I once had a dear friend tell me the following (I share it with her permission):
“So often we hear that Christ can bring you healing and peace. I’ve been through devastating bouts of severe depression and uncontrollable anxiety, and I was eventually able to mostly heal from them, particularly depression. But I still have anxiety, and I’ve had it since I was really young. I do everything ‘right.’ I attend church, pray, etc. I get all the help I possibly can, therapy, medicine—I’ve tried just about everything, but it’s still there and it dictates my whole life.
“So it can be hard to hear about the healing and peace that come from Christ when it’s not really something I’ve experienced in the way others talk about it. Kinda reminds me of Paul when he prays that his trial will go away, and it doesn’t. But because the topic is so often finding peace in Christ, it’s hard to come to terms with!! I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.”
I totally agree with my dear friend—she isn’t alone in feeling this way. How do we reconcile the promise of peace in Christ when mental illness or other difficult circumstances prevent us from feeling peaceful?
I reached out to two licensed clinical therapists for their answer to that question. I hope their insight will help you feel less alone and more confident that the Savior loves you and is near you, even when you cannot feel Him.
Finding a State of Calm
Derek Hagey, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has a long career in counseling.
“I think one thing to recognize when we’re going through things that are causing mental, emotional, or social stress, it can be extremely difficult to feel the Savior’s love, spiritual promptings, and the peace that can come from being close to the Spirit—because our hearts and our minds aren’t at peace. They’re feeling chaos,” he says.
Derek recommends identifying methods that help you calm your mind and heart when you are feeling that stress. One way to calm ourselves is mindfulness. And just because that word has become popular in mainstream media, doesn’t mean the practice isn’t grounded in science.
“Being able to be mindful means being able to focus on the present, being able to focus on the here and now and what we have control over right now. And letting go of those extraneous stresses and things that we can’t control,” he says. “If we can calm the mind down and be present, then it’s more possible to feel a sense of peace.”
If you are new to mindfulness, the ChurchofJesusChrist.org suggested the following simple steps for practicing a mindful meditation:
- Find a quiet place.
- Sit, stand, or lie in a comfortable position.
- Gently close your eyes.
- Breathe deeply and slowly—in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Notice the sounds around you. What can you hear? Don’t focus on any one sound, but let your awareness drift from one to another.
- Next, focus on being aware of your body. Start with your toes and move to each body part until you get to the top of your head.
- Continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
- Whenever you are ready, open your eyes.
For some people, other methods for finding peace include physical activity or being with friends, anything that helps you be present and focus less on things out of your control. And while these methods can be very helpful, reaching a state of calm isn’t always simple.
“There’s no surefire way to be able to [reach a state of peace], so being patient with ourselves and [what] we’re going through is really important,” Derek says.
“I [also] think some people think of peace being this huge, ‘a-ha!’ kind of thing. But sometimes it’s momentary; it’s just for a few seconds that you feel that peace. It may not be this huge revelatory experience—and it’s OK if it’s not. … the more we can calm our hearts and minds, the more possible will be to feel that peace for a moment. It doesn’t always come while we’re praying.”
As Derek was explaining this, I began to reorder the sequence of finding peace in my own mind: rather than trying to reach up and pull as hard as I can to pull peace down from heaven, it may be helpful to focus first on taking care of my mind and body. Learning how to better care for our minds and bodies is a way to open up and receive what heaven is pouring down.
Normalizing Periods of Not Feeling the Spirit
Jenni Turley, a licensed clinical social worker, was also a part of our conversation on this important topic. I absolutely loved what she said:
“Just like we can normalize having mental health conditions, we can also normalize having periods of not feeling the Spirit or heaven’s influence,” she says. “I think that that’s more relatable than people think when they’re going through their difficulties—they think they’re alone, the only one not feeling God’s influence or not getting answers to prayer.”
She goes on, “Just being able to talk in natural and normal ways about your personal experiences where you’ve had some difficulties to feeling and hearing heaven and how you have tried to continue to live the way that you’d like to live, despite things not being things not happening as you would like to, is really powerful.”
I can attest to what Jenni says. Earlier this year, I read Divine Quietness by Emily Robison. The book is all about how the author experienced feeling like the heavens were totally closed to her for years and how she navigated it.
Although the topic seems heavy, the book was so well-thought-out and hopeful that it was a delightful read. Here are a few paragraphs from the introduction to give you a taste:
“I pleaded; I poured out; I did everything I thought I needed to do. But I did not feel anything. I heard nothing. I felt nothing. I sat in silence. … And in addition to the silence I felt on this question, my normal spiritual life also went quiet. The Spirit seemed to have disappeared. God felt gone. …
“The divine quietness brought with it doubt. Although the doubt, for some time, was pointed at God, eventually it turned inward and exposed the assumptions I had made about God and my spiritual life. I realized I had internalized the assumption that God was, in many ways, formulaic—that if I did certain things, God would respond in certain ways. I learned the value of rethinking the assumptions I held that had invisibly animated my faith but could not withstand real-life experience. The collapse of those assumptions collapsed my faith. I slowly learned that the collapse was a gift. With those assumptions gone, I could explore the foundation for my faith in God. I could begin to get comfortable with uncertainty and with a faith based on love and the goodness of God, detached from my expectations of how God should show up in my life.”
By the end of reading Divine Quietness, I felt empowered to continue to choose faith in my own life even if heaven feels quiet. In fact, Jenni said this decision to continue to live the life you want to is a therapeutic theory called acceptance and commitment therapy.
“It’s a values-based therapy, [where you] focus on the ability to live your values, even when you’re not feeling the way that you would like to. Or, we could add, you’re not receiving the answers that you’d like to, or not having the influence of the Spirit that you’d like to have in your life. You can still use your personal values as a basis to act from even when things aren’t perfect or ideal,” she says.
Another piece of advice I found helpful from Jenni (and that Emily talks about in her book) is recognizing that how we hear the Spirit is an evolving process that we can learn to be open to.
“The Spirit can talk to us differently at different phases in life. Maybe one way that we received answers before isn’t going to be the way that we receive answers during this particular difficulty. We might have to learn to listen in different ways to the Spirit,” Jenni says.
To end this discussion, I’d like to end with these beautiful words from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s landmark 2013 general conference talk, “Like a Broken Vessel.” I hope they remind you that you are always deeply loved and watched over as we learn and grow through life.
“Though we may feel we are ‘like a broken vessel,’ as the Psalmist says, we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. …
“I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind. What a thrilling moment that will be! I do not know whether we will be happier for ourselves that we have witnessed such a miracle or happier for them that they are fully perfect and finally ‘free at last.’ Until that hour when Christ’s consummate gift is evident to us all, may we live by faith, hold fast to hope, and show ‘compassion one of another.’”
Through the lens of her own experience and drawing on literature from many faith traditions, Emily Robison Adams discusses new ways of thinking about faith, doubt, and divine quietness. This thoughtful new book will help you learn to rethink your assumptions underlying what it means to have faith and how to connect with God even in quietness. Available at Deseret Book and deseretbook.com.