A relatively typical scenario for me as a counsellor is the client who tells me about conflict in the workplace they once loved, loss of a valued friendship, discouragement around their future or difficulties with family. Then, when I ask if they have grieved those things, I get replies like, “I didn’t know I needed to.” That’s because there are two predominant lies about grief I constantly come up against – that time will heal pain and that you only grieve death.
New York pastor Pete Scazzero claims, “A failure to appreciate the Biblical place of feelings within our larger Christian lives has done extensive damage, keeping free people in Christ in slavery.” I would go further to suggest that failing to understand how our minds work while also ignoring, spiritualising or demonising every problem or struggle we go through, has meant that far too many Christians never get free of addictions, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem or insecurity, relationship issues, sexual struggles and more.
This is not to say we’re not in a spiritual battle as Christians, however. After all, 2 Corinthians claims that, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world…they have divine power to demolish strongholds…” (10:4). Yet what kind of strongholds does Paul say we are taking down? “…arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (10:5).
In my role as a counsellor, I have been helping clients take their thoughts captive for more than a decade now. In some ways, this field chose me. In my twenties, a combination of counselling, deliverance, great mentors, loads of books and conferences, fasting, prayer ministry and a huge amount of time journaling and talking with God healed me from a large fear of rejection, patches of depression and anxiety, and struggles with belonging, worth and identity. The transformation from insecure, sad, depressed and anxious to stable, hope-filled, optimistic and peaceful was so incredibly liberating I felt compelled to pass that on to others. In the process, my life has become a testimony to the claim of 2 Corinthians, that “God is the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our tribulations so that with the comfort we have received we may comfort others” (1:3-4).
The Hunger For Change
It saddens me how many people live with ongoing emotional and mental pain. I suspect this is sometimes due to a lack of motivation, sometimes a lack of hope for change, and sometimes a fear of what healing will require. Often it’s because they don’t know how to change. Yet there is such a hunger for change!
A case in point: this year my home church, Grace Vineyard in Christchurch, decided to focus on mental health for a month. They named it ‘Battle of the Mind,’ promoted it for some weeks prior, then paired a month of sermons, testimonies and panels on mental health with a home-group DVD resource my husband and I developed called “Soul Talk” which covers four topics: burnout, grief, anxiety and depression. The results were astounding. The number of home-groups jumped from 70 to 130. The church had the highest attendance during that month that it has ever had in its 17-year history. People opened up in their groups in ways and about things they had never shared before. Large numbers of people signed up for counselling. And a whole lot of non-Christians attended both home-groups and church services, many deciding to follow Jesus as a result.
People want answers to the pain they are in. And all too often, if they don’t get them at church, they may not only give up on church but often God too, deciding he doesn’t care about their depression, anxiety or addiction. What could be more tragic, considering how greatly God loves and wants to heal them? After all, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
How can we be set free?
Jesus himself stated that “the truth will set [us] free.” But how exactly does it work? How does God heal through counselling, through psychology?
It starts by working out where our thinking doesn’t align with God’s perspective, his viewpoint, his reality. As children and teenagers, we spend considerable time trying to make sense of how the world works. We look for answers to questions like, “How do I get people to like me?” “How do I fix conflict?” “What do I do if someone hurts me?” “What’s romance and sex all about?” and “What do I do about pain and injustice?” The conclusions we reach are usually a combination of our family’s beliefs and role modelling; the influence on us of peers, society, church, our culture and others’ beliefs; and trauma. One of the problems with this is that children are often good recorders but poor interpreters of what happens to and around them, meaning we often reach faulty conclusions; what Christian psychologist William Backus calls ‘misbeliefs’.
Ideas like:My worth comes from being liked, from my performance, from my looks or from how smart I am. It’s safer not to trust others; that way you can’t get hurt. My choices are crucial, so I need to agonise over them. I am responsible to make/keep others happy.
Interestingly, these ideas don’t tend to be my clients’ presenting issues. They usually come because of the fruit of these beliefs: insecurity, performance anxiety and burnout, because their worth is in their performance; relationship issues because they don’t know how to do trust wisely; anxiety because they’re ‘crucialising’ so much they’re stuck; exhaustion, frustration and resentment because they’re trying to fix other people’s problems and it’s not working. My job is to listen, understand, empathise, then help them go deeper to understand the roots of these issues.
Once we know what the misbelief is, the next step is to challenge it with the truth, with God’s perspective.Our value is actually based on how God sees us, on being his children, not on how well we perform or how popular, attractive or smart we are. Rather than writing people off when they hurt us, we need to understand that everyone can be trusted in some areas but no one is trustworthy everywhere. We can set our expectations of others accordingly. Our choices aren’t crucial because God can always help us course-correct at any point if we don’t like the outcome of a choice we’ve made. My responsibility is how I behave towards others. Their response to that is their responsibility.
The neuroscientists say it takes three weeks to create a new pathway in our brains – a new way of thinking. To establish that pathway, we have to focus on the truth instead of continuing to feed the lie by listening to or acting on it. We have to think about the truth, look for evidence to back it up, act on it and remind ourselves of it continually until it becomes our new normal way of thinking. We have to do with the new, healthy belief what we originally did with the old, unhealthy belief -reinforce it over time.
And if we persevere, eventually we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so we can come to know and understand the way God thinks – his desires for us and for the world (Romans 12:2).
Questions for DiscussionWhat do the following scriptures seem to say about mental health? Ephesians 4:23, Philippians 4:8, Proverbs 28:26, 2 Timothy 1:7, Isaiah 1:18 What do different biblical characters reveal about mental health? Or what do these biblical characters teach us about mental health? King David? Jesus? Paul? Moses? What kinds of messages have you received about counselling/mental health in the churches you have attended throughout your life? How helpful/unhelpful have they been? Do you agree/disagree? Why?
Belinda and her husband, Matt, are presenters of a course called Soul Tour, an intensive program that aims to equip young adults to better understand their own human mind, emotions and behavior. To learn more about what Soul Tour is, click HERE.
They also offer some fantastic video content called “Soul Talk” which delves into topics like burnout, depression, grief and more. To have a look at these videos, click HERE. And of course you can find them on social media on Facebook and Instagram.
This article is part of NZCMS’ quarterly magazine Intermission. Each article will be uploaded periodically and can be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission. Alternatively, to receive the physical copy, feel free to email us at email@example.com or call us on 03 377 2222.