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.
In 2003, Ralston was exploring Bluejohn Canyon in eastern Utah. While making his way down a narrow gap, a boulder dislodged and crushed his right arm against a rock wall. His arm was literally between a rock and a hard place.
One hundred and 27 hours later, he cut his arm off to escape.
The Oscar-nominated film 127 Hours, starring James Franco in an Oscar-nominated role, illuminates the difficulty of Ralston’s predicament. With little food and water, he stretched out his rations to survive as long as possible. The scene where he cuts off his arm is pretty gruesome, but it’s illuminating how far people will go to stay alive and find freedom.
Ralston’s book about his ordeal — which I have on my bookshelf but haven’t read — is called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” playing off the well-known phrase about being stuck between two unlikable options. I know what that’s like, in a way.
Twice in my life, I’ve dealt with mental health disorders while having a crisis of faith, and while I’ve since learned some key truths to speak to me in those times, it’s an area the church at large doesn’t really touch but needs to confront.
My Year of Doubt
At the beginning of the year 2014, I was in a strange spot.
I was months away from graduating from college, and a job was being lined up for me. I was going to work with a college Christian ministry, hanging out with college students part-time telling them about Jesus and spending the rest of the time managing the ministry’s social media accounts for the whole region. It seemed like a pretty sweet gig.
But one day, something struck me. I remember the moment it happened. I was on the phone in the sunroom of the house I was living in with three other guys, talking to someone about a different ministry opportunity, when I stopped believing in God.
It wasn’t that simple of course, but it felt like that. Over the ensuing weeks, I felt like I had to work hard to pray. Reading the Bible was not as fruitful as it had been the previous months. Each time I led prayer at our Sunday night prayer meetings on campus felt like a stretch. I was faking it. The emotion of faith was gone, and it seemed like my belief in God was gone too.
In the ensuing months, however, things got more complicated. I lost that potential job with the college ministry, I applied to several other jobs with no luck and, contrary to my desire, I was set to return home after college, not move off to some strange place and begin my career. Plus, I started talking to a sweet girl.
Throughout that time, God seemed distant.
Once or twice in your life, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of that classic prank — you’re about to sit down in a chair you know is there, but when your rear end is supposed to land, all it hits is air. I’ve done that to a couple people, and it’s been done to me a few times.
That’s what my relationship with God felt like. I felt like God was there, and I was going to lean on Him, but he seemed invisible, removed from my life by a force I couldn’t control. I doubted He was really there. I doubted He cared. It was a crisis of faith. I felt like I had done something to earn it. I was constantly praying to God, or at least trying to, trying to assure that I was a Christian.
It was a tough year. Along with getting rejected for that ministry job, the girl and I broke up twice because I was scared to commit, and I struggled mightily with certain sins that I was sure were separating me from God on a daily basis. But I didn’t know how to explain what I was feeling.
That time led to a lot of depression. Being a Christian was dependent on faith, so if faith is gone, was I a Christian? I would pray all the time. I would pledge things to God, pledges I would break so quickly.
At the end of the year, I learned that I likely suffered from a form of OCD called “scrupulosity.” According to the International OCD Foundation, individuals with scrupulosity “are overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine.” Suffers will repeatedly seek reassurance from religious leaders and loved ones as to their adherence to faith, make excessive trips to confession, praying excessively, repeat passages from sacred texts in their head and make pacts with God.
When I read about scrupulosity, it provided an answer to the question of why I had been acting the way I did.
The issue with scrupulosity — in simple terms, a specified and sometimes severe form of anxiety around religion — is that I could look at the description and think that’s just the normal Christian life. Aren’t we supposed to be concerned at all times whether or not we’ve committed a sin? Aren’t we supposed to be praying without ceasing? Aren’t we supposed to always have faith, always feel like God is with us? Those are the ideas I grew up with, the concepts that made sense to me. Scrupulosity, on first look, seemed like the normal Christian life, and here I learn that it’s abnormal and ultimately unhealthy.
“OCD makes it harder to practice one’s faith,” Pollard wrote. “However, there is no evidence that the moral or religious character of scrupulosity sufferers is any different from that of other people. Many notable religious leaders have struggled with this condition, including St. Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, St. Aphonsus Liguori, John Bunyan and St. Veronica Giullani.”
