If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you’ll know that anxiety is a major part of my life.
Or was. Praise God I’ve come out of the most anxious season of my life, aided by friends and family and helpful medication.
But not all are that fortunate. Their anxiety is much deeper than mine was, or they can’t afford helpful medication, or they live in a situation where friends and family or either non-existent or far away. And now, those people are living in a pandemic.
I could regurgitate everything about COVID-19, but I want to cut to a few things I want to encourage those with anxiety to remember right now. I don’t promise these will remove your anxiety, but perhaps they might help you cope. At least I hope so.
It’s OK to be anxious.
Don’t ever let guilt or shame overwhelm you about your anxiety. You have good reason to feel anxious. All over the world, governments are asking people to stay away from mid-sized gatherings, stay at home and homeschool their kids. You are not alone in this.
You are not alone.
You’re not the only person who’s feeling anxious right now. I’m not, but I know many who are, who are laying awake at night not sure what to do next, who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, who are trying to keep a restaurant afloat when they’re forced to only do takeout or delivery.
Take a deep breath.
Anxiety often takes the form of your mind racing a million miles an hour. By practicing breathing techniques and calming yourself, you just might give yourself a second or two to think about nothing.
“Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” – Winnie the Pooh
Read a book. Watch a movie. Play a video game or a board game. Play with your pet. Dance like no one’s watching. Distractions often get a bad rap, but they serve a good purpose more often than we expect.
Remember you are loved.
God loves you. No matter where you are. Right now He does.
Growing up in a religious household, in a religious community, among religious people, you learn certain things. One of the first things I learned was this: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).
I don’t know if I heard that in a message from Leviticus or it was told in another form — the “be holy for I am holy” part is quoted in 1 Peter 1:16 — but the message was clear: you are to be holy. What does holy mean? Be obedient and do not sin. God doesn’t sin, Jesus doesn’t sin — so to be like them, don’t sin. If you do sin, you’re failing and you need to do better.
When I got to college, I eventually figured out, thankfully, that everyone sins and that’s just part of being human. So it’s OK that we’re sinners! We have nothing to be ashamed of because everyone sins, and the grace of God steps in to help us.
Wrong, apparently. Confession of sin was saved for one-on-one conversations, filled with religious platitudes like: “Thanks for sharing,” “I admire your honesty and transparency” and “We’ll pray for you.”
So simultaneously, it was holy and righteous to be a good person — to be obedient and righteous — and to confess how much you suck — to be honest about your failures and how much you needed Jesus. In fact, the more you needed Jesus and the more you confessed it, the more holy you appeared.
So which one is it? Or is it both? I’m not quite sure.
Doing an “About” Face
I listened to a message recently from Crosspointe Church in Cary about the first few verses of Matthew 6. Here’s the Scripture the preacher covered, in the words of Jesus:
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Jesus Christ, in Matthew 6:1-8
The base of the message was this: Why do you do what you do, and who do you do it for?
So often, he said, we try to seek people’s approval by being certain things. We’ll stoop to any level to find satisfaction in what people think of us.
Not that it’s a bad thing to be loved and accepted by others — in fact, he said, it’s “normal” and “healthy.” We as humans — and Christians, specifically — have an amazing opportunity to make a difference in this world by loving others, particularly those who are looked down upon by society.
But we end up draining ourselves and others, our relationships, when we seek to be approved by others as the reason why we do certain things. That thought process made me think about my life as a Christian, made me ponder my life and what it looked like and does look like. And as I hinted in the open, it has relied both on being an amazing Christian and being a sucky Christian.
The Best Frickin’ Christian You’ll Ever See
When I moved from my small private school in fourth grade to the slightly-larger private school in fifth grade, I transitioned worlds. Granted, it was also an age shift, but the Montessori School of Sanford and The O’Neal School in Southern Pines were worlds apart, despite being 30-40 minutes away from each other.
At Montessori, “niceness” was the goal. It was the whole ballgame. We would be fussed at for picking on people. At O’Neal, at least among the students, it was a different scenario. I heard cuss words used by people my age for the first time.
So I became the “good guy.” People would come to me for questions on homework. They’d cuss in front of me, turn to me and say, “Sorry, Zach.” I tried to play it off as “I’m cool, do your thing” — most of the time at least — but inside I was deeply judgmental. That continued into college.
Side note: I had a wake-up moment early in my sophomore year when I was told by a friend of mine that someone else in our friend group felt judged by me for what they did or said. It was very enlightening.
Anyway, I began to feel like I needed people to know I was a Christian. Not necessarily outside Christian circles, mind you, but within the campus ministry I was a part of. The people that were cool and admired were the holiest — the ones that memorized Scripture, the ones that didn’t struggle with porn, the ones that did the most evangelizing, the ones that prayed the best prayers, the ones that confronted the most sin in other people’s lives, the ones that did the most mentoring.
“Christianity” became my calling card. I thought that was what it was supposed to be. But it wasn’t always a good thing.
I was in a group counseling session during my senior year of college — long story, maybe some other time — and the counselor asked us to draw pictures of what our lives would look like with X or without X, the thing we were struggling with.
I drew, not too artistically, what I thought it would look like.
Without X, I would go down a road that was winding and difficult, but had happy stops along the way: getting married to a good Christian girl, having kids, writing books for a living, just generally being happy. With X, I was alone, just sitting there.
But in the top right corner of the page, I drew a cross.
After we were all done, and a couple other people shared their pictures, I shared mine. The counselor leading the session asked about the cross. “Well,” I said, “God is always with me, right? Even when I sin, even when I X?”
The counselor did not dispute that claim. Instead, he said something to me that shook me. I don’t remember the words, but it was something to this effect: “Perhaps you’re wearing a mask of hyperspirituality.”
We had been talking about masks, the things we wear to hide our issues from the world, the coverings we have to protect our fragile selves from letting people know about our X. The counselor was right: I didn’t want to let people know that I was struggling, so “being a Christian” became the thing I did to hide my weakness.
I thought being looked upon as a “good Christian” was the right thing, that it was holy and righteous. But really, it was masking my insecurities, driven by my failures and many X’s.
I’ll always remember that conversation — maybe not the exact words, but the feeling I got when that was said. “But God will always be there,” I reasoned — can’t remember if it was in my mind or I actually said this. I probably said it. The response was something like: “But why is that so important to include in your drawing? Is it because you really believe that, or is that the image you want to give to the world?”
From that point forward, I knew I had to change. I knew there had to be something different. So I began writing, blogging and talking about transparency and honesty about personal sin.
I remember one time I posted a Facebook status that said something like: “Would you ever, unprovoked, confess personal sin in a public Facebook post?” Of course no one said yes, and I probably wouldn’t have said yes either. But that was the attitude I took.
I want to emphasize a couple things before moving forward: Believing that God is with you through your X’s is good and correct, because He is. Seeking to be honest and transparent about your life and your mistakes is good and correct, because it’s the way to healing.
But where I got confused is thinking that being those things made me an acceptable Christian in the eyes of people. I was hailed on one hand for being a “man of faith,” and on the other hand for “sharing honestly about your struggles.”
As I thought about this part of my life in the aftermath of the message I referenced earlier, I began wondering: Which one should I have been seeking?
After all, the song goes “sweetly broken, holy surrender.” To be broken down and ruined by your sin is considered a holy thing. To be sorrowed and mourn over your loss of innocence and failure to obey is “righteous.” But then, being obedient and a “good Christian” — whatever that means, that’s a whole other conversation — is what gets you book deals and speaking gigs and a good Christian wife and praise from people.
What the fork?
I’ve spent most of my life evaluating and re-evaluating my thoughts and actions, trying to make sure they are the “right” thoughts and actions. And while that’s not inherently bad — of course we should try to do the “right thing” — if that’s the motivation, you’re sucking the life out of yourself.
