Bad Advice from Christian Women, Part 3
How to Break Up with Your Anxious Life
The worst advice from a Christian woman that I ever received personally was when I had been diagnosed with acute post-partum depression. One of our family members told me I should keep that very private, just between me and my husband. She wasn’t suggesting I not see a professional, but that I should not tell any of my friends. I don't know why she thought that was a good idea, but here's why I think it was bad, and didn't follow it. One: my husband absolutely could not bear the burden of my mental health alone – on top of providing for us financially and picking up the slack with our two children under the age of four. Two: my friends were enormously helpful in supporting me through depression. Even when they didn’t know what to say, they could meet me for coffee. They could pray. They could distract me with outings. And they took away the shame of my struggle by knowing it and loving me just as much as ever. I asked you to send in tales of the bad advice you received, and you did! In three primary categories, two of which apply to my story, above. We, as women in faith communities, have historically been given sub-par counsel as it relates to mental health, marriage, and boundary-setting. I believe that as a culture of faith, we are getting better at this. But we still have a long way to go. Bad advice in these three categories may significantly increase anxiety: we will be hurt if we follow it, and feel guilty if we don't. So let’s end this series by unpacking it. Again, my goal here is not to school you on just these subjects, but to empower you to develop your own insights, that your love will abound in insight! Bad Advice on Mental Health In 2008, I heard a pastor on the radio tell a depressed woman she just needed to pray and read her Bible every morning, so she could have the joy of the Lord like he did. I wanted to drive down to the radio station and lovingly explain brain science to that pastor (or possibly hit him on the head with his Bible. With joy.) The greatest problem with this advice, which many of you wrote to say that you or loved ones were given is this: It assumes a person is depressed or anxious for no good reason, like it's just a glitch in the system that needs to be corrected. Yes, there are genetic factors in mood disorders. But also, sometimes depression and anxiety are rational responses to someone’s life circumstances or lifestyle. I recently saw a tweet by Lori Gottleib, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, a memoir about a therapist going to therapy. She said, “Before you diagnose someone with depression, make sure they aren’t surrounded by a—holes.” Women are often depressed because they are embroiled in toxic relationships, over-worked, abused, or experiencing the effects of past trauma. Telling them to pray away depression and anxiety is like telling someone who has been stabbed to just leave the knife in their arm and keep praying the pain stops. God is in favor of problem solving. Prayer is not the only tool he gives us. Many of us who struggle with mood disorders – whether chronic or situational – or have a mental health diagnosis have been told to rebuke said problems with prayer, scripture, and longer quiet times. And I say, absolutely throw prayer and scripture on any problem you have. But ALSO, seek medical advice, certified counseling, medication, a life coach, a support group, the Twelve Steps, and the book “Boundaries.” People with mental health issues have trouble with concentration, stillness and shame, so this common advice is seriously harmful. Mental health is enormously complex, and this series I’ve been writing is one of hundreds of approaches to linking spiritual and mental wellness. If anyone at any church has given you this advice when you were struggling, I’m sorry. And if you have given this advice because you meant well and it worked for you, we forgive you! Now, let’s all do better. Bad Advice on Marriage (And Sex) Recently, multiple books have been published about the damage done to women by Christian advice about marriage. We should each probably read at least one of them – whether we are married or not. So much of "Biblical" advice demeans both men and women, and is much more cultural. After decades of Bible reading and study, I favor the scholars that tell us God revealed himself within the patriarchy, rather than ordaining the patriarchy. So I'm taking some fresh looks at old advice that we've been given. Here it is, with my rebuttals. Letting your husband be the sole provider shows that you trust God to provide for you. So the highest calling is to stay home and raise children. Sisters, I don’t know where the move toward shaming Christian women who have to go to work came from. Maybe from James Dobson who wrote and spoke for decades about reducing family stress by having only one person in the workplace (I got a book about this as an engagement gift). And that might be great advice as long as one income is sufficient to live, feed the kids, and pay the mortgage. God never promised that he would provide for families through the income of the husband. (In an agrarian society, these distinctions would be meaningless. Everyone works to provide. Even the kids.) So don’t be anxious for being a woman who works and gets paid for it. You're awesome. Men need respect and women need love. So, make sure you respect your husband, or treat him as if you do -- and then he will become respectable. Some of you wrote me this. I heard multiple MOPS speakers say this. And I know many people swear by the marriage book Love and Respect. But I side with the Biblical scholars who believe that Ephesians 5, from which the title was derived, never intended to name the greatest need of men (to be respected) and the greatest need of women (to be loved). Rather Paul was introducing a radical concept of mutual submission in marriage, to Christians who were culturally confused in a fiercely Patriarchal society. Paul wasn't advocating for unconditional submission to your husband no matter what he thinks and does, even if it’s irresponsible and unwise. This advice sounds a tiny bit Biblical, until you realize it’s actually a dishonest manipulation to make your husband act a certain way while pretending you already like how he's acting. As a woman, you should be respected as a child of God; so should your husband. And as a man, your husband needs love, as he was designed for it, and as you were. Have sex with your husband as much as he wants to, even if you don’t feel like it because:
He has given his sexuality to you for safe keeping so to deny him is to renege on your marital contract.
