There Is a Shrink in Gilead

The Church and Mental Health

Todd Brewer / 10.30.19

When it comes to the treatment of mental health, many of the therapeutic approaches taken today tend to be highly individualized. The afflicted person goes (alone) to see a therapist, who provides a resources or insight to aid the patient. The broad successes of this approach speaks for itself. Mental health professionals so often see things we do not, and their guidance is invaluable.

Treating mental illness, however, is different from identifying its causes. On this front, a great deal of research recognizes that the current mental health crisis is highly influenced by a multitude of social factors that compound and exacerbate our problems. Increased Facebook usage correlates to high rates of depression, as comparing ourselves to others’ curated posts deepens our feelings of inadequacy. The Internet has made us more connected than ever before, but this connection so often feels like scrutiny. We are never alone and always alone at the same time. The demands of our jobs reach well beyond the 9-5 and squeeze out meaningful relationships that might otherwise help us deal with workplace worries. Even our home life is subject to the pressures of perfectionism, since photos of a child’s Halloween costume can now become a measure of their parent’s self-worth. In short, everything about our modern world reinforces the loops of thought that deepen anxieties or a belief of inadequacy that lead to mental health crises.

For good or ill, our mental health is not simply a matter that’s up to us. What we think, how we feel, or how we respond to the stresses of life is so often influenced by the context in which we live. We are inextricably embodied people, and who we are is the product of a complex matrix of relational systems, both near and far.

All of which makes me wonder … could going to church be good for your (mental) health? A number of studies have found a link between the two, with religious adherents reporting lower rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. But how? For his part, the Apostle Paul recognized the essentially social nature of human being. Who and what we relate to has far reaching consequences further downstream.

The healthy(!) church offers a sort of counter-programming that exists outside of the “toxic interpersonal systems” promoted by the world. It is an intervention of liberation that, in the words of Susan Eastman, is “relationally mediated through gracious relationships in which a person begins to have a different self mirrored back to them, a different way of being, an alliance that is an experience of love.” Such a community sustains you through the storm of life, but it also provides a network of relationships that exist outside of the world’s economy of quid pro quo. As Dorothy Martyn contended, “all mentoring love […] is authentic and effectual in proportion to the degree that it transcends the commonly assumed principle of the circular exchange, that is to say, ‘this for that.’”

Admittedly, many people have found church to be anything but a relieving experience, wandering from the flock in search of greener pastures elsewhere. Church can be cruel, merciless, elitist, stuffy, and apathetic. But the suffering and alienation of one in the community is a burden that all bear, and Paul’s most vigorous polemics were always directed at churches whose social practices were incongruent with the Gospel. His controversies were not simply over good and bad doctrine but actual matters of life and death. Preaching matters, but the context in which it takes place matters just as much, if not more.

A healthy church, one that is informed and shaped by the Gospel, offers a thoroughly merciful place where the worldly values of wisdom, economic status, moral performance, social capital, or ethnicity are overturned. It provides an alternate social matrix that creates respite from the constant assessments of the world. At church, no one (should) care what your resume says, whether your children are misbehaving, how awesome your Instagram posts are, who you voted for, if you smell, or how long it has been since your last confession.

Judgment is the currency of the world; the Church trades in grace. Everything takes its toll on our mental health, but the Church is the one community where the burdens we carry can be lifted by the forgiveness of sin and the caring embrace of a fellow sufferer. It does not offer acute treatment so much as promote long-term mental health. Church shouldn’t be mistaken for a therapist’s office but can be a pit-stop for the weary. We cannot flee from the pressures of life, but perhaps there is a place where these pressures might be alleviated, a place that reorients us and provides comfort for an altogether different journey, in grace.