Looking back now, that makes sense to me, because my inner faith crisis, the doubt that permeated everything — from my religion to my romantic relationships to my career path — made my relationship with God suffer.
Reconstruction of the Faith
The election of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 was an eye-opening moment for a lot of Americans, and as I’ve learned, a lot of Christians as well. As Andy Mineo put in his song “…There”:
“Did 81 percent of the people I call my brethren put an elephant in the room and say it was heaven-sent? I don’t know what Bible you reading, what God you believe in but that don’t sound like reason, it sound like you sleeping.”
My journey to what some would deem “progressive Christianity” started slowly. It really began with watching clips of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. As Stewart eviscerated conservative media like Fox News — which I had learned growing up was the “right place” for news — and exposed the flaws in most conservative political thinking, I was shocked. My Christianity had been tied so closely, at least in the political realm, to the conservative/Republican movement, but here was a guy showcasing the flaws. America was not a Christian nation. Barack Obama didn’t seem all that bad.
It was those kind of discoveries that made me start to rethink the religion I had spent pretty much my whole life dedicated to. Trump’s election more or less sealed me off from going back to where I was before.
I looked at the Bible and found some things that didn’t sit right with me, things that didn’t seem to measure up with the Jesus I knew, the Jesus who loved me so strongly as I was, without condition. I trusted Him, and He loved me. That love that I knew didn’t measure up with the church’s treatment (in general) of Democrats, the LGBTQ community and celebrities.
So quietly, I began to reconstruct. It started with conservative political ideology. I went through a few waves of different thinking, but I think I’ve landed on the idea that the government needs to spend its money wisely, but try to help those in need if they can. The government also needs to be proactive in killing discrimination and oppression, including that of Christians.
Other changes followed, particularly in how I consumed secular music, considered profanity and voted for Democrats. But it’s come to a head in how I think about the Bible. This is a text I’ve learned a lot about throughout my life, and as I’ve worked to take it more seriously, I’ve found that it seems to contradict some of the things that I’ve been taught about it.
I’m not going to get too much into the basis for that — that’s not what this is about — but I want to explore my mental state: Depression. Anxiety. Suicidal thoughts.
First, it was the fear that I was wrong, the fear that I had screwed up and God was going to disown me for not believing the Bible was perfect. Second, it was the fear of rejection from people who didn’t understand, from friends who thought I believed just as they did only to find out my thoughts had changed. Third, it was the fear of being alone, the only one in my circle who had these radical changes to my theology.
Two of those fears were well-founded. As a result, I ended up abandoned and alone, with only my wife to comfort me.
My days were spent wracked with shame and confusion. I’ve always felt the need to be certain about something. If I’m not certain, I don’t like to move forward. So when questions came about, I didn’t feel comfortable going back to where I was before or moving in a different direction until the question was answered, and I didn’t like being in between. The stress was a lot to handle.
It reached a peak when I felt, for the first time in my life, serious suicidal thoughts. I had felt them fleetingly before, but nothing serious enough to actually take any action. One time before I got married I had cut myself with a pair of kids scissors, but didn’t get too far because, in my heart of hearts, I knew it wouldn’t accomplish anything. I just wanted to see what it would feel like.
But with this new situation, I would drive over bridges and seriously consider making a hard right. I would look at a knife and wonder what it would be like to run it across my skin. I would consider climbing on the roof of my house and take a head-first dive. A neck break would do it, right?
Getting at the Root
We have a ton of weeds around our house, and no matter how much we pull them up, they always come back. I always think, “OK, if I pull out the weed at the root, that will kill it.” And I’m always wrong, or at least it feels that way.
Mental health and religious faith are linked so closely because they’re both conditions of the mind. They’re related to how you think, and thus become related to how you feel. Both thinking and feeling are centered in the brain, as neurons control how you react to something.
So when a crisis of faith meets a mental illness, it’s like a weed whose root is buried deep, deep down in the earth, and you’ll never be able to reach it. There’s something incredibly unique about the combination. If you struggle with depression, the feeling of loneliness associated with faith crises simply give you more room to feel depressed. If you have severe anxiety, the doubt and mental debates you have with yourself just exacerbate the uncertainty that anxiety exploits. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is for those with more several mental health illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Mental health and religion are rooted at a person’s core. Both play a role in how you view yourself, others and the world. A combination of pain at both points is hard to wrestle with, to put it mildly.
