Where I come from, Christians typically regard the practice of seeing a therapist with suspicion.
This is because I hail from a long line of evangelicals who generally frown upon anything that smacks of “intellectualism.” Why do they frown on intellectualism? Because they are the spiritual progeny of the modern fundamentalists.
You remember those guys. They were the ones who retreated into a Christian sub-culture of their own making after losing the battle of modernity to the liberal theologians of the early 20th century. They were the theological equivalent of the kid on the playground who took his ball (or Bible, in this case) and went home.
Anyway, this historical trend has resulted in a peculiar religious climate that still prevails throughout most of the Bible Belt in southern America. Within this climate, you’ll hear zealous young Christians refer to seminary as the “cemetery,” or you’ll get accused of trying to “confuse” people if you refer to theological concepts that go beyond a simple heaven-and-hell message.
There are problems with this mentality, of course, and in the past few years, I’ve become aware of a few them through my work with the opioid crisis.
Don’t ask, why the addiction
For instance, most people with substance use disorder also have co-occurring issues that underlie and interact with their chemical dependency. What this means is that for people with a drug addiction, the main problem is usually not drugs.
In the words of Gabor Mate, who believes that most addictions derive from unresolved childhood trauma, we must ask “not why the addiction, but why the pain?”
Drug use is one way among many that people have found to cope with the burden of unresolved pain. To tackle the substance abuse problem, then, they need to find a safe place in which to deal honestly with their interior wounds.
Sadly, I have to admit that the Church has not always been the safest place for people who wrestle with addiction. Hell, it’s not always been the safest place for people in general.
The fact of the matter is that too many people have been hurt in churches because the churches held no space for folks dealing with serious mental health challenges or addiction issues. In addition, some churches have attempted to deal with these issues in house, yet without proper education or training, and have harmed people all the more.
Spiritual bypassing is a real thing, man. In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of spiritual bypassing, John Welwood described it as “[using] spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks” (Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation). This practice is rampant throughout the Christian world as well as other faith traditions.
And yet there have been bright spots as well, where communities of faith have found ways to integrate the path of Christian discipleship with other helpful fields of service. I hope to encourage this integration in my current setting as part of my effort to re-imagine the practice of faith in a post-Christian society. I’m convinced that churches must learn how to recognize and deal with all the bio-psycho-social aspects of human brokenness — the whole person — instead of regarding sin as a purely “spiritual” issue that exists on a plane separate from the rest of our problems.
If you think I’m over-blowing the issue, I would urge you to look at the statistics and listen to the stories. This vacuum of service has literally become a life-or-death issue for some people. Suicide rates are skyrocketing throughout American society, and faith communities should be on the front lines of this epidemic as part of the solution, not the problem.
There are many things we can do to improve our track record on this difficult subject, but for now, at the very least, a simple acknowledgment is due: Despite what you may have been told, dear Christian, it’s alright to have Jesus and a therapist, too.