Lent and Mental Health

Lent is a springtime season in the Christian Church that begins a 40-day discipline of prayer, fasting, and contemplation. Lent also forces us to grapple with our own mortality. This can be triggering for many, but, with meditation and reflection, Lent can be a wonderful season for our mental health. Read on to learn more about Lent and mental health.

Pope Francis waving to the Easter Sunday mass crowd at the Vatican in 2018.

Pope Frances blessing the crowd at the Vatican following Easter Mass in 2018.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, a somber day on which the church reminds the faithful of their mortality. Christians gather on Ash Wednesday to have ash smeared on their far-head in the shape of a cross with clergy telling the recipient of the ash that they are to “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Basically, this is the church reminding the faithful that they are going to die. Reminding them that their lives are finite. Remember, this life will not continue indefinitely. We have an end, and we must begin now to prepare ourselves for eternity.

During these 40 days the Christian Church encourages the believer to a practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as the primary methods of preparation. Ultimately, this penitential season culminates in the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday, a time when Christians celebrate that God has the victory over death and the grave.

In many ways, this Lenten season can be summed up as a movement from death to resurrection; by dying to ourselves and returning the focus of our life onto our dependence and need for God who is our helper and our strength.

Christian crucifix wrapped in a purple cloth,

The color purple is typically associated with the Lenten season because it suggests repentance and solemnity.

Mental health and Lent: A time to acknowledge one’s needs and vulnerabilities.

The Lenten season asked the Christian to acknowledge their need, and accept the truth about their vulnerability and dependence on God.

And this faith-filled conversation about life, vulnerability, death, and eternity can prove sometimes to be triggering for some people. My hope is that this blog can provide some guidance on how to participate in the Lenten Journey while also making physical and mental health a priority. As Christians, we have a God who is not only concerned with only our souls but also with the whole of our life including our physical, mental, and emotional state.

The first thing to consider as a Christian contemplates giving something up for God is if this act will have any effect on your physical or your mental health. An important daily question for you to ask yourself is, “What do I need to do to care for my physical, mental and emotional wellbeing?” Finding some clarity around these needs can help us discern the non-negotiable areas of what to and what not to sacrifice for the season of Lent. For example, it would not be safe for a diabetic to adopt any fasting practices that significantly compromise blood sugar levels. Yes, it is true that fasting/abstaining from food as your spiritual discipline can be distressing but it shouldn’t be so distressing that we can’t function or are in danger of increased physical or mental health harm. In other words, if your fasting causes you to be physically ill, or leads to some mental health challenges, it defeats the purpose of Lent because most likely if you are ill, you will not be able to receive anything from God. Our Lenten fast is not about making ourselves miserable, but to closely align our will with the will of God. And God is the God of abundant life – and God chooses life and chooses you to be his beloved child.

For many years, I had a young person in my congregation enter a mental health crisis each Lenten season by the 5th week. Consistently, each year, beginning Holy Week he needed to be hospitalized. This young man completely missed the point of the Lenten fast as creating space to focus on the love, grace, and the tender-hearted kindness of God. He missed that he was a beloved child of God and rather focused on his sin, his failure, his inability, and his brokenness. Of course, if you spend 40 days ruminating on your moral failure you will succumb to depression, anxiety, and despair. You will make yourself sick. Because, how we think about life determines quite a bit about our emotional state.

Two oxen yoked together.

A yoke is a frequent allegory used in the Bible.

Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me.

We enter this Lenten season to ponder God’s love and receive the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation with the Lord  so that we may go forth into the world to love others and especially to love ourselves – even as God has first loved us. So Lent is not about beating ourselves up and making ourselves feel bad; it is about acceptance, love, and grace.

Jesus invites his followers to be yoked to him. A yoke was a wooden beam that was fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they were to pull across the field. The invitation to be yoked to Jesus symbolized a willingness to submit to his teaching. About this yoke, Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me; I am gentle and humble of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

It is important to address what to do if you’re beginning to feel depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed by life. First, pause and re-evaluate what it is that you are doing. Are your Lenten practices serving your well-being or are they making you ill? Secondly, know that God is for you. God wants you to thrive and to dwell in His peace and he wants to give you rest for your soul.

St Paul is quick to remind the believer in Romans 8:1 that in Christ there is no condemnation. So, Christian, stop beating yourself up spiritually. Why? Paul goes on to explain that Christ has already set us free. We are free to embrace life, to be resilient and live with the joy of knowing God has chosen us and forgiven us.

Image of the traditional site of Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus was said to be crucified.

Golgotha, or Calvary, outside of Jerusalem is traditionally believed to be the site of Jesus’s crucifixion.

It is all about reconciliation with God and one another.

As we enter Holy Week and remember the final days of Jesus’s earthly life, I am drawn to the words of my faith tradition, the Lutheran liturgy of confession for Holy Thursday as being life giving and freeing.

Friends in Christ, in this Lenten season we have heard our Lord’s call to struggle against sin, death, and the devil—all that keeps us from loving God and each other. This is the struggle to which we were called at baptism.

Within the community of the church, God never wearies of forgiving sin   and giving the peace of reconciliation. On this night let us confess our sin against God and our neighbor and enter the celebration of the great Three Days reconciled with God and with one another. (ELW 2006)

It is all about reconciliation with God and one another. That being said, if things are feeling stuck, overwhelming, and empty, then it makes perfect sense to reset and meditate on what it means to enter the celebration reconciled with God and one another.

Ask yourself, “What will help me open my heart to the mystery of Holy Week and help me receive Christ more fully into my heart?” You may be surprised by the answer. All you may need to do is accept and receive what God has already accomplished for you.

Dr. Dolores Littleton, CFR's Director of Post Graduate Certification Program for Clergy.

Dr. Dolores Littleton, CFR’s Director of Post Graduate Certification Program for Clergy.

About the Author

Dolores Littleton, DMin, LMFT, is the Director of CFR’s Post Graduate Certification Program for Clergy. Dr. Littleton is a consultant and coach for churches and clergy who are experiencing conflict and are seeking to focus on mission and ministry.

You may reach Dr. Littleton at dlittleton@councilforrelationships.org or by phone at (610) 213-9725.

See our Therapist & Psychologist Directory to find a different CFR therapist or psychiatrist near you.

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