The desire for health and wholeness is intrinsic to the human heart. It is manifested in the pursuit for preservation and prolonging of life through different means to acquire this ideal of health, which some would consider a product or a property. This pursuit is also transposed to the context of the Christian community, to which people come with the intention of finding a place to belong and an environment that will help them to sustain their health.
Mental health is one of the dimensions in this wider view of health. The Christian community may have the potential to also bring wounds, since it is constituted by imperfect human beings who will act out of their brokenness in many circumstances. But the opposite can also be argued as true.
The [Christian] community has wide and sometimes unexplored potential to be the very context in which holistic health is promoted and preserved. Many of the different pastoral care issues in the community are health related, such as relationships, work, illness, disability, births, parenting, divorce, substance abuse, aging, and dying.
This comprehensive paradigm enables Christian communities to engage in the different areas of knowledge and encourages interdisciplinary participation towards the goal of enhancing community health. The body is a metaphor of the church in the New Testament. This body plays an essential part in how we exist in the world and consequently it is the arena in which the issue of health takes place. We encounter and relate to each other as embodied human beings with emotions.
There have been numerous misconceptions and difficulties in accepting and interpreting the concept of embodiment as an expression to resonate with Jesus Christ as God incarnate. This recurring framework of dualism and ever-present dichotomy between heavenly and earthly issues impact the way Christians see embodiment and integration.
Practices in Community
What then is to be the purpose of our intent in creating and sustaining practices that will promote this integration and health? The purpose of this pursuit should not be the denial of the eternal paradigm of existence or even cultivation of personal qualities and self-control, but to acknowledge that we are created to be instruments for special purposes, made holy in our relationship with God and each other, prepared to engage in his work in the world. To neglect this stewardship and care of our bodies as his instruments is to neglect the mission of God to his people.
This means that the Christian community should embrace both the promotion of health and the care for those who are struck with poor health in the journey. The human body as an instrument is important to God’s work in the world, building healthy relationships in community, supporting our fellow human beings, and encouraging them verbally and practically. An anguished heart that does not find space to share its struggles because of fear of judgments by others will not get better. It is necessary for the church as a community gathered around the resurrected Christ to return to the Word of God and realize that the men and women in the great biblical narrative were extremely human and experienced doubts, regrets, and disappointments.
In the church’s insufficient attention to and disability to address questions of cognitive loss and mental disorders, there seems to be a stigmatization of those who struggle with a variety of emotional imbalance, as if faith or the lack of it is the defining factor of this complex and multifaceted equation. This directly impacts the way in which the community offers support to people who are confronted with psychological challenges, as well as their families and friends.
It is important to consider the path of interdisciplinary dialogue with psychology and medicine, not considering them competing systems, but complementary or informative, since they aim at caring for people. The social dynamic of a community is known to be one of the most important factors from which members can benefit and contribute to in order to experience growth and health, but when its dynamics are toxic, it can be a space of hurt and abuse. A healthy community should provide both place and purpose in connecting people into meaningful relationships and encouraging people towards spiritual maturity and a healthy life that promotes shalom.
Interdependence: the Trinitarian Model
The model for interdependence is portrayed in the life of the Trinity and was lived out by Jesus in the world as he encountered people. As Jesus lived among friends and in community, and as he met with people he showed the grace present in interdependence, by giving and receiving as he related to them. In our relationship with the risen Christ, we are constantly challenged and transformed through the awareness of our vulnerabilities. In humility, we recognize that we are dependent beings that need the grace of God and need to let go of our isolation and independence. On the tension between dependence and independence, in the person of Christ, God has taught us that dependence has a dimension that needs to be embraced and that it does not affect our state of dignity as persons. We come into life as dependent beings and our frailty as human beings in the natural process of aging will move us towards dependency at the end of life once again. We are created for interdependence.
There is a close connection between our learning and growth, and the way we develop relationships. Education and health are connected, and they can be deepened and amplified in the context of community and relationships. One of the major difficulties in establishing authentic, transparent, and meaningful relationships is our human desire for independence which leads us to radical individualism. Our constant struggle between living our lives out of fear or a life out of love is what undermines our capacity to open our hearts to God and to others as we limit ourselves to our own knowledge about who we are and who God is without the wider perspective that the other can offer and bring to our lives.
