Category: Mental Health

How anxiety can interfere with your relationship with God

Anxiety can manifest in different ways. A particular brand is a fear of people thinking badly of us. This can manifest as people-pleasing, mulling and stewing over things we should have done or shouldn’t have done and things we did say, didn’t say, how people will have taken things we did or didn’t say, or did/didn’t do or how they might have misinterpreted our facial expressions, messages and body language or how they might have disliked or disagreed with things we said or posted on social media.

You’d think the one place we could feel safe is with God, right? Wrong. Because there is a difference between what we intellectually know and what we believe to be true.

We know what we are supposed to think. We know what we are supposed to feel. And yet, when life is throwing us curve balls, it would be very easy to think its because we had displeased God.

Recently, life has thrown me some flaming missiles that felt like I was being dive bombed by enemy aircraft in an old war movie. Last year, I felt God’s blessing and providence palpably. I could see it in the many problems that were solved out of thin air. I saw it in the thousand kindnesses from random friends and strangers. My recent experience was the exact opposite. Unexpected bills out of nowhere – lots of them, and big ones. Things that were unjust and unfair all crowding in, heap on heap.

The result was tears and sleeplessness and a feeling that I had displeased God. Was I not faithful enough? Was I not obedient enough? Had he removed his blessing and providence? I don’t mean salvation – I know nothing will remove that. But I was left with this feeling that I had made God unhappy with me and so he had removed his providential blessings.

I know what you’re thinking. Of course that’s not the case. But let me talk you through the “logic”.

Last year I praised God for his providence and how he was heaping blessings on me in abundance. They came thick and fast. The timing was unfathomable. I knew they were from him. So this year, when tribulations came at the same rate and with similar conspicuous timing, I had to think these were also from him.

If blessings were from God, then the tribulations must also be from him. If the tribulations were just a product of a fallen world, then the blessings had to similarly just be coincidence. We can’t claim one and ignore the other. So, for the anxious person, if we are given blessings, then we are pleasing to God, and, if tribulations follow, then we are doing something to displease him.

What we need to unpick here is the logic.

I assume I have done something to deserve the tribulations – that I have displeased God somehow. But the truth is that tribulations are not deserved. Just in the same way that blessings are not deserved. No blessing is deserved but God is gracious to the humble – James quotes Proverbs when he says “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”” (James 4:6)

Does that mean I have been overly proud?? That takes me back into that anxiety loop about things deserved.

What I realised is that my brain was doing the same somersaults that Job’s was doing. Job says to his wife (who is telling Job to curse God for the tribulations that have befallen him) “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

Throughout Job, his friends keep telling him that he must have sinned and that’s why God is visiting these tribulations on him. Job stays faithful by refusing to pay religious lip service – what his friends are basically telling him is to sacrifice for atonement on the off chance he’s done something. That’s not a heart thing. That’s an outward show of religion.

Of course what we know is that the book of Job is about whether a righteous man will stay faithful during the bad times as he stays faithful in the good times. I am not comparing our situations – I  am not suggesting that God and Satan are fighting over me in a spiritual courtroom. What I am reminded though, is that when tribulations come, I am focused on me and what I might have done wrong. While it is wise and correct to self-reflect and assess my motivations for things, it is not wise to be so focused (in my anxiety) on my own deficiencies and how they make me displeasing to God.

This over-emphasised self-focus is, itself, sinful. I know that sounds harsh. But thinking I am deficient and not pleasing to God assumes I know what is in God’s mind. I don’t. It assumes I know how he sees me – the only thing I know about how he sees me is that he loved me so much that he sent his only son to die for me. Outside of that, I am speculating.

So putting aside what I believe to be true (that I am deficient and God is displeased with me), what do I know?

I know that no blessings are deserved. That is not something to be anxious about. That is just a fact and there is no moral judgement in it.

Despite none of us deserving blessing, I know that God is gracious to us – not because we are pleasing to him but because he delights in it.

While God is gracious to the humble, his blessing is not a reward for good behavior, it is because it glorifies him. When he blesses us, we praise him and others can see his work in our lives.

