"Too Heavy a Yoke": An interview with Chanequa Walker-Barnes about the StrongBlackWoman

Today I am thrilled to introduce you to Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a theologian and psychologist whose mission is to serve as a catalyst for healing, justice, and reconciliation in the Christian church and beyond. 

I first learned about Dr. Walker-Barnes when Christena Cleveland wrote a stirring response to her first book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, which examines the impact that the icon of the StrongBlackWoman has upon the health and well-being of African American women. I was so intrigued I read the book myself and was challenged, encouraged, and moved by it. The chapter on the Trinity profoundly changed the way I think about self-sacrifice and interdependence, particularly as a woman, so I knew the moment I finished the book I had to have the author on the blog. 

Dr. Walker-Barnes has earned degrees from Emory University, the University of Miami, and Duke University.  A candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church, she is licensed to practice psychology in Georgia and North Carolina. She is currently Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling in the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.  Born and raised in Atlanta, Dr. Walker-Barnes is married to Delwin Barnes, a mechanical engineer. They are the proud and very happy parents of one son, Micah. Check out her Web site here. 

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RHE: I recently finished Chimamanda Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, and one sentence in particular jumped out at me. In the wry voice of the story’s protagonist, Ifemelu, Adichie writes:  “In describing black women you admire, always use the word ‘STRONG’ because that is what black women are supposed to be in America.” That sentence took my breath away because it held so much truth, and yet it was a truth I’d never identified before. In Too Heavy a Yoke, you unpack this idea, identifying the StrongBlackWoman as “a legendary figure, typified by extraordinary capacities for caregiving and for suffering without complaint. She is a cultural myth that defines—and confines—ways of being in the world for women of African descent.” Where do we see this archetype/ideology in popular culture and in day-to-day life? Where might we recognize her?

CWB: It actually might be more appropriate to ask, Where don't we recognize her? Lifetime just premiered a new reality series called Girlfriend Intervention. The show's premise is that "trapped inside every White girl is a strong Black woman ready to bust out." It features four Black women who are "taught to always have it together and tell you like it is." They give makeovers and life advice to White women. The show seems to do a pretty accurate job of capturing the caricature of the StrongBlackWoman. Unfortunately, like most people, it fails to interrogate what that stereotype really entails. Instead, it celebrates it.

But that's not the only example. The StrongBlackWoman is ubiquitous in popular culture and in day-to-day life. It's hard to find a film or television character portrayed by a Black actress that does not personify the StrongBlackWoman in some way. You see her as Miranda Bailey in Grey's Anatomy, as Olivia Pope in Scandal, and as a key figure in every Tyler Perry film. Madea is the StrongBlackWoman on steroids! 

Unfortunately, examples of the StrongBlackWoman are not limited to film. You also see her in the African American women whom you encounter on a daily basis. One of the most striking experiences that I've had in writing this book is the fact that when I describe what a StrongBlackWoman is, nearly everyone I talk to, regardless of their own race and gender, can identify some woman in their life who lives into the role – a family member, friend, co-worker, or congregation member who constantly sacrifices herself on behalf of others, who carries an inordinately heavy load of responsibility, and who rarely asks for help. 

You write about how the pressure to live up to the StrongBlackWoman ideal affected your own health, self-esteem, and emotional and relational well-being. How does the pressure to be perpetually strong hurt Black women?  How is it "an ill-fitting suit of armor"? 

About ten years ago, I found myself in the midst of a stress-induced health crisis. I realized that my personal and emotional suffering came from trying to be all things to all people and taking care of everyone except myself—in other words, trying to be a StrongBlackWoman.

Over time, I began to realize just how widespread a problem this is among Black women and how it's impacting our health. First I noticed it among my therapy clients, many of whom were professional Black women on the verge of physical and emotional breakdown from trying to be strong. Then I noticed it in the church. And when I started looking into health statistics, I realized that there is a major health epidemic among Black women in this country that is hidden under the veneer of strength. For many indicators of physical and emotional health, Black women do more poorly than Black men and women of other races. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDS—all these occur at higher rates among Black women. And Black women often have the highest mortality rates from many major causes of death.

On the outside, it may look like we have it all together. But inside, we're suffering, even to the point of death.

