This week we feature another interview in partnership with Blueprint 1543. Lindsey Root Luna is a psychologist at Hope College where her teaching and research focus on emotion and virtue and how they can impact the cardiovascular system and our mental health. Her conversation with Sarey Martin Concepcion touches on forgiveness and how the church can support mental health as well as what it means to be called into living a holier life. It has been edited for length and readability.
Sarey: Can you walk us through a little bit of your research on forgiveness?
Lindsey: We’ve thought a lot about the mechanisms we can give folks to see the impact of forgiving. Rumination is one of those things we do naturally. It is one of the stuck points for people—to think about all the things someone did to you that were hurtful. One prompt is to encourage people to focus on the positive outcomes of the offense. Alternatively, we can ask them to shift the way they’re thinking about the person that hurt them. So, instead of thinking about the person that harmed you, and maybe totalizing them in terms of their offense, think about them as someone in need of a positive transformation. How could you wish them well in making a change while still holding them accountable for the action that they engaged in?
Researchers like me believe an essential quality of forgiveness is holding people accountable for their actions. We do find that when we ask people to engage in this practice, there are some differential effects on what happens physiologically for people. That’s one thing I’m really interested in learning: what happens in the body when we promote different kinds of thinking around transgressions?
Sarey: How would you respond to someone who’s coming from a church that sees mental struggles, like anxiety or depression, as a lack of faith or the result of negative spiritual forces?
Lindsey: People are biological, psychological, social, and spiritual beings, and those things all intertwine. It is a false overlay to say that everything is spiritual. Can the way I treat my body and live physically be connected to my spirituality? It absolutely can. I am an embodied being, but I’m still engaged with the spiritual, whether that’s a faith tradition or not, right?
Some of how people engage in the way that they think and the way that they feel is certainly connected to our nervous system and what’s happening in our brain. When those physical things change, that changes our lived experience. Likewise, when I engage in a spiritual practice, that can impact the way I feel emotionally. When I believe things deeply about God or the way the world works, that will influence the way I see the world and see myself. Is that the only thing that influences the way I see the world and see myself? I don’t think so.
Sarey: It’s helpful to keep all these things together. Not separated but interconnected. All these aspects intersect in a way that’s a bit complex, but we must hold them together. Can you help us think about sin and mental health?
Lindsey: I think there are some interesting parallels that we can make with physical illnesses. Say you’re born with type 1 diabetes. There’s nothing you can do to get rid of it, but you’re responsible for how you take care of yourself. If you don’t do the things that we know are going to help you be healthier, it will get harder to deal with your diabetes. Some people can eat, live, or exercise in any given way and never develop type 2 diabetes. Others can’t. It’s an interaction between a genetic predisposition and some things that you’re doing behaviorally.
Could there have been something that you could have done to prevent that illness? Maybe, but that isn’t super helpful. Substance abuse is similar. One person could do a substance many times and never be addicted, and another could do it once or twice and they’re stuck. There’s this whole interaction between your brain and physiology and once that happens, you could be stuck.
I encourage people to think about where they are, and what they can do from where they are, rather than trying to do something retrospectively or retroactively. Am I culpable for this? You might need to wrestle with that, but ultimately some of those questions are a distraction, because they’re not really helping you be the healthiest version of yourself, so you can move forward into what God’s calling you to be.
- Check out Blueprint 1543’s full series of interviews at Psychforministry.com.
- Hear the full interview with Lindsey Root Luna on Spotify, YouTube, and Apple podcast feeds.
- For more on Lindsey’s Forgiveness research, try this playlist.
- Lindsey recommends the book, Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, by Matthew S. Stanford for those that want a slower walkthrough of faith and mental health, especially those aspects of mental health that are not merely spiritual.
- For more resources on forgiveness, take a look at our website. We also have a wide range of resources on psychology and neuroscience.
Sarey: I like that you brought up genetics. Aren’t there some genetic factors that make it easier for people to forgive? That doesn’t mean that I automatically forgive everyone if I have a genetic disposition. It’s not the only factor, right?
Lindsey: Nor does it take me off the hook if I don’t have that predisposition. It doesn’t make forgiveness impossible. C.S. Lewis talked about how some of us are more prone to particular ways of being in the world. It could be easier or harder depending on how we are prone, but we’re still called to live a holier life.
Sarey: How can pastors help address mental health?
Lindsey: The best pastoral engagement around mental health is great listening and speaking to the spiritual elements of that experience. Scripture is a rich resource to think about the human experience. Is it exhaustive? It’s not. But can you find great support there? Of course, you can. Those are the key things for me.
For much of human history the church has been the primary place where this kind of work could happen. It’s a shift within church culture to think about connecting people to external resources. Both psychology and psychiatry haven’t been doing this as long as the church has been doing it. More pastors are being trained in some basic kinds of crisis mental health and having a better understanding of what resources are available. But, I hope clergy are getting trained better about the types of referrals that are appropriate so that they can be making those at the right times.
Sarey: What do you think the church can do to provide good social support?
Lindsey: I think one of the ways you get good social support is by giving good social support. Create a relationship where you’re open and listen, you give this and then ask for that. Good social support is seeing, knowing, and hearing the people you’re in relationship with and then taking the time to support them. There’s something about person-to-person engagement that seems to be important for both mental health and physical health.
Sarey: Any practical advice on how to become a better listener?
Lindsey: Try what we call “drive-through talking.” It’s just reflective listening. When you go through the drive-through and order, you say what you want. The person on the other side says, “OK, I’ve got a burger, fries, and a chocolate milkshake.” For you, I would reflect back, “Sarey, I heard you say that you’re struggling with X, Y, and Z. Did I get that right? Is there anything I’m missing?” It can feel a little bit forced, but it’s really helpful. When you get right what someone else is saying, that goes a long way.
Sarey: How do I find a therapist that’s right for me?
Lindsey: I encourage individuals to think about what their values are and whether they align with the therapist. Do you feel connected and safe with the person that you’re meeting with? If you don’t, find somebody else. Also, if you’ve been in a therapeutic relationship for a while, and you don’t feel like it’s going anywhere anymore, be open about that with your therapist.
Someone who shares some element of your identity can be important—be it faith, race, ethnicity, or sexuality.
So, values, identity, training… The fact that great therapists are going to have different approaches is confusing for a lot of people. Someone with a social work degree is going think more about social systems. If evidence-based practice and research is really important to you, you’re probably going to want somebody with a doctorate in psychology.
Sarey: If someone wants to see a therapist who’s a Christian, how would they approach that?
Lindsey: If mental health is a safe conversation in your faith community, ask for resources from them, because they probably know folks who are align with the things that would be helpful for you.
You could cold call someone or look on the Psychology Today website. That’s a good starting point, but it could give you too wide of circle. Among folks who both identify as Christian and practice in mental health, they’re interested in and willing to do or believe varying things. For example, some Christian therapists would never pray in a session.
I ask every person that I see if there’s anything they want to tell me about their spirituality or faith practices and some say, “nope,” and others are glad I asked. I want the person who I’m seeing to take the lead on what they feel comfortable with, because I’m comfortable with a wide range of Christian practices, but I’m also comfortable not integrating faith into my time with people. So, I would bring it up if faith is important to you and make sure the therapist is comfortable with it.