Bullying and Spirituality
There are many, many different Christian denominations, and many, many different types of Christians within those denominations. Uniting the high and the low, the conservative and the liberal, the formal and the informal, is the truth of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
But there is something else that crosses the denominational boundaries - and that is a near-universal misunderstanding of the nature of psychiatric illnesses and injuries. All too often wounded Christians are further hurt as churches force on them spiritual diagnoses and spiritual solutions totally inappropriate to the problem.
The psychological and the spiritual
A human being has physical aspects, psychological aspects and spiritual aspects. But many Christians make the fundamental mistake of ignoring the existence of the psychological and equating it with the spiritual. So when a Christian suffers from depression, anxiety or any other form of emotional disorder they immediately jump to the conclusion that the problem must be spiritual.
So we may be surprised to realise how many so-called "spiritual" problems are actually down to changes in our body chemistry (hormones) - caused by things which are often outside our control like stress, trauma, medication and tiredness. Many emotional responses occur independently of our spirituality, and are nothing more than the human body's normal reaction to our circumstances.
These changes in our body chemistry, however, may affect our spirituality. For example, someone suffering from a depressive illness may find that this has a knock-on effect on their spirituality - they may find it impossible to pray or they may begin to doubt their faith. But these spiritual problems are an effect of the depression and not the cause. Deal with the depression and the spirituality will recover. Deal only with the spiritual aspects and the problem is likely to get worse as the person gets trapped in the cycle of being depressed, feeling guilty, trying harder, failing, becoming more depressed and so-on.
Judging the wounded
Bullied people often suffer extreme traumatic stress which results in psychiatric injury. This term may be slightly misleading as much of the injury can be related to physiological changes in body chemistry leading to physical changes in the brain.
Nevertheless, it is not unusual for well-meaning Christians to focus only on the spiritual aspects of the problem. Often the approach is very judgemental - "You are anxious, where is your confidence in Christ?", "You are depressed, where is your joy in the Lord?", "You are stressed, you need to pray for God's peace". Judgement followed by prescription - and often backed up with Bible verses to strengthen the message. And all this with very little understanding of what psychiatric injuries really are!
What happens? The wounded Christian feels guilty and begins to question if everything that has happened to them is in reality their own fault, and down to their own spiritual failure - a destructive process that is easily helped along by further "spiritualising" of the problems. Guilt feelings can very easily be induced in damaged, vulnerable people and doing so, even unintentionally, can (and probably should) be considered as a form of spiritual abuse. Feeling guilty is not the same as being guilty - but the damaged Christian may be unable to tell the difference.
Is the bullying from God?
As well as spiritualising the injuries, we can do great damage by spiritualising the bullying which caused them - "God allowed it to happen, he has something important to teach you, he's leading you into a new direction". I have no doubt that God can bring good things out of devastating circumstances, but I don't believe he ever wants people to be bullied - it is too destructive.
So why does it happen? I am not sure there is any totally satisfactory answer - any more than we can explain away cancer, murder, or natural disasters. Pain and suffering are part of the world as we know it. Bullying and abuse do not happen in order to teach us spiritual lessons - any more than rape or violence do.
Respecting the wounded
Instead of judging wounded Christians we need to respect them. And respecting them means loving them for who they are, where they are - without judgement, without prescription and without seeking to manipulate them.
Bully-damaged Christians need from the church love, understanding, validation, acceptance, friendship, sympathy, empathy, encouragement, ongoing practical support, warmth and compassion. They also need to be allowed plenty of time to work through their pain and come to terms with what has happened. Respecting these needs, without pressure or expectation, allows them to take control of their own circumstances within a safe environment, and will ultimately help them to heal.
And spirituality? Is it even an issue? God created us and he is loving. I am certain he understands the wounds that bullying causes and that he tends them lovingly; he embraces us through the suffering and through the healing, and reaches out to us even when we cannot reach out to him.
A Practical Workbook for the Depressed Christian by Dr John Lockley (Word Books)
Understanding Stress Breakdown by Dr William Wilkie (Newleaf)
I Can't Get Over It - A Handbook for Trauma Survivors by Aphrodite Matsakis PhD (New Harbinger Publications, Inc.)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - The Invisible Injury by David Kinchin (Success Unlimited)
Bully in Sight by Tim Field (Success Unlimited)
BALM Home Page
Introducing the Founders of BALM
How to Support a Bullied Minister
What Not to Say to a Bullied Minister
How Bullying has Affected Me
Bullying and Spirituality
Links to Other Websites and Organisations
Counselling with Care
Bullied in Ministry
Bullying in the Church
Bullying and Burnout
Submission on Clergy Stress
Additional Resources on Church Abuse