You say that often “the church reinforces the mythology of the StrongBlackWoman by silencing, ignoring, and even romanticizing the suffering of Black women.” Can you give us some common examples of how that happens?

I see this happen a lot in the church when Black women suffer tragedies such as financial struggle, a terminal or fatal illness, and the death of a child or spouse. Those women are encouraged to be strong, that is, to hide any signs of distress and to pretend as if everything is okay. Recently, an ordained African American woman posted on Facebook, "Pretending to be happy when you are going through a difficult time in life is just an example of how strong a person you really are." I decided not to respond, but it was really frustrating to observe as several other Black women co-signed that message. In the church broadly, there remains this view that suffering is women's lot in life. Of course, that comes from a distortion of Genesis 3. That view becomes even further complicated when it's layered with race. In the church, it seems to me that Black women - more than any other racial/gender group - are taught that strain and suffering are indicative of holiness. We are taught to put on a good face in the midst of our struggle, rather than to ask for help. That's pretty convenient for the church, because as long as they praise us for being strong in the midst of suffering, they're excused from having to do anything about our suffering.

I think a lot of Christian women, myself included, tend to internalize Christian teachings about self-sacrifice in ways that are unhealthy. You argue that a better understanding of the Trinity can help women see mutual self-giving, rather than self-denial and self-sacrifice, as the paradigm for Christian love. How is that?

Christian tradition has long held that humanity's primary sin is pride. So we are constantly being admonished to relinquish our pride and to empty ourselves on behalf of others. "No cross, no crown" is the way we often hear it. But for many—perhaps most—women, our fundamental problem is not that we have too high a view of ourselves; it's that we have too low a view. We do not view and love ourselves as fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of the Divine. Our issue is not that we need to empty ourselves of pride and learn to deny ourselves. Most women – regardless of race – master that pretty early in life. Our problem tends to be giving of ourselves to the point where there is no self left, to the point that we don't even realize who we are and who we are called to be. 

The beauty of the Trinity, though, is that it gives us a different model of relating to one another. In the Trinity, we have three beings who fully contain and are fully contained by each other without being diminished by one another. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and yet they are also unique. It's a mystery that we may never fully understand, but it points us to the idea that being in relationship with one another is not about sacrificing ourselves to the point of losing our identities. It's about being interdependent in a way that our identities are supported and reinforced by our relationships.

It’s rare to find a book that so seamlessly combines the academic and the pastoral, but Too Heavy a Yoke does this beautifully. Who do you especially hope will read it and why? 

I am continually struck by the fact that there is little public discourse – in the church or anywhere – about the health epidemic facing Black women and it's connection to the myth of the StrongBlackWoman. I wanted to write a book that would raise the awareness of spiritual care professionals, to help them to see the realities of Black women's lives so that they could better minister to them. I want this book to be read by pastors, pastoral counselors, chaplains, and leaders of lay ministries. I hope, too, that it will extend beyond the church to health care professionals. And I even hope that it will find its way into the hands of Black women who are weighed down by the burden of strength.

At the same time, I didn't want this to be pop psychology. I am a professor, after all, so I wanted the book to be academically rigorous. My aim was to write the main body of the text so that it could be read by a wide array of people, sort of in the manner of bell hooks. I tried to keep the professional jargon to the footnotes. 

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Be sure to check out Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.

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“A Year of Biblical Womanhood” just 99¢ today!

The ebook version of A Year of Biblical Womanhood is just 99 cents today, so if you’re looking for a Labor Day weekend read, hop over to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. to check it out. 

Some reviews:

 “A bitter-sweet cocktail of wisdom and absurdity that will charm you, entertain you, seduce you and, finally, instruct you! A Year of Biblical Womanhood is funny, droll, charming, and deadly serious, all in one set of covers.” -Phyllis Tickle, author and lecturer

"Rachel Held Evans is my kind of woman, Christian, and writer. She cares too much about the Bible to read what it says without wrestling with what it means. Rachel's new book is full of humor, humility, and truth." -Glennon Doyle Melton, author of Carry On, Warrio

 “A triumph! ...A comprehensive, impeccably researched, heartfelt, whimsical, scripture-honoring book about the role and experience of women in Christian society. This magnificent achievement should be required reading in every church, home, student ministry, college, and seminary in the world.”  -Ian Morgan Cron, author of Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me

“…For the first time in my life I feel like a Proverb 31 woman. I feel like I may actually make the cut.”

