Mental Illness, Possessed Baby Dolls, and the Church

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I’m going to tell you an embarrassing story. When I was a teenager, in the middle of religious cultic craziness, I thought I’d been given the gift of spiritual discernment. I truly believed that I could discern whether or not people’s toys, specifically baby dolls, were possessed. Parents in my church brought me their children’s dolls so that I could stare into their eyes and tell them if there was a demon inside or not. Yes, I now recognize that this is absolutely nuts. Yikes!! But at the time, it seemed very real.

We had all heard anecdotal stories of people’s experiences with possessed toys. We had heard stories about demons coming out of synthesizers and electronic keyboards.(Because rock music, you know, was from the devil.) The amount of fear involved was ridiculous. No one wanted demons in their houses. People do strange things when they are afraid.

Mental illness often gets put in the same Christianese category as possessed toys. While not on the same level, it’s something that we fear, don’t understand, and want to control. Christians feel like there should be a formula to change it. It feels safer to tell people that it’s the result of sin. It feels more comfortable to categorize it as “spiritual warfare.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there isn’t such a thing as spiritual warfare. I just don’t think it usually looks like we think it does.

I think we give way more credit to fear, anecdotal stories, and just brokenness in the world, and not enough credit to the subtle lies the enemy whispers to us about ourselves, other people, and God. Satan isn’t necessarily behind the cold you caught, the fact that your car broke down, or even your anxiety. But, he definitely loves that you feel hopeless and doubt God’s love for you.

As humans, we are naturally afraid of things we don’t understand.  But when you combine fear with religion, the idea that I have to do something to get results, brokenness and destruction happens.

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Do you know how many people are silently struggling with things like depression and anxiety within our churches but are afraid to say anything? Do you know how many people are told that their mental illness is a result of a “lack of faith” or “bitterness” or some other problem on their part? They aren’t doing enough and that’s why they are broken. People are afraid to speak up and ashamed to seek help or admit they need medication. That’s not okay. No one should have to struggle in secret. No one should be isolated in their pain and afraid of the body of Christ. It’s wrong that the church has made them feel this way.

How did we get here? I believe three things have played a huge part.

  • Religious Christianity

“Religion is the business of appeasing gods.” This sentence from Mike Cosper’s book Recapturing the Wonder has been challenging my thinking for almost a year now. We do that within Christianity. We put our ideas about God in a tiny box. Then we work our hardest to appease our god-in-a-box because we want his approval and blessings. That’s religious Christianity. Formulaic thinking abounds within religious Christianity. We search for a magical guarantee to make our god do what we want.

We can be conservative, religious Christians, or we can be liberal, religious Christians. It’s all about the box. We might have different ideas about God in our box, but if we are focused on doing things to make our god-in-a-box happy, then we are religious.

The real Jesus doesn’t fit in a box. He will always be bigger than our understanding. He will never make sense. And He doesn’t need to be appeased, because He already appeased Himself on the cross. 🙂

  • Lack of Education

The church has been suspicious of psychology for far too long. There is nothing wrong with learning how the human brain tends to work. Just because some of the scientists that made breakthroughs in psychology weren’t Christians doesn’t make their work invalid. Psychology is a beautiful thing. It’s exciting and freeing to understand potential whys behind thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Somehow, Christians often separate the spiritual part of people from the rest of them. I just don’t think that’s an accurate way of doing things. We are complex beings. And our spirituality, that is our ability to connect with God, is interwoven deeply with our story, our beliefs about our self, the way we interact with people, etc.

The church that we currently attend loves psychology. And honestly, the more I have come to understand myself, the healthier I have become spiritually.

  • Fear

Ironically fear is often the motivator behind our religious Christianity and our lack of education. We are afraid of the god we have imagined, so we create a list of religious behaviors to follow. We are afraid of a lack of control, so we try to earn God’s blessings by our actions. People are afraid of psychology, so they don’t get better educated. We are afraid of God and people’s condemnation, so we keep our depression and anxiety to ourselves.