Something over the years that has led to anxiety and depression more than I can count is my sin. Whether it’s something simple like considering someone else negatively because of how they dress or something more severe like lusting after someone besides my wife, my sin has led me to more depths of despair than most other things.
I think it’s happened because I’ve been taught, rightly, that sin is harmful to me and offensive to God. Sometimes that leads me to deem every single sin I commit to be a haughty, selfish and horrendous act that requires penance, lots of prayer and a day or two before I can feel good about loving God again, and about Him loving me.
In fact, it’s my lack of love for God that will drive me to depression and anxiety more often than not. How can I, a simple human man, ever love God “the way I’m supposed to”? Somewhere in my spiritual upbringing, I learned, likely subconsciously, that I was always supposed to be a strong Christian everywhere I went, and that who we really are is visible when no one is looking, and so God sees all my sin, so I needed to be a strong Christian for God.
Failure at that meant a need for prayer, reading the Bible and making sure you were still saved. I’ve prayed the prayer of salvation maybe 5-6 times seriously in my life, just to make sure. I prayed it several times during my year of doubt, but that was born more out of desperation and panic than a sincere feeling of separation.
I know my story is not unique. But those of us who reach that point of a spiritual crisis and deal with a mental health disorder simultaneously find ourselves up against it. And as far as trying to resolve this conundrum, there’s only one thing I’ve learned that can tackle both.
The Better Example
In 2015, the year between my stretch of doubt and the beginning of reconstructing my faith, I learned to love 1 John 4.
I had come across it the previous fall, sitting on the porch of my parents’ mountain condo in Boone, North Carolina, reading the Bible, trying to find something to encourage me. The first section is about “testing the spirits,” then transitions into a meditation on the famous phrase “God is love.”
The NRSV translates 1 John 4:9, a pretty famous verse, as this: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” God showed His love for us by sending Jesus. It was something that I had heard many times, and pretty much accepted. But I had never heard verse 10.
“In this is love,” it says, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
The love of God as shown by Christ on the cross is the perfect definition of love. John tells his audience that God is love (twice, vv. 8 and 16), and the perfect example of love is Jesus on the cross.
What does that mean for humanity, practically? John tells us in v. 18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
Having severe anxiety or depression, like I do, often correlates with fear of something: the unknown, rejection, failure, mistakes, sin, hurting others, letting others down, harming self. All of those things have some kind of consequence, and so fear leads to punishment of some kind. All of those things have a punishment. Rejection’s punishment is loneliness; failure’s punishment is disappointment; sin’s punishment is death; hurting other’s punishment is guilt.
The perfect love shown by God through Christ, John argues, “casts out fear.” The Greek root for casts is balló, which is the same word used to describe the way Peter and Andrew cast their nets into the sea when fishing. In the same way that fisherman fling out their nets, away from the boat, away from themselves, when perfect love enters a situation of fear, that fear is flung away, far away, left to fend for itself. It only comes back if we bring it.
So when helping those with mental health disorders, faith crises and both, it’s imperative that we let the love of God show through, the love of God that was shown on the cross of Christ. And start fear-flinging.
I’m in a strange season of life because I’m trying to figure out what I think about the Bible. And as I was beginning to ponder how I was going to write this essay, a palpable truth struck me.
The Bible is both inherently ancient and applicably modern. It’s unavoidably diverse and yet surprising whole. It’s at once both distant and strange while approachable and present.
I don’t know if it was written that way, but it ended up being that way. Or maybe it’s not the Bible itself, but the stories it tells, the people it features, the ones that God put in a place to be an example, whether good or bad, for us here in the future, 2,000-plus years after its central event.
It’s with this new appreciation that I explore something very special and personal to me: mental health and its place in the Bible. It’s there. The words “depression” and “anxiety” are either completely absent or incredibly rare, and there’s nothing explicitly diagnosed as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, though those disorders certainly exist in biblical times.
But despite the absence of certain terminology, I strongly believe that the Bible shows us we are not alone in our struggles of the mind, and that because of that, we are not alone.
Running for Your Life
Elijah had just won a major victory for God.
