Emotional Stress in the Brotherhood
Last month we looked at how NOT to deal with emotional stress. We also looked at the effects of sin and guilt on emotional stress. Now this month we want to look at another form of emotional stress sometimes found in our congregations.
1. Defining our Premise
First of all, what do we mean by emotional stress? There are many shades and forms of emotional stresses, but basically we are talking about a person who cannot function normally with the regular routine of life because of his condition, or who is in danger of getting to this point.
Such people may not be able to attend church or visit for extended periods and may even find it too tiring to read. It is true that we believe that God provides for His own, even in times of weakness. Many saints have died victoriously in severely weakened conditions. Yet there are many trial associated with such a state, which can seriously weaken a Christian’s emotions. (Note that we are not speaking of sinful attitudes or responses here. See further below.)
We could illustrate it this way…
The man who screams as he loses his arm in a piece of machinery does not necessarily have an emotional problem; his response is natural. However, if he cries some weeks later because he spilled a glass of water, his overreaction indicates an emotional problem, likely brought on by the stresses involved in his accident. If he stares off into space, unaware of a child who has crawled onto his knee, his under-reaction indicates the same thing.
Perhaps we can further define our premise by giving more true-to-life examples…
2. A Biblical Scenario…
Job is one of the most interesting Biblical examples of a person facing emotional stress. Job was an example of the kind of believer that all of us strive to be, but too few of us attain to. (God even used him as an illustration of perfection to Satan.) In fact, God was so sure of Job’s spiritual strength and integrity that He allowed Satan to attack him, with very few restrictions.
This was an immensely stressful situation for Job. Not only did he lose almost all his possessions, but he also lost all of his children. On top of this, he fell ill with a very painful disease, his wife turned against him, and his friends accused him of being a sinner, reaping what he deserved.
Job, of course, had no idea why this all took place. It seemed very unfair to him (Job 19:6, 7). In his heart he knew his own integrity and faithfulness. He did not deserve to be treated like this! But Job chose to believe that God was in control and he chose to trust God even if God slew him (Job 13:15).
Job’s ignorance was an important part of the test, of course. He did not know that his life was a battleground between God and Satan, and that God was using him as an object lesson to prove that a faithful man would trust God in adversity. Had he known, the test would not have been a typical one, and would have proved nothing.
Most of the book of Job is a record of the dialog between Job and his friends. We can sense the increasing frustration on his part, as we read, and see the increased stress as his words become more intense and less rational. He cursed the day he was born, he questioned why God seemed silent and distant, and he spoke forcefully to the “friends” who came to help him, calling them “miserable comforters.” Yet in all this Job’s spiritual integrity remained intact.
God, of course, listened in on Job’s discourses. He noted that Job could benefit from a lesson in humility. At the end of the book, God reminded Job through a series of questions, how little he really knew, even about the natural things that were around him all the time. The inference was: If you know this little about the natural things of life, how can you raise questions about supernatural, spiritual issues? How can you question God, and His ways? In his physical and emotional extremity, Job had gone beyond human propriety in speaking of God and in trying to expose God’s intentions.
But it is interesting that God did not accuse Job of sinning. Instead, at the end of the book, He told Job’s friends that Job had spoken rightly about Him, and that they were wrong.
3. More Scenarios
Elijah provides another Biblical example of the effects of stress. In spite of the miraculous way that God had just worked through him, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s opposition. Evidently, perhaps because of his doubt and fears, he sank into a state of deep depression.
But God did not forsake Elijah in his need. First, He sent an angel to feed him. Then He gave him strength to travel forty days to the mount of God. Then He gave him a group of object lessons, before finally speaking in a still small voice.
God’s way of dealing with Elijah is quite revealing. He asked: Why are you here, Elijah?
Elijah poured out his heart to God. Everyone has forsaken the faith, he said. I alone am left.
No, you aren’t, God assured him. I have over 7,000 followers left in Israel. You are not alone. Furthermore, God added, I have some work for you to do for me. You are still needed.
Here are some more up-to-date examples…
Take, for instance, the fairly common condition often called “baby blues”. A young mother has a baby, and loves it. But gradually she finds herself succumbing to the pressures of looking after it. She may have other children that demand her attention. Perhaps her husband works away, and she doesn’t have a lot of help to keep up with the housekeeping, but is still weak from having had a baby. She starts to feel depressed with her situation, and her work load begins to look bigger and bigger. Perhaps it is canning season, or she has a problem child to cope with, or both. Whatever the reason, the pressures finally build up to the point that she becomes physically or emotionally unable to guide the house. She begins to lose sleep and she might cry at little crises that did not affect her that way before. Often she will also need help to avoid negative attitudes. She may even need to be released from her duties for a time.
For another instance, take the young brother who is getting a start in business and has some financial reverses. To make ends meet he starts to burn the candle at both ends, getting up early and working late. When he does get to bed he is too tense to sleep and lies there calculating how many bills he can pay with the money he will get next week for some work he is doing. To top it off, the car is making trouble, one of the children needs dental work, and the deacon has put out a plea for money to help with a special need. Gradually this brother’s tension builds up and he starts to lose his initiative. Work he once enjoyed becomes a drudgery. He may speak more curtly to his friends, or begin to avoid them, and little molehills become mountains. He prays and God does not seem to hear him. He sleeps less than ever.
