Spiritual Formation and Mental Health

In the summer of 2006, I was in a Master's level class on spiritual formation, working on my Masters in Family Ministry. The class talked about our ability to facilitate ways for people to draw closer to God. Initially the conversation was about how to do prayer and Bible study consistently, but moved quickly into deeply established techniques from centuries ago.

In this time, I was exposed to a technique called silencio, described simply as "silence is not just refraining from speaking, or from emitting noises, it encompasses concentration and reflection." I found myself as part of a group project where I visited a Catholic monastery where I would eat, sleep, and live for twenty-four hours, without being able to talk or write. After a long period of detox from the busyness of life, I found myself listening to God as many different things that came to mind. In this twenty-four hour period, I had an experience with God where I walked the monastery grounds' Stations of the Cross, ending at the Crucifixion of Christ with a life size marble statue of Jesus laying on the cross in pain.

As I came upon the statue, finding myself unable to hold back tears over guilt from my sin, I read the Scripture on a plaque that defined this stage:

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. Matthew 27:50

Reflecting back on this as I work with clients, I find deep meaning in this experience as I deeply connect with my faith. But I also notice how powerful this can be for my clients who want to incorporate faith into their counseling sessions.

Reflecting at lake by mountains on dock.jpg

What Is Spiritual Formation?

In his book Renovations of the Heart, Dallas Willard states the goal of Christian spiritual formation is to bring every area of life into relation with God. Later, on his website, Willard defines "spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ."

The scripture that best defines this is 2 Peter 1:4-7:

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.

We must move from faith to love.

What Is Mindfulness?

In counseling, I find the evidence-based techniques of mindfulness extremely effective for clients who struggle with trauma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, and substance misuse. Mindfulness is a clinical technique within Dialectic Behavioral Therapy, an evidence based therapy that is growing in popularity. Mindfulness is the purpose of becoming aware of the physical, emotional, spiritual, and cognitive situations around and within yourself.

We simply come to acknowledge what is going on, be able to share these experiences in some capacity, and then engage with them. It is these three parts that lead to a complete mindfulness exercise. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

We stop stressing about predicting the future, we stop being chained to the past, and we start living in the present moment where real change can happen. It is here that we find ourselves able to live life, move forward, and push off the pains and problems of our lives through restoration and recovery.

Connecting Counseling With Our Faith

So we know what mindfulness is in a clinical setting and spiritual formation from a biblical setting. The question now is, is there a connection between the two? The comparison of psychotherapy and spiritual formation is not a new concept. Earl Bland in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity came up with a whole list of resonance and dissonance between mental health and spiritual formation:

  • Both are processes that potentiate deep change

  • Both acknowledge the holistic nature of human beings (all aspects in mutual, reciprocal relation)

  • Both are mediated through relationship

  • Both require the skill and guidance of an other

  • Both have time-honored rituals, methods, and practices considered to facilitate deep change

  • Both require surrender

  • Both acknowledge conscious and unconscious mental life

  • Both require self-awareness and a willingness to become aware of what is unconscious

  • Both involve knowing and being known at a deep level.

For a committed Christian without mental health problems, spiritual formation progresses through the stages of salvation, discipleship, and evangelism. For someone with significant mental health symptoms, there may be several barriers to them progressing through these stages, though we need to be clear that this is not due to sin. In 2015, Dr. Grcevich wrote about how mental health is not a sin, though it can have direct impact on our relationship with God.

In fact, the Christian faith has a whole host of techniques that can have very powerful impacts on our spiritual lives, yet can be even more powerful for those who struggle with mental health. Here are just a couple:

  • Labyrinth prayer walks

  • Silencio (described above)

  • Reading scripture and journaling

  • Reading through a devotional and praying

  • Worship in the car or at church

  • Communion.

In fact, we see Paul write about this from a very spiritual mindset in Philippians 2:1-4:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The Beginning Of Discussion

I think mental health inclusion ministry is only at the beginning of this conversation. There is a long history of Christian mysticism that is problematic. Further, a clinical understanding of mindfulness is something that helps us with daily living, but spiritual formation has eternal impact. Think horizontal versus vertical. The Gospel message will always be the priority.

I do believe integrating mindfulness into spiritual formation can not only help everyone grow closer to God, but for those who have mental health symptoms, this may be a way to break down another barrier for people to experience God and discover divine grace, hope, and love.

Jeremy Smith is a clinical mental health counselor in Ohio and founder of www.churchandmentalhealth.com.