“In each chapter, I found myself searching my own heart and remembering that whether I do it from the end of a spatula or a scalpel or a pen, my true calling as a woman is to bring glory to God.”

This is a fierce and fearless book.”

"Rachel Held Evans is not just another woman using the Bible to write about women’s experiences. She actually is quite adept at Biblical interpretation and has done some good reading and research and exegetical spade work when she is dealing with any kinds of Biblical texts, including the so-called ‘texts of terror’. Whether you agree with her interpretations or not, they are always possible, and often plausible and fair and deserve respect and close scrutiny."

This book made me want to run to my Bible with a renewed sense of excitement to find the stories of women rarely mentioned in the Sunday-morning service. It made me want to do further research into several theological concepts mentioned. It made me want to meet a bunch of friends at Starbucks and have a lengthy conversation about our roles in the church and life. "

“Let me tell you something: Dan challenged me to be a better husband to my wife far more than any literature from Focus on the Family or Desiring God could ever do. Dan is the ultimate team player. He supports Rachel. I gain from the book that he makes Rachel a better person and she makes him a better person. One can critique egalitarian marriages, but the fruit of the Spirit seems to be blossoming in the midst of their relationship, so do what you will with that. As I read his thoughts he made me ask myself if I am doing all that I can do to help Miranda become all that God has made her and whether I have supported my wife in her giftedness. Someday I’d like to meet Dan, give him a big handshake, and thank him for existing.” 

The book is a game-changer, a turning point, and it’s a damn good read. Fascinating, funny, erudite, wise, complex, I couldn’t put it down.” 

Read more reviews here. Order here. 

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Bi The Way: 7 Tips to be Inclusive of Bisexuals in Christianity (by Eliel Cruz)

Today we welcome to the blog my friend Eliel Cruz. Eliel is a bisexual Christian covering bisexuality for The Advocate and is co founder of The Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition. Eliel frequently writes on the topics of sexuality, religion, and media at The Huffington Post, Believe Out Loud, and Mic. You can follow Eliel on Twitter or on Facebook. 

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“Are you full blown gay yet?”

My friend, who I hadn’t seen in years, asked me this question no less than five minutes into our lunch date. I was looking forward to catching up, but the question was like a punch in the gut. No longer was I excited to see her.  During our transition from teen years to young adults, she apparently hadn’t changed her misconceptions on bisexuality. Like her misconceptions, my identity hadn’t changed either. 

Bisexuality is misunderstood by both the gay and straight community—and is even less understood in the Christian community where sexuality is often limited to binary straight/gay and male/female. 

When you’re bisexual, gender isn’t a deciding factor in romantic attraction. Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs has a commonly used definition saying, "I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” 

I never identified as gay. I grew up thinking that you actually had to choose to be straight or gay, never realizing that sexuality and gender can be incredibly fluid. When I found the term bisexual, I’m pretty sure the heavens opened up and the angels sang. That word made sense to me. I was sexually and romantically attracted to both men and women. I came out to friends and family and began my life of being questioned for my sexuality.

We live in a world where it’s easier to deal with the black and white, one or the other, the binary. But the truth is, that’s not how God created us. We are more complex than that. God’s creation is nothing close to binary. 

The Church rarely discusses bisexuality, (though we rarely touch asexuality or the transgender community either). The conversation has been centered on the gay community as a “Gay vs. Christian debate,” leaving a large portion of the LGBT community out of the conversation. That’s a huge disservice to the conversation and that disservice is perpetuated by gay and straight Christians alike.  So here are 7 tips to be inclusive while discussing the LGBT community.

1. Don’t assume someone’s gay.

This has happened to me many times. I’ll be discussing someone of the same sex and assumed to be gay. Or when I write about an experience of religious homophobia, I’m labeled gay. I distinctly remember Huffington Post tweeting a piece I wrote for them and saying it was from a “gay Seventh-day Adventist.” Assuming someone who is attracted to the same sex is gay can erase someone’s identity. 

2. “Gay” is not an inclusive term.

