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My Vision for the Church—A Safe Space for Men to Speak About Their Mental Health

Written by Chris MacLeod, Australia

Who, or what, makes the ideal man?

I’m an Australian guy, and sometimes it can be hard to have a straightforward answer. 

When we ask about the culture around us, the most common answer seems to be strength, or at least, the appearance of it. This is admirable when it isn’t strength for strength’s sake, but strength to protect the people we love. After all, what kind of man can’t protect the ones he cares about? This emphasis on strength expects us to be resilient to pain and to “tough it out” for our loved ones. Take our Aussie footballers, who may be the predominant male role models of our culture; they don’t fuss over “trivial” injuries (anyone remember Nathan Brown snapping his shin bone mid-match?) So neither should we, right?

However you define a true-blue Australian man, there seems to be one universal agreement: Men should not be weak. 

Unfortunately, the pressure on men to appear strong causes them to reject things that appear weak, and admitting to mental ill-health is one of them. Sadly, showing authenticity when we are sad or depressed is interpreted as a confession of wrongness and brokenness. 

As a boy, I played with sticks, fake guns, and was encouraged to step forward in the face of challenge. But at the same time, I was also encouraged to “take it like a man”. Even at a young age, there was an obvious connection between toughness and boys not crying.

Now imagine if our politicians publicly wept for those suffering amidst our global pandemic. How would you judge them? Should men cry? What if one of our national leaders shared they were struggling with their mental health. Would that be, manly?

Not surprisingly, men are 50% less likely to access mental health services than women[1], according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Sadly, this desire to be strong does not dismiss our mental suffering. Instead, it exacerbates it.  

If society isn’t embracing the fact that men can also suffer from mental ill-health, what about the church? 

Are we any better at mapping a better path forward for our men?

The Church: Sometimes we hide our weakness too 

Over my years of serving in the church, I have rarely heard teaching that discussed a Biblical perspective to help me make sense of my mental health journey. Instead, I have heard teachers explain that depression is due to sin, or anxiety caused by unforgiveness. 

The reality is that we often don’t differentiate between weakness and wickedness. As a result, Christians see issues like depression or anxiety, which are caused by issues more complicated than personal wrong-doing, as products solely of sin. This is why many of us often ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with me?”, rather than, “What do I need?”. We are looking for blame, when we just need to be cared for by ourselves and others. 

So how can the church help its members, especially the men, to learn to embrace our humanity, so that we can speak openly about our weaknesses in a healthy and unashamed way? 

Mapping the way forward: Holistic Church, Holy God

It’s no surprise that Jesus is the answer. After all, Jesus lived the full spectrum of our human experience and understands what it was like to be fully human (Hebrews 4:15). Consider the following statements:

  • Jesus felt both anxiety and fear while He prayerfully and anxiously petitioned the Father for a way other than the cross (Matthew 26, Luke 22). Matthew writes that Jesus was “deathly-sorrowful” and “troubled” (Matthew 26:37-38), while Luke describes Him as one in ”agony”, ”sweating blood” (Luke 22:44).
  • Jesus experienced loneliness and sorrow, most clearly revealed upon the cross, “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

The fact that Jesus embraced the whole of our humanity, including its frailty, means we can also begin to embrace our weaknesses. 

With Jesus as our role model, below are two suggestions on how our church communities can better share our mental health journeys:

1. We can role model weakness for the glory of God

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Who are the Christian role models in your community? Are they the well-dressed, skilled public speakers who mostly share victory stories of their own faithfulness? 

Or does your community elevate the honest and candid amongst you? Those who have let sufferingeven doubt, sanctify, and transform them? We should begin to turn our attention to these people: those who “boast” about their weakness and are transformed for God’s glory. Not so that we glorify ourselves and our weaknesses, but so that Christ is glorified as we depend on Him.

2. We can make therapy one of our practices 

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)

In our journey to learn to live Christ-like lives, we need to understand how doctors, psychologists, and counsellors are helplines that God has given us to aid us in growing toward Christ-like maturity. Just as doctors provide medicine for our bodies that we might serve Christ physically, our therapists provide medicine for our minds that we might serve Christ mentally. Medicine and therapy can aid us in Jesus’ calling to love God and neighbour, supported by the foundation of God’s presence through his Holy Spirit and Scripture itself.

I had a significant breakthrough in understanding the unconditional love of God because of my psychologist. So I am passionate to offer that same raw and open vulnerability as an opportunity to other men who are struggling, and to stand with them as a peer in a space that is otherwise very lonely. 

Let’s all strive to grow a little more honest, accepting, empathic, and compassionate to care for and support the men in our community. 

 

*Chris MacLeod is a student intern at the Centre of Theology and Psychology – Melbourne School of Theology.

[1]https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/1301.0Chapter11082009%E2%80%9310.

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