So, what I also know is that on that level, this is not about me. This is about him.

So, if this is about him – when these things happen, I need to re-work the logic and remember to stop thinking about myself (especially in such a negative way). When I have re-worked the logic, I need to self-reflect a bit more dispassionately on my motivations to see if there’s anything I genuinely need to repent of. Then I need to re-focus back to God again and pray in Jesus’ name to help me and deliver me.

Our faith needs to stay in God, not the blessing. Because if too much of our faith is in God’s willingness to bless, we will too quickly crumble when tribulations occur. If too much of our faith is in God’s willingness to bless, it means too much of our faith is wrapped up in our ability to please God. And that’s not how God works. Sure, he requires us to be faithful and obedient, but his salvation, blessing and providence is not based on us being able to maintain a certain level of goodness – as though when we meet the bar we are blessed and when we dip below the line he removes his goodness from us.

To many this may seem obvious. To people of an anxious persuasion, this can be a useful corrective. This blog itself came from a process of self-correction.

Here is a super important point. When we experience low self-esteem we tend to fall into the trap of believing God thinks less of us. Then we will start to agree with this perception we have imagined. It becomes our new truth. Then we will wonder why God would ever love someone like us. And suddenly our self-esteem is in the basement. And so it continues.

This does not glorify God. In fact, this is where we have let Satan in. Because if our self-perception is so low, what we are witnessing to others is that our God only loves us when we are being super holy. Remember, in the Garden, all Satan had to do was sow doubt. “did God really say…..” (Genesis 3:1). This is how we fall into sin “Surely I am not good enough for God….Surely I have been displeasing to God…..”

This is hard for people with anxiety. It’s not a quick fix. Especially because when you’re in this state, it feels like you’re drowning in these thoughts and it’s hard to get your head above the water line. But please persevere. See your mental health professional. Talk to your Christian friends and pastors.  Admit out loud that you  are struggling with these feelings. Take the time to read scripture and pray – even if your prayer is just “Please God help me”.

Because God does not see you like you see you.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

 

Why I don’t know what to think this week

A while back I wrote a blog about how the world throws up big issues and there are generally two extreme camps and the rest of us in the middle. In these situations, the extremes throw rocks at each other for a while and social media makes the entrenchment of each position more stark and vitriolic. The rest of us sit in the middle looking at each side and wondering how to make sense of it.

This week is no exception.

Big things have been happening in New South Wales this week. On 8th August, the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill passed the lower house with 59 votes to 31. This bill makes abortion legal upon request up to 22 weeks. Past this point, the consent of two doctors is required but abortion is available up to birth. If you want to read the bill itself, I highly recommend it – it’s far better to read the original rather than summaries on Facebook. You can access it here. It still has to make it through the upper house but this is as it stands at the moment with a few minor amendments.

Here’s why I don’t know what to think.

I am hugely grateful that I have never had to go through the kind of decision making process required to choose to have an abortion. I cannot imagine what it must be like. It would be easy for me to think “Oh, I would never do that.” But I have never been raped and fallen pregnant. I have never discovered that my unborn child has such extreme medical issues that they would face death imminently after birth, or have no quality of life (no physical or brain function). I have never been diagnosed with a medical issue that would mean going to full term pregnancy would be a serious threat to my life.

I have never been alone in a foreign country and placed under pressure to terminate. I have never been in the kind of violently abusive relationship that places some women in fear of their lives if their medical condition were revealed.

At the same time, I have never faced an unplanned pregnancy. I have never had to look to abortion as a way that could solve the problems a pregnancy presents to me.

People often go to the extremes to prove the “norm”. But what is the norm when it comes to abortion? Some portray the scenario as women choosing abortion frivolously. Some portray the scenario as choosing abortion because they are women facing death.

Of course the answer is that there is no norm. People’s reason for abortion is far too diverse and nuanced.

Me personally? I wish that nobody had to have an abortion. I wish that people didn’t even have to make that choice. In that sense, as a Christian, as a woman, as a humanitarian, I am pro-baby. But I also recognise that people do and will make this choice – for whatever reason – and so having access to safe health care is a must. To not have access to safe healthcare would take us back to the horrific days of the backstreet abortionist. Thousands of women sought terminations in this way in the UK before eventual de-criminalisation in 1967, and far too many were rendered infertile or died because of the effects. So in this sense, I am pro-woman.