Language is important, especially for writers; it’s the foundation of our profession. “Gays” is not an inclusive term as it only refers only to people exclusively attracted to the same gender and leaves out those of us attracted to multiple genders. It also leaves out the transgender community. Gay has never been an inclusive term. Using “LGBT” or writing it out would be inclusive. If that’s too “long”, I would say our identities are worth the extra characters. 

3. Stop calling it “gay marriage.”

This one is common and it leads to the erasure of bisexual identities. Bisexual people get married to people of the same sex, but they are not in a gay or straight marriage. When we use blanket terms like “gay marriage” we assume that both people in the relationship are Gay and many times that’s not the case. An alternative to “gay marriage” is “marriage equality” or “same-sex marriage.” 

4. Just because someone is bisexual, doesn’t mean they can just 'choose' a gender.

Many Christians believe that bisexual people can just choose one gender over another. This is usually prescribed as the alternative to a “sinful life” of being romantically involved with someone of the same-sex. While some may think it would just be the preferable, and easier, road for bisexual people—it’s not that easy. 

Like most people, I don’t merely fall in love with a gender, I fall in love with a person— a unique individual. For me, this has less to do with sex and more to do with finding a true partner in life. I may end up spending the rest of my life with a woman or a man, but either way, I am still bisexual. Because sexuality isn’t determined by the gender of your partner.

5. Bisexuals is not synonymous with polyamorous.

The usual scare I get from Christians when I say I’m bisexual is the flawed idea that I’m going to need both a male and female partner. No, bisexual people don’t necessarily need a man AND a woman to be fulfilled. There are some people, just like in the straight community, that feel the need to have more than one partner. But it is not an attribute specific to bisexuality any more than polygamy is to Mormonism. 

6. If you say “LGBT,” mean it.

There are too many times the acronym LGBT is used, yet the specific needs and concerns for those of us that are “B” or “T”, or even “L”, are not as well represented. We are pushed aside, forgotten, or not even known. Our community is diverse. If you’re going to write, discuss, or interact with the LGBT community—actually include all of us. 

If you’re an LGBT affirming church or organization, have specific programs for the bisexual community. If you write about LGBT people but only end up using gay and lesbians as examples, find bisexual and transgender examples. 

7. Raise up bisexual Christian voices.

There are a lot of stories from gay Christians that have received significant attention in both mainstream and Christian media. But how many times have you seen stories from bisexual Christians? Or transgender Christians?  While they’re definitely out there, they can be harder to find, since they’re not being published as frequently on large platforms. 

Stories are agents for change. They help us humanize the topic we talk about in a theoretical fashion. They’re an important reminder that we’re talking about is people—and in this community, we’re talking about Christians. So when you look for stories for your events, platforms, or just your individual education; seek us out. We are Christians that also have stories which need to be heard.

We have to start approaching this discussion in its full diversity, and that means including the bisexual community. There’s a thriving bisexual community even within the religious community. It’s time the church began interacting with us. 

Resources:
http://www.advocate.com/bisexuality/2014/06/24/op-ed-are-you-full-blown-gay-yet

http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2014/06/10/op-ed-why-bi-so-tough-say

http://www.advocate.com/bisexuality/2014/06/02/13-things-never-say-bisexual-people

Sexuality, Religion and the Sacred by Loraine Hutchins (Editor), H. Sharif Williams (Editor) 

Blessed Bi Spirit: Bisexual People of Faith by Debra Kolodny (Editor) 

Bisexuality: Making the Invisible Visible in Faith Communities by Marie Alford-Harkey and Rev. Debra W. Haffner 

 

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This Is How God Handles Our Doubts (by Ed Cyzewski)

Today I am excited to share a guest post from my friend Ed Cyzewski, adapted from his new book, A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth, which is just $2.99 on Kindle/Nook today through Friday. Ed is one of the wisest and kindest writers I know. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and two sons where they obsess over New York style pizza and organic gardening. Check out his blog, or connect on Facebook or Twitter

I figured this post might generate some discussion. Enjoy! 

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“Faith is a way of waiting—never quite knowing, never quite hearing or seeing, because in the darkness we are all but a little lost. There is doubt hard on the heels of every belief, fear hard on the heels of every hope, and many holy things lie in ruins because the world has ruined them and we have ruined them. But faith waits even so, delivered at least from that final despair which gives up waiting altogether because it sees nothing left worth waiting for.” 
- Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark

A few years ago I felt like prayer had stopped working. In fact, I began to doubt whether it had ever worked at all. 

