After 30 years of practicing clinical psychology, I have learned that effective communication requires real, deliberate work. What people verbalize is not always what they feel, and what we hear is not always what the speaker meant to say. And just as our talk can often be unintentionally confusing and hurtful, so can our ideas concerning the “mentally ill.” Though addressing these ideas and attitudes is especially important work for churches to do, we often don’t deal with them head-on.
However, this hesitancy to talk about mental health is starting to change, and churches are slowly beginning to find ways to address the reality of psychological struggle in many peoples’ lives.
Still, I have found that at least in the U.S., people have been influenced by theologies encountered in church that have been the basis for fear of mental illness and guilt over psychological struggles. Many of my mental health clients have issues that cannot even be addressed before first addressing the negative stigma of mental illness that came to them by way of such theologies.
With this being said, I want to suggest a few things to be sensitive about when it comes to preaching regarding mental health.
First, be balanced in your understanding of righteousness and grace. Don’t only preach, “For the wages of sin is death,” but also that, “the gift of God is eternal life.” Unknowingly, we sometimes focus on the implications of personal sin, the need for repentance, and God’s wrath without getting to the other side of the “good news” that we are precious to God and loved unconditionally. We must understand that such an unbalanced focus makes it difficult for people inside and outside of the church to see themselves as loved. So, don’t preach peoples’ shortcomings alone, but preach their strengths in Jesus. Don’t preach only what people have done wrong, but preach of a God who forgives all of our sins and is saddened by human struggles. Like Paul in Romans 7:24 , many people in the pews cry, “Wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?” Know that there are people in your congregation who can barely live with themselves for the struggles that torment them. When you preach about judgment and sin, be very sure to remember these people before you end the message.
Many Christians feel like failures when they finally make a decision to consult a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. They come burdened with guilt for having come, feeling less than righteous before a God “who heals all of our diseases.” If you want to address this problem, don’t preach in such a way that leads the listener to conclude that a true child of God should not have any diseases or psychological struggles that cannot be rid of by prayer alone. Don’t preach about faith in such a way that those with serious mental health issues feel like their faith is weak, or that God and the rest of the church somehow condemns them.
Be sure to preach that no one had to have sinned for someone to be born with any number of disorders. Preach that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels…”, and because we are in human bodies, we can expect some to function differently. Assure listeners that people with addictions or psychological diagnoses are not suffering under conviction of personal sins, but under the fallen, shared human condition.
Additionally, don’t preach that we ought to “be anxious for nothing but pray about everything” unless you are going to include an exegesis of the text that accounts for the struggles of Christians who still suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or generalized anxiety. Otherwise, what they will hear is an indictment against their inability to stop worrying. And because they will have inadvertently been taught that prayer and faith ought to be enough for ‘real’ Christians, they may live in suffering because they refuse healing through psychotherapy.
There are many facets to the people who sit in our congregations, attend our potlucks, and come to our youth group. You can be assured that someone involved in an intense, but imperceptible, struggle for mental health has stepped foot in your church. And someone—perhaps the person you least expect—leaves church to return home to chaos, loneliness, violence, or depression.
So, as we pledge to love one another as God has loved us, let us pray for God’s Spirit to sensitize us to the psychological struggles of those in our congregations and communities. Let us struggle to assure that among all the things that someone might hear in our church, the affirmation that stands out is that they are accepted, loved, and not alone as they wrestle whatever it is they bring through our doors.
Contributor: Melinda Contreras-Byrd
Rev. Dr. Melinda Contreras-Byrd is a psychologist practicing at the Generations Center in Princeton, NJ. Dr. Contreras-Byrd specializes in the treatment of mental health problems, helping people to cope with their mental illnesses. As a psychologist, Dr. Contreras-Byrd evaluates and treats patients through a variety of methods--most typically psychotherapy and talk therapy. She is an adjunct professor at New Brunswick Theological Seminary and Drew Seminary and is an alumnus of Princeton Theological Seminary. She co-pastors Grant Chapel AME Church in Trenton, NJ.