Fear is not from the real Jesus, friends! Do you know what the most repeated command in the Bible is? “Do not be afraid.”  Wow! While fear is a legitimate emotion, it does not need to control us. Fear is not a helpful motivator. And the real Jesus is bigger than our fears.

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Let me just close with some thoughts.

  • Spirituality is very abstract. Sometimes we need concrete help before we can deal with abstract spiritual things. I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. If I’m in the middle of a panic attack, frantically praying or trying to quote the Bible is not nearly as helpful as taking deep breaths, using some grounding techniques, and speaking truth to myself. Once I’m in a better place, I can take a look at what triggered me and go from there.
  • Because we are complicated, spiritual beings, many parts of us are intertwined and affected by other parts. Are there lies that we are believing about ourselves, God, and others that might be adding to our depression or anxiety? It’s very possible. However, we need to help our brains get to a place where we can logically deal with those lies.
  • If you are struggling with a mental illness, it’s not your fault. We live in a world broken by sin, and one of the things that is affected is our brains. They are complex organs, and sometimes they get sick. The best thing you can do for yourself is to reach out and look for help. You are not less spiritual because you go to therapy or are on medication. It’s okay! Those are good things. God is not disappointed and He doesn’t condemn you.

I know that the church’s attitude towards mental illness has often been more hurtful than helpful. But the church is made up of individuals. The church culture towards mental illness can change as more and more of us develop a healthy attitude and understanding. I have hope! 🙂

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Trust and Panic Attacks

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I was an illogically worried child. If it was five minutes past 8pm, then I would keep myself awake being worried about not getting enough sleep. I could never sleep at other people’s houses, which then would make me worried about being exhausted the next day. I couldn’t have clocks that I could see in my bedroom because then I would worry if it got too late. I specifically remember lying in bed at night as a child, thinking about my three greatest fears: my house burning down, a tornado coming (unlikely since I lived in Michigan), and throwing up. This was a nightly occurrence for years. I had an incredibly powerful brain and I could totally convince myself that I was sick or about to be sick, especially if I woke up in the middle of the night. My poor parents!

I was in college when I started having pretty severe panic attacks. I’ve always been a strong (prideful) person, so it was hard to admit to others that I was struggling. At first I didn’t know what they were, the shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest tightness, numbness, unreal feelings… I thought I was dying. After some research, I realized they were panic attacks. And then with some surprise, I realized that I’d struggled with a milder form of something similar for years. I used to call it “spiritual warfare” back in the “Duggar Days“. I still get occasional panic attacks, in fact I had one this morning.

Ironically, last week I wrote a quick blog post about not being afraid, which in a manner of three days became the most popular post I’ve ever written! So, how does someone write a blog post about not being afraid, truly not feel afraid of ISIS or the end of the world, and yet still struggle with panic attacks? I supposed in the same way that any of us are redeemed children of God still living in our broken human bodies. We are sinners, saved by God’s amazing grace, still dealing with our sin!

The biggest thing that has helped me to overcome worry, is recognizing how big, how huge, how incredibly enormous God really is! He is in absolute control at all times. He adores me. But God does not owe me an explanation for anything that happens. It was in one of my darkest and most troubling times that God showed me these truths with definition and clarity. I’m going to share that story next. (This is probably part 1 of 3)

For now let’s go back to daily anxiety and panic attacks. Why do they happen? What’s behind it? Everyone is different. My anxiety comes when I’m stressed, when I allow negative thought patterns, or when I am afraid of losing control. It always helps to take a quiet moment and figure out what is bothering me. Then I recognize my panic attack for what it is, speak truth to myself, and seek Jesus. Taking a minute to just breathe and focus on who Jesus is and how much He loves me usually calms me down. I’m honest with Him. I tell Him what is freaking me out and I let Him calm me and speak truth to me. It’s not like God doesn’t already know! We can’t hide anything from Him. We won’t disappoint Him.

  • “And he (Jesus) awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still (after living with him and seeing what he could do) no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:39-41

I’m pretty sure that if Jesus can calm a wild, raging storm on a lake, He can also calm the storm of worry inside of me! I know He can, because I’ve seen Him do it before.