Most churches publish a prayer list of some type. The majority of prayer requests on these lists are appeals for healing from serious illnesses, chronic diseases, scheduled surgeries, emergency surgeries, and traveling safety. How often do you find listings on church prayer lists for depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, uncontrolled anger, chronic sorrow? Each congregation has its own culture and traditions regarding the “published prayer list,” and some churches may include these. It would be an interesting study to gather data on the traditions surrounding the prayer lists in our churches. They are a written record of our faith.
I have not seen too many prayer requests for the invisible maladies and unseen wounds that bring pain to our minds, emotions, and spirit. Perhaps because it is difficult to diagnose them. When one has a diagnosis of cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, or hepatitis, then one has a target and a name. We can fix that with faith and medicine. We know how to ask God for help. Yet the invisible ailments of the soul and spirit can be squishy problems that resist being named. Squishy problems resist being fixed.
It is not my intent to accuse churches in general of maintaining a stigma against mental illness or emotional problems. I have no idea how this has been handled in your congregation. Church leaders may want to discuss this and share best practices. Churches often partner with or support counseling resources and programs such as Celebrate Recovery and Overcomer’s Outreach. And yet all of us live in a culture of the “quick-fix.”
The Siburt Institute honors the legacy of Charles Siburt. He taught us to beware of the “quick-fix” when dealing with systemic and emotional issues. (Back in the day, Dr. Siburt had us read Edwin Friedman’s then-unpublished manuscript, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Thankfully, this useful book is now available at fine stores everywhere and online.) Human beings are not machines. Church family systems are organic, not mechanical. A “fix it” approach is not only ineffective but will also make the invisible injuries worse. How?
- Trying to fix emotional and mental issues puts pressure on the afflicted to “get over it.” In fact, it places pressure on all of us to help a person “get over it.” We would hardly be so cruel to a person diagnosed with a disease such as multiple sclerosis. Rather we would seek to help that person manage the disease.
- We should recognize that there is too often shame for “not having faith” that is connected with anxiety and emotional struggles. This shame may be self-imposed. It may be unintentional. Faith is trust and is an invisible quality that cannot be quantified. Jesus was using a parable when he described “mustard seed faith.” Perhaps he was trying to tell us to stop measuring and comparing our faith quotas.
- We should resist dismissing mental and emotional ailments as “just” emotional. This ignores the real nature of emotions and the spiritual. We have excelled at thinking and doing, but Jesus instructs us to love God with our heart and soul as well as mind and strength. We must beware the temptation to dismiss our brothers and sisters with invisible illnesses as “weak” rather than stay near them as they manage through it. Likewise, those of us with invisible struggles should resist accepting the adjective “weak.” These are temptations because the quick fix for weakness is human strength.
Have you heard of a CAPTCHA? You have most likely seen them. When you fill out certain forms online you may be required to check a box stating “I Am Not A Robot.” That is a CAPTCHA, which is an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. Do we really need such a test IRL—in real life? We are not robots. We are not machines. Even God doesn’t “fix” our brokenness. He heals it and redeems it.
Chris Benjamin is the preaching minister for the WestArk Church of Christ in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He previously served as preaching minister for the Lake Jackson Church of Christ in Lake Jackson, Texas, and campus minister for the CCSC on the campus of Arkansas Tech University. Benjamin earned his D.Min. and M.Div. from ACU and his B.A. from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, where he and his wife Karen were involved in the Razorbacks for Christ campus ministry. They have two sons, Wyatt and Ethan. When he is not restoring some portion of his 50- year-old house, Chris enjoys a good story told well—no matter if it is a novel, comic strip, movie, or comedian.