Last week, we discussed the contributions that Christian eschatology can make to pastoral care. This week, I would like to offer a couple of cautions for those who would like to use Christian eschatology as a tool in their pastoral ministry. As we noted last week, comments are welcome, especially from mental health professionals and experienced providers of pastoral care.
Caution #1: Eschatology and Mental Illness Don’t Mix
Most of you who read this blog are like me. We aren’t mental health professionals, and the fact that people call us “Reverend” or “Doctor” should not deceive us into thinking that we are. We should always be cautious when we work with individuals who suffer from mental illness. In particular, we need to recognize that Christian eschatology and mental illness often do not mix very well.
Let’s illustrate why by looking at a couple of examples. It is probably obvious to most of us that apocalyptic literature should never be referenced around individuals whose illness manifests itself in terms of paranoid delusions. If the imagery of Revelation seems strange to a person whose mind is healthy, imagine how it must appear to someone whose mind is telling them that “they” are out to get them. It may not be so obvious, though, that talking about Christian eschatology with someone who suffers from major depressive disorder could do more harm than good. I do not have any scientific evidence to back up this claim, but common sense would suggest that emphasizing the positive features of the afterlife might encourage some patients to give up on the life that they have now. Again, common sense is not science, but it seems to me that the safest course of action for those of us who are not mental health professionals but who have some level of spiritual responsibility for a mentally ill person is to be cautious about discussing eschatological matters. Perhaps it would be better for us to emphasize God’s present care for them and the life that is available in the present through Christ (cf. John 10:1-17, which construes eternal life as something that Christians possess in the present age).
Caution #2: Eschatology Is a Better Prevention than Cure
Christian eschatology provides us with a rich array of resources that we can use to address the suffering of our world, but my experience suggests that these resources are better deployed as a prophylactic rather than as a treatment. Any counsel, no matter how wise or how lovingly offered, can seem cold and trite when someone is in the throes of a crisis. Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that we should never offer counsel to those who are hurting. A wise and loving word can provide people with direction and comfort when they are most in need. It can remind them of things that they already know or even teach them new things at the precise moment when such lessons will have the most impact.
Nevertheless, figuring out when to speak and what to say can be a delicate operation requiring a substantial amount of God-given skill. Furthermore, our ability to offer counsel is almost entirely dependent on the quality of our relationship with the person in need. By contrast, teaching folks about how God has responded—and how God will respond—to human suffering before it happens to them allows them to find their own way through the crises of life. It also allows the pastor, teacher, or friend of a sufferer to side-step the oft-repeated retort to wise counsel, “You just don’t understand what I’m going through.”