faith Mental Health The Struggle With Church

Pastor: Not Sure How to Respond to Suffering? Start Here.

I’m not a theologian, my expertise comes only from personal suffering (as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a suicide attempt). But it seems to me that theology—at least the Western version of evangelical Christianity I’ve been steeped in—is as much about our views of self as it is our study of God. To say that another way: what we believe about God strongly influences what we believe about ourselves. And if our theology doesn’t make room for suffering, we do not know God well enough.

​If our theology doesn't make room for suffering, we don't know God well enough. via @iamsteveaustin

Click to Tweet
Pastor: Not Sure How to Respond to Suffering? Start Here.

Pastor: Not Sure How to Respond to Suffering? Start Here.

For the first thirty years of my life, fear, shame, and guilt were the cornerstones of my brand of religion. We said things like, “God is love,” but as soon as a newcomer placed both feet through the church doors, we started emphasizing just how rotten we all are.

The sad truth is this: toxic churches are a lot like an abusive marriage. We keep going back, hoping we won’t screw up again and that somehow we’ll learn a new trick to garner the approval of church leadership (which we wrongly internalize as the love and acceptance of God).

So many of the sages of our faith communities come from the same basic demographic: they're white, they're straight, and they're male. And there's nothing wrong with being those things. But what about the vast majority of people who don’t fit that description? 

When we tell the women to “go home” and refuse to listen to the rage of people of color, the frustrations of the disabled, the questions of the young, and ​just keep putting up barriers against our brothers and sisters who are LGBTQIA+, why wouldn’t they also infer that God doesn’t care about them​?

As Rev. Broderick Greer says: 

“​While some do theology from the perches of power and privilege, others of us do theology as a form of survival. Never at one point during my short twenty-five years... of thinking about and reflecting upon God, Scripture, Church, or Life have I not wrestled with how these realities intersect with my own lived experience.”

If the very communities who boldly proclaim the name of Jesus actually just mean, “us four and no more,” why wouldn’t people begin to believe that if their story doesn’t matter to the church, their life also doesn’t matter to God? 

The world today is extremely diverse, but you wouldn’t know it by the Stepford Wives version of Christianity we often display on Sunday mornings across America. This is why I firmly believe the Church of Jesus Christ is culpable in the epidemic of despair we are seeing today. 

Each time we Christians refuse entry into our Sunday morning country clubs, we push people further into things like alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide. And Jesus weeps over our modern Jerusalem, calling us “broods of vipers” and “white-washed tombs.” We were called to be light-bearers, but we have become nothing but agents of fear. It is time for the Church to embrace the tension between deep suffering and exuberant joy.

Pastor: Not Sure How to Respond to Suffering? Start Here.

​So, what can you do?

In a nutshell: be with them.

Responding to a recent survey I posted, "Bob," a former senior pastor, shared his experience and some hard-won wisdom for church leaders who want to get it right: 

I wish we could be more honest in the Church. I wish that there was a better understanding that there is far more to mental health issues than just faith or lack of faith, or spiritual warfare. There are chemical components, stress issues, etc. But the Church, in general, tries to spiritualize it all away and encourage you to just “trust God” and “let go and let God.” Listen. Really listen. Ask probing questions, and don’t be afraid to be upfront about the fact that you won’t judge or offer simplistic solutions.

In moments of grief or loss or shame, hurting people need to know there’s not some magic formula to make everything all better, and there’s no way to fast-forward out of pain. There is only the present moment. There is only their broken heart and the one decision that they have to make next. There is only self-compassion and taking things as slowly as they need to, and praying to God that they have an empathetic support system around them who will refuse to leave them alone.

We all want to focus on the end, whether we’re the one suffering or the one witnessing the suffering. But there’s not any guaranteed outcome, and promising one encourages people to invest in false hope—a foundation of shifting sand that will eventually cause their one precious house of cards to collapse. 

I know that focusing on the “right now” feels insufficient when we are crushed beneath the weight of all that is happening in the world today.  In a crisis, we want to hear something hopeful or believe in the miraculous or cross our fingers that we’ll wake up from this nightmare. When we are living our own worst-case scenario, it’s tough to stay present in the moment. But remaining here, right now, living through this, is the one thing that keeps a broken heart from shattering into a million tiny pieces.

​Suffering isn't one-size-fits-all. If you're trying to help someone who is suffering, start with these tips. via @iamsteveaustin

Click to Tweet

​Tips for ​Practicing Presence

Have you ​lived through a terrible or traumatic experience? ​Previous experience can come in handy in helping others ​​process ​their own suffering.

​Suffering isn't one-size-fits-all. If you are trying to help someone who is ​suffering...

  • Don’t try to force your experience on them
  • What worked for you may not work for everyone
  • Hone in on how the person is coping
  • And go from there

Stay silent and listen. When ​co-suffering with someone, sometimes...

  • The best advice is to stay silent and listen
  • They are trying to come to grips with things
  • They don’t want to hear “it’ll get better”
  • Just let them do most of the talking

​Compassionate, non-judgmental presence is one of the key ​ways to survive suffering. ​It keeps us breathing. It enables us to take just one small step forward. ​I’m sorry pastor, but it’s your presence - not your preaching - that heals us.

​Pastor: it's your presence - not your preaching - that heals us. via @iamsteveaustin

Click to Tweet

​Download My Free Self-Care Journal

Snag the Catching Your Breath Journal today, and get weekly encouragement and hope from me!

By Steve Austin

Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.