(I do not want to use the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” because they are such heavily loaded terms and I don’t think they are helpful. I think the baggage they bring weighs down the debate and takes us to extremes when we need to think and talk lovingly about this deeply personal issue.)

What troubles me most about the recent debates around the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill is our apparent ability to sustain antinomy. An antinomy is a paradox – holding two things that are entirely contradictory in perfect balance as though they are both true.

Here’s the issue:

Society talks about abortion being a part of women’s rights. But these rights only extend to the mother, and not the girl-child – how can both be right? Before now, we (the west) have rallied against developing countries for the “heinous crime” and “social evil” of female infanticide and feticide and sex-selective abortion (as an example, see this piece from last year from Save the Children India).

In fact, one of the amendments proposed by Tanya Davies MP for the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill was that “if a live child is born, the child must be given the same neonatal care as would be given to any other child born at the same stage of pregnancy and in the same medical condition.” (Hansard, NSW Legislative Assembly Thursday 8th August p21).

We should be clear here. Currently there is an obligation on medical professionals to render care to a live-born foetus so this amendment would not change Current practice. However, I think a lot of us would have been way more comfortable if this had been enshrined in this reform bill.

This amendment was rejected though because it was one of four sub-parts of an amendment that sought to limit the places where an abortion could occur (in a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit) and would limit the access to late term abortion unless on the grounds of necessity to save the life of the mother or the baby.

The other sub-part of that amendment would have meant that if the foetus was compatible with life, that the same neonatal care be provided as any other child at the same stage of life. I think (although I am a Bear of Little Brain) that means that the child would necessarily be delivered by natural birth or by C-section (as any other child at that stage would) rather than a termination procedure. I don’t know enough about the differences in procedures to comment but what makes me nervous here is that one is treated as a child and the other is not – and not because one is more medically viable than the other.

Tanya Davies also proposed an amendment that “Termination not to be used for gender selection. Despite anything else in this Act or any other law, a medical practitioner may not perform a termination on a person – (a) for the purpose of gender selection, or (b) if the medical practitioner reasonably believes the termination is being performed for the purpose of gender selection.” (Ibid, p87)

This amendment was also rejected.

So the very “heinous crime” Save the Children is trying to stop in India (and UNICEF and hundreds of other charitable organisations) will be permissible under law in Australia.

I know many will argue that “Australia is not the same”. I know. There is nuance and there is hundreds of years of cultural differences that culminate in a very different set of circumstances. BUT I genuinely don’t understand how an amendment to enshrine life giving care to a live baby, and to prevent abortions on the basis of gender selection could be rejected. Pro-woman access to safe healthcare is one thing. These amendments have nothing to do with that. And I am just lost for words as to why we, as a society and our parliament on our behalf, would think this is OK?

Which leads to the second antinomy.

On 9th August – the very morning after the parliamentary debates on abortion – an article appeared that described the new mission to reduce stillbirth rates. Obviously this is very different to abortion (but no less personal). But the rates of stillbirth are still so alarming that the medical professional in the piece notes that “Its time to act.” And this the very day after the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill rejects amendments that would potentially save more babies.

Similarly, the Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill 2017 was introduced in March 2017 after a woman (Brodie Donegan) was hit by a car while 32 weeks pregnant, after which the pre-born baby died. The long title of the Bill was “An Act to amend the Crimes Act 1900 to prohibit conduct that causes serious harm to or the destruction of a child in utero; and for other purposes.” and it included a clause that the Bill not apply to any harm done during a medical procedure (ie an abortion). (You can read the Bill here and the Second Reading speech here). This bill never made it to law.

What makes me very queasy in all this is that what has become apparent is that a child does not have intrinsic value in and of themselves. Their value lies in whether they are wanted or not. A child killed in utero in a hit and run is horrific and wrong. A child lost to miscarriage or stillbirth is agonising and tragic. A child aborted by gender selection and a child dying after being aborted alive……

The only difference is whether the child was wanted or not. And having that as the moral line that distinguishes our political decisions, our cultural bias and our law making makes me want to cry and vomit at the same time.