It will guard your marriage against other problems.
It will ensure that he will give you the kind of intimacy you want.
It will motivate your husband to help around the house and with the babies.
It will keep him from being unfaithful to you.
The best rebuttal to this advice that I ever heard was from my mentor and client Milan Yerkovich, who, with his wife Kay, have written and spoken about marriage for decades (howwelove.com). Milan confessed that when he was first married, his sexual appetites were completely shaped by the world – what he called an inflated and distorted appetite. It was not his wife’s job to give him what he wanted; his wants were unholy. Sex is meant to be another space of mutual submission, of intimacy, and of mutual pleasure. It’s not meant to manipulate men into behaving better, or into taming their appetites so they don’t stray. Husbands are responsible for their own behavior, as I am responsible for mine as a wife. The above advice sets women up for physical pain, disenfranchisement with their own bodies, guilt, and in the worst cases, abuse. The advice in 1 Corinthians 7 that the wife’s body belongs to her husband is only true as far as she has the free will to offer it. Just as a man has the free will to offer his. And sometimes, you come together for intimacy in the way you set out for the gym: you're not totally in the mood to get sweaty, but when it's over you're glad you made the effort. But in the main, I never knew a good husband who was really excited about having sex with his wife when she totally didn't want to. If he follows the Bible, he's supposed to love and cherish his wife's body, which means wanting her to have pleasure, too. The above bad advice also assumes that women always have less of a sexual appetite than men (not true, and I have the girls’ night discussions over two decades to prove it, if I could break a bunch of confidences). Bad Advice on Boundaries (and forgiveness, and abuse) I have been teaching about boundaries in Christian circles for ten years, and certain groups of women have a really hard time saying no without feeling guilty. Now, I'm about to make a broad generalization, but I can back it up decades of others' research, as well as my own experience: Christian women who struggle with boundary setting came from families or faith communities where they were hurt, neglected or shamed for having needs. Women who struggle with boundaries are more likely to choose abusive relationships, or be friends and partners with addicts, alcoholics, narcissists, and abusers. So when these women come to church in pain because of their current relationships, and they are told to forgive as Jesus did, and stay in those relationships without allowing consequences for the others' behavior, they were seriously harmed. Many of you wrote to say that you or someone you love was told to physically stay in homes with abusive husbands. I’m so sorry. Some of you were told to stay in intimate relationships with unrepentant, emotionally abusive parents: to forgive, forget, and honor them by pleasing them. I’m so sorry. Some of you were told to ignore the red flags of toxic friendships in the name of Christian unity. I’m so sorry. Jesus is not pro-abuse. Jesus is not anti-boundary. Jesus is not an enabler. And Jesus taught on the concept of forgiveness without reconciliation, as do the Proverbs, the prophets, and Paul. The whole of scripture points to protecting the injured and promoting intimate relationships that are safe. We forgive our enemies; we love our enemies. We don’t have to sleep with those who have become our enemies; we don't have to obey them; we don't have to call them our best friends. And a bonus: Bad Advice about the Bible
I've been talking to one of my brothers about all of the above lately. He's an ordained minister in the Anglican church. And together we wonder why we Christians can get it so wrong, why we pass on so many bad teachings. If the Bible is so rich and beautiful and good and complex, why is it so hard for us to say good and true things about it, and through it? We decided part of the answer is in the question: God's Word is complex.
In fact, the answer might be because of the bad advice we've been given about the Bible itself. The Bible is not a love letter to you, or an instruction manual, though both are popular declarations in American evangelical churches, meant to demystify the Bible and promote an every-man's approach to Bible reading. While God's love is professed to us in the Scriptures, and there are many instructions for living in the Scriptures, the Bible is not to be simply defined, and it isn't easy to understand. The Bible is a collection of writings in multiple languages over thousands of years -- prophesy, wisdom, poetry, history, sermons, and letters -- containing both limited instructions for specific contexts in some passages and universal truths in others. The Bible will help us know a God who is vast and incomprehensible -- but it will not tell us everything about him. It needs to be handled with great care, with precision, and with an expectation of mystery. Maybe when we grasp that, we will give less bad advice, less quickly, less glibly. And maybe we will begin to know even more the great love and peace of God.