There was a severe famine in Samaria, which is now central Palestine. Jesus cited Samaria in his final words to the disciples, telling them to share the good news in Jerusalem, Judea and all Samaria (Matthew 28:19). Elijah was sent to show the power of God to Ahab, the king of Israel. Ahab had a death warrant out for Elijah — in 1 Kings 18, where this story starts, the king refers to the prophet as the “troubler of Israel” (v. 17).
Elijah says, in my paraphrase, “Hey Ahab, you’ve caused all the trouble because you stopped following God. I’m gonna show you. Get everybody in the land, including the prophets of Baal and Asherah, to go to Mount Carmel.”
At Mount Carmel, Elijah speaks to the people, telling them they need to choose between God and Baal. To prove God is supreme, Elijah and the prophets of Baal each take a bull and set it ready for sacrifice. Elijah instructed the prophets to call down fire to consume the animal.
From morning to noon, the text says, and past that, the prophets called for Baal to come down. Verse 26 says they “limped around the altar that they had made.” I guess they either wore themselves out or it was some kind of special dance. Baal was not impressed or had something else going on, as Elijah mocked them, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is music, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). Sarcasm from a man of God! I love it.
No fire came.
Elijah rebuilt the altar that had been town down, did some special stuff and called on God. Fire came down from heaven, consumed the offering and the wood, stones and dust around it and water poured in a surrounding trench. Fire consumed water. That’s not normal.
All the people of Israel, the text says, seeing this, fell on their faces and worshiped God. Elijah called for the people to stop the prophets of Baal, numbered at 450. The latter half of v. 40 says, “And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
All this happened, at least in the text of 1 Kings, after Elijah raised a kid from the dead in chapter 17, by the way.
After this intense display by God, the boldness to kill all these prophets himself, Elijah is confronted with some bad news. Ticked off by the death of her prophets, Queen Jezebel sent a message to Elijah: “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2).
No big, right? He had just raised someone from the dead and killed a ton of people after seeing God rain down fire from the sky that consumed water. But a death threat isn’t something most people take lightly.
“Then (Elijah) was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:3-4).
I don’t know how much time there was between these two events, between the killing of the prophets and the asking God to kill him. But Elijah became suicidal. He didn’t want to live anymore. Whether it was depression or stress or anxiety or fear, Elijah wanted to die.
And it doesn’t really make sense on the surface, right? From the far-removed standpoint we hold as readers of the text, Elijah has plenty of reason to not be afraid in light of Jezebel’s threat. He’s seen God do amazing things, many of them through his own hands. Why would Elijah be afraid and suicidal?
I’m not 100 percent sure. But he was.
Tears for Food
David, king of Israel, forerunner of the Christ, “man after God’s own heart,” spilled a lot of his guts throughout the psalms.
He writes about his response to his adultery with Bathsheba, the blessings of being one of God’s people, the greatness of God’s words and so much more. But his mental state is also a common thread.
Psalm 38 is a good example — “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (v. 6-8).
I don’t know how else you describe “tumult of the heart” but some kind of serious depression or grief. David indicates early in the psalm, v. 3, that his life seems to have disappeared from him “because of my sin.”
But I want to focus on a psalm that’s not by David, but instead is written by one of the sons of Korah, who wrote many of the psalms.
“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (v. 3). “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (v. 5).
The two verbs in v. 5 are wattehemî and tištōwhahî. Respectively, they mean “to murmur, growl, roar, be boisterous” and “to bow, be bowed down, crouch” in their root forms. The soul here for the author is both discontent and sorrowful. Both verbs are inherently active, visible expressions used to describe the soul. If this isn’t depression, I don’t know what is.
The author continues by saying that God has forgotten him and he goes on mourning “because of the oppression of the enemy” (v. 9). He stays cast down.
In Psalm 55, with enemies at his door, David cries out, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (v. 4-5).
The examples go on and on.
Sweat Like Blood
To me, perhaps the most notable example of mental health, or lack thereof, in the Bible is our Savior’s.
Three of the gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark and Luke — describe the Messiah’s mental state prior to his arrest, prior to his death. Jesus, asking God to take away this burden, is, in the varying accounts, “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37), “in agony” (Luke 22:44) and “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). In the latter account, Jesus tells Peter, James and John that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (v. 34).
I’m going to key in on the Luke account, because it includes a detail that I love. The Greek agonia is described by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “of severe mental struggles and emotions”.
All of the adjectives and adverbs that the gospel writers used are pretty indicative of mental struggles. But it’s Luke, the physician, and his description of Jesus’ physical state that caught my eye when I read this passage.
