Posted on May 12, 2023 by Rev. Jonathan Conner
Mental health involves many things, with a life built on right thinking and ordered passions foundational to it. Before we go any further, please understand that the words in the preceding sentence are deeply significant. To be mentally healthy, we must aim for lives established on right thinking, on thinking aligned with reality, with creation as it really is. Because it is possible to have wrong thinking, thinking out of line with reality.
We strive to order our passions precisely because they need to be ordered, because disordered passions wreak havoc in our lives. Disordered passions are a lot like immature, undisciplined children left to their own devices – it’s not pretty. Another way of saying this is that we are aiming for human flourishing, something which is largely dependent on right thinking and ordered passions.
The first step in honing mental health, with an aim toward human flourishing, is accepting that reality is a certain way. It has been fixed that way by the Creator (Scripture regularly refers to this as “the fear of the Lord”). I regularly tell my children, “Reality has edges.” These edges are fixed (and often sharp!). We cannot live a life set against these edges and expect to experience mental wellbeing (or physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing!).
I also like to tell my children (with a smile on my face): “I am reality.” In other words, my vocation as a parent requires me to stand in the place of reality for my children so that they can learn where its edges are in a safe and loving environment. My “edges” are softer and more forgiving. If I serve well in my vocation, I will raise children who respect reality and live in line with it, and thereby flourish as individuals.
Second, we need to acknowledge that our thoughts and desires can be out of line with reality. It’s possible for our thoughts to be wrong and our desires to be disordered. In fact, it’s exceedingly likely! Because we are fallen creatures, our thoughts and desires have been warped by sin. In order to ensure we’re building our lives on right thinking and ordered passions, we must go to the Definer of reality and learn what He has called good. And this will require submitting our thoughts and yielding our desires to Him. Which is why regular worship, and Bible reading and studying are essential!
With these foundational pieces in place, let’s move on to an image: solitary confinement. Imagine being locked into a dark cell — alone — for weeks, months, maybe years. What does that do to a person? In two words: bad things. These bad things include anxiety, depression, anger, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucination, self-harm, violent outbursts, and many, many more Very. Bad. Things.
If we are able to recognize the deleterious effects of solitary confinement on people, why do so many of us lock our thoughts – our deepest struggles and mental battles – into solitary confinement? Why do we refuse to let them see the light of day? Are we afraid they’re too dark? Do we fear what others might say? Or are we afraid we might have to let them go?
The truth of the matter is that some, if not most, of these thoughts are false (or a warped version of the truth), deeply impacting our feelings and powerfully influencing our behavior. (Because what you believe affects what you feel affects what you do.) And if they are not built on truth, they will mislead us and disorder our lives – and that is a recipe for mental mayhem and emotional turmoil.
All of these beliefs make perfect sense in the darkness of solitary confinement, which may explain why we are hesitant to bring them out into the light. But things look different in the light. To be more specific:
Try it. Go through the previous list, and say them out loud. How do they sound? Do you hear the half-truths, the justifications, the overstatements, and mischaracterizations? If someone else said them to you, would you nod your head in full agreement? Surely not.
This is why we all need to say our thoughts out loud. We need to hear them. We need to bring them into the light. Ideally, we will do this with a mature Christian, a competent counselor, our pastor, and/or our husband or wife. This may be a scary thought initially, which is why we routinely keep these thoughts locked in solitary confinement. We don’t want to face the thought of releasing them because they have been the justifications we’ve used for our feelings and actions. But if we want to flourish as people, to build our lives on right thinking and ordered passions, we need to bring our imprisoned thoughts into the light. We need to say them out loud.
The journey toward mental health and human flourishing involves much more than this, but it certainly doesn’t involve less. So, let your thoughts out of solitary confinement. Find a mature listener, and say them out loud. Join the journey toward mental health and human flourishing.
Lutheran Family Service, a Christian ministry, provides mental health counseling through master’s level-prepared therapists. We approach each session with hope and incorporate faith into our counseling if the client wishes to do so. Reach out today using our web form at https://lutheranfamilyservice.org/contact/.
Rev. Jonathan Conner
Pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Manning, Iowa
LFS Congregational Services Ambassador
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