Healing the Brokenhearted
In the preceding two articles we examined how sin and guilt can cause emotional struggles, and the false assumptions of Christian psychology in dealing with these struggles. We also gave some illustrations of other things that may cause emotional struggles. In this article we want to give some practical helps for relating to people with such struggles. If you have not read the other articles you should do so in order to properly understand this one.
1. Bearing the Infirmities of the Weak
Romans 15:1 provides a Biblical basis for this month’s discussion: “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Many times it would be easier to ignore the weak and go on our way, but that is not the Scriptural way.
In the parable of the good Samaritan the priest and the Levite saw a fellow Jew laying in the ditch, wounded and dying. Both walked past without offering any help or sympathy. But the despised Samaritan saw a brother who needed help. He stopped and did what he could for him. He willingly changed his schedule and bore the extra cost of helping him.
It is a challenge to us to do the same for those with emotional difficulties. Yes, it may be unhandy, costly, and even embarrassing on occasion. And yes, we may see some obvious mistakes that the sufferer made that seem to have caused his or her condition. But we have a spiritual and brotherhood obligation to such that we cannot overlook.
Jesus told the Nazarenes, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18 ). He told the lawyer in Matthew 22:36-40 that the greatest of the commandments was to love God, and that the second greatest was to love your neighbor as yourself. Surely a brother or sister in the congregation struggling with emotional difficulties would be one of the brokenhearted Jesus came to heal, and one of the neighbors that He tells us to love.
2. Helps and Hindrances
Last month’s article gave some illustrations which have already suggested some ways to help people with emotional difficulties, and also some things that will make them worse. Let’s discuss some of these a little further.
Situations vary so much that again we are in danger of making sweeping and useless generalizations. However, in every such situation people have the right to the uncritical support and sympathy of their brethren and sisters. In some cases the sufferer will feel compelled to talk about his troubles to every person he meets. In other cases, he will find it impossible to talk, and may even be unable to face others at all. In both cases it is very important for brothers and sisters to be understanding, either by giving a listening ear, or by staying out of the way. Most of all, we must fight the compulsion to shower the sufferer with advice and home remedies!
Almost all victims of emotional breakdown have a mentor or two they cling to. It is important for this person to stay current with the situation and be available at any time of the day or night. He or she needs to take seriously the Biblical instruction to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, because an emotional sufferer will often be quite unstable, going from highs to lows quite quickly. Never belittle the joys or the sorrows that he is facing. This seldom does anything but shut the door to further communication. An emotional sufferer who will not communicate with anyone can seldom be helped. It is important for them to have a release valve somewhere.
Sometimes a victim may actually decide to do something quite foolish, such as leave home. To them it may seem like a sensible thing to do at the time. The important thing at such a time is to stay calm and not act shocked. Note that if they talk about the impulse, often they will get it out of their system that way. But if you act horrified and start “preaching” at them, they will clam up and may even do serious injury to themselves. It may, of course, be necessary to stop them from doing something they intended. Since they are not thinking straight at that point, it is often possible to get them sidetracked. Perhaps you can suggest eating supper first, or waiting until tomorrow when it stops raining. By then they will generally realize how foolish their idea was.
When a person has sunk this far into emotional despair it is important for someone to have a relationship with them that is close enough that such impulses come out in the open before they can be acted on. Of course, such a person should never be left alone.
If the emotional difficulties have been brought on by financial difficulties, or similar problems, it is sometimes helpful for someone else to take over the responsibility for awhile.
3. Is it a Spiritual Problem?
What if it is obvious that the situation was sparked by a spiritual problem? Spiritual stress can trigger the kind of emotional difficulty that we are discussing here. In that case, it will be necessary to get to the root of the spiritual problem in order for the struggling one to find true healing. However, we need to approach such a situation very carefully, and we had better be very sure of ourselves.
It the emotional problem is the result of known sin, and the sinner refuses our spiritual help, we can do little more. We cannot really offer such a person the promises of God outside the framework of repentance. To do so would be to give him a false hope, and would be reverting to the errors of psychology.
However, if the problem in focus is simply some unwise moves, or some mistakes the person made we should probably leave it alone until his emotional problem has been reversed. A deeply depressed and hurting person is not ready to be told where he has failed. If the sufferer volunteers information about a spiritual problem, we can help them with it. It is always proper to ask, in general terms, if the victim wants to share what they are struggling with. But we should never accuse a person of sin or spiritual problems, simply because he is experiencing emotional struggles. To do so will generally drive him deeper into despair.