I am not talking about the access to safe healthcare. I am not talking about the woman who is being forced into it by a violent partner. I am not talking about the parents who have to make the agonising decision after being told their baby cannot live.

For me, this debate has not come down to the provision of abortion, it has come down to what we, as a society, accepts as morally right. Its about what has been exposed in the rejection of amendments that I would have thought would be a no-brainer. Its about our moral pendulum swinging where it is convenient for us.

And its about how we no longer seem to look at alternatives.

I feel odd about abortion up to 22 weeks (the amendments wanted to cap this at 20 weeks) but I can understand why medical practitioners have pushed for it. The kinds of serious medical issues that might show up, are often only picked up at the second scan had at 18 or 19 weeks. This means that if they are placed in that decision-making position, the parents would potentially have to make that choice in the space of a week. That is an extreme mental and emotional load to place on a shocked and probably grieving couple. There is not enough time to think through the implications. There is not enough time to think through the possibilities and the opportunities. There isn’t enough time to explore all the options. There isn’t enough time to access an unplanned pregnancy support centre.

For me, these centres, such a Diamond Women’s Support, help the mother look at all those options. They support and counsel. They help to remove roadblocks and barriers to having the child and, if the mother decides to go ahead with an abortion, they support her for a full year afterwards with counselling, because they know that an abortion is a trauma that needs to be processed and the woman herself needs to feel loved, valued, supported, listened to and understood. They are wonderfully pro-woman and pro-baby.

And this for me, is the middle ground. I see the nuance. I see that this is deeply profound for all of us (not just women). I see the medical needs. I also see that it is possible to become myopic in our views. It troubles me that “more time” could mean “More time to decide to have an abortion” as though its the only viable option and is a foregone conclusion – because this is where our cultural bias ultimately leads us. “More time” doesn’t necessarily mean “More time to evaluate all the options and seek support”. And this is where I feel like we need to pull the pendulum back.

As godly people, I want to support women and support babies. I also want to glorify my God and support the church. Which means entering the debate with love and respect and grace. It means knowing its OK to air how I feel about this and encouraging my sisters and brothers to know their feelings and views are valid and valued. It means supporting centres like Diamond Women’s Support so they can go on supporting women who are in this position.

But I believe that children, men, women – all humans – have intrinsic value. All are worthy of love and grace. If we believe that, then we should act accordingly. That’s the only thing I think, and know, this week with any clarity.

 

Why Christians are not immune to loneliness

As Christians, I often feel like we should be immune to loneliness. We have Jesus, right? But this is one of those areas where an inspirational Christian meme doesn’t really cut it. “Only God is enough to satisfy our loneliness” I read. And “You are never left alone when you are alone with God”. These are true, obviously, but not really helpful when you’re feeling the raw reality of loneliness.

If you google “bible passages for the lonely” you find lots of gems. “Surely I am with you always, till the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Also true. But this is part of Jesus’ great commission to his disciples, not a consolation to a person crumbling under the weight of loneliness.

And yet, there is acknowledgement in scripture that loneliness is real, but not necessarily in the emotional way we might think of it. For example, in Psalm 25:16 “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” The Hebrew word translated as “lonely” denotes more a physical state of being solitary – like a friendless wanderer or exile. Of course there is a psychological state associated potentially with that, but that’s not what the language denotes. Loneliness described and discussed as a psychological state is a relatively recent phenomena. That doesn’t mean it was any less real prior to the last hundred years, just that it wasn’t talked about the same way. In history, to be friendless or cut off from community was a social state and was the epitome of a fate worse than death.

We talk now about loneliness as a psychological and emotional state. It might include feeling cut off from community, but includes fear, despair, hopelessness – and as Christians we are not immune. Even though we have the truth of our salvation in Christ and an eternal relationship with the living God, we will still from time to time feel the awful chill of loneliness.