I was just talking to myself in an empty room. Quieting myself to “hear” God really didn’t work either. In fact, that just made things worse. The longer I waited with nothing happening, the more my anxiety kicked into gear, worrying that God really wasn’t going to respond.

I know that some Christians go through a season of doubt like this and can’t survive. They can’t find God and have to give up. In my own case, I held on. I can’t make it sound like I did something better. I just ended up in a different place after seeking prayer and counsel from trusted friends and family who walked with me through that season. 

However, I know that many Christians and former Christians haven’t found the same resolution for their doubts. In fact, admitting your doubt feels like admitting failure, if not giving fellow Christians a reason to condemn and judge us for unbelief. 

I’ve been on both sides of doubt, playing the part of judge at one point and doubter at another. 
It’s easy to be dismissive toward those who have doubts because we really, really don’t want to have the same problems. It’s disturbing to hear that someone who grew up in the same church as you and attended all of the same Bible studies and prayed all of the same prayers is either doubting God or thinking of leaving the faith altogether. Let’s be honest about the problem here: If this person is about to leave the faith or has already left the faith, why can’t the same thing happen to you as well?

What should we do about doubts?

We don’t want doubts to linger, but we need to address them patiently and honestly. Where do we begin?

The Abridged, Doubt-Free Bible

If we removed from the Bible every person who doubted God, it would be a very short book. At times doubt is presented as a problem that brings about dire consequences, and there certainly are plenty of stories where doubt led to trouble. Jesus told his followers that they should pray with confidence and James wrote that those who doubt are double-minded and will not receive anything they ask for from God.

We get the impression that a little bit of doubt can ruin everything. A lot of doubt is a sure recipe for disaster.

There certainly may be times when doubt can prove extremely problematic for a Christian, but let’s take a look at a few key Bible stories to see what God did when people struggled with doubt.

We read in the book of Judges that Gideon really didn’t want to fight the Midianites. How could God beat such a powerful armed force with “warrior camels”—the tanks of the ancient world? The horseless and camel-less Israelites would get trampled for sure. But God promised Gideon the victory. This promise wasn’t good enough, and so Gideon “fleeced” God—twice. While we may imagine God sending a thunderbolt to smite Gideon, he played along, soaking and un-soaking the fleece until Gideon ran out of ideas for his fleece.

When the entire nation of Israel turned away from God, God still reached out to them through the prophet Elijah. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel while the people stood back watching. We don’t read about the people doing anything beyond toe-tapping spectating. They weren’t willing to offer their allegiance to either side unless something happened. We usually think that faith must precede every act of God, but sometimes God surprised the Israelites with an extraordinary act to win them back.

Moving on to the disciples of Jesus in the New Testament, let’s just say that Jesus wouldn’t have had a single disciple if doubt disqualified anyone from following him. While the women who followed Jesus had a relatively reliable track record, persevering through some of Jesus’ darkest hours, the men he chose were all over the place. We give Thomas a hard time as a doubter, but let’s face it: those guys were all a mess. Jesus’ catchphrase became, “Why do you have so little faith?” (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20). 

They didn’t know he was the Messiah for quite some time, and even when they started to believe it, Jesus ended up being a completely different Messiah than the one they’d hoped for. When faced with potentially losing their lives alongside Jesus, they all ran for it. Didn’t they have faith in Jesus?

Is doubt a good thing? Well, it’s certainly not God’s ideal. However, the consistent theme throughout Scripture is that God can work with people in the midst of their doubts. Doubt is not a deal breaker. God is patient and powerful enough to wait out our doubts and to win us back, although we should be wary of holding onto our doubts instead of the promises of God. The key for my faith has to do with the math of doubt.

The Math of Doubt

If you’re struggling with doubt, then you’re in a place where your belief and unbelief are held in conflict with each other. It’s not a comfy place to be, but, as we’ve seen over and over again in scripture, Jesus can work with it. While we are warned against “doubting” Jesus, doubt does not disqualify us. 

We tend to think that a little bit of doubt can erase a lot of faith. Is a little bit of faith wiped out by a lot of doubt? All of that doubt must be stronger, right?