“And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (v. 44).
There’s a rare medical condition called hematidrosis, so rare that “only a few handfuls of hematidrosis cases were confirmed in medical studies in the 20th century.” WebMD’s article continues:
“Doctors don’t know exactly what triggers hematidrosis, in part because it’s so rare. They think it could be related to your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.
Tiny blood vessels in the skin break open. The blood inside them may get squeezed out through sweat glands, or there might be unusual little pockets within the structure of your skin. These could collect the blood and let it leak into follicles (where the hair grows) or on to the skin’s surface.”
How is it caused? Most reports indicate it has to do with severe stress. Pair Jesus’ mental state, according to the gospel writers, with the blood sweat — of course it’s referenced by Luke the doctor — and you have a pretty severe case of mental illness, at least shown here.
Jesus showcasing severe mental discomfort and stress should be comforting to us. After all, as the writer of Hebrews argues, that’s one of the reasons we can trust Him.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Theologians have debated over whether or not Jesus was actually anxious. After all, He was the one who said there was no need to be anxious, but “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Was He disobeying His own instruction?
That’s a theological debate for another day, but here’s my answer: I doubt it. At the very least, He was experiencing what mankind experienced so He could sympathize with our weaknesses. He was being human.
We’re Not Alone
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States, accounting for around 46.6 million people, experience mental illness of some shape every year, and 1 in 25 adults experience a sever mental illness “that substantially interferes with or limits one of more major life activities” every year.
And that’s just what’s discovered, and that’s just America, and that’s just adults.
One of the many beauties of the Bible is that it tells a very human story. It’s not a book that lifts itself beyond our humanity and our circumstances, our realities and our weaknesses. It quashes the myth that, to be Christians, we must be mentally well every minute of every day. It kills the idea that good Christians are free from mental illness.
After all, look at the people spotlighted. They were men who knew well the greatness of God, the love of God, the amazing things He had done, what He as capable of, men God worked through to do miracles. Yet they still struggled. Elijah was suicidal. David was depressed. Jesus was anxious. The Bible tells us that we’re not alone, that three of the most faithful men in history struggled with mental health issues.
It was like fire consuming water.
Let’s return to 1 Kings 18 for a minute. Elijah was building his altar for the sacrifice. Verse 32 records that he made a trench around the altar, “about as great as would contain two seahs of seed.” A “seah” is seven quarts or 7.3 liters. So imagine the volume of seven-and-a-half two-liter bottles of soda, plus a little more. That’s how much water the trench could hold.
If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, try drinking a two liter of water quickly.
Elijah instructs the crowd to fill four jars of water and pour it on the offering and the wood on the altar. They did it, and then repeated the exercise twice. After the third time, v. 35 says, “the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.”
You would think that faith in God would quench every worry and fear that would lead to suicidal thoughts, depression and sweat drops made of blood.
But no. In some moments, the fire is too strong to be quenched, and the water is lapped up.
We should not be ashamed if we ever feel that way. It’s not the end.
Throughout the Old Testament, God is shown to be a God who knows.
His omniscience is one of His most commonly spoken attributes. “God knows what you’re going through.” “God knows what’s going to happen.” “God only knows what I’d be without you.” OK, maybe that last one was a Beach Boys lyric, but it fits. It’s God’s omniscience that we see proven over and over again,
My favorite case of this is how Israel asks for a king. The story is found in 1 Samuel 8, when the elders of Israel asked Samuel the prophet to give them a king. Samuel is a little peeved, but when he speaks to God, God allows it.
“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them,” God says in v. 7. In v. 9, He continues, “Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
This is a fulfillment of what God had said in Deuteronomy: “When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose” (17:14-15a).
Just like God knows your struggle with mental illness. He may seem far away. I certainly feel that way many times, wondering why in the world God would leave me here on earth like this, crippled by a mind that doesn’t quite work right. But He is there. I have to believe He is there, or else this is all pointless.
But it’s not a blind faith. Just look at how God takes care of His people.
Jesus the Miracle Worker
Jesus’ earthly ministry, in retrospect, seems to be a lot about healing people of worldly diseases. A list of his miracles would be incomplete without healing the son of the nobleman (John 4:46-47), casting out an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-28), curing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:30-31), healing a leper (Mark 1:40-45), healing the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), rising the widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:11-18) and raising the ruler’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26). And that’s just a small sampling of the many miracles that Jesus performed.
