One day while in primary school, I came home to find my mother in tears. A family friend, Tim1, had been so overwhelmed by his struggle with depression that he took a fatal overdose.
Tim had been studying at a top university in the UK. Earlier, while still in Singapore, a leader in the church his family and he attended had told Tim to throw away his medication as a step of faith that God would heal him of his depression.
More than 20 years have passed since Tim’s death but he has stuck in my mind. It was the first time that I, as a child, realised that people could experience so much hurt and feel so hopeless that ending their lives could become an option. And that the Church would not always respond in a way that could help them.
Where is the Church when it hurts?
Philip Yancey, when asked to summarise his book Where is God When It Hurts?, replied: “I guess I’d have to answer with another question: ‘Where is the Church when it hurts?’ If Christians respond with healing and comfort, as they often do on the front lines of suffering, people won’t be wondering where God is when it hurts. They’ll know where God is: in God’s people. We are the ones commissioned to make visible the presence of God in the world.”2
Tony Ting, the Centre Supervisor of Wesley Counselling Services (WCS), wants the Church to be there when it hurts. This has kept him serving as a counsellor for 40 years—the last two decades have been with WCS.
WCS was started in 1991 as the counselling ministry of Wesley Methodist Church (MC). Tony leads a team of two full-time counsellors, one-part time counsellor and 30 trained lay counsellors. Together, they handle 260 cases annually.
WCS provides free counselling for all, be they from Wesley MC or elsewhere, and even non-Christians. It helps individuals with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, addictions, or those going through personal or career challenges, or are struggling with sexuality issues. It supports couples, families and children, as well as offers psychological testing and personal development workshops.
In today’s high-pressure society, Tony believes that there is a critical need for all churches, if they have the resources, to offer counselling services. After all, the counselling ministry can complement, supplement and support what the pastors and other church ministries are doing.
No shame in asking for help
In Singapore, one in seven people has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. The most prevalent are major depressive disorder, alcohol abuse and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many go unreported as only about three in four people choose to seek help,3 perhaps believing that seeking help is a sign of weakness, that it might tarnish their reputations or that others might think less of them. Tony has noticed that the stigma appears to have lessened over the years and more people are now more ready to ask for help.
Tony highlights some descriptions of mental turmoil in the Bible. David was “downcast” and cried out to God repeatedly in the Psalms. Educated speculation is that Saul, described as tormented by an evil spirit (1 Sam 16), might have suffered from some form of paranoia, schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7–9) that he pleaded for God to remove. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah was so fearful, exhausted and depressed that he asked God to let him die.
In Tony’s opinion, these descriptions “tell us that when we go through difficult times, we are sometimes at a loss. It is good to be able to turn to people who are used by God to minister to us.” As such, the Bible’s “one another” passages make sense to him: “To accept or submit to one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to encourage, to comfort, to support… The ‘one another’ passages seem to lend support to what we are doing in the counselling ministry.”
Tony recognises that many, if not all, helping professionals are themselves “wounded healers”. Having gone through difficult times, they are motivated to help others. He also believes that there is strong correlation between suffering and success: “If we face suffering head-on and find ways of coping, we build up resilience to deal with our challenges. We can then be poised to help other people… The Church needs to offer an alternative perspective [on suffering].”
1Not his real name.
Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message
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