That’s not how the math of faith and doubt works.

When a man brought his demon-possessed son to be healed by Jesus’s disciples, his faith was certainly wavering. Everyone had failed him. Perhaps Jesus was his last shot before giving up. His doubt and frustration came through loud and clear to Jesus. When Jesus rebuked him and told him to have faith, the father said one of the most honest things ever in the history of humanity, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

He knew that he was struggling with doubt, but some part of him still believed. He had brought his son to Jesus after all, so he wasn’t completely lost in apathy or despair. He had a tiny bit of faith left, even though he felt overwhelmed by unbelief. You could say this little faith was like a mustard seed. It’s comforting to see how Jesus honored the father’s small, faltering faith.

I used to think that the mere mention of doubt was the end of prayer time. Who could “believe” in Jesus or ask Jesus to do anything while still harboring doubts? That guy! Jesus healed his son even though he confessed doubts.

The math of faith and doubt goes like this: A little faith > a lot of doubt.

Doubt does not necessarily cancel faith. There may be times when doubt will hold us back from God, but there is a process and a tension to faith and doubt.

What would James say about this?

James wasn’t a big fan of doubt. He wrote this about prayer: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6–8).

Perhaps this is too fine a line, but there is a huge difference for me between someone who is completely convinced that God doesn’t exist and the person who prays and confesses struggles with unbelief. The mere mention of our doubts to God shows that we are at least admitting there’s a chance God can do something about them. 

Sometimes the most faith-filled thing you can do is to tell God about all of your doubts, even if you aren’t sure what’s going to happen next.

What if we let God become a part of the process of our believing? What would happen if we spoke with complete honesty to God about everything we don’t understand or struggle to believe? Doesn’t it take faith to just admit to God that we can’t pray in the first place?

It’s not like faith is a commodity that someone can buy and own—something that you either have or don’t have. Faith isn’t instant all of the time. Faith is often a process. Perhaps we overemphasize dramatic conversion stories to the detriment of those who have struggled for their hard-won faith over a series of conversations or after years of struggling with Scripture. 

Surviving Doubt

My current pastor has seen so many people come to faith in Jesus because he gave them space to process their beliefs. He welcomes them where they’re at, pointing out the common ground between them and Jesus and then welcoming them to look into the details further. Perhaps we’ve overemphasized the importance of making sure everyone is on the exact same page or has prayed the same prayer. 

We all find God through different questions and processes. The end result is that Jesus saves. The catch is that sometimes faith comes in an instant, sometimes it takes years, and sometimes it’s lost and only found many years later.

As serious as we need to take doubt as a long-term threat if it’s allowed to grow and overshadow the voice of God in our lives, doubt also simply comes with the territory if you’re living by faith. Doubt is the dark side of the coin for Christianity. We won’t have 100 percent perfect faith all of the time. Have you ever worried about God’s provision or doubted God?

You’re in good company.

Nearly every person who followed Jesus in the New Testament passed through a time of doubt and even struggled with doubts after discovering that Jesus truly was the Messiah. If you haven’t ever doubted something about God, you will eventually. It’s a good thing we know that God answers prayers that confess, “Help my unbelief.” The tiny seed of faith in that prayer is more than enough to help us survive when doubts threaten to upend our faith.

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Don’t forget to check out A Christian Survival Guidejust $2.99 today. 

 

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Mental Illness & The Church: An Interview with Amy Simpson

Last month, I asked readers what topics you wanted to read more about on the blog, and one of the top responses was mental health and the Church. So I scheduled this interview with Amy Simpson days before the tragic death of Robin Williams revealed just how much we need to talk about this. Amy  is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry. She also serves as editor of Gifted for Leadership, Senior Editor of Leadership Journal, a speaker, and a Co-Active personal and professional coach. You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson. Hope you learn as much from this interview as I did: 

 

Tell us a little about your mother and how her struggle with mental illness inspired you to write “Troubled Minds.” 

