How are you feeling with the new year having started. For most of us, the old anxieties are still there!
First published on the IVP blog at https://ivpbooks.com/blog/god-helps-chase-away-the-january-blues.html
We have all worried, felt guilty and tried to do better. These are normal feelings that come and go in response to the ups and downs of life. Indeed, it would be very concerning if someone never worried, never felt guilty and always felt they had done enough. Our brains have these inbuilt systems to make us more compassionate, to help us learn and grow and to remind us of our frailty before God.
However, for a substantial part of society, these normal and health brain mechanisms have got out of balance. This can be because of choices (deliberate or accidental) that they have made, but is more typically due to choices other have made or things that happened to them earlier in their lives. This is not to belittle the role of our sinful nature, but it is to say that (in this fallen world) there are other factors at play. It is also to say that the responses our brains make are complex – they arise from our best intentions and what we have learnt; but they can also be unhelpful, counterproductive and not always under our direct control.
Psychologists have been studying the brain intensely for over 100 years and know that normal emotions can tip over into self-perpetuating medical conditions. Worry can become Generalised Anxiety Disorder, guilt can become clinical depression, and perfectionism can become Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In severe depression, for example, the person may theologically be a sinner and (as we are this side of heaven) continue to sin, but their actual sins (plural, actions) are usually less.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have also been learning ways to help – medication that can reduce the burden of neurotic thoughts, therapy to recalibrate the brain mechanisms and learn more healthy ways to be. There are, of course, theological approaches; but asking someone to repent of a sin they haven’t actually committed (even though they may think they have) is unlikely to be helpful.
Instead, what is needed is a blend of theology and psychology, a nuanced understanding of when this might be a sin, when this might be an unhelpful thought cycle and when this might be the ‘old man’ of our fallen state. Jesus is, as always, the destination, but how we get there will always be a mixture of His Grace, our will and things we can learn to do differently. We should also remember that God has given us mental health services just the same as he has given us surgeons and cancer specialists. You might like to ask yourself when it was that you last hear anyone asking for forgiveness specifically because they had found a suspicious lump . . .
These three books (The Worry Book, The Guilt Book and The Perfectionism Book) can take you on this type of journey. They are informed by good theology and good psychology, drawing on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques which is the proven way to help in these conditions. They are also educational, with helpful exercises and spaces for notes, and pastoral – leading you gently yet also being clear where you need to tackle an issue.