Know that who you are is loved by God, and you are enough on your own. We all have things to work on, things we struggle with, and of course we should strive to improve as human beings. But making it about impressing others or being considered the “most Christian” is not just incorrect, it’s harmful to yourself and others.
Be who God made you to be. Don’t be ashamed of your obedience or proud of your failings. Just be who you are, and know God loves you. Strive to improve, but don’t let that improvement or your quest for improvement define you or bring you satisfaction. You’re loved!
One thing I’ve grown up to believe in Christianity is that being a Christian is not about us. It’s not about what we do or how we act or what we believe. It’s all about Jesus.
That’s why I was confused this morning when I read Matthew 5:16.
I was praying this morning — an infrequent occurrence, by the way — when I thought of the idea of the “light on a hill.” Seeking some kind of encouragement, I turned to Matthew 5:16 and found these words: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I was encouraged, yes, but also slightly confused a bit.
After all, why would we want to act so people could “see your good works.” Isn’t this the Jesus who also said a little bit later, in this same sermon, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1)?
Now, what I would normally take from this surface-level contradiction is that it is no contradiction at all. In fact, the essence of Jesus’ teaching lies in the purpose of your works. Are you doing it “in order to be seen” by others, as He warns against in Matthew 6, or to encourage others to “give glory to your Father in heaven,” as He encourages in Matthew 5:16? But as I pondered this, a realization crossed my mind.
Far too often, I’ve withheld my efforts or not made them known for fear of people thinking I’m bragging about myself. Individuals spending a lot of time talking about themselves is one of my major pet peeves, perhaps because I grew up with the attitude that it’s not about me.
But in Matthew 5:16, isn’t Jesus encouraging His disciples, and thus passing words of wisdom onto us, to make their good deeds visible and known? That seemed blasphemy when I first thought of it. It seemed like the most arrogant thing to do. But if Jesus encouraged it, it has to be good, it has to be right. After all, Jesus did most of His works in public. At varying times, He did tell some of those He healed or helped to refrain from sharing the news, while at others he made no such request. And clearly His disciples saw no issue in writing down or sharing His works for future generations, or at least for the ones immediately after them.
So if Jesus says it’s good to do good works, and it’s His command that others see it, shouldn’t we be visible with our good works? Shouldn’t we make it plain what we’re doing?
The trick, I think, comes in the intent. Doing good things for the sole purpose of making yourself look good is no better than the self-righteous Pharisees and those who gave their alms to the poor with trumpets blowing, drawing attention to their charity. But doing good things for making the world a better place, and thus leaving an opportunity to tell people, “This is what God’s love leads me to do,” is something altogether different. It’s an act of love and giving, a way to encourage others to do good things and an opportunity to receive praise and say, “Jesus is the reason.”
I believe this is Jesus saying He wants us to be part of the story of humanity, and He’s challenging His disciples — and, through them, us — to make a difference in the world in a noticeable way. He’s asking us to write our phrase in a sentence in a section on a page in a chapter of the book of human existence.
What is our phrase going to look like? What words will be used to describe us and our impact? Why will our phrase be one worth reading? What difference will we make with the years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds we have? This is not an attempt to shame or guilt those who may feel they are “wasting” their lives in light of this — that’s a whole other conversation, and one I’ve been having with myself a lot lately. But how will we use the time we have?
I think it’s allowing God to use you, but not in a “I don’t matter, He does” way. It’s in a way where we choose how we’re going to be that light on a hill, and when people ask us why we do it, we say why. We say it’s the love of Jesus spurring us on, not just to obedience but to making a difference in the world.
We’re not here just to wait for Jesus to come back — although I wish that day were today. We’re here to create a place where there are lights on every hill. And think about what a light does — it shows what’s happening, it attracts people to it, it removes darkness. That’s what we’re called to be. Don’t be afraid to do it visibly.
Author’s Note: This is the second part of a four-part series in a new stretch of blog posts I’m calling “The Hard Things.” You can find the first part, which includes some background on why I’m doing this, right here.
In the movie Ocean’s Thirteen, the titular group of thieves knocks out the power to a new hotel on the Vegas Strip in order to take a lot of money from a casino owner who did one of their friends wrong.
I’m not advocating for you taking this course of action, but it’s a decently-entertaining film.
Anyway, by knocking the power out, the casino’s fancy new security system, which utilizes facial-scanning software and heat monitors, is disrupted for three minutes. During this time, the thieves are able to cheat at various casino games while going undetected by the system, which measures a winner’s reactions to see if the win is expected or a genuine surprise.
Funny enough, at this time of no security within the casino, the room that houses the fancy security system is locked down.
Our insecurities do that to us. When we sense a threat to our personal sense of comfort and security within ourselves — whether it’s from an external source or within our own thinking — we lock up, clam up, don’t let anyone in. And while these posts are intrinsically about being insecure and how to work with that and through that, I want to emphasize that insecurity is normal.
It’s OK to be insecure. Insecurity is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of the human experience, and part of working through your insecurity, I believe, is recognizing why it’s perfectly normal for us to feel that way. Here’s three reasons why, and they go along with the three reasons why we’re insecure from the last post.
We will always find something else to do.
I’m lazy. I’ve been lazy most of my life. That’s just part of who I am. But even I, in my laziness and my enjoyment of doing nothing, find myself at times knowing there’s more I have to do.
When you’re a kid, you’re not overwhelmed with the worries of the world like your parents are. All you have to do is go to school, get to Friday and just chill over the weekend. The older you get, the more work you have to do around the house or at a part-time job, and then college rolls around. By the time you’ve walked across that stage — or maybe you’ve foregone college and went straight into the workforce — you’ve learned that life isn’t as simple as it used to be.
When you’re an adult, there’s always something to do. Maybe it’s paying the bills. Maybe it’s going to the grocery store. Maybe it’s heading to church for small group or choir practice. Maybe it’s putting the final touches on that paper for grad school. Maybe it’s signing a permission slip for your child’s field trip. There’s always something next on the to-do list. Even if you find a moment to relax and not worry about that list, it will be there when you get back.
Because there’s always something left undone, you may find yourself worried about how much you haven’t done. And that’s perfectly normal. In this fast-paced world, there is always something to do.
We will always compare ourselves to one another.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my teenage and adult life comparing myself to my younger brother. He made better grades than I did and is smarter than I’ll ever be. He’s a mighty fine musician and a really good guy.
Because I have a brother who’s less than two years younger than me, I will likely always be making comparisons, whether it’s warranted or not. We’re different people, with different interests and personalities, but the temptation to compare will remain.
We live in a comparison-driven world. It’s impossible to avoid it unless you become a hermit and literally have no contact with anyone else. For whatever reason, our brains are made for comparison. With comparison becomes insecurity. Our selfish selves derive pleasure and contentment, sometimes at least, from being better than others, from having more than others. We can feel content if we’re the ones on top of the food chain, if we’re the ones doing well.
But if we’re on the bottom — or if we feel like we’re on the bottom — the opposite will happen. We’ll constantly be looking over our heads, over our shoulders, wanting more. It’s not inherently bad to want to be more or do more. Sometimes that can be a strong motivator. But sometimes it can de-motivate us. “I’ll never be like them, so why even try?”
That is in and of itself insecurity, a lack of confidence with who we are.
We will always have room to improve.
Whether it’s in our spiritual lives, our work abilities or simply our attributes as a human, there will always be room for growth. We will never be perfect. Because of that, insecurity or the temptation to it, for some at least, is a given and always will be.
There is no one perfect, and there will never be a perfect human. Perfectionism is rampant, and while some might say it’s a good goal and maybe a standard worth pursuing, it’s an impossible one.
