As a therapist in training, I recently took a class on psychopathology and the variety of ways that the human mind can become disordered. It has been a very interesting experience, as I have always been fascinated by psychopathology.
I have had personal run-ins with psychopathology, even when I was a teenager. When I was sixteen, my best friend suffered from a bipolar disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Later, my work with people with developmental disabilities exposed me to what living with a disability looks like.
Studying psychopathology opened my eyes to a world that goes unnoticed in our success-driven society. I gained insight into what my professor calls “the story behind the story.” These stories include depression, personality disorders, and types of suffering that we normally don’t talk about in church.
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What does psychopathology have to do with Jesus? Well, during one of my classes, I felt a deep conviction about my role not just as a therapist but as a Jesus-follower.
Last year, I wrote a blog post about how I am easily desensitized to the suffering of others, especially those who suffer the most. Suffering, particularly that which goes deep into the realms of psychological pain, is one of those things we don’t like to talk about.
But I wanted to explain what psychopathology really means. If you break down the word in Greek, psycho means “soul”; patho means “suffering”; and ology means “the study of.” Essentially, psychopathology is the study of soul suffering.
I think Jesus was the master of psychopathology. He knew how to see “the story behind the story.” He knew the hearts and conditions of the disciples, the crowd, and the Pharisees. He modeled how to ask questions and really probe the hearts of people. In a sense, he knew their psychopathology or their soul suffering.
Not only did Jesus understand people, he also had the capacity to love them and be sensitive to their suffering. He did not remain distant from those who suffered but drew close to them.
Jesus accepted rather than judged. You can see the deep acceptance that Jesus had with the women caught in adultery. Acceptance of where people are at in their suffering and sin allows for understanding and connection. This can involve simply reflecting back what the person said. Even just saying “Wow, that’s hard” allows us to get outside of our heads and into our emotions.
If we don’t practice acceptance, we might instead analyze the other person in hopes of making ourselves feel safe or even superior. We may keep our distance because it triggers our insecurities. If we try to fix others, we may only create superficial change, or, if the other person cannot be fixed immediately, a sense of shame.
Now, I’m not saying that Christians should be diagnosing people. We should leave that job to the professionals.
But my hope and challenge in my own discipleship is to know the heart and suffering of the people I form relationships with. I want to know the story underneath the story by asking questions and taking the risk to probe deep—something our success-driven, more superficial culture doesn’t encourage.
Even though most of us may not suffer from a diagnosed pathology, we all suffer from “soul suffering,” where our soul longs for a deeper satisfaction than what we have. Whether we suffer from a specific psychological illness or not, getting to know the depth of a person and accepting them is the key to creating bonds and healthy community.
I think that is where real community is found. When we know what’s underneath a person, we see and learn to love people for who they truly are.
Alex Ly began attending The River in the summer of 2012. Prior to this, he studied at UC Davis, where he received degrees in history and political science. He was also heavily involved in the InterVarsity chapter. He currently is a bass player on the worship team and a volunteer leader for the youth ministry. Some of the things he enjoys about The River are its emphasis on missions, diversity, and a holistic approach to faith. He currently works as a job coach for developmentally disabled adults and is studying at Western Seminary for his master's in marriage and family therapy.
For fun, he likes playing badminton, playing bass, and going swing dancing.