If, like me, you were raised in the church, then I’m sure at some point you became aware of the Christian dialogue around suffering and negative experiences. This dialogue can range anywhere between warm, emotionally-laden sentimentality to cold judgment and blame. As a result, I have noticed that people of faith often struggle with how to think about, feel about, and respond to the negative events that occur in their lives, whether those events are stressful seasons or full-blown traumatic events. By the time they arrive to the therapy couch, their poor minds are full to the brim with platitudes, judgments, superficial encouragement, and scriptures taken out of context and sloppily applied to their situation. They are exhausted from the mental gymnastics of trying to be faithful in the middle of trial. I’m hoping today that we can unpack some of that dynamic and bring some peace to weary minds.
First, let’s talk about how negative experiences are part and parcel of life. They are universal experiences that happen to us all, and no one exits this life without experiencing a few hard times. Yet, people of faith often struggle with some magical thinking around this concept, attributing a minor infraction on their part to be the cause of misfortune, large or small. Typically, I will kindly point out that I must in the presence of a person of great power if they are able to control the world that way, and yes, that kind of power and responsibility is likely to produce a great deal of stress.
Light sarcasm and humor aside, the error in this thinking typically runs along the lines of a belief that says “If I would have been a better person, this bad thing wouldn’t have happened to me”. Whew, talk about pressure! But unfortunately, this thinking error typically doesn’t travel alone. It is often accompanied by another belief that says “Since it did happen to me, I must be bad”, and with that, along comes the final belief in this trifecta of self-blame that says, “Since I am bad enough for this thing to happen to me, I really must deserve it”. And with that, my faithful friend is buried beneath the heaviest pile of shame and undeserved blame a human can endure.
With this new belief system in place in the mind, now every negative event is filtered through it. Over time, this becomes a negative feedback loop that reinforces the belief and creates behaviors to prove that the belief is true. People may struggle with this for months, years, or decades before reaching out for help. Sadly, some never do reach out and spend a lifetime under the enormous weight of shame. I hope to prevent that fate for as many people as possible, so may I offer you a few new thoughts if you find yourself nodding in recognition of any part of the pattern I’ve mentioned above?
First of all, know that your Creator wired you in such a mind-blowingly beautiful way to manage negative experiences that helps you survive, cope, and heal. Built inside of you is everything you need to preserve your well-being and survive under stress. Even your negative emotions serve their purposes inside of this mechanism, as they are the warning bell that sends the necessary systems into action to act for your protection and safety.
Second, you are doing nothing wrong and everything right when you experience those negative emotions and uncomfortable sensations. When we try to shut down the first sign of discomfort or anxiety, we are disrupting that holy and life-giving mechanism that is working towards managing, mitigating, and mending the stressful, painful, or traumatic stimuli.
Finally, allow the process to do its good work in you. We are better served by accepting the reality of the negative situation, calling it what it is, and allowing (even welcoming) the temporary, uncomfortable emotions and negative states and letting them do their work. Ride the wave, baby. Once the wave has crested (and it always does), engage in some serious self-care individually and inside of a safe, connected community.
You don’t have to carry the weight of the world, friends of faith. Jesus was human, too. He knows about riding the waves the negative experiences, and he set a pretty great example of how to care for oneself during those stressful seasons. Whether he was retreating to the mountains for some alone time, reclining at a table with his closest friends, or spending time in prayer and meditation, all of those practices were serving a very human need for healing and managing stress. I mean, the man also did a fair amount of walking, so you even have a case for cardio, if that’s your thing.
Over all, my wish for people of faith is to experience the peace and freedom promised by an active, healthy spiritual life. I really believe the first step in that direction is checking our thoughts and making sure that they are in line with the reality of our human experiences and limits, as well as our faith experiences. If the process of unpacking those thoughts starts to feel a little confusing or entirely overwhelming, then reach out for support from a trusted source, be it a trusted member of your faith community or a professional therapist. I promise you won’t regret the journey.