This is evidence of Jesus’ supernatural powers. In this age of reason and academics — both of which are to be praised at times — the miraculous supernatural part of Jesus may get the short end. But it’s evidence of His God-ness or, if you don’t buy into the whole Trinity thing, that God blessed him to perform mighty works in God’s name.
What these stories show, and Jesus’ overall compassion for the ill and needy, is the Father’s heart for those who are sick. Whatever form that sickness takes, the physical embodiment of God on earth stopped to take care of those who needed assistance. And there’s a good chance there were many more than we have recorded. John famously wrote that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30).
It’s near-impossible today to 100 percent accurately attribute a healing to a miracle performed by God. The body created by God and its self-healing ability is so fascinating and intricate and powerful in and of itself, doctors just get better and better at what they do and new medicines can do amazing things. But if Jesus cared about people’s physical health on earth, it’s at the very least likely, to me, that He still cares about our health, extending beyond the physical to the mental and more.
The Spiritual Healer
After one of His miracles, Jesus was walking along the road when He spotted Matthew, a tax collector. Jesus called the man to follow Him, and Matthew did.
“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I come to call not the righteous but sinners’” (Matthew 9:10-13).
Aside from being one of my favorite gospel passages, this exchange shows why Jesus came to earth in the first place. He equated spiritual lostness — being a “sinner” — with being physically sick. The Greek word iastros is used, meaning “physician.” It’s the same label applied to Luke, the author of the gospel bearing his name and the book of Acts, in Colossians 4:14.
In this way, we see Jesus explaining the problem of spiritual lostness in medical terms, something they could understand. Being without salvation, without righteousness, was a sickness that needed a cure. And doctors, those who can provide that healing, do no good by hanging out with those who were well. They need to be among those who are sick.
Those of us who struggle with mental illness are sick. It’s a reality we can’t escape. It’s just a thing. But Jesus was willing to be seen and dine with those who were spiritually sick, as well as physically sick.
Cake and Water
Another one of my favorite Bible stories is that of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After defeating the prophets of Baal in the showdown of a lifetime and then killing all 450 of them by a river (read 1 Kings 18 for that Lord of the Rings-worthy tale), Queen Jezebel of Israel called for Elijah’s head. Fleeing a day’s journey into the wilderness, 1 Kings 19 records, Elijah asks that God takes away his life. Lying under a broom tree he falls asleep. Verses 5b-9 record:
“Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.”
In the depth of incredible mental and emotional distress, God provided respite and restoration for Elijah. He didn’t remove the situation, didn’t take away the feelings or thoughts. He simply provided some food and drink.
I feel like there’s something incredibly symbolic about this. Elijah wanted to die. He wanted to be taken away. He says in v. 4, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” The Hebrew word for “enough” was rāb. In other places, it’s translated as “so great,” “plenty” and “too much.” Elijah had reached a breaking point and was ready to give it all up. But God met Him in this moment.
The text does not say the “cake” is bread. For his sake, I hope it was one of my mom’s chocolate cinnamon fudge cakes, because those things are good. But God, though “the angel of the LORD,” provided him sustenance for the journey ahead.
This is not to say that every time you are in emotional or mental distress God will meet you with a cake and a jar of water out of nowhere. That’s just a part of Elijah’s story, and everything that happens to Him cannot be applied universally. But in these stories, in the Old and New Testaments, we see the character of God shine forth to those in need of healing, to those who are sick, to those who are hurting.
Who is to say that same character, that same compassion, does not shine forth to us today? We may not always see it, we may not always know it, but I bet you it is there.
He’s in the hand that reaches out to provide a meal, a warm hug, a kind word. Speaking of the Son of Man coming into his glory in later times, Jesus says of those who helped the needy, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
He’s in the person who ditches their whole schedule to pray for you or send you a note or play a game with you to distract you. Jesus says to His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
He’s in the one who doesn’t reject you in your weirdness or anguish or naïveté. “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way” (Matthew 19:13-15).
This is the God on whom you can rely, in your darkest hour of sadness, emotional turmoil and heartache. You may not see Him, you may not feel Him, but I promise you He is there. His character eliminates any other possibility.