Updated: Nov 7, 2020
Psalm 6:2 "Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are in agony."
When I look around at my community and read articles about our society and listen to voices of people in the various circles I inhabit, I am struck by the degree of emotional pain that so many are experiencing. Statistics reveal a sharp increase in the diagnosis of mental illnesses such as depression, suicidality is up 25% over two decades, and self-medication by drugs has led the staggering leap in drug overdose incidence and alcohol abuse. All this reveals, furthermore, only the extreme end of things--the times when people's emotional pain causes direct, severe, and obvious crisis in their lives. People certainly carry round a good deal more emotional pain that has not (at least yet!) resulted in crisis, but that constitutes a heavy burden and occasionally, or frequently, spills over in ways that impact daily life.
Granted, we are better at diagnosing mental health issues today than previously, new health care law has brought more people into needed care, and there is less stigma attached to mental health diagnoses than in past generations. But does this fully explain the increase in numbers of those suffering to the point of despair?
Often I wonder how much of this emotional pain might stem from a spiritual cause. The increase in mental health care has happened alongside an apparent decrease in spiritual care in our society. And a generation or two with less religious teaching might very well possess fewer tools in their spiritual toolbox to cope with pain that is either partially, or specifically, spiritual in nature.
Since spiritual pain has an emotional side to it, it is worth making an attempt at differentiating spiritual pain from other kinds of emotional pain and suffering. Spiritual pain, according to some, occurs in four general categories: meaning pain, forgiveness pain, relatedness pain, and hopelessness pain. Meaning pain is specifically spiritual because it is a person's way of understanding that which is bigger than the self that usually gives meaning to one's life. Forgiveness pain is common because while it is difficult to journey through life without causing pain to others or being a victim of another, our culture offers very few ways to resolve these hurts. Relatedness pain stems from the co-suffering we experience when those around us are hurting, and also from our sense of needing others being stronger than the sense of receiving from them. Hopelessness pain can be either acute--feeling that there is no way out of the circumstances that one finds oneself in--or the dull, chronic sense that a person has that things can only stay bad or get worse. All four of these types of spiritual pain have an emotional pain component, because they cause painful feelings. But they go beyond emotions when they touch upon the spiritual dimensions of meaning, hope, God, and our connection with others.
Reflect: What part of your pain resonates with this? What part of your pain stems from spiritual causes, and what part of your pain do you think is mainly emotional? Does this distinction seem helpful to you?