Loneliness can happen to anyone. Whether you are single or in a relationship, whether you are in a large family or none. It’s not the same as being alone. Personally, I’m quite content on my own. I am an introvert by nature and I enjoy reading, writing, knitting (badly) and so on. But being alone in this way is a choice. Feeling lonely is when we are alone in a way that we don’t feel is our choice – when we want to be with someone, or with family, or with community – and we can’t.

That’s when secondary emotions kick in. Disappointment that things aren’t different, anger at feeling powerless to change things, despair that things will always be this way, fear of a future that is uncertain.

Loneliness can feel cold and brittle. There is a stillness that you feel in the cavernous hollow of a dark mountain cave. You are the only living and breathing thing. There is a silence. There is nobody else and there is the thick rock cave wall between you and the rest of the world. If you screamed in this sound-deadened cavity, nobody would hear, and the only sound would be the echo of your own scream coming back to you. You are the only person who hears your pain.

That’s what loneliness feels like.

Loneliness is both our modern emotional understanding and the historical social understanding. You feel cut off from people. Even though our modern world is less constructed according to familial ties and community, we feel separated. And you feel the associated ragged emotional cuts of isolation physically and psychologically.

What is interesting is that even though the meaning behind the language has changed over time, scripture still acknowledges that anguish.

Psalm 142 gives us important teaching without ever using the word “loneliness”. It is attributed to David when he was hiding in the cave from his enemies. Verse 4 says:

Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

This seems to be a perfect description of loneliness. And what does this psalm tell us?

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.

I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.

Sorry to sound obvious but prayer is the first step when we are feeling pain. What is interesting here is that David says he tells a God of his complaint before he tells him his trouble. For David this might be his complaint about his physical situation (I’m trapped and alone) and then his “trouble” is then his emotional state – which he lays out in the following verses.

When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way. In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.

4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

His spirit grows faint – he is feeling overwhelmed. People have hidden a snare – he is surrounded by enemies. Nobody cares for him. These are all things that resonate with us.

I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.

This whole psalm is a prayer – it is a conversation with God. David has told God his complaint (“I am alone”) and he’s laid out his trouble (“I feel so lonely and overwhelmed and frightened and this is too big for me…”). He continues this conversation, talking to God in real and raw emotional need. There is no prayer-formula here. There is no massaging of words to sound right, he just lets it pour out.

But what comes next is fascinating:

Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.

David doesn’t end with a hope that the loneliness will end at some point. He calls on God to deliver him so that he might praise his name. Then the righteous will gather around David – his loneliness and uncertainty will end. Not because of David, but because of God’s visible goodness.

This might feel confronting to us. Our prayers are requests but largely asking for God to empower us to feel better – as though God is a self help guru. What David does is directly and boldly ask God to change his situation (the circumstances of his complaint) and through God’s action, his trouble will be alleviated.

Sometimes, in our lack of confidence, we minimise God and our knowledge of what he is able to do. David, in the midst of his despair, asks God to essentially perform a powerful work so that in his responding praise, people will see evidence of God’s goodness and gather to him.

These are David’s words to God, but they are laid down as God-breathed scripture, which means they are words that God has given us to acknowledge our pain and provide a means and a language for us to reach him in those times. We must use them.

So, if you are like me and from time to time struggle with loneliness, we can use this approach to God. We can take the burden of self help off our already aching shoulders and ask God for help. We can not just speak words of complaint and trouble, but let them pour out of us. We can ask for deliverance. We can be bold because we are approaching our God who is bigger than any circumstance we have.

We are Christian and we have a relationship with the living God. But we are not immune to loneliness. God knows this and gave us real words to bring to him in our pain. Formula prayers and inspirational memes won’t cut it. In the Psalms he gave us these beautiful words that express how we feel – but he doesn’t leave us there. He gives us the means to move forward.

We need to give ourselves permission to be raw with God, be bold in asking him to take over our circumstances and deliver us from our loneliness.

Why “Meet Me Where I Am”?