What I want to get across with these three points is that what we feel when we’re insecure is somewhat true. We will never really accomplish everything on our to-do list, and we will always be not as skilled, talented or smart as at least one other person, if not millions. Those realities, and many others, can make us feel like we are not enough, that we need to be somebody else or make ourselves better than somebody else to feel secure in who we are as humans.
I was in a mall in South Africa a few summers ago — long story, no time to get into that here — and saw a sign in a clothing store. It said something to the effect of, “Try on the new you.” The effect was this: You are not enough in and of yourself. You need our clothes — translation: you need us — to be the best you can be. It was a marketing ploy, to be sure, but I wonder how many people saw that and said, “You know what, they’re right.”
Our insecurity is just like that sign. It says that we’re not enough on our own, that who we are is not as good as who we aren’t. There may be some truth in that, but I believe that idea is missing the point.
Author’s Note: This is the first part of a four-part series in a new stretch of blog posts I’m calling “The Hard Things.” There are so many things in humanity that are difficult to discuss for various reasons. You name something hard to talk about, and there’s usually a one-word answer for why it’s difficult. Sex? Awkward. Politics? Contentious. Mental health? Complicated. Religion? Personal.
I’m calling the first series of posts “Insecure.” I’m really excited about this one because I think insecurity a topic most if not all of us can relate to and, at least I think, doesn’t get as much attention as a topic, particularly in the Christian atmosphere. So let’s go. – ZH
The other night, I sat at our kitchen table, head down, moisture on my forehead. My anxiety had peaked.
“Everything OK?” my wife asked kindly.
“Eh, not really,” I said. “I feel off.”
After a couple minutes of hemming and hawing, I was able to get it out — I was feeling really insecure. I had no reason to, no real reason at least. In my head, anyway.
“I’ve always been this way,” I said. “Ever since I was younger.”
Insecurity has plagued me for most of my life, and while it’s taken a lot of days off in my adulthood, it still comes roaring back every now and then. And I’d wager that I’m not alone. After all, we’re surrounded by things and people that can flick that insecurity switch in our brains.
Insecurity, if you’ve somehow never heard the term before, is the feeling of not being comfortable with yourself. If security means comfort and contentment, confidence and constancy, insecurity is the opposite.
Actual quantification of humanity’s insecurity is hard to come by. In a blog post on the website of The Scientific American, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen says the best two figures that could describe insecurity are these: the 13 percent of Americans that experience social anxiety disorder and the 40 percent that identify as shy. Both social anxiety and shyness relate, she argues, to the fact that we’re not comfortable with ourselves.
But why do we end up this way? Why do we define ourselves with this term? How do we get there? I think there’s at least three main reasons at the root of most of our insecurity — whether that feeling pertains only to certain areas of our lives or exists as a constant companion — and they all have to do with how we feel.
We feel insufficient, not doing enough.
I’m not somebody who’s looking to fill my calendar with things. I like having free time and space to do whatever it is I want to do during my day. But even with this free time, intentional or not, I often feel like I’m not doing enough, like I’m not carrying my load as part of society, or not measuring up to what is expected of me.
For something to be incomplete, it has to be started but not finished, begun but not ended. It can refer to a piece of art we’re creating, a business transaction we’re facilitating or a book we’re reading. There’s something done, but it’s not fully complete or finished. Simply by existing in that state, the project or book or artwork stands on the precipice of completion. It’s like standing on a fence post. You can go back to where you started or on to the other side with a gust of wind or a little burst of energy, either positive or negative, internal or external.
We can feel insecure when we haven’t yet done what we feel what we need to do, especially when compared to someone else who has accomplished much more than we have at our age or even younger.
Every so often, I’ll have a conversation with someone about another person who is my age or younger, and one of us will remark, “What were we doing when we were their age?” Most of the time, it’s something relatively less remarkable or profitable, at least on the surface.
For many of us, our comparative insecurities in the productivity field don’t come from comparisons to celebrities or athletes, but those around us — the ones who seem more spiritual, who got that raise and promotion before us, whose marriage looks more sparkling and golden than ours.
We feel incompetent, not skilled or smart enough.
The scenario I described in the opening of this piece revolved around incompetence, or at least feeling that way. I had discussed things with someone who was objectively much smarter and, at least on the surface, much more self-assured that I, and it made me feel incompetent.
Whether it’s in on a work project, some home repair effort or simply in conversation with a friend, we can often feel like we don’t measure up to another person or some sort of standard we’ve established in our mind. This comparison is the basis of many insecurities, I think. Much has been written and said about how negatively comparison affects a person, how much comparing yourself to someone else can actually hinder growth.
Insecurity can arise in this arena, especially around insecurity itself. You look at someone who’s clearly self-assured and confident in who they are and wonder why you can’t be that way. What have they got that I don’t? What do they know that I don’t?
While females most assuredly struggle with this, I believe males maybe have a much harder time with this kind of insecurity. It starts when you’re young on the playground, when races take place to see who’s the fastest to go across the monkey bars. As you get older, it becomes sports: who makes more baskets, who runs the fastest, who throws the ball better. If (or when) you learn you can’t be a professional athlete, it’s about money and success: who has the better job, who has the nicer car.
Really, it comes down to this: who are we?
We feel inadequate, not enough.
For the insecure, “who we are not” is the comparison. Ultimately, it goes beyond what other people are like and what they have accomplished to a version of ourselves that we dream to be one day. We conjure up this picture of who we are not yet, maybe even who we should be right now, and when we find ourselves less than, we fall into insecurity.
Whether it’s from religion, music, movies, art or social media, we are bombarded by ideas and about who we could be if only we did this or paid for that or took this time or effort. If we are unable to make that effort — withheld by finances, talent or some other unmovable barrier — we feel we have failed, and thus, we are failures. And even if we are able to make that effort, but still fail, the feeling remains.
Religion has a certain way of, in my experience at least, enabling this insecurity. Religious practices and institutions are, on their face, all about making yourself more into the image of something, more like an ideal or a standard. And while that is not necessarily bad, and those ideals can even be good aspirations, improper teaching about those standards can lead to heavy shame and guilt and immense insecurity. We feel like we won’t be a true fill-in-the-religion-here until we meet all the standards and goals set before us by some religious teacher or moral behemoth.
These feelings get at the very heart of who we are, our identify, our selves. What we do and what we are skilled or talented in can change and vary with the season. We may be in a job that we are good at or have completed a particularly difficult task, so we feel good about those parts. But who we are permeates everything.
Thus, this insecurity is the most damaging and crippling. If we can’t be confident and comfortable in who we are, the most basic and fundamental thing about us, what can we be secure in?
It’s the end of a year and the beginning of another. Thus come the lists of bests and worsts and favorites and least favorites and so on and so on.
I was tempted to do a couple on music (favorite song is Dean Lewis’ “Don’t Hold Me” or Alec Benjamin’s “Must Have Been the Wind”) or movies (“The Two Popes”) or TV shows (“The Mandalorian,” obvs). But as I was thinking about what I really want, what I most desire, it’s not more movies or music or TV. It’s time and conversation with people.
Thus I present you with my 2019 end-of-year list: The Seven People I Want to Buy Dinner For in 2020. They’re split into three categories.
First: People, sadly, I won’t be able to because they’re no longer with us.
As a writer myself, I love her style of mixing emotional self-reflection with life story, biblical application with textual criticism. She was both humorous and intellectual, realistic and self-deprecating. I want to write like her, to turn phrases with emotional impact and spiritual depth while pointedly approaching problems she sees. She wrote with compassion, understanding the reality of life as a Christian and a human, not taking any crap while seeing people’s flaws and elevating them [the people, not the flaws].
