Sunday, October 16, 2022

Bread Alone

I might need to get back into therapy.

It's been a couple of rough years for everyone, and the normal level of animosity and defensiveness in society has ratcheted up to the point where marriages, families, and churches are exploding in gory messes of latent hostility. It may be that we've all got recent trauma that needs healing, or it may be that the age of social media and politics has revealed our true selves, no longer content to hide behind an avatar. Either way, people ain't right, and we could all use some help with our mental health, myself included. 

A tall apartment building made of brick with a weathered sign on the side that reads, "How are you, really?"
A tall apartment building made of brick with a weathered sign on the
side that reads, "How are you, really?"
Photo by Finn on Unsplash

And yet, there are so many voices discouraging us from pursuing that help, dissuading us from seeking out mental health specialists. For men especially, it's a taboo, something that flies in the face of the tough guy stereotype that pervades our culture in film and music, even the church. Maybe even especially the church. I can't even count how many times I've seen pastors or so-called theobros on Twitter mocking therapy as some kind of safe space for sissies, or worse, something anti-god or anti-Christian.

In their anti-therapy rants (which generally expose both their ignorance and their need for therapy) a lot of them like to quote Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." It seems like a dunk on those who need therapy to help correct situations like grief, depression, or marital and family issues. The thing about Jesus' words there is that he doesn't say that we don't need bread, just that faith and specifically Scripture is as life-giving to our soul as food is to our body. It would be stupid to say that we could survive without food - or medicine, or education, or family, or any number of the necessities of life - as long as we read the Bible enough. Another way I've seen it said is that "Scripture is sufficient." This might sound a lot more spiritual, but again, what does it mean? What is Scripture sufficient for? Certainly for faith and salvation, but for cooking advice? For medical counseling? For depression or any other mental health issues? At the risk of sounding blasphemous, can the Scriptures alone, separate from all the science and data from the last few decades, help me raise my kids when our situation is complicated? There seems to be a whole lot of ground left uncovered between the "spare the rod and spoil the child" of the Old Testament and the "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger" of the New Testament. As a parent, how am I supposed to fill in those gaps?

Furthermore, for blended families, the need for both family therapy and personal therapy is even more crucial. It should almost be a requirement. I have to admit, I was slow to embrace therapy in the beginning of our marriage. My wife pushed for it nearly from the beginning. I, on the other hand, thought we had some normal problems that time and love would work out. I knew how much my kids and I had benefitted from therapy during those years of single fatherhood, but I wanted to believe that we had outgrown that need now that we were a new, happy family. Ultimately, things got hot enough that I had to admit that she was right, and we found a good family and marriage counselor to help us out. I don't think our family dynamic would have turned out as well as it did without that help and guidance.

Conventional church wisdom told me to talk to the pastor, or read the Bible more. Those are certainly necessary aspects of the solution, but, alone, not going to produce results. Blended families are different. Blended families are born out of pain and trauma. Somebody died. Somebody left. Everybody suffered. Stepchildren and stepparents, as well as adopted children and adopted parents, have unique traumas that require more healing that a well-intentioned, but untrained, pastor can provide. Generally speaking, most pastors are men, married, have never been through divorce, and lack extensive training in marriage counseling. Pastors, even the best, most highly educated ones, may have studied theology extensively, but only taken one or two courses in counseling, if that. Many MDiv programs don't require it at all. Both experientially and professionally, they lack the tools to actually guide broken families towards healing, and may do more harm than good. 

And beware of Christian counselors who have special practices in counseling, but also lack the credentials or experience to deal with issues involving mental health. I'm not saying that a Christian counselor is not adequate or even preferable, but as with any specialist, we should make sure we ask the right questions and look past the cross hanging on the wall of their office to the diplomas and certifications hanging there as well.

To make it even more complicated, there is a pervasive but often unspoken aversion in the church to taking our flaws and failures outside our faith "bubbles." After all, we're supposed to be the city on a hill, we don't get depressed or anxious, and if we do, prayer and fasting drives it away like roaches when the light comes on. Our children respond perfectly to the prescribed methods of discipline, and our marriages are all glorious pictures of Christ and his Bride, right? It feels like a betrayal to the church to look for guidance outside its walls.

We'd rather starve than eat the bread in the bakery right across the street and admit that we need help that the church doesn't provide.

So, in case you needed permission or a little push to start searching for a therapist in your area, now you have it. Whether that means you are seeking help with mental health or family issues, do your research, get references, and get started. If you need more encouragement, here's a couple of podcast episodes that might help.

The first is from Truth's Table, back in April of 2022, discussing the need for therapy in general, but more specifically for matters of church hurt and even spiritual abuse. Imagine having trauma related to the church, or even a pastor, and being told to just read the Bible more or sit down with other church officials to find healing.

The second is from a podcast created by a couple of friends of mine called Michel Matters. In this episode, among other topics, they discuss therapy and its usefulness in their lives. 

As much as I hope that you get something out of these podcasts, please remember that media is no replacement for professional help from a mental health or family therapist. Just like physical therapy after an accident or some trauma to the body, the sooner you get started, the sooner healing begins.

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