Some of the best pastoral care I’ve had over the years has been within my church small group. I love everything about small groups – a group of women, meeting weekly, digging into the Bible together, praying for each other, eating an inordinate amount of snacks together, crying, laughing, learning and growing. Within a group of women like this, we truly do life together. We get each other. We can sympathise and minister to each other with all the raw honesty that is needed and without any “Sunday church politeness”.

The most troubling pastoral care I’ve had is when people have tried to meet me where they are, not meet me where I am. What do I mean by this? When someone comes to us with a pastoral issue, we can sometimes instinctively do any of the following:

  • Try and solve the problem without listening to the full extent of the issue;
  • Question the viewpoint (Did that really happen? Isn’t that over-reacting? I wouldn’t have taken it like that. That doesn’t seem to me to be that big of a deal. I know the other party and they probably didn’t mean it. Is the problem that your husband is away for work? Is the real problem that you’ve forgotten to take your antidepressants? Aren’t you being overly emotional?);
  • Jump straight to a Bible passage to try and make the person feel better.

All of these, as well meaning or as accidental as they can be, actually meet the person where we are. What do I think about this situation? If I would react in X way, but the person is responding in a Y way, I’m going to pastor as though you should be responding in X way, because that’s the way I understand the correctness of this situation.

This is problematic. And it can contribute to a feeling that churches are disconnected from reality. Great theology, but lacking in understanding and grace. Meeting people where you are inhibits trust (and actively promotes distrust). It makes people feel misunderstood and at worst, not cared for. It can build a picture that there is a disconnect between the pulpit and the pew – which is a sad assumption that the general populace have of the church anyway, without us accidentally contributing to it.

It can also become self-perpetuating. This kind of pastoring creates barriers. It stops open communication. It makes people feel they can’t be honest in revealing themselves. So they hide. They hide behind their polite-Sunday-face. And the issue gets hidden. Down deep. Where it festers and spreads like a cancer in the soul. And all the while, growing a resentment towards the church because you feel like they don’t get you and don’t hear you.

Women need to feel heard. And they need to feel valued. Good pastoral care is not reactive when a crisis has happened. Good pastoral care is walking through life with them on the good days, and sitting with them in the darkness on the bad days.

Great pastoral care is knowing people enough to know what to pray for them – on the good days and the bad.

Jesus didn’t meet people where he was – and if anyone had the right to do that, it was him. Jesus met people where they were. In Mark 5, Jesus went to find the demon possessed man. He didn’t judge the mans situation and how he got there and he didn’t question if things were really that bad. He met him where he was.

When, in Matthew 9, the woman who had been bleeding for years approached him secretly for healing, he didn’t judge her condition even though, in Jewish culture, it should have been personally distasteful to him. He met her where she was.

When in Luke 7 a woman come and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus does not judge her or question her or solve her problem with a vague scriptural platitude. He meets her where she is.

The reason I called this blog “Meet Me Where I Am” is because that’s my plea. And it’s my prayer for every woman. Real women have real problems. We have mental health issues. We struggle with our faith. We struggle with our confidence. Sometimes we snort when we laugh. Many of us have kids and now avoid jumping up and down. We struggle with our weight. We can’t wait to take our bras off at the end of the night. We love Jesus. We love the Bible. Sometimes we cry in the shower for no reason. We want to feel valued. We want to have a voice.

We love our churches. We have wonderful ministers and pastors and Christian sisters. But we want to be met where we are. We don’t want our pain to be questioned or a quick solution presented. We need pastoral care to be as important as the pulpit. We need theology and humanity.

And let’s not forget – women make up over half of our churches. If we support and nourish our women, we support and nourish the whole family. On top of that, women are seed sowers. We talk to everyone. We connect with people far beyond our immediate landscape. If we make our women feel valued, they will feel confident. If they feel confident, who knows how many seeds they will sow?

I have had the benefit of being around some wonderful ministers and I’ve been around some others with a few blind spots – nobody’s perfect. This is a general plea and prayer for all though. Meet me where I am. Meet all of us where we are. Let your growth in Christ-likeness include putting the self to one side when pastoring a woman. Resist the urge to solve or question. Just let us be heard. Be real with us. And let us be our real selves with you. The church will be enormously enriched by it.

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.