By all accounts, she was a wonderful person as well.
I’d want to take her and her husband to dinner with my wife and I. We’d talk about growing up evangelical, being Bible know-it-alls, going through significant faith changes and being a writer. That last part, particularly. Maybe she’d let me write a book with her. Or maybe she’d just read something I wrote and give me a good piece of writing advice.
This was a guy who, the day before his suicide was reported, wrote on Twitter, “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”
He was so, so, so, so right. And he lived that message! He was the guy who more-or-less singlehandedly, just through his presence on social media, helped me believe that it was OK to be a Christian who had depression and anxiety, that my mental illnesses did not disqualify me from being loved by God and loved by Jesus.
By all accounts, he was a good guy too.
We’d talk, if he was willing, about writing and mental health, our own struggles and how Jesus loves us through it. With his permission, of course, we’d scheme about ways to raise awareness of mental illness and mental health in Christian culture and walk out planning to save some lives.
Second: People who are alive who are way too famous and/or busy for me to realistically have a chance to dine with them.
Andy Mineo: I enjoyed Andy’s music when he first landed on the Christian rap scene earlier in the 2010s, but it’s his latest stuff that’s really helped me appreciate his life and journey and our similarities. Maybe he could give me some writing pointers as well. But mostly, like Rachel, he speaks my language:
Yeah, built my life on this (huh) Half my adult life like unlearnin’ Lies that I heard in a dumb sermon What I unearth got me uncertain More knowledge and more sorrow Worryin’ that never fixed tomorrow
Andy Mineo, “Clarity”
Jon Bellion: I discovered him and his music this year. While he’s not my favorite, there’s a couple songs of his that just cut to my core like good songs do. I’d want to pick his brain on creativity and the music industry, how on earth he got such a good voice and what the inspiration for songs like “Human” is:
I always fear that I’m not living right So I feel guilty when I go to church The pastor tells me I’ve been saved, I’m fine Then please explain to me why my chest still hurts
Jon Bellion, “Human”
Pete Enns: Pete wrote a book that radically helped shape my perception of the Bible this year. I wrote about it here. I’d want to get into the weeds a little bit on the academic and nerdy side of faith, but also learn how the academic connects to the trusting, spiritual side of things. He also seems like a pretty funny guy. I had a couple minor qualms with the book — that’s what writers do — but I also really liked it. I’d still ask him for writing advice.
Whatever else we do, and especially with issues that generate so much conflict, wisdom must be pursued by all and invited to take a prominent place in these discussions — if only so that they may remain discussions and not an exercise in lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades. Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.
Pete Enns, “How the Bible Actually Works”
Pete Holmes: His book “Comedy Sex God” was one of the more enjoyable reads I had this year. He’s a comedian and actor, but my favorite thing he does is his podcast “You Made It Weird.” He interviews actors, comedians and authors about their line of work and various other things, but he always ends with faith and religion. The conversations are enlightening and hilarious. I’d want to have a similar one. I’d want to talk about growing up a Christian, growing up a white Christian male, where he’s at with his faith now and what marriage is like for him — he was married young, divorced after his wife left him and got re-married a few years ago.
Faith isn’t certainty, it’s adventure, something you’re going to come back from dusty and bruised, having seen and done things you never would have even considered before.
Pete Holmes, “Comedy Sex God”
The last category is the people I know for sure I can buy dinner for this upcoming year.
For a long time, I’ve lived with the impression that when the prophets of the Old Testament spoke to the nation of Israel, they were simply speaking out of God’s displeasure, and it was all condemnation and judgment.
I knew there were bits of hope in there. Jeremiah speaks of the “righteous Branch” of David (23:5-8), a small encouragement smashed between words of condemnation and disappointment in the people of God. But most of what I remember from my first reading of Jeremiah is the warnings and the disciplinary words.
And I get it. The book was mostly written, scholars say, after the Israelites’ exile to Babylon. There’s explanation and context given for their circumstances.
But stuck in chapter 3, early on, is one of the reasons why I love God and I love Jesus.
After talking about how Israel has “played the whore” (v. 6) and “took her whoredom so lightly” that she began “committing adultery with stone and tree” (v. 9), Yahweh, through Jeremiah, offers an escape. He tells the prophet to face north and say:
“Return, faithless Israel, says the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the LORD your God, and scattered your favors among strangers under every green tree, and have not obeyed my voice, says the LORD. Return, O faithless children, says the LORD, for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (v. 12-14)
There’s something very — as evangelicals like to say, and that’s not a criticism — “Gospel-centered” in this passage. God is saying to His people, the ones who have abandoned Him, that they’re not beyond reconciliation and saving. He doesn’t ask them to do any spectacular acts of repentance or make up for their mistakes — simply acknowledge their guilt and return.
It’s so simply powerful to me that God offers this chance at reconciliation to the people of Israel. This is a people that worshipped false gods, disobeyed the real God’s commands and abandoned the One who had given them so much. As a result, they ended up in exile in Babylon. But God says they’re not too far gone, not too far away to be saved.
So many people will speak of the God of the Old Testament as a judgmental and angry God. And I get it. There are many words even here in the first few chapters of Jeremiah that get that message across loud and clear. And there’s confusion that even I have had recently about this seeming juxtaposition between the loving and grace-filled God of the New Testament, represented best by Jesus, and the condemning and disciplinarian God of the Old Testament.
These verses show that those versions of God actually meet in the middle.
What the authors of the books of the Testaments report to us is that God is a complex figure, but at the end of the day, He comes back to love. He centers on it. His inclination is to love. Even if His children have disappointed Him and He has to discipline them, He comes back to love, community and togetherness. That’s His default.
So when we speak of God, we must speak of Him faithfully, as the prophets did, as Jesus did, as Paul and Peter did — a God driven by love and welcoming, not one driven by judgment and condemnation. Yes, He has standards and desires for us, mainly one: to love others as He has loved us.
After an incident of school violence, the national conversation turns to two things mainly: mental health and gun control. While both are worthy topics of discussion and worth the time and worth the action, I’m afraid that something gets lost — the mental health of the students who were nearby, saw their classmates gunned down or simply heard the shots and experienced fear.
Most survivors show resilience. But others — particularly those who believed their lives or those of their loved ones were in danger or who lack social support — experience ongoing mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28 percent of people who have witnessed a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and about a third develop acute stress disorder. Research also suggests that mass shooting survivors may be at greater risk for mental health difficulties compared with people who experience other types of trauma, such as natural disasters.
Amy Novotney, Monitor on Psychology, September 2018
These people often get lost in the discussion afterward. Maybe we believe that the grief counselors and assistance provided to those survivors is enough. And to be sure, that effort is to be applauded and appreciated.
But what about when the counselors leave? What about when those students have to get back to their normal day-to-day lives? Sometimes, even if the best counseling occurs, this happens:
Both were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, during the February 14th, 2018, shooting that left 17 people dead. Both survived the school shooting—the deadliest since the Columbine High School massacre. Now, both are dead of suicide within a single week. Sydney Aiello, a 19-year-old Parkland graduate, killed herself with a gunshot wound to the head last weekend, the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office told NBC News. Her family told CBS Miami that Aiello had struggled with college because classrooms scared her and she had survivor’s guilt following the death of her friend in the shooting. A week later, on March 23rd, the Coral Springs Police Department announced that a current Stoneman Douglas sophomore (whose name remains unreleased at this time) had died in an “apparent suicide”…
A decade after Columbine, survivors told ABC News that they remained haunted by flashbacks, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt; the two Parkland student suicides evoke the death of Greg Barnes, a star Columbine basketball player, who took his own life two weeks after the first anniversary of the massacre. On Monday, the father of a first-grader killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was found dead of apparent suicide, the Hartford Courantreports.
