By Sharon Hargrave, LMFT
In a world where trauma, emotional pain and relational disconnection are pervasive, healing can seem unattainable. However, I am convinced that even in the most poignant suffering, there is a way to transformative healing. I know because I have experienced it firsthand.
When I was three, my father died by suicide. My oldest brother, Bruce, died suddenly of acute leukemia when I was four. My second oldest brother, David, and his date were murdered when I was 13. Bipolar disorder runs rampant in my family, and addiction is present in every generation. Yet in my adult years, I have lived a somewhat normal life: happily married for 40 years with two adult children who love to come home. Since we know trauma is a disrupter in stable, loving relationships, what makes my story different?
For me, it was the combination of church and therapy. When I was young, my home church held my family and me close. We had men who fathered us and families who gathered around us. Organizations like Navigators and Young Life taught me deep, biblical truths and how to enjoy a life following Christ. A Christian camp near my hometown made every summer a three-month reprieve when “family” surrounded me and gave me identity.
When I was older, my studies to become a marriage and family therapist taught me about relational attachment, the importance of defining myself outside of my trauma and why it was difficult for me to commit to marriage and having children. In the early years, I would have told you the problems in my marriage were because of my husband. I didn’t understand that the childhood trauma I had experienced was creeping into my adult life.
In my journey as a Christian and as a therapist, I have watched these two perspectives seem to drift apart. The therapy world has told us to have strong boundaries and to get rid of toxic people in our lives—contributing, I think, to the highest rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness ever recorded. The Church, on the other hand, has told us to forgive everyone, leaving people in destructive relationships that crush identity. Both perspectives offer some truth. We do need to have the strength to get away from extremely damaging relationships. However, we must also realize that everyone in our lives will make mistakes—as will we—and cutting everyone out of our lives doesn’t solve the problem.
Do Christians understand that it is okay to make mistakes, to have family problems, to struggle with anxiety or fall into an addiction? What if these trials enter my family system? Does it make me less of a Christian for me or my family to struggle?
As executive director of the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine University, and as a person committed to helping Christian leaders live well, I think a lot about what Christians and mental healthcare providers can do to help people connect and build strong ties. In commissioning this study with Barna, our team wanted to know how churches are doing both in helping people deepen relationships and in supporting those who are struggling with relationships and mental health concerns. We wanted to know whether practicing Christians as well as non-Christians see the Church as a place to receive hope and healing. We wondered if pastors feel prepared to help relationships heal and to give guidance to those dealing with mental health problems. How can our center help leaders deal with their own issues related to marriage, parenting, singleness and healthy intimacy, while also coaching them to help individuals and families through the pain of issues like pornography, addiction, anxiety and depression? How can churches and mental healthcare providers work together?
One of the many significant findings in this study indicates that people who address their relationship concerns and mental health struggles at church experience greater spiritual growth. Bearing one another’s burdens, it seems, does lighten the load (see Galatians 6). Whether we are church leaders or mental healthcare providers, our common goal should be to help people lay aside destructive, damaging ways of coping (in Christian terms, the “old self”) and live into connecting, constructive, life-giving relationships (“new-self” living).
My prayer is that this research shows us how to bring hope and healing to those who need help. Individuals and families are struggling. But there is help to be found! I know, because church and therapy helped me cope with pain, learn to experience joy and live in the family and community God used to make me whole.
SHARON HARGRAVE is executive director for the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine University and Founder of RelateStrong. She is also an affiliate faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary and a licensed marriage and family therapist in California and Texas. Sharon and her husband, Terry, speak nationally and internationally on issues related to couples in ministry, marriage, intergenerational relationships, parenting and the Restoration Therapy model. She is coauthor with her husband of 5 Days to a New Self.