure in the husband, wife, father, or mother role; financial failure; undeserved criticism from a spouse, parent, or brother; or simply overwork or lack of sleep. Often the sufferer could cope with the problem, if he or she could see a solution for it. It is the sense of being trapped that triggers the breakdown. The solution to the breakdown needs to deal with the trapped feeling as well as with the problem.
Most congregations have some members who seem to be on the bottom of the social pile (or who feel they are, for some reason). Too often these members get brushed aside. But where true brotherhood prevails, the needs of all the members will be met. Every family in the congregation should have caring friends. Every family should be invited out for meals periodically. Every family should feel needed. All of these brotherhood principles will help us to overcome emotional struggles amongst us.
If we don’t love the brother and sister that lives amongst us, how can we claim to love God, whom we have never seen (1 John 4:20)?
The husband, wife, or parents of an emotional victim can be under a very heavy load. They probably need your love and prayers as much as the sufferer himself. Sometimes well meaning people add to this load by giving ill-considered advice and criticism. Normally the best thing we can do for such people is to show that we love them and are praying for them. If they ask us for advice, we should be careful how we give it, and assure them of our support even if they do not take it. Give such a person a chance to share his frustrations, or he may well be the next person down.
Sometimes, in their concern for their child or spouse, parents or a spouse will take a course that we feel was ill-advised, or even harmful. However, we need to remember that they took this course with the best of intentions. It is not fair to be critical in such situations. They tried the best they knew and should receive credit for that attempt. Never, never, tell such persons, I told you so.
A Word to Counselors
The Bible has many promises for the distressed Christian. However, the emotional sufferer is often not capable of finding these or understanding them. If the mentor is able to pray with him and point out such promises, he may find some comfort.
One thing that an emotional sufferer wants above all else is understanding. Point out to him that Jesus understands, and read Hebrews 4:15. Also point out that Jesus desires to give him rest, and read Matthew 11:28.
Don’t pressure someone, if what you are saying doesn’t seem to sink in. Be gentle and try again another time. But your goal should be eventually to help the sufferer to find rest and understanding in Christ. In the meantime, be sure he can find it in you.
Should We Take Medication?
In the past, taking medication for emotional problems has been unpopular in some church circles. This is sometimes tied to the idea that all emotional needs are merely spiritual problems in sheep’s clothing.
It is true that some people go running for pills at every little problem, and that these pills can become a serious crutch. In fact, an improper use of pills can even cause emotional problems. It is good for close family members to be acquainted with the possible side effects of the medication that is used. The patient themselves may not be able to handle that information due to the nature of their problem.
I also agree that it is ideal to help a person through his valley without drugs, or by the help of nutritional-type therapy, if possible. But I also know of some good solid Christians who will probably be on medication for the rest of their lives. There is no stigma in taking medication for emotional needs. People have stopped taking pills because they sensed this kind of feeling amongst others, and have suffered serious consequences. (To be fair, we should add that others have stopped and found that they did as well or better without the medication.) There is a proper time for family members to discuss medication needs with a doctor. Perhaps a change would be helpful. But be very cautious about making changes on your own, since you could easily do more damage than good.
Various breakthroughs in this area of medicine and nutrition have been made in the last decades. Sometimes temporary medication can give a needed boost. In such a case, medication can help to bring healing to the point that the issues which caused the problem can be addressed.
What About Professional Help?
If you feel that you need professional help, start with your family doctor. An in-depth physical checkup may reveal physical reasons for the problems. For instance, low blood sugar conditions such as hypoglycemia are notorious for disrupting people’s emotional conditions. In sisters, hormone imbalances can work havoc at certain times of life. Even your eating, sleeping, and exercise habits can come into focus. Some common sense adjustments in these areas can sometimes work wonders. If not, your family doctor can often give you good advice for seeking further help.
The question of going to professional counselors or specialists may be more controversial than the question of medication. Generally each case needs to be evaluated on its own merits, but there are times that it seems necessary to go for professional help. If you can find a trained practitioner who has sympathy for Christian values, you may receive some genuine help.
Evaluate the practitioner carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. In general a psychiatrist is to be preferred over a psychologist, since a psychiatrist is trained to work with the physical mechanisms that affect the mind. The psychologist will generally zero in on pseudo-spiritual reasons for the problems, though in actual practice the boundaries between the two fields are probably getting rather blurred.
Note that we should always avoid specialists who treat their patients from the Freudian school of thought, no matter what title they give to themselves. Do not, under any circumstances, allow your spouse or child to undergo psychological counseling or therapy. Psychotherapy is based on a philosophy that is opposed to Biblical concepts of dealing with sin and guilt. It operates under the assumption that the patient is suffering from suppressed guilt or suppressed memories and deals with it helping the patient to blame others for his difficulties—certainly not a Scriptural approach. This perspective can do much spiritual damage to an emotional sufferer, since such practitioners often try to pin a patient’s problems on the high standard of Christian victory that we believe to be necessary. (See also the first article in this series.)
Here again, if you have a family doctor who understands your convictions, he or she will be able to give you some good guidance. If the problem is emotional in nature, sympathetic counsel from a spiritual advisor may be all the sufferer needs. If it is a deeper mental disorder, you should consider professional help as soon as possible. In many cases this is not necessary, however, and you should work with both your ministry and your doctor if you are considering such a step.
An Ounce of Prevention
Some feel that emotional problems show a lack of trust in God. On occasion this may be true, and it is always proper to encourage people to trust in God. However, it does NOT work to go to a person in the valley and tell him to snap out of it and trust in God. Instead, we should be helping our entire congregation to understand God’s character. God does love us. He does care for us. We can lean on Him in times of trial and stress. He does have answers and He does not despise us for our weakness.
Along with this, we need to teach and practice brotherhood in our congregations. Every brother and sister should feel needed and appreciated. Every brother and sister should sense that they are part of a caring brotherhood relationship.
All of these things can be a comfort to the person in distress if they have been taught to him before he lands in the valley.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Hopefully by applying some of the ideas in this series, along with common sense, Biblical principles and, where necessary, medical assistance, the suffering one can find relief and begin to rebuild his life. But that is not the end.
First of all, just because a person has a good week, don’t consider him healed. Inevitably there will be some reverses. But gradually the time between relapses should lengthen, and the relapses should become shorter and less severe. It is nothing new for this process to take several years.
The mentors should expect to be available for quite a while, but should start helping the recovering brother or sister to make sound choices in life style and spirituality that will help to keep the problem from recurring (note that physical fitness can be an important factor in emotional health). It is good to gradually wean the recovered brother or sister from being overly dependant on the mentors, as time goes on. It is ideal for him or her to gradually replace this relationship with a close relationship with Christ and the congregation in general. Probably there will always be a close friendship with the mentors, but we should discourage a permanent spiritual dependency.
But none of this will take place over night.
Emotional needs will inevitably surface amongst us. How we deal with these needs tells us a lot about the depth of brotherhood that exists amongst us. God has given us the poor and the needy to test our spiritual commitment and love. When one member of the congregation hurts, all other members should hurt with him. Something is seriously wrong when a congregation responds to a hurting brother or sister by casting stones.