Jared Keller, Pacific Standard, March 25, 2019
When we talk about this most recent school shooting, let’s not forget the people who survived. Let’s honor the ones who have passed, and let’s pray and express sympathy for the family and friends of the alleged gunman, who took his own life after the shooting according to news reports. But let us — Christians, non-Christians, men, women, children, adults, politicians, non-politicians, everyone — remember those who are still here.
Mental health efforts aren’t a sprint to be completed as soon as humanly possible just so we can take a seat on the sidelines. They’re a lifelong marathon requiring water, food, sports drinks, encouragement, new shoes, training and a desire to run the race to completion.
Note: I first wrote this essay in May of this year. I’ve let it hang — for obvious reasons, I’m not looking forward to the criticism I’ll likely get — but recent comments about Beth Moore (again) caused me to reconsider. So here it is. – ZH
My whole life — preschool to now — has been shaped by women teaching me things.
My mother taught me how to read. My elementary school teachers, two women, helped me learn math and writing and history. I had female English, history, science and math teachers throughout middle and high school that were key in my learning.
Ms. Boado helped me in my writing development. Ms. Coates challenged my tendency toward careless errors — I learned that phrase from her — in math. Ms. Epling helped me understand some basic scientific concepts I still remember. Ms. Morcom taught me Spanish, a small chunk of which I can still recall thanks to her, and she was a genuinely nice person.
Ms. Wolferman encouraged my passion for history and research. Ms. Chernin made 12th grade English a blast and was a special person to a lot of us in her class for her attitude toward us goofy seniors, and introduced us to the musical Camelot and nether purses (that’s from Canterbury Tales, by the way). Ms. McElwain wrote me up for talking in class for the first time ever, but also tolerated my semi-apathy to science and math enough to teach me some things.
Note: I may have misspelled or misremembered some of those names, and for that I’m sorry, but for some of them, it’s been 15 years since I’ve been in their classrooms.
I had fewer female professors in college, but a couple were instrumental in my education in various ways. Janna Anderson helped craft my journalism skills and served as a great encouragement. Maureen Melita, my Italian professor who I didn’t really care for at the time, showed great patience and forbearance with this guy who didn’t take the classes in the proper way and struggled with languages.
But in church, women have been virtually absent from my spiritual education since elementary school. The churches I’ve attended have, nearly universally, selected women to serve as the bakers and cooks, entertainers and singers.
I don’t think it was ever done out of sexism, at least not intentionally. And many of those women, if not all of them, took to those roles joyfully and excellently.
But as I’ve gotten older and matured in my understanding of faith and the Bible, I’ve come to believe something radical: women can and should preach in front of men and women. There’s no biblical reason for all women to be relegated to those other roles.
Timothy and the Corinthians
The most oft-cited passages regarding women teaching and preaching are 1 Timothy 2:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. I’ll take these individually, respectively.
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
In these verses, Paul seems to indicate that “a woman,” in contrast to the “women” that he refers to earlier in this section, should not be allowed to teach or exercise authority over a man, at least in his places. Instead, she’s to be quiet, silent.
“…As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
This seems pretty straightforward to me that women should keep silent in the churches, that it’s “shameful” for them to speak in church.
I walk away from these passages, on the surface, and get frustrated. It’s incredibly sexist. And this is the problem we get when we take the Bible out of context and apply certain verses universally and uniform without understanding the full meaning.
So as I move forward, I want to stress that I’m going to be using the Bible not as a smooth rod, but a stick that has edges and contours, something that doesn’t always say the same thing but has different meanings to different people at different times. After all, it’s 66 books by several authors written at different times to different people.
Teaching and Exercising Authority
In this second section of 1 Timothy 2, Paul is discussing attitude and action within the church service. In v. 8, he says that “the men should pray…in every place.” Also, women should be dressing “with modesty and self-control,” according to v. 9.
Then there’s the transition to women learning quietly and not teaching or exercising authority. Here are my problems with the modern application of 1 Timothy 2:12-14:
There is no indication that this is his practice in all the churches, something he indicates elsewhere about other practices and principles.
We don’t know exactly what Paul was referring to here. It could have been a specific woman, a specific group, a specific instance or a universal reality. But there are times where Paul does say something applies universally. He does in the 1 Corinthians 14 passage, “as in all the churches of the saints.” In v. 8-9 of this passage, he says that he desires “in every place” for men to pray and women to dress “in respectable apparel.” If he was speaking the inspired word of God, wouldn’t he be careful to say this is a universal application.
The second indicator of this is his transition from “women” to “a woman,” and “they” to “she.” Instead of continuing the original train of thought to apply teaching to all of a sex, Paul shifts to an individual. This could be an individual case to Timothy. We don’t know. He then returns to plural “they” in v. 15, which could be the children of the woman to which he is referring.
Third, the verb epitrepō, translated “I do permit,” is in the present tense. This is a sign that he is speaking presently, in his current time, and thus does not necessarily mean universally for all time future. He could just have easily said, “I will never allow women to teach men.” This could be just Paul’s rules and understandings for this church in particular.
The words translated “teach” and “exercise authority” may not mean those things so simply.
I want to key in specifically on the exercise authority part. The word authentein is used just once in Scripture — like the word for “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16 — so we have little context for how it has been used. However, the HELPS Word-studies gives some good help here.
The Greek non-conjugated word authentéō is derived from the stems autós, meaning “self” and entea, meaning “arms, armor.” So its literal translation is to arm yourself. The HELPS Word-studies continues: “Properly, to unilaterally take up arms, i.e. acting as an autocrat — literally, self-appointed (acting without submission.” So really, if we’re to take this word literally, the translation should be that a woman should not exert authority on her own accord over a man. That does not preclude her from earning it the right way.
Next, I want to cite Gail Wallace of the Junia Project: “There is also the possibility that the verb didaskein (to teach) is linked here to the verb authentein in what is called a hendiadys (two words joined by a conjunction to make a single point). ‘Don’t eat and run’ would be a modern example. So a better interpretation might be ‘don’t teach in a domineering way.’”
I think that’s a good example for both women and men: don’t teach people in a domineering way, taking authority on for yourself unilaterally.
Additionally, as Wallace also writes, the Greek verb exousia is used in multiple other contexts when speaking of authority in church. Why wouldn’t Paul just use the same verb here if he meant the same thing?
There just might be a context and specific application for this instruction for that time period, that group, that people.
Paul instructs Timothy earlier in the letter to “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to maths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-4). So there seems to be an indication that either Timothy reached out to Paul with this problem, or Paul knew there was an issue and wanted to address it.
Then Paul strangely introduces an idea of Adam and Eve and who was deceived and transgressed. Paul’s written about Adam before, when he wrote about sin in Romans 5. Paul wrote, “…just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (v. 12-14).
So Paul saying in v. 13-14 — “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” — can’t be a contradiction of what he said before in Romans, but a further context. It does not have to be an explanation as to why women or this woman was to remain quiet. Maybe she was to remain quiet because she was saying things incorrectly, and Paul was writing this sentence to give the correction.
Shameful to Speak?
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul kicks off by instructing his readers to “pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” He says that he wants “all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (v. 5). He does not restrict that to men or women, as he seems to have the ability to do in other passages.
The rest of the chapter is directed toward, mostly, the right way to speak in tongues and understand it and prophesy. He then continues to say that “the women should keep silent in the churches,” in this context. To apply this one instruction universally is a little confusing for a few reasons.
In this very letter, Paul doesn’t restrict women as a whole from prophesying.
Just a few chapters earlier, Paul writes, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her heard, since it is the same as if her head were shaven” (1 Cor. 11:4-5). He speaks almost as if it’s a given that women prophesy, something that usually happened in a group context.
