Earlier this week, I shared the results of a survey that I had done among my twitter followers picking up on the impact of the pandemic. The survey showed that whilst quite a few people are able to talk positively about the impact on their spiritual health in terms of relationship to church family and feeling closer to God, there are others that are feeling more distant from their church family and would say that they are really struggling with their relationship with God.
The poll also picked up on the question of mental health. 52.6% said that they had a greater concern now about their mental health and 50% said that their mental health was worse now than it was prior to the pandemic. Part of that will be a result of people being more aware of mental health issues now but a significant part of it is also down to anxiety and isolation.
In this article I wanted to pick up on the three things, mental health, relationship to church and relationship to God and just suggest that it might be worth looking at the three together. I would argue that the three are linked and have an impact on each other. In each case, the relationship is likely to be both ways.
First of all, when our relationship with God is not good, when we are struggling to trust him, perhaps even resent him or feel distant from him, then that is going to affect our emotions. We are more likely to be anxious and sad. Secondly, it will affect our attitude to church life because it is our relationship to God that unites us to each other and because when we are feeling distant from God, then we are likely to resent the apparent joy and spiritual fruitfulness that others enjoy. Indeed, we may be tempted to think that everyone else is doing just fine whilst we are struggling. This may well be far from the truth and what we need to hear is that we are not alone.
Secondly, our relationship to others in the church can knock our faith. If we are not benefitting from the encouragement of others, if we feel isolated then that will affect our own personal walk with the Lord. What is more, we can read our perceptions of Christians onto God too. If we believe that the church is distant, unloving, unfaithful then we may begin to believe that God is like that too.
Thirdly, when our mental health is low, which can itself ne a consequence of environmental factors and our physical health then that affects our relationship to others. We may not want company and we may not have the energy to engage. Indeed, for some, the effort involved in engaging online via Zoom is harder than in person gathering. Our feelings about ourselves and about others can again be transferred onto God. I feel unloved and unlovable. I begin to believe that God does not love me.
The result of this is that we have many bruised, hurting and struggling believers among us. For quite a few, it is only as we are coming out of the pandemic that the true depths of their pain and brokenness are becoming evident, even to themselves. This requires a lot of wise pastoral care.
First of all we need to recognise that there is an element of hurt and the need for healing here. People are suffering because they live in a broken world, the pain of isolation and of grief is effecting them. They may well be suffering from the aftereffects of physical ill health whether through Long COVID or recovery from other conditions where treatment may not has been as effective as normal through lockdown.
Secondly, we cannot ignore that for some people they are struggling because they have been sinned against. We must sadly include the way in which churches including leaders and members have hurt and let down other believers. This may well have been during the pandemic and it may have been unintentional but there are many people who feel that their church and others abandoned them at the point of greatest need. Then there are those for whom the pandemic hit at an already weak point and brought things to a head, or brought them into the light where they’d been suffering in unhealthy church contexts for years.
Thirdly, the hardest thing to say and yet still so important is that our own sin will affect our relationship to God, to others and yes to ourselves in terms of our mental health. This is the trickiest responsibility for pastors here but part of your job is to help people see where God has used their circumstances to test and prove them, to highlight areas of sin in their own life. And yes, at times, we have been tempted by and through the pandemic to make choices that have not been helpful to our relationship with God, others and ourselves.
Pastoring our way out of the pandemic will require gentle but firm compassion as we seek to help people hear God. Practically, we’ll need to spot where people need medical help with mental health issues and underlying causes. We’ll also need to give time to help people find spiritual healing. At the same time, exactly because we love and care for the hurting, there needs to be a willingness son our part to confront sin too, not in a legalistic way but pointing brothers and sisters to grace and to the one who offers restoration, justification, reconciliation and sanctification.