The Fruits of the Spirit: Confusion, Honesty and Depression

Someone I know very well is prone to a religious form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, called “scrupulosity.” He worries obsessively over proper religious practice, especially the internal aspects such as prayer and thinking pure thoughts. He feels an unusual amount of anxiety over his thoughts and therefore engages in certain mental rituals to clear them of “sin.” Ironically, these rituals often compound the problem since they add to his anxiety, making it more difficult to control his thoughts instead of easier. Prayer is a very powerful healing technique, but as a compulsion it looses much of its transcendence. He is accustomed to spending hours praying and worrying.

Like many suffering from scrupulosity, he would never act on the odious thoughts that pop into his head. OCD is likely a biological disorder – it is certainly not a spiritual malfunction, even though it may seem that way to patients. This has me thinking: is there an unintentional bias against church members with mental illness?
We associate the Spirit with peaceful, happy, familiar feelings. As a result, we often focus our attention inwards to gauge our spiritual wellbeing, concluding that if our emotions do not match the “fruits of the Spirit,” something must be amiss in our behavior. This may be a normal and healthy part of religion, but for someone who is clinically depressed emotions are often poor indicators of God’s loving approval. Therefore, I think we should place less emphasis on “feeling” as part of our religious experience.

It seems to me that church members with all different forms of mental illness are seldom accommodated. For example, when speakers get up to give lessons on purity, happiness and other feel-good topics, they rarely consider the implications that their comments could have for members who are mentally ill. My friend is a convert to the church; and while he enjoyed the conversion process, it was extremely difficult for him to cope with all of the church teachings on thought control.

I have suggested that we focus less on feelings and thoughts in our discourse. What else could be done to help those who are struggling with mental illness feel at ease in church?

2 Replies to “The Fruits of the Spirit: Confusion, Honesty and Depression”

  1. I appreciate this post. As someone who’s suffered from depression on and off throughout my life, I’ve often found the standard talks linking righteousness to happiness to be both confusing and painful. Even for those who don’t have mental illness issues, I think it’s often more complex than that. So I agree that a bit of caution when it comes to drawing conclusions based on our feelings is a good idea.I also think it can be good to talk candidly about the role that the gospel and the Spirit play in our lives–that they don’t always heal things, or even bring peace. And I think that the ways in which they do make a positive difference vary quite a bit from individual to individual. I really don’t like blanket promises along the lines of, “if you do x, I guarantee that your life will be better, you will be happier, etc.” I think we should be careful about assuming that we know for sure how a particular religious practice will impact a person’s life.

  2. I think the church is improving on the way it deals with mental illness, at least in terms of educating clergy on identifying it and assisting the ill in obtaining treatment. Same for substance abuse. But leaders still do not receive enough training, and it is little discussed in more general settings (occasional talks and Ensign articles aside). I’d like to see to addressed in curriculum.But the more fundamental problem you mention is the general problem of dealing with “exceptions to the rule.” Our discourse focuses on the ideal and on the majority experience, which are in fact interdependent. Minority experience virtually always departs from the ideal, which is usually framed as a religious standard, a prescribed norm for behavior and indeed experience. Deviation from that standard is a theological problem. To legitimize any deviation is to make the standard relative, and relativism is antithetical to religious authority. Therefore we rarely talk publicly about exceptions, and I very much doubt that will ever change.The other theological problem is that “moral agency” is foundational to our theology. To admit that moral behavior, even on the level of religious sensibilities and sensitivities, can inherently vary from person to person, or can be altered by biology or illness, is very problematic. Again, it would make our capacity for moral and religious activity relative to the individual. I think this tends to be silently recognized and accommodated by some leaders, but you won’t hear it addressed in sermons.But even if that latter point applies less to most mentally ill than to homosexuals or those predisposed to various forms of addiction (itself a mental illness), I doubt that we’ll soon see a softening in the rhetoric employed in calling the saints to repentance, even if it unduly harrows the souls of some. It’s the Jacob Principle: it is better that the innocent suffer from the reproaches of the wicked than that sin be passed over in silence (Jacob 2:5-11).

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