How good is too good?

May 10, 2017 by

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Have you ever had the nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something extremely important?

What about that sinking or jolting feeling when you miss a step and your foot hits air?

Imagine this feeling was constant. An ever-present buzz in your brain. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes it is the mild drone of a small fan, noticed only when all other distractions cease. Sometimes it’s an urgent murmur that’s difficult to ignore.

Sometimes it swells to a roar that swallows you whole. It wraps its fingers around your chest and throat and squeezes. Hard. It narrows your vision. It swirls in your ears. It sends your thoughts into a tailspin, and you know for a fact that you are spiraling into the deepest pit of hell.

But no matter the volume, the dread is always there. Even in your dreams.

Your brain scrambles to explain the unease. It tries anything to make it go away. Anything for peace.

This is what happens when your mind has become a slave to fear.

It happened to me. It could happen to me again. I’ve seen it happen to others.

In conservative Anabaptist circles, anxiety can manifest as scrupulosity. That’s a big word for a form of obsessive compulsive disorder which targets moral or religious thoughts and behavior. It is an unhealthy guilt which drives the affected person to perform rituals as he or she attempts to silence the sense of doom.

These rituals take different forms. Prayers, chants, attending church functions and more unorthodox things. One might be so terrified of telling a lie that he can barely answer a question for the fear of not answering correctly. Someone may make so many overlapping promises to God that she’s somehow promised herself into being unable to click “like” on Facebook without sending a scriptural card to someone first.

However it manifests, the affected people suffer. They become paralyzed. Crippled. Exhausted. Any joy they would have had in their relationships with Jesus is stripped away and replaced with fear and despair.

It is a living hell, and I hate seeing other young people walk through it.

I don’t know whether or not conservative Anabaptists have more anxiety than the population at large. I doubt we do. Anxiety is a massive problem in the general population. Obsessive compulsive disorder is found across the country. Scrupulosity is not at all limited to Mennonites.

But I do think that when Mennonites have anxiety and other mental problems, those problems tend to build themselves upon spiritualized rationale as opposed to things like a fear of germs.

Disclaimer: I don’t mean for this to be some venomous attack on my denomination. I’ve had a truly blessed experience with my home church, and I continue to do so. I think my upbringing holds tremendous value.

But there are a few things we do that seem to contribute to the problem of spiritualized mental illness.

We disavow eternal security.

The average Mennonite is no Calvinist. We do think you can lose your salvation. We believe there is no small sin, and that a holy God cannot be in the presence of any degree of sin. We believe that Christians must live a life of repentance, constantly turning from evil instead of relying on a one-time prayer.

I do believe these things are true. However, an anxiety-vulnerable person is, well, anxiety-vulnerable. When he or she hears something urgent but somewhat vague, or even not that vague, his or her mind defaults to a position of doubt.

“Am I saved? Was I saved? Have I lost my salvation? I don’t really do anything that special. I just live my life like I was raised to. That’s not special.”

We handle grace clumsily sometimes. I guess that’s why we need it.

Grace is a tremendous and mind-blowing concept. It also doesn’t seem to sink in properly until each of us is ready for it. I grew up in a church where we at least try to teach it.

Even then, things have gotten awkward. We speak of grace, but then we imply that every wrongdoing must be made right with God before we’re safe to meet him. Snapped at someone this morning? Better pray for forgiveness in case you die today.

We speak of grace, but a well-known minister stands behind the pulpit and says, “Young ladies, don’t you know that if your dress causes a man to sin, you are going to hell?!?”

And it doesn’t seem all that gracious.

Sometimes we insist on further spiritualizing a mental problem.

As human beings, we have a knack for complicating what should be simple and simplifying what should be complicated. I think the idea is fading, but there are still those who believe mental problems such as depression and anxiety are more like moods or character flaws than illnesses. Depressed people should try something that makes them feel good and stop feeling sorry for themselves. Anxious people should just be rational and stop being so insecure.

This mentality fails to account for the fact that the brain is an organ with as much potential to misfire as the pancreas or the heart. Given the astounding complexity of the brain, I’d argue that it has even more potential to mess up. It can often be rewired, with time, but it definitely messes up and will always have weaknesses.

The misinterpretation of mental illness gets even uglier when spiritualized reasoning is thrown into the mix.

I remember sitting in a class at a Bible school as a classmate expressed concern about a friend of hers. This woman appeared to be dealing with a hypersensitive conscience. She was acutely worried about doing wrong, and the fear had robbed joy from her life. The teacher attempted to justify this by explaining — with the help of a diagram — that my classmate’s friend may be projecting the guilt over a truly severe mystery-sin onto a bunch of other, smaller wrongdoings.

That was years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if said teacher has since changed his views on the subject. It was, however, just the sort of ominous insinuation that could send a vulnerable person into a tailspin.

And what of skepticism of modern medicine? Do you know of anyone who believes that taking medication for mental illness is a sign of faithlessness? There are those who assert that a mental problem is solely a spiritual one with only a spiritual solution. Perhaps, if the person suffering from serious anxiety just believed in God’s protection harder, he or she wouldn’t be going through this, right???

Right????

Spiritual problems exist, but we must be careful not to inject them where they don’t. A person with scrupulosity already overly moralizes and spiritualizes things. That’s part of their problem.

Those are some of my thoughts. Again, this is not meant to be a scathing attack, nor is it really meant as blame. These are things I think we could do better to help those suffering and perhaps prevent it.

I want to help. I want to use my journey to help those with the same struggles. I want this to help those who don’t have those struggles to understand. I want it to help us as a community to notice when someone is suffering, and to know how to point those individuals to grace.

There is healing. There is hope. There is joy. It can come.

It might not come in a tidy formulaic package, but by the grace and timing of God it can come.

Lilian Stoltzfus is a registered nurse and a member of a Keystone Mennonite Fellowship congregation in central Pennsylvania. She blogs at Here Be Veiled Dragons, where this post first appeared.


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  • Rainer Moeller

    Well, mental health is a problematic concept. Freud defined mental health as “the ability to work and the ability to love”, which could be translated as the ability to fulfill your master’s commands and thereafter to relax from the tensions of work by sexual activity. But in any case Freud defines it by functional goals: you are mentally healthy if you are able to reach some goals, which in Freud’s case are, of course, innerworldly.
    This would make the concept difficult for people who want to reach goals which are out of the world.

  • Harold Miller

    Vivid writing, and wise, perceptive words, Lilian!

    You mention that our lack of belief in “eternal security” makes us vulnerable to mental anxiety. Here’s an interesting study described by Christena Cleveland in Disunity in Christ (p142):

    “…we led Calvinist and Arminian participants to believe that they were moral failures, and then we looked to see what this did to their self-esteem and self-awareness levels. … We discovered that after an experimenter suggested to Arminians that they were not living up to their moral standards, their self-awareness spiked and their self-esteem plummeted. But Calvinists didn’t show any change in self-awareness or self-esteem after it was suggested that they were not living up to their moral standard. …naturally, Calvinists were free from care because they believe that their salvation is secure.”

    I’m not bringing this up to advocate eternal security! I agree with you on not teaching it. (My short explanation: Calvinists feel the force of the many verses appearing to teach that our salvation is secure and eternal and then they “allow concern for logical consistency to lead them to explain away” the many verses appearing to teach that one who has received salvation can be lost.) But pastorally, since the Bible does use the language of our salvation being eternally secure, we also can do that whenever we are talking to persons continually fearing for their salvation. (If we don’t let ourselves use that language, then we have allowed a logical system of theology to be higher than our Bible!)

    • Lilian Stoltzfus

      Thank you for your comment!