We could mention mothers battling with hormone changes. Or children growing up in a stressful home setting where one parent is a Christian and the other is ardently opposed to it. Or a young person with a physical or nutritional deficiency or a chemical imbalance, ADD, or fetal alcohol syndrome. Or the family caught in the middle of a congregation that is not at rest. These are not excuses to sin or to curse God. But they do at times result in emotional difficulties for some people if not countered by the right response from the Christian brotherhood.
4. Do Emotional Difficulties Denote Sin?
The question of whether or not sin was involved in a given emotional problem can be a difficult one because few people handle their troubles perfectly. Probably we could find a failure in any situation if we look hard enough. What should a friend or counselor do about this? Here we could point to the example of the Lord as He dealt with Elijah, with Job, and with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:1-11). In all three cases one could criticize the sufferers for the sin of “faithlessness” and perhaps more. But the Lord did not focus on this. His rebukes, if any, were very mild. Rather He offered encouragement and reassurance, getting these men to look away from themselves to Himself. His example stands in sharp contrast to Job’s friends, who kept trying to solve Job’s problems by urging him to confess sin, and even suggested what sins they were.
It is true that the people in the above scenarios made some mistakes. Job did, and Elijah did. Almost certainly the young man with financial difficulties also did. Were they sins? It depends on our interpretation of the word and the circumstances.
In I John 5:16, 17 John speaks of a “sin not unto death.” This verse has been interpreted various ways, and may be speaking of those areas of immaturity where we still need to grow closer to the Lord. Personally, I think it could also refer to a situation like the above, where the person in question was under so much stress that they did not realize what they were doing or saying. Later, perhaps, the Lord will speak to them like He did to Job and help them to make things right. But the Lord also overlooked a substantial part of what Job said, simply because He knew Job and the attitude of his heart.
There is little difference in the situation of a person who does not understand because of a lack of maturity, and the one who, like Job, makes foolish statements because of emotional stress.
We are zeroing in on those situations in this article, not on the cases where the emotional stress is directly caused by sin and guilt. Much of the emotional distress in the world is caused by sin. People live with guilt every day of their lives. It is no wonder that the world needs psychologists, mental institutions, and nerve medication.
However, in the church, there should be very little ongoing emotional stress caused by sin and guilt. But that does not make us immune to emotional stress, and it is important that we know how to help brothers and sisters who are allowed to experience such a situation. Note that not every case will fit into these scenarios in every detail. A series of this size cannot deal with all of the possible variations of emotional suffering. I have attempted to give some general guidelines to deal with the more common symptoms.
5. Causes and Effects
In many of our backgrounds “nerve trouble” was considered to be either a spiritual problem, or a mental weakness. In either case people under emotional stress were often looked at in derision, especially if they required medication to help them back on their feet. Some of this attitude still prevails amongst us at times. This has the potential to do a lot of damage, since such people often have an almost uncanny ability to detect how people feel about them. People in this condition already experience great enough trials, without being stigmatized on top of it.
What causes emotional stress of the magnitude we are discussing? The individual causes are as diversified as the individuals involved. Family members or friends closely involved in the situation are probably best able to diagnose this. However, normally it is brought on during a time of physical or emotional weakness by some area in the individual’s life being overtaxed.
Our responses to the emotional stress of others can either make them stronger or more susceptible to Satan’s attacks. I could give other real life examples, but for the sake of anonymity, let’s look further at the two true-to-life examples above.
First, take the young mother with the “baby blues.” During the early stages, this mother can be helped fairly easily by brotherhood and family support, in spite of her condition. But, if her husband is unsympathetic and grouchy; if she can’t get a maid for a few weeks; and if she can’t find a “sympathetic” sister to share her struggles with, her problem may become more serious. Her trials will increase if she discovers that her church sisters have been talking about her incompetence, or if the minister’s wife starts dropping unsettling remarks to her about attitudes and spiritual problems.
(It is true that Job retained his integrity and that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. We do not turn our back on God just because we are unable to function normally. But that is not an acceptable reason for making life more difficult than necessary for such a person. God will hold us accountable for such actions. I believe we could apply the principles of Matthew 18:6, 7 to this situation without discrediting the Scriptures.)
Or take the young brother with financial difficulties. At this point, like the sister above, a caring brotherhood can provide the help he needs. But if his wife starts to hound him about his incompetence (reminding him that Brother Sam is making a go of itand getting his bills paid); or if the deacon reminds him that his school donations are falling behind; or merely if he can’t find someone sympathetic to share his struggles with, his plight may become more complicated. And if, along with this, he discovers that some of his brethren think he has a problem with laziness; or if the ministry begins to drop hints of possible church censure for mismanagement, then his faith would be severely tried. May God help us not to play into the enemy’s hands in this way.
These two examples are typical of other possible scenarios. A situation like this may drag on for months and years, just below the surface, until a crisis forces it into the open.
What can we do to help such brothers and sisters? We will look at some practical helps next month.