Tough Times and the Church

I think I want to start a conversation about grief, trauma and mental ill-health, and the church’s response.

I should say, first of all, that I’m no expert, and this is entirely personal perspective, developed over forty years of being around evangelical churches. I’ve had my share of tough times, and I’ve seen and experienced both the brilliant and the bad in churches’ response to people struggling through hard times. I’ve also been part of conversations around those issues, and churches’ response, for almost as long.

I remember one conversation, it must be almost thirty years ago now, in which a GP acquaintance was openly critical of evangelical churches, describing them as places which fostered a sense of unreality - that sense that you weren’t a ‘proper Christian’ unless you were always ‘up’ - always happy and smiling - and how harmful this was for those who aren’t always ‘up’. He also described the ‘quick fix’ culture (pray for someone’s healing, believe they’d been healed, and move on) as equally harmful - ‘leaving a trail of broken, hopeless, people in its wake, for the NHS to pick up and try to put back together’ was how I think he put it. His words stuck with me - because they illustrated neatly how wrong the attitude was; how wrong-headed the reasoning behind the church’s response can be. It was pretty damning and, sadly, in a lot of cases, all too true.

Why do I want to do this now?

I think it’s mostly because of the current situation...

Lockdown is hard on everybody, but for those who need ‘help’ and either don’t (yet) have a proper support network in place, or whose support network has itself fragmented through lockdown it’s doubly so. In a sense, almost everyone is in ‘coping mode’ at the moment. And so we all ‘battle on’ as best we can. But once the pressure eases, is when the problems will surface (or resurface). At that point, there is almost bound to be an explosion of mental health problems - both ‘new’ problems and pre-existing ones which have been exacerbated by the stress of the virus and lockdown. And, so, the church needs to have a plan... Especially given how poor and patchy mental health provision in this country is. In some ways now the church is almost ‘the only game in town’.

Evangelical churches, in particular, tend to be poor at responding to mental health issues, for a number of reasons; the things they typically do, and attitudes they foster, can often make problems worse rather than better.

We need to be a place where people can be real, and honest, about their struggles - whatever those struggles may be. That doesn’t mean two things.

Firstly it doesn’t mean that people should only be allowed to speak publicly about their problems when they’re ‘fixed’ (cured, healed, or however you want to describe it). There is a place for people speaking in the midst of their struggles, for several reasons. It lets others know that they need support. If, as is usually the case now, the only people who know are clergy/staff/counsellors, then no-one else knows that those people need to be treated gently and cared for.

Not having the opportunity to share struggles publicly also means that other people who are struggling come to believe that they are the only ones suffering and that everyone else is ‘sorted’ - which is an incredibly lonely place, and in itself encourages a sense of ‘unreality’ about what we do and who we are - those struggling people are then apt to brush their problems under the rug and put on a brave face... So they don’t even start down the road to wellness.

There is a (toxic?) belief that sharing struggles publicly diminishes the gospel - that we as a body of believers have somehow to present a public picture of ourselves as ‘sorted’ or else people won’t be attracted to church, the gospel, and God. I would say that, actually, the opposite is more likely to be true - a lot of people won’t go to church because they see themselves as ‘not good enough’ - the counterpoint to that would be knowing that church is somewhere you go to get support - that it’s a place for the broken. As Jesus said, in Mark 2:17:

Jesus heard them and answered, "People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts."

Jesus spent most of his time with those on the margins - those ‘cast out’ of ‘polite society’ for a myriad reasons; he spent very little time on those who were ‘sorted’ - other than to criticise them for being exclusive and lacking in compassion.

Secondly, it doesn’t mean that talking openly about our struggles ought to be compulsory. It just isn’t right for some people. And it isn’t right at all times, even for those who are open sometimes. From personal experience, I know that it’s a costly thing to do.

Let me give you an example from my own life...