Sometimes we simply will not know for sure if the emotional condition is the result of a spiritual condition or not. The sufferer himself may not know for sure. In such a situation we do well to simply emulate the Lord as He dealt with Job, Elijah, and John the Baptist. Help them get their eyes off themselves and on to Christ. If they do this, the rest will fall into place. God will be faithful in pointing out to the individual what he needs to look after. What God ignores, we can safely ignore as well.
4. The Role of the Leader
It is ideal if the sufferer is relating to one of his ministry as a mentor. A sympathetic, experienced, spiritual leader can provide balanced help. However, for some reason, some emotional sufferers seem to shy away from their ministry, choosing rather to share with a close friend. It is sometimes hard for church leaders to accept this, and they may even feel slighted or bypassed. Church leaders can do a lot of damage to the situation, unintentionally, at a time like this if they are not careful. It may be necessary for them to step back for a time and let someone else in the congregation deal with the situation.
It is important, however, for the mentor in the situation to stay in contact with the ministry throughout this time, so that they know what is happening. An experienced leader can be an invaluable counselor during such a time. This can, however, become a very touchy issue, since the emotional sufferer also needs to feel that their mentor is keeping their confidence, or they may clam up. Not everything needs to be shared, other then perhaps in general terms, and understanding leaders will support this.
Some people in the congregation will not understand the situation. Some may demand action. Others will feel rebuffed and left out. The ministry fills an important role as a buffer zone between the sufferer and the congregation. The entire situation, if handled discretely, may well build up a level of confidence between the sufferer and his leaders that will help to keep the situation from recurring.
Someone is sure to question the last several paragraphs. Is the sufferer’s aloofness from the ministry not proof of a spiritual problem? Maybe so, but not necessarily. We need to remember that people under this kind of stress are not quite rational. They have abnormal fears and phobias. One of these can be the fear of authority. The minister represents authority, and the sufferer may well have an irrational fear that he will be excommunicated for his problems. That can add serious dimensions to the problem, and it is important for ministry to be understanding. If leaders build up a relationship with their people during good times, so that their members view them as close friends, it is much easier for them to help someone weather a bad time.
Of course it is not always this way. Sometimes such a person will cling to their ministry in a way that becomes almost embarrassing, especially if the sufferer is an unmarried sister. Leaders need to seek much grace and wisdom from God (and counsel from fellow leaders) in dealing with such difficulties, and their wives will need to curb any feelings of jealousy and antagonism. Unmarried sisters occasionally seem to enjoy the special attention they get from a leader at such times. If this surfaces, it may need addressing. It is always wise for the leaders wife to be along on such occasions. If the sister in question starts to ask for personal interviews, and resents the presence of the leader’s wife, it is probably a sign of a deeper problem than an emotional one.
5. A Closer Look
Emotional sufferers can sense a kindred spirit a mile away, it seems. They may quickly build up a friendship with someone they hardly know, because of a common experience. This can be good. For instance, in the case of a mother with the “baby blues” or a young wife who has just had a miscarriage or lost a baby, no one will be able to help like another mother who has faced the same thing. Wise is the church leader who understands this and even initiates such a contact by asking someone with experience to visit the struggling person.
Emotional sufferers often feel that someone who has not been through the valley does not understand them. They will tend to put up a barrier immediately against such persons when they try to help. This person may feel he understands and has some important answers, and may even feel hurt that the sufferer will not open up to him as he does to some other brother or sister. In a Christian brotherhood where true love exists, these feelings will be pushed aside. We should be glad if someone else can help, even if he seems like an unlikely candidate to do so.
We could note too that a person with an emotional breakdown should not be allowed to simply sit and think about his problems. If at all possible get him doing something, or get him interested in helping you do something. The more that people sit and think about their problems the bigger their mountains become. If you can interest the sufferer in helping someone else in need, so much the better. (But do NOT make remarks like: Look at Sister Cecilia—her lot in life is worse than yours…)
It will also be helpful for the sufferer to maintain a disciplined schedule. Don’t let him lie in bed until 10:00 in the morning, or stay up until midnight. Again this may need to be played by ear, but there is a certain amount of security in a schedule. Include enough time for rest in the schedule (with a nap after lunch), since sleep is a natural healer. Also, be sure that the suffer has a nutritious diet, and enough exercise. These may seem like minor items, but all will be helpful in the long run.
Even a person with emotional difficulties can normally do some things. They may dread something, but if they can be encouraged to do it, they will feel good about the accomplishment. This will gradually help to restore a proper mental attitude towards themselves.
Again, take each case on its own in deciding these things. Where the emotional needs are caused by physical weakness, of course you need to take this into consideration.
6. Next Month
In the final installment of this series, we want to speak more directly to those called on to counsel or support those in emotional difficulties. We will also address the question of getting professional aid.