My mother had mental illness from the time she was a young adult, before I was born. But her illness was somewhat hidden and she was able to function well enough, with some challenges, until I was a teenager. She showed symptoms of a serious disorder, but they weren’t recognized for what they were. After a period of extraordinary stress for our family, her symptoms became much more pronounced. When I was 14, she began having serious psychotic breaks, losing touch with reality and losing the ability to function. After that, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In the decades since then, Mom has spent time in hospitals, homeless shelters, jail, and prison. Her illness affected my family profoundly, but we didn’t talk much about what was happening with her at home. We didn’t feel it was OK to discuss mental illness with others, so we mostly kept quiet about it when we were away from home too. The church, like other places, was mostly silent on this issue and didn’t offer much of the kind of help we needed. We felt very isolated, as if we were the only ones going through the experience.

As I got older and pursued healing for my own wounds, I sought to understand my mom’s illness and how it affected me. I started learning about how common mental illness is—my family was far from alone in our experience. I read other people’s stories and realized how similar they were to ours. I began to understand that the church’s lack of engagement was affecting many more people than just my family. God began to nudge me toward writing on this topic as a ministry to others and a challenge and encouragement to the church.

Your father was a pastor for many years. What did your church do right in responding to your family’s situation, and what did your church do wrong? And what can we learn from that? 

My mom was affected by her illness while Dad was pastoring, but when she became severely ill, Dad had recently left what turned out to be his last pastoral position. So we went through the really rough stuff as active laypeople. My family has always been very involved in church and dedicated to our Christian faith, but we did not receive the help and support we needed from the church. Like other families, we were affected by stigma and a sense of shame that kept us mostly silent about our problems. And church leaders who wanted to help us, for the most part, didn’t know how to help. I don’t blame them for this; they must have been as confused and uncertain as most people are when it comes to mental illness.

In my own experience, what churches have done wrong is mostly remain silent—just ignore mental illness altogether. As a young teenager, I would have been helped tremendously by discussion of mental illness within the church and even within the context of my youth group. My whole family would have benefited from extensions of friendship and offers to help when we were at our lowest. Instead, we felt pressure to pretend as if everything were fine and to put on our best face at church. This had the effect of making me feel as if I needed to do the same in my relationship with God and kept me from really trusting him for a long time. It also forced me to seek answers to my deepest spiritual questions on my own; I didn’t feel I could go to anyone with them. 

The learning, in my view, is that talking about it (and doing so in a way consistent with sound Christian theology) is a great place to start and might accomplish 50 percent of what people need from the church. For people isolated by stigma and fear, it’s powerful to hear an acknowledgement that this kind of suffering exists, that it doesn’t mean God has abandoned them, and that people in the church might be willing to walk through it with them.

One of the most painful elements of mental illness is that it’s marked by isolation, which is exactly the opposite of what people need. Everybody needs community and loving friendship and a place where they belong. And one of the things people with mental illness most need is for this kind of loving community to tighten around them, not to loosen. 

This is one of the things the church can provide. In fact, the church is one of the only places left in our society where community is built in and readily available—at least in theory. So when we do know someone is suffering, we need to draw toward them, not away. It goes against the instinct we often have to pull back in an effort to keep from getting involved in something we’re not sure we can handle. But we can all handle being kind, being loving, extending a hand of friendship.

LifeWay Research recently found that a third of Americans—and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians—believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness. I’ve heard stories from many friends and readers who say their pastors discouraged them from taking psychotropic medication, and even shamed them for it, suggesting that getting help for depression, anxiety, or even bipolar disorder represented a spiritual weakness. Why are teachings like these so dangerous? 

There are two big dangers here. These teachings perpetuate serious misconceptions about what it means to be a Christian. And they discourage people from seeking life-saving help. Most mental illness is highly treatable, with some treatments up to 90 percent effective. But only about half of people who need treatment actually receive it. 

Experts say more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder. About 38,000 in the U.S. die by suicide each year, and some of that blood is on the hands of Christians who have discouraged, or even prohibited, their sisters and brothers from receiving help and hope in a mental health crisis. 

But suicide is not the only risk; this teaching perpetuates darkness and pain. Thousands of people live under a cloud of untreated mental illness, believing they are doomed to misery, their potential and purpose suppressed, and we are all poorer for it. 

I’ve also noticed that many churches discourage members from seeking professional counseling, urging them instead to receive all counseling “in house,” through the church. Why is this problematic? And how can pastors remain personally and pastorally involved in the lives of those struggling with mental illness while also recognizing when it’s time to make a referral? 