So this seems to me to be a contradiction, unless the 1 Corinthians 14 passage is designed to speak to a specific group of people. It could be that the women in that church were being disruptive and needed to be silent.
The culture of the time could have precluded thorough understanding, something Paul would likely address in a section about orderly worship.
“The Corinthian church was perhaps the most diverse in composition – including those fluent in Greek and those with just enough to get by. Some of those speaking during worship may have had strong accents of a non-native Greek speaker, making understanding difficult for some hearers. So they might ask those around them to explain what they were hearing. Due to their cultural upbringing, women were handicapped with a very short attention span, as short as fifteen seconds. When they were not being directly addressed and/or didn’t understand what was being said, they would quickly begin chatting amongst themselves. Men and women may have sat separately. If this was the case, wives may have shouted across the divide to their husbands to ask them to explain. Therefore, the wives are instructed to respect the others in worship and remain silent and ask questions once at home.”
As Marg Mowczko puts it, “If the intent of verses 34-35 was to silence women who were disrupting congregational meetings with inconsiderate chatter, then these verses cannot be used to silence women who have a valid speaking ministry.”
Why would Paul use a word like “shameful” for something so innocent as women speaking in church when he’s clearly not opposed to it on other occasions?
The Greek for shameful here is aischron, which means “shameful.” The verb form is aischunó, which means “to dishonor, make shamed.” It seems outside the character of Paul and even Jesus to say such a thing about women in general speaking in church. If they were to act dishonorably or to disrupt the order of the service, then that would imply shame. But simply speaking doesn’t indicate, to me at least, universal sin or disobedience.
The Problems with Saying No
As I’ve said previously, I’ve grown up in a Christian culture that excludes women from teaching the whole church.
It’s something I just went along with for a long time. Like many things growing up in a Christian culture, you hear something that is supposedly from the Bible and you accept it. But as you get older, and you learn how to read the Bible for yourself, you may start to question some of the general teachings you grew up with and think differently.
Going public with this will undoubtedly cause people to think I don’t trust the authority of the Bible, that I’m just a liberal giving into my feelings and, at worst, that I’m not a Christian. This leads me to two problems I have with this culture of saying no to women when it comes to preaching to all, including men.
There is real sexism and misogyny accompanied with the conversation, and that is not Christ-like.
Beth Moore is a Southern Baptist, evangelical Bible teacher who ticks most of the boxes for belonging to the “right tribe,” but she’s not been on board with the way these teachings have been handled. In a recent tweet thread, she wrote that what she wants is for people to “grapple with the entire text from Mt [Matthew] 1 thru Rev(elvation) 22 on every matter concerning women,” to tackle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians 14 “alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired & make sense of the many women he served alongside.”
But most eye-opening to me was the next message, sent across two tweets.
“I had the eye opening experience of my life in 2016. A fog cleared for me that was the most disturbing, terrifying thing I’d ever seen. All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture…Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses & misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.”
This is someone who would know what misogyny looks like far better than I ever will. This is someone who knows the Bible better than I do, who has been a Christian longer than I have. And she’s seeing misogyny in how this is being handled?
Nowhere in the Bible, and never in the life of Jesus, do we see negative treatment of women because of their gender as Christ-like. And unfortunately, for some, this conversation does include that kind of treatment.
This issue reveals a lack of understanding of what the Bible is.
Many men who preach the complementarian gospel will say that it is not a matter of gifting or quality of women. It’s simply the created order and what God says.
I have a lot of qualms with that, mainly that the created order doesn’t say that. The created order says that animals came first, and then Adam, the man, followed. Then Eve, the woman, followed him, because, as the Genesis 2 account records, “it is not good that the man should be alone” (v. 18).
If we take what the Bible says seriously — and we should, whether this story is recorded history or a tale told to educate us on creation and the origins of humanity — we should understand that we cannot do what we’re supposed to do as humanity without women. That does not exclude her from being in our pulpits.
Also, in a pure order standpoint, if man came after animals, but man was called to rule over animals, wouldn’t woman coming after man indicate that she was to rule over him? That’s a side track though.
The Bible is a series of letters and stories and poems and wisdom literature written thousands of years ago in a diverse land by a diverse people in different languages. To apply them directly to our context without taking into account what was happening at that time is irresponsible. If your mother said back in 2000 that you needed to hang up the landline before getting on the Internet, you’d do that. But you wouldn’t give that same advice now. It’s unnecessary and inapplicable.
That’s not to say the whole Bible is like that. There are plenty of amazing and wonderful passages where we can apply the wisdom and words shown directly to our circumstances, or we can take the concepts of what it means to follow God and consider our lives in light of them.
And that’s not to say we can’t learn anything from these passages about women in church. It’s good and right for us, men and women, to not be chatty and distracting in church. And it’s good and right for us to be respectful of the service, of the people who spend the time planning and executing worship for us to participate in. But to make direct application is to ignore what I believe the Bible really is: a diverse book designed to show us people’s experiences with Jesus, and sometimes, we get some really good wisdom from it.
Why Complementarianism Isn’t All Bad, Sometimes
While I feel that complementarianism has definite theological and social flaws, I have seen instances where it’s been put into action as a concept but not in an oppressive and sexist way.
At my parents’ church, which I attend for several years, women regularly get up to share their testimonies during revivals and other special services. My mother and father have co-taught mixed-gender Sunday school classes on parenting and marriage. At another church I’ve attended, women have given devotionals on Sunday mornings, and a few participated in a panel on mental health in front of the church in a definite educational and teaching environment.
After sending this piece in its first form to my mother, she reminded me of a church I went to growing up. A woman was the children’s minister and actually preached a sermon on Sunday one time when the pastor was out, “at (his) request, of course; she didn’t just sneak in there,” my mom wrote. Another woman served as a deacon.
But the hardcore complementarians, I’ve seen, leave no room for things like that. What I believe was one of the main thrusts for Beth Moore’s tweets was an article by Owen Strachan, a theologian at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, written a few days before. It name-dropped Moore and J.D. Greear (incorrectly, I might add) as “two popular Southern Baptist voices” that “endorse(d), in the context of the church’s gathered worship service, a woman teaching and preaching to the corporate body”.
Along with saying women do have a place in the church — “women are free, gloriously free, to evangelize, witness to the glory of God in the secular workplace, and serve on the mission field (ideally on teams populated by men who can serve as pastors)” — Strachan said “women should not preach or offer public teaching in the gathered worship service in local churches.” Like many complementarians, he wrote that the stance wasn’t about women’s competency, abilities or knowledge, but simply about the created order.
“Elders must not allow such a sinful practice; to do so is to bring the church body into disobedience against God. Southern Baptists have no such historic practice; John Piper has encouraged no such practice, nor has any leading complementarian affiliated with the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood; the early Baptists, Reformers, Puritans, Edwardseans, and confessional Presbyterians and Anglicans never made such a move.”
I have a few problems with this — I’ve already outlined most of them — but the argument that all these people and denominations have not advocated for women preaching and that’s why it shouldn’t happen is a faulty argument. Martin Luther was an anti-Semite (at least late in his life), Jonathan Edwards was evicted from his church for publicly shaming people and mishandling money, and sections of Christians over the years have supported slavery, segregation and more horrendous things we’d never endorse.
“A woman teaching men with authority — week in and week out or every other week or regularly in an adult Sunday school class or whatever — a woman teaching men with authority under the elders is not under the authority of the New Testament. She may be under the authority of the elders, but she is not under the authority of the New Testament, and neither would they be for putting her in that situation.”
Piper extended the concept to women teaching men within the seminary environment, since “the proper demand on the seminary teacher is to be an example, a mentor, a guide, an embodiment of the pastoral office in preparing men to fill the pastoral office.”
