This guest blog comes to us from Kristen Kansiewicz, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor on staff at East Coast International Church in Lynn, MA. In addition to her counseling practice, Kristen is the author of four books, including On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context. She also blogs about mental health and the church at ChurchTherapy.com. You can also find her on Twitter (@ChurchTherapist).
So you’re struggling with anxiety, or maybe it’s depression, Bipolar Disorder, or PTSD. You’re searching for answers, looking for something that could make it all go away. Maybe you’ve started taking medication, or perhaps you are still wondering if that’s okay. “Shouldn’t Christians be able to handle their emotions?” you wonder.
In some churches, particularly those in Pentecostal or charismatic circles, you might find an inner healing ministry geared towards releasing you from your past or eliminating your symptoms. Perhaps your pastor has even recommended that you participate because of your emotional struggles. For many with symptoms of mental illness, the journey through an inner healing process can be confusing, triggering, and often unhelpful.
As a point of clarification, let us recognize that inner healing is an important part of what Jesus came to do. We all need to be healed, restored, and redeemed. How we go about that is another matter entirely.
Most inner healing ministry experiences in which I have participated or about which I have heard from a direct source have one thing in common: they rely heavily on emotion. For Christians who do not have mental health problems or symptoms of a mental illness, these emotional experiences often work to provide a physical and spiritual release from bondage. Looking at it from a neuroscientific perspective, the brain is activated and engaged in developing new pathways when we experience something new (a new thought or idea, for example). The brain functions this way so that we can learn and adapt. A highly emotional experience is more memorable and can stimulate the brain in multiple ways to change our emotions and thoughts. Spiritually speaking, prayer can open doors for healing as we seek first God’s kingdom, in which everyone is set free. We may experience feelings that help us embrace God’s love or forgiveness, or we may realize the truth about who we are in Christ.
Put this highly emotional experience inside a brain that is not functioning correctly, as is the case when mental health symptoms are present, and you often have a recipe for disaster. When emotion regulation is difficult for you on a regular, everyday basis, entering into a highly emotional and spiritualized context can overload your brain. This can sometimes trigger symptoms, heightening your anxiety or bringing up trauma flashbacks. You may also feel worse when you go through an inner healing process that does not eliminate your symptoms (which is likely to be the case if you have a clinical disorder). Many are left believing that they did not experience inner healing because they did not have enough faith or they did something wrong. Some wonder how they can hear from God if they cannot continue in the inner healing process.
So how are we to understand and go about pursuing healing? First, let’s focus on Jesus. Biblical examples of Jesus healing people generally do not involve a heightened emotional process. When Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter, for example, he made everyone except those who were closest to the situation stay outside while he quietly entered and raised the girl to life. There are no examples of Jesus playing on emotion, shouting, or otherwise being overly intense in the healing process.
Because mental health issues present unique challenges, an inner healing ministry may be overwhelming for you. Unless it is led by a professionally trained Christian counselor, it is likely your emotions and triggers will be too much for a lay minister or pastor to handle properly. Long-term Christian counseling is most likely a better form of inner healing for you as you seek wellness with a trained professional who can discern proper treatment for your symptoms and can work through spiritual issues as well. Unlike a brief inner healing course, counseling can go at your pace and help you manage your emotions that arise during the process.
Another thing to keep in mind is that healing takes time. Your symptoms may or may not become “cured,” but symptoms can be reduced or managed with proper treatment such as counseling and medication. Is it possible for God to instantly heal you from your symptoms? Absolutely. But more often, just as in the case of other physical disorders like cancer or diabetes, treatment and recovery is a process. It takes time to heal. Particularly with emotional disorders, time devoted to treatment and self-care are essential parts of getting and staying well.
Mental illness does not change your spiritual standing before God, and you can relate to God and experience freedom in Christ. As you seek to listen to the Holy Spirit, remember to focus on balance and emotion regulation. A relaxation or guided visualization exercise, for example, may be helpful when led by a professional Christian counselor. Because your mind may interfere in quiet moments by yourself, clinging to the Word can help provide grounding in a chaotic emotional place.
As with any type of illness or physical disorder, healing is always possible but often does not happen on earth. As Christians we have hope and faith that we will enter into a healed state when we enter God’s kingdom. May this hope drive you to seek to be well one day at a time.