Don’t Jump Over the Problem
The new year has not started as many of us would have hoped. Lockdown has returned, but this time combined with the potential disappointments of an unusual Christmas, the dark winter months, and the fatigue of what is nearing a year of huge disruption and, in many cases, huge losses. It's no surprise, then, that many of us are finding it tough.
For those of us in pastoral ministry, and just those of us who want to be good Christian friends, this raises questions like, how do we best help ourselves and others to navigate this time?
Many of us will rightly forefront the role of our relationship with God in helping us. Those of us who value a focus on the word and the Spirit will likely be encouraging ourselves and others towards both. It is through the word and the Spirit—and perhaps especially the Spirit working through the word—that we can experience comfort and encouragement. Whether as pastors or as friends, we can help each other through these times by pointing each other to God.
But I think it’s also important to help people realise that while these are helps, they are not the reason for the problem. What I mean is this: the fact that the presence of these things helps us, doesn’t mean that their absence is the original reason for our problem. This should shape how we encourage people towards them.
If we always jump straight to exhorting people to find comfort and encouragement by coming to God, we could imply that the reason someone is struggling is because they are failing to do this. For someone already struggling with their mental health, an exhortation just to focus on God’s word or to seek him through his Spirit could be heard as an accusation that their current plight is the result of their own spiritual laziness. It implies the problem stems from their choices or even from their sin, and so a good dose of guilt gets added to the struggles already present.
But often, our mental health struggles are not the result of our choices or our sin (though these, of course, can be a factor at play); often they are a result of our humanness.
The reason we’re finding these times so hard is not primarily because of our bad choices or our sin, it’s because they have taken away much of what we’re created to need (such as embodied relationships and gathering for corporate worship) and have increased our experience of the sorts of things that were never meant to be (such as death).
In the face of such difficulties, it is right that we exhort each other to look to God and to receive comfort and encouragement from him. But we should do so, recognising and openly acknowledging that our struggles are fitting and understandable; in a sense, they’re right. We should feel uncomfortable at the moment because much of the way God planned for us to live and to flourish has been disrupted.
When this is acknowledged, the feelings of guilt which can so often accompany and reinforce our mental health struggles are lifted and we are freed to draw near to God, to be honest with him, and, from that place, to seek his comfort and encouragement.
So, as tough times continue, let’s continue to exhort each other to look to God, to seek him in his word, and to be filled afresh with his Spirit. But let’s also remind each other that these times feel tough because they are, and that’s ok. It’s ok to feel that, it’s ok to admit that, and it’s even ok to take that to God. Let’s not jump over the problem in our desire to help and support.