Not all women feel oppressed or wronged by this approach. And I’m not saying that it is always lived out practically as sexist and misogynist. But some have clearly had experiences where it has been that, and we need to hear those stories.
The Benefits of Saying ‘Yes’
I don’t know if some of us fully capture how impactful women were on the history of the Christian religion.
It starts with the Old Testament. The prophetess Deborah — yes, a prophetess, someone speaking God’s words — was called a judge of Israel in Judges 4:4, and “the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (v. 5). This was at a time when Israel did not have a king, but judges who led them in making decisions.
There’s the stories of Esther and Ruth, recorded in Hebrew Scripture. Esther was a Hebrew girl who was brought into the house of King Ahasuerus and saved her people from genocide by being a leader. Watch the Veggie Tales version, it’s actually pretty good. Ruth was a foreign woman whose example of faithfulness and hard work was so strong — leading by example, at least to me — that she was plucked from poverty by Boaz and became a forerunner of David and Jesus.
The Samaritan woman at the well became an evangelist and taught men and women about who Jesus was. Priscilla and her husband Aquila corrected Apollos’ teaching in Acts 18 and led a house church. Phoebe served Paul by delivering the letter to the Romans and was referred to as a deaconess by Paul at the end of that missive.
The Bible is full of women who served and led and taught in a culture that relegated women to second class most of the time, and the Christian church, while undoubtedly led by men, was kickstarted by women faithful to Jesus who went to tell the dejected disciples about the Savior’s resurrection.
The benefits of saying “yes” to women are many. We get to continue this rich biblical tradition of letting women be as much a part of the church culture as men. We shake the bonds of veiled sexism and misogyny that we call being “faithful.” We get to learn from women, some of whom have been silenced by well-meaning but misguided theology, who have a lot to offer. We get to show the world that we, like Jesus, value the women who have been discarded and miscast by society.
Women can, and should, preach and teach in church. Who knows what we’ll learn when we let them in?
I’m a pretty transparent person, somebody you’d describe as “wearing their heart on their sleeve.”
Anytime I’ve heard that phrase, I feel like it’s always said in this gray area as far as whether or not it’s a good thing. I think that’s how I would describe my transparency: sometimes good, sometimes bad.
Sometimes I get frustrated by that. Obviously, I wouldn’t want everyone to hear all of my thoughts, so “total transparency,” in the truest sense of the phrase, wouldn’t be something I’m clamoring for. But I think there’s positives in being more open about things, talking about more topics, even the hard ones, the taboo subjects.
Sexual assault and domestic violence. Drug use and weapons. Mental health.
I’ve written a lot about mental health over the years because it’s been a constant part of my life, and I really believe that God’s educated me in it to share with others. But when we look at the numbers, it appears that a sizable chunk of the Christian church doesn’t feel likewise.
Feeling Left Out
In 2014, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of Protestant pastors, individuals diagnosed with acute mental illnesses (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and family members of those with acute mental illnesses. If you’ve ever been in a normal evangelical church with a mental health disorder, you probably won’t be surprised in the results.
A sample of the results:
56 percent of pastors interviewed “strongly agree(d) that local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families.”
49 percent of pastors rarely or never spoke to their church in sermons or large group messages about acute mental illnesses.
28 percent of African-American pastors said they spoke about it once a month or more, while just 4 percent of white pastors said they did.
22 percent of pastors said they’re “reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because previous experiences strained time and resources.”
53 percent of individuals with acute mental illness described their church as “supportive.”
36 percent of evangelical pastors were less likely to select “Medications should be used any time they can ease symptoms” than mainline pastors (50 percent).
The study is a fascinating exploration of perspectives on mental health and the church. It was done five years ago, so there’s no telling how things have changed. The survey happened in 2014, the year I began to understand the complexities of my mental health. So these statistics make sense to me.
The LifeWay Research team also gathered a group of mental health experts for the study. They didn’t participate in the surveys, but gave their thoughts on various topics.
Among the findings:
“People with mental illness or their families deal with a large amount of shame and social stigma around the illnesses.”
“Pastors’ reactions to people struggling with mental illness are varied.”
“Pastors are most likely to change their view on mental illness once they are personally impacted by it.”
“Before sharing their illness with others, it is important for the individual to feel they are in a safe church or group.”
Through this study — which is one example, yes, but from a reputable source — we see that the church isn’t talking that much about mental health, but some are, and the majority of people with mental health disorders are finding their churches supportive. I’m happy to see the positive results, but there’s something missing.
Talking about mental health openly and lovingly in Christian community is vital. I can back this up with my personal experience. When I first felt symptoms of my depression and anxiety, I didn’t know how to speak about it for two reasons: I couldn’t really explain it to myself, and I didn’t know how to explain it to somebody else. Even my best friends in college, those I loved and trusted with a lot of other things, didn’t seem to me to be ready to handle it. I don’t blame them, by the way, and don’t hold any grudges or frustration with them..
That left me dealing with it on my own. Anyone who deals with any major illness on their own can tell you it doesn’t go well. Isolation often makes mental illness worse, as being lonely can just breed depression or anxiety, and not treating things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can have disastrous, even fatal consequences through suicide and accidents. Search “people with schizophrenia shot” and you’ll see that many individuals have been killed by police who didn’t know what to do — again, not blaming them entirely — with someone having an episode and brandishing a weapon.
That leads to many having the shame that prevents and (most times) the inability to accurately describe what’s happening to well-meaning people who don’t have the time or resources to fully understand what’s going on. It leaves us stuck and hurt, unsure of what to do next, even in the church. I’d add a “just” qualified to the 53 percent of those surveyed with acute mental illnesses said they felt supported in their church. Just 53 percent.
Why isn’t that 100 percent? A couple of reasons, I think. First, some of us struggle to feel supported no matter what happens. Mental health disorders alter the way you think and properly evaluate circumstances, leading to the 33 percent in the survey that said they didn’t know how they felt about it. Secondly, a lack of open conversation, as evidenced by the just 49 percent of pastors that rarely or never spoke about mental health in a large setting, can keep people in the dark.
This has to change.
Starting on Sunday
When I was younger, my family would go to church on Sunday. When we left, usually to go to lunch somewhere, my parents would ask me and my siblings what we learned. I honestly can’t remember if I learned anything from sermons until I was in double-digit ages, but it was a common experience for me and many of my peers.
How often do you see your Facebook friends who are Christians and active members of a church go to their social media feeds and write about how great the sermon was? There’s a church in my hometown that encourages its members to share the “social media moment” of the message each Sunday, often during the service. What’s shared on Sunday morning, or whenever you attend your church’s large gathering, becomes the church’s calling card. What the pastor says on Sunday mornings is vital to a church’s public image and often reveals what he or she, as well as the congregation, values.
Much too often, as the LifeWay study showed, mental health is not one of those things.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience a mental illness each year, and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” That means that out of a church of 200 adults, it’s likely that 40 are dealing with some sort of mental health issue, and for eight of them, it substantially interferes with their life, including church.
When it comes to the marginalized in society, the ones Jesus showed His love for and commanded His disciples to do the same, the numbers are higher. An estimated 46 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Approximately 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition. Astonishingly, 70 percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition, and at least 20 percent live with a serious mental illness.
Despite these numbers, NAMI says, just 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the previous year.
It’s my very firm belief, something I’ll likely go to the grave with, that changing this situation, both in the U.S. and in the church, starts by speaking about it on the biggest stage possible. In the church, that’s Sunday morning.
Speaking as someone who has multiple mental health disorders, I can tell you that the pastor who addresses depression, anxiety and more becomes a representation of Christ more strongly to me and to many than the one who preaches verse-by-verse through the Bible. Doing both — which is possible, I’ll show you how later — is even better.