Community and Integral Health
When addressing the particular issue of the Christian community and its interaction with the concept of integral health, there is still a wide range of possibilities not yet fully explored. The Christian community possesses qualities that create a favorable environment to the establishment of practices for the promotion of health. Besides the social interactions which contribute to mutual encouragement, the intentional gatherings and the corporate worships provide opportunities for the promotion of health, individually and communally. These practices can promote health by engaging people and making the most out of the social resources that the community provides to be inclusive and caring. This has a direct impact on how the community provides support to people who struggle with mental illness and their families and friends.
Theology must continually move towards the path of interdisciplinary integration; not considering others as competing systems, but rather complementary with the view of the wholeness of persons. Initiatives that would be helpful for interdisciplinary integration would be those engaging health professionals and Christian leaders in providing the community with teaching and group support for those struggling with mental or physical challenges. The objective of such initiatives is for the promotion of wellbeing for the whole church by addressing the different needs and spheres of wellness action plans. Even in our Christian circles, those with mental health problems are being stigmatized. These initiatives will also help to correct such attitudes.
Mutual encouragement is known to be one of the main promoters of health and also of consistent care and consolation. In countries such as Brazil in Latin-America, the relational bonds within Christian communities have shown to be fundamental to whole-person care in the financially poorest areas, with the challenges of their social contexts. Opening the communities for conversations, lectures, group and individual counseling, and resource referrals, is an important part of humanizing the conversation and diminishing stigma, creating a healthy network of care to those facing mental health challenges.
This broader understanding of whole-person care makes it possible for Christians to engage in different areas of knowledge with the aim of improving the health of the community. It is not a matter of replacing the role of governmental institutions focused on care, nor de-characterizing the role of the church in its spiritual, transcendent dimension, of worship and communion. Rather, it is about working on what concerns a Christian in the faith journey from conversion to spiritual maturity and being sensitive to the need to work with partners from other spheres of society in this care when necessary.
God has bestowed upon us knowledge and discernment, and we must place them at the service of the community of faith, as well as the society at large. A number of initiatives worldwide are being explored concerning this topic, helping the church think further about mental health and also serving people in cities and countries. Although they may have different perspectives and points of view, they are offering opportunities for people to gather, thus strengthening relationship with one another. Just to name a few, ministries and organizations such as Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries (Canada & UK), Christians Professionals in Psychology and other Sciences (Brazil), Oasis Africa, Celebrate Recovery, Christian Asian Mental Health, and Safe Space Community for Asians.
In Brazil, for instance, there is a growing interest in building bridges between the Christian faith and mental health, with study groups being organized to increase the knowledge of referrals to other instances of care, towards a more profound network of care. Activities addressing not only the different mental struggles but also the different seasons in life are being promoted, as well as connecting all those issues concerning health with a shalom perspective such as justice and freedom, faith and work, and creation care.
May we continue to build bridges and make connections to help people inside and outside of our Christian communities move towards holistic care.
- Karen Bomilcar, Corpo como Palavra: Uma Visão Bíblica Sobre Saúde Integral (São Paulo: Editora Mundo Cristão, 2021).
- Editor’s Note: See article by Gladys Mwiti & Bradford Smith, entitled ‘Turning the Church’s Attention to Mental Health’, in the November 2018 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/turning-the-churchs-attention-to-mental-health.
- Editor’s Note: See article by Hebert Palomino O, entitled ‘Building a Moveable Pulpit for Mental Health’ in the November 2020 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2020-11/building-a-moveable-pulpit-for-mental-health.
- Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, https://sanctuarymentalhealth.org/.
- CPPC, https://cppc.org.br/; ABC2, https://www.cristaosnaciencia.org.br/.
- Oasis Africa, https://oasisafrica.co.ke/.
- Celebrate Recovery, https://www.celebraterecovery.com/.
- Christian Asian Mental Health, https://camh.network/; Safe Space Community for Asians, https://www.safespacecom.org/.
‘We Get it’ painting by Chris John
Karen Bomilcar has a degree in Psychology from Mackenzie University (São Paulo), specializing in Clinical and Health Psychology (University of São
Paulo), and a masters degree in Theology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Regent College (Vancouver, Canada). Currently living in São Paulo, Brazil, she works as a health psychologist in the area of Public Health and a seasonal lecturer at Servant of Christ Theological Seminary (Seminário Teológico Servo de Cristo) and Centro Cristão de Estudos (Center for Christian Studies), where she teaches in the areas of counselling, Christian spirituality and health. Karen is co-Catalyst for the Health for All Nations Issue Network of the Lausanne Movement.