Churches need to understand that mental illness is not simply a spiritual condition. While it may be related to a spiritual issue, mental illnesses are real diseases and disorders with biological and environmental causes. People should not be expected to “get over it” or to be cured simply by reading the Bible, praying, and trying to have more faith. There is no reason churches should feel more qualified to address mental illness than other types of illness. I’m not aware of any churches in the US who do heart surgery or physical therapy in the pastor’s office. Churches should address the spiritual needs of people who are receiving help elsewhere, but that help should complement appropriate therapeutic intervention, not replace it. 

Churches can build relationships with mental-health professionals. Most Christian counselors are eager to work in partnership with churches, and many people in treatment will sign consent forms for their doctors or therapists to consult with pastors or other church leaders. When a loving, trusting, and supportive relationship is in place, the church can actively participate in helping people pursue their own health. And when those consent forms are not in place, church leaders can still consult professionals for general advice on how to respond to various types of illness within their congregations. 

You’ve described mental illness as the ‘'no-casserole' illness, meaning faith communities don’t always rally around a person or family suffering from mental illness the way they might a family walking through cancer. What are some practical ways Christians can better respond to their brothers and sisters dealing with mental illness? 

When someone comes to us and says, “I have cancer” or “I broke my leg,” we don’t freak out and think, “I have no idea how to fix that, so I’m going to tell the person to get professional help and walk away.” No, we don’t feel a sense of obligation to cure cancer or reset the person’s broken bone. We know what to do. We pray for them. We ask them what they need. We bring meals to their house to feed their family. We give them rides and make sure their kids are taken care of and even do the laundry.

But when someone is having a mental health problem, our first thought is more likely to be something like “I don’t know how to help with that.” We might tell the person to get professional help and figure we’ve done our job and there’s really nothing more we can do. Why don’t we offer casseroles to people who have a family member in a behavioral health hospital or a depressive funk? Why don’t we make sure they and their families are taken care of? There’s no reason we can’t, and it’s a great place to start because we already know how to do it.

There’s so much more the church can do, but I encourage people to start by thinking about the things you already know how to do for people in crisis.

In Troubled Minds, I profiled 4 churches that have programs specifically designed to offer support to people with mental illness. And there are many more programs out there. But not nearly enough churches are doing that kind of ministry. I hope and believe we are soon going to see many more churches doing so.

For those churches that are ready to do something bigger and more intentional to minister to people affected by mental illness, there are examples to follow. And one of the things many of them have in common is that they are led by people who themselves have a mental illness that they’re managing well, or who have a close family member seriously affected by mental illness. People’s own experiences help them see the desperate need for ministry in this area, and if they have done some healing and they’re not in crisis, they are perfectly positioned to do ministry to other people who are going through the same thing.

 In Troubled Minds, you speak with Christians battling a variety of mental illnesses. What have you personally learned about faith and life from them? 

Those conversations were educational and inspiring. And since the book released last year, I have had so many more. I speak at churches and conferences around the country, and I hear people’s stories. People send me emails. These conversations have deepened my faith and reinforced my belief in God’s incredible power of redemption. I feel like I have a front-row seat on God’s gracious work, and I am more convinced than ever of the truth of Romans 8:35-38. Absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. If death and hell themselves don’t have that power, mental illness certainly doesn’t.

I can’t help but think of my own family, who has been through a lot. All six of us are following Christ. All of my siblings are healthy, whole people engaged in ministry. And all of us are more compassionate, more ready to be used by God because of what we’ve been through. My mom is currently living in an assisted living facility. When my family visited her at Christmas time, we met some of her friends. One of them told us about the tremendous influence Mom has had on the other residents there. This man was not a person of faith, but he recognized the presence of Christ in my mom’s life. Because of her, he said, the other residents had more hope and joy in their lives. Because of her, people felt listened to. They felt like they had a friend. Because she had made it for him, he had a Christmas ornament hanging in his apartment: simply an artistic rendering of the name “Jesus.” And it wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t been there. 

God has a purpose for everyone, and our limitations don’t limit him. People with mental illness are precious to him, and they should be precious to the rest of us.

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Be sure to check out Troubled Minds and Amy's blog.  Or follow Amy on Twitter

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