I think it’s a symptom, an unintended consequence, of the evangelical church’s preaching pattern. Seeking to avoid “picking and choosing” Bible verse to support one’s own opinion, pastors will pick a book of the Bible and go verse-by-verse. I think that can be good, especially through epistles like Romans that perfectly explain the basis of Christian theology, or narratives like 1 and 2 Samuel that tell the story of God’s first people, the nation of Israel, and how they did some things right and screwed some other things up.
But since the Bible is an ancient book, and we get too scared (sometimes rightly) of reading something into the text that isn’t there, we don’t talk about the modern problems to which the principles of Scripture speak. Far too often, at least in my experience, pastors avoid the difficulties of handling social media, properly engaging the popular culture of the day and dissecting how mental health problems can be answered — not fixed, but answered — with the love of God.
This can be fixed. It’s not hard, really. And it doesn’t even have to be a sermon.
A Panel Solution
A couple weeks after a regular attendee at my old church committed suicide, I was talking to a fellow member and friend of mine who also struggled with mental health issues. We lamented the fact that the church at large seems so under-prepared to handle things like suicidal thoughts and people feel relegated to suffering in silence.
I had an idea. Why not have a Sunday service dedicated to mental health? Make everything revolve around the idea of making mental illnesses meet Jesus.
A few months later, it was set. I created a video mashing a performance of the song “1-800-273-8255,” named after the National Suicide Prevention Line, with comments on mental health struggles from celebrities and news clips of prominent people who had committed suicide. The argument was this: “The world outside the church is already dealing head-on with mental health disorders, in a very real and in-your-face way. People like Kristen Bell and The Rock are talking openly about this. Why aren’t we?”
My pastor at the time, who had been open about his mental health struggles in the past, opened the service explaining what was going to happen. We had a testimony from a woman in the church who spoke about her experience. After a couple songs, we got to the best part: a panel discussion with several members from the church (including me) about mental health.
My friend and I represented having severe anxiety and depression. A full-time therapist who did counseling work with teens, adults and couples spoke from the angle of helping people with mental illness. Another church member talked about grief, and a mother and father of a child with ADHD spoke about their experience. It was surreal to me to be up on that stage with people, all Christians, and talk about how Jesus spoke to them in their struggles, what it meant to join mental health and faith.
It was a highly-attended service, and a week or so later, the mother of the person who killed themselves, wrote a letter to the editor of the town newspaper — where I was working at the time, funny enough — saying she was elated that the church was talking about these issues and providing a space for people to feel safe and comfortable with their struggles.
And it all happened on a Sunday morning.
I fought for the event to happen on a Sunday morning because, as I’ve argued already in this piece, change in churches often starts on Sundays. It starts when the pastor makes a stand or allows someone to speak about an issue that’s bubbling under the surface. Maybe it shouldn’t have to be that way in churches — I think it’s a result of the celebrity complex around pastors in the Christian world, something that’s been in place for centuries — but a full examination of that can be done another time.
A Grand Application
I wish I could say that churches around town heard about what we did and hosted their own panels or special Sundays, reaching everyone with the gospel of Jesus applied to mental illness: that God loves you no matter your mental state, that His mercy and grace is not stopped at the door of your chemically-imbalanced brain. Maybe they did happen and I just never heard about it; despite being a journalist, I’m often late to news, even within my own family.
It would make my soul soar if churches around the country would have similar Sundays, but not every church is equipped for such a situation. Maybe they don’t have enough members willing to share openly about their struggles, and that’s fine. But, as I said before, I firmly believe that the path to killing stigma and fear around talking about mental health disorders in Christian churches starts on Sundays. So here’s a few options for getting there.
Preach a sermon about mental health. The Bible is chock full of passages where individuals’ mental health is God’s focus and the writer’s attention: Elijah in 1 Kings 19, David at multiple points throughout the Psalms, Job in his eponymous book. So even sticking to preaching the Bible verse-by-verse can be faithfully done while examining mental health and the Christian life.
Or you could take a more holistic approach to the topic. It could be on an educational focus, pointing to the number of people struggling with mental health issues in both the church and the world and point to Jesus’ focus on people’s health as part of his earthly ministry. It could be from a theological perspective, focusing on how God’s love for His children is not conditioned on their mental health or ability to comprehend things like “normal” people. It could be from a counseling perspective, pointing to the resources available to those who struggle with mental health and praising those involved for their follow-through in “loving the least of these,” as Jesus said in Matthew 25.
Those with mental health issues often feel like “the least of these” in church. Starting on Sunday with a sermon is a great kick-off point.
Host a mental health expert. That LifeWay Research study from earlier provides more interesting insights into the church’s role in caring for those with mental illnesses. According to the responses, just 14 percent of pastors said they had a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness and 13 percent provided training for leaders to identify symptoms of mental illness. Individuals with acute mental illness strongly encouraged both — 53 percent said local churches should provide training for the church to understand mental illness and 42 percent encouraged having a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness.
Since the church is, according to this survey, inadequately addressing mental health with skilled education, it might be good for churches with fewer resources — like not having enough people, time and money — to host a mental health expert for a Sunday morning conversation or message about how church members can spot mental illness symptoms or offer explanations for how specific disorders affect the brain and emotional and mental state. It might cost some money — or there may already be a counselor or psychologist in your congregation — but it would be totally worth it.
Provide resources or a “people-to-call” list. This one is pretty easy. Most churches have a bulletin board or pamphlet rack where important information can be placed for people to peruse or pick up at their convenience. Sliding brochures from the local mental health clinic, business cards of the closest Christian counselor or a list of Bible verses to consider when dealing with a mental health crisis is a simple way to start addressing the issue. Depending on where you are, it might take a little time and research, but again, it would be totally worth it.
Host a Sunday school class with a book study. The LifeWay survey showed that 44 percent of individuals with acute mental illness surveyed said local churches should “offer topical seminars on depression or anxiety,” but just 19 percent of pastors said their churches do this. There are beginning to be more books and offerings for Christians struggling with mental health disorders or people who love them. Hit up Google or search Amazon for a highly-rated book or trusted author who’s explored this topic and let it guide a Sunday school class for a few weeks. That will give people a smaller group atmosphere to dissect the topics and discuss things in a more manageable group. Again, might cost some money, but totally worth it.
It Starts Internally
According to the LifeWay survey, 27 percent of pastors said they church had a plan for supporting families of the mentally ill.
We have plans for helping a new mother get a pasta on Thursdays and a casserole on Fridays. We have plans for helping a family move homes. We have a plan for making sure the church van key is passed around properly. We have a plan for paying the bills on time. The least we can do is make a plan for supporting those struggling with mental health.
But most importantly, you’ve got to talk about it, and it starts from within.
As already stated, the “world” has done an amazing job at breaking down the stigma around mental illness. Celebrities have been open about the times they’ve been hospitalized for extreme stress or suicidal thoughts, and whole songs and films explore the effects of severe mental illness. The least we can do is start talking about it.
Fifty-nine percent of individuals with acute mental illness said local churches should talk about mental health openly so the topic isn’t taboo, according to the LifeWay survey. That is where we should start. I really believe that, just like we talk about the Gospel, about baptism, about abortion, about feeding the poor, we should be talking about mental health.
Of individuals with acute mental illness, how people in their church responded to their mental health affected them — 8 percent stopped attending church altogether, 5 percent couldn’t find a church to attend and 10 percent changed churches. That means 23 percent of those with mental health disorders had their church attendance pattern — and with it their sense of community, commitment to a local body and ability to explore Jesus in a large group — alter, no doubt significantly in some cases.