In 1993, my wife gave birth to a stillborn son, Charlie. I can’t begin to describe the hurt - it was, literally, indescribable. We couldn’t face church at all for a few weeks. When we did go back we were ‘chaperoned’ by friends, who kept the ‘thundering horde’ of well-wishers at bay, to give us space to grieve. And grieve we did... We couldn’t not. Church was somewhere we cried (along with most other places). We were fortunate, at that time, to have a vicar who believed that church wasn’t about presenting a ‘perfect’ vision of ourselves to the world, but one which was honest. Eventually, a year or so on, I was able to stand up and thank him, and others, publicly for their support during what had been, and still was, a very tough time, and to express my belief that God, manifest through His people, had been present with us throughout, and that he would therefore always be there.

Being open about our grief like that had a profound effect. Firstly, it meant that people knew, and so they were almost universally kind, loving, and supportive to us. In a sense it also gave others ‘permission’ to say that they hurt too, because they’d had similar experiences, and had never felt able to say anything but now, thanks to our example, they felt free to do so... So it wasn’t just us who were helped by our grieving openly, but a lot of other people too - it enabled a culture of openness and mutual support.

There were, of course, those who didn’t ‘get’ it, and who said (whilst meaning well), hurtful or unhelpful things - that’s at least partly what the ‘chaperones’ were there to protect us from, at least in the early days. But they were in a tiny minority.

Moving on slightly...

It’s important, I think, that we don’t put ‘time limits’ on our compassion. Some people struggle, often with the same, apparently intractable, problems for years, decades, or a lifetime. Jesus never gave up on people. Look at His relationship with Peter. Peter was, in a lot of ways, a disaster: most of the time, he just didn’t ‘get’ what Jesus was about - if the stick had a wrong end, Peter was bound to grab it - and then cling on for grim death. Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were often times when he didn’t ‘get it’ - look at how long it took for him to cotton on to the fact that the faith was for all, and not just the Jews. And yet Jesus never gave up on him - and indeed, he ended up, as Jesus said he would, being the rock on which He built His church. So what right have we got to ‘give up on’ people whose problems aren’t ‘healed’ in what we see as a ‘reasonable’ length of time?

We need to be there for people for as long as it takes. So, it may be frustrating; it may be that they’re ‘difficult’; their apparent ‘lack of progress’ may be frustrating for us (believe you me, it’s way more frustrating for them!); we may even feel that their ‘example’ isn’t doing our ‘witness to the world’ any favours...

But that’s wrong-headed. What it actually says is that we’re there for the long haul. It says that, as Moses said to Joshua when he was handing over the leadership of Israel:

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Deuteronomy 31:8

We must never decide that someone is too broken, or has been broken for too long. Nor must we ever think that, because we don’t see a change in them, that change isn’t either happening or about to happen. We’re told not to judge: it must extend to situations like this too. We may find it hard, and discouraging, but God doesn’t give up on people. God loves them: so must we - however hard it is and however long it takes. There are still occasions, more than a quarter of a century on, when my grief almost literally takes my breath away. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, there are folk who were there for me then, who are still here for me now - and who just ‘know’.

If we act as though there’s a ‘time limit’, we put subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) pressure on people which can exacerbate their problem - or, again, encourage them to conceal the fact that they’re struggling. If we put time limits on grief or hurt, if we insist that God will heal them (by our definitions of healing) within (what we deem to be) a ‘reasonable’ time, that potentially loads all sorts of pressure on that person - which isn’t conducive to healing...

If they aren’t apparently healed, they may end up thinking it’s because they don’t have enough faith, that they don’t ‘believe hard enough’, and all kinds of guilt and things set in. Instead, we need to foster the notion that we, like God, will never abandon them; that we’re there for the long haul - however long, long turns out to be.

That sounds as though we’re abandoning hope of healing - far from it - what we’re doing is acknowledging several things: firstly, that we don’t know the mind of God; secondly we don’t know His timing; thirdly, that we believe God is always with each of us and will never abandon us.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13: 34-35

God bless you.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2020