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The Danger of Over-Spiritualizing Mental Health

The Danger of Over-Spiritualizing Mental Health

I’d been having nightmares for years. And, after watching a thriller film, I had another in which I was haunted by a garbled, disembodied voice. When my youth leader, a 30-something-year-old father with a fixation on spiritual warfare, asked how I was, I mentioned the dream.

It was summer, and the youth group was holding its Wednesday night meeting at San Clemente Beach. The youth leader listened with rapt attention. He took me aside and asked if he could pray for me. I nodded, grateful for his empathy. Until he began to speak.

Manifest yourself and speak your demands!” he commanded, but he wasn’t talking to me.

My throat tightened and I was too surprised by the anger in his face to move or object.

He peered into my eyes, as if he expected to find a glowering demon looking back. He should have just seen me, a frightened 15-year-old girl with undiagnosed clinical anxiety.

I told my parents about my exorcism when I got home that night, and they dialed the church to vent their concerns to the youth pastor. Despite this, a few weeks later, the same leader was asked to give the youth group a talk about all the evil spirits that lurked among us. My frustrated parents began calling him “The Resident Demonologist.”

There was no evidence I was spiritually oppressed; I just had anxiety and nightmares, but that exorcism formed one of the first hairline fractures between me and the rest of the Body of Christ. It left me feeling ashamed, isolated from my church, and on guard during the Sunday services I had once looked forward to.

In the five years since, I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety, a common and treatable mental health disorder, and I’ve come to realize that God is ever present in my suffering, teaching me to lean on Him when I can’t trust my own mind. This struggle has also made me more sensitive to a major issue in the church: the over-spiritualization of mental health.

I noticed it cropping up in conversations with other Christians. My friends with anxiety were told they needed to trust God more. My friends with depression were told they needed more faith. My friends with trauma were told that everything happens for a reason. Almost none of them found someone to listen, bear their burdens, or give their suffering more than a perfunctory glance before pronouncing it a spiritual ailment. Because of this, many people, including myself, experience more anxiety inside the walls of our church — our sanctuary — than any other location.

I finally left that church and joined another — the place where many of those who left the first congregation landed. I was tense at first, waiting for some offhand comment to trigger my fight-or-flight response. But the service was beautiful. I even cried during worship and wondered if I could feel safe here.

When a pastor and his wife heard that I had been hurt by the church before they invited me to their house to talk. I manifested my courage and told them I’d come. I barely knew them, and, as I drove to their house near the beach, I fought the anxiety clawing at my throat.

That afternoon, we sat out in their courtyard and talked, while their two elderly dachshunds sniffed around my ankles. The pastor’s eyes welled up as I told my story and his wife got us tissues. They listened to what happened to me. There was no sermon or admonition. They didn’t try to fix me. Instead, they apologized for what others had done to me in the name of Christ.

“It shouldn’t have happened to you,” they said. “If your friends, from any church, ever want someone to listen, we’re here. We’d be honored.”

When I was leaving that day, the pastor pressed a beautiful, ancient, hardcover book from his personal library into my hands because he knew I was interested in the author. I tried to express my gratitude for the memento, but words couldn’t capture the tears of joy trapped behind my eyes.

I drove away with the book in my passenger seat, wishing to never forget the sublime sense of relief I was feeling. A sea breeze was coming in through the windows. Jimmy Eat World blasted through my speakers.

I breathed deep.

They’d seen me. That was all I had ever wanted.

Hope filled my lungs.

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