There were several crazy things that happened in 2010, but a few stand out in the early days of that year.
On January 12, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, killing more than 316,000 people. The Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded on April 20. On May 28, 94 people died during Friday prayers at two mosques in Pakistan.
A lot of negative things. It’s kind of amazing how we mark years by violent and deadly milestones. I mean, I just did it.
But as I sit here writing this on May 31, 2020, it’s evident that very few things have changed. We’re in the midst of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands around the world. Global stock markets crashed on March 12, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by the single-largest point drop in history, and the second-largest percentage drop ever — a greater crash than the single-day drop that kick-started the Great Depression.
And we’re reeling right now, on this day, from peaceful protests around the US that gave way — somehow, some way — to violence, brutality and death.
Not much has changed.
That made me think about what has changed in my life, and as I thought about it, I thought also about what hasn’t changed.
10 years ago, I was desperate to have a girlfriend, because it seemed cool. Now, I’ve got a wife and it’s the best thing ever.
10 years ago, I walked the stage with great friends. Now, I still think of them often, much more than many of those I knew in college.
10 years ago, I thought having kids was a thing that would be easy and simple. Now, it seems so much more complicated, expensive and anxiety-inducing.
10 years ago, being a Christian seemed like the right thing to do, so I did it. Now, I understand that it’s a beautiful, difficult, complicated and simple thing.
10 years ago, approaching government and political matters seemed easy: vote Republican. Now, I know it’s a lot more nuanced, and no political ideology or party has all the right answers.
10 years ago, taking a stance on so many moral issues – homosexuality, abortion, assisted suicide — was easy and straightforward. Now, I know it’s a much more painstaking process to come to conclusions that may change over time.
10 years ago, social media was how you told people who you were dating, what music you were listening to and what you were doing that night. Now, social media is where I learn how people feel on political issues and what else is on their mind.
10 years ago, I loved Chick-fil-a. Now, I love Chick-fil-a.
10 years ago, I listened to Christian rap all the time. Now, I listen to singer-songwriters from Australia, Canada, Sweden and Ireland.
10 years ago, I was a little on the chubby side and grew facial hair I was proud of. Now, I’m almost decidedly (still hard to admit) on the chubby side and grow facial hair that sometimes I like and sometimes annoys me.
I could go on and on, but the clear takeaway from this list is that some things never change (thanks Princess Anna for getting that song in my head now) and some things are radically different.
But one thing that’s very different from this time in 2010 and this time in 2020 is that everything is different. Seniors graduating from high school now are walking into a world marred by a global pandemic, a country agitated by more and more deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police and, the places I’ve been, people going out of their way to celebrate their graduation with signs, banners and social media posts. There’s good, and there’s bad.
I don’t think I know any graduating seniors — tells you how crazy the last couple months have been, I’ve likely forgotten some people exist. Sorry. But I want to share this message with them:
Some things that are in your life now will never change. And some will change radically.
I used to believe so many things about Christianity that I’ve now abandoned. I’ve had friends that I thought would last forever with whom I no longer speak, or am even curious what’s going on in their lives. There were passions and hobbies I wouldn’t spend a dime on now, and there are hobbies now that weren’t even in existence when I graduated.
History will happen. Important people will be born and important people will die. Technology will advance but still provide some of the same services it always have. You will lose things, find things, love things, hate things, trash things, cherish things, invest in things, abandon things. Things that once had deep meaning will lose their luster, and things you never thought you’d like will become precious.
Some last pieces of advice:
Enjoy life. Life is hard. Life sucks sometimes. Find joy. Hold on to joy. Don’t assume that because something doesn’t bring you as much joy as you thought it would that it has outlived its usefulness. Don’t assume because something makes you feel good that it is good for you. If you feel bad, tell someone you trust.
I hope I’ve helped you understand that some things change, and some things don’t. Prepare as best you can for that change. Because of all the things I’ve said in this post, change is the only constant.
Other than Chick-fil-a, because Chick-fil-a is always awesome.
There’s a term in the English language that has popped up in video games I’ve played over the years: “fatigue.” It’s usually used to describe the speed at which my player/character gets tired. When that player/character gets tired, their abilities weaken and they’re not able to perform at their best.
Aren’t we all in that place right now?
I’ve not written much for myself in a while, probably partly because I’ve been writing so much for everyone else. I’ve had 34 stories posted on my newspaper’s website since April 1, and I’ve also put together 11 editions of a newsletter. That’s 1.5 written pieces of content a day — along with daily updates to our COVID-19 counter online and social media.
And I’m tired, guys. I’m burnt out. And some things have just made it worse — like an ER doctor from New York taking her own life after spending hours and hours watching COVID-19-positive patients die before they even get to the hospital, dealing with the virus herself and then going back to work. Someone with no known history of mental health issues, burnt out, just done.
That story wrecked me. I couldn’t bear to see it. I get it. I haven’t felt suicidal — although I have in the past, several times — during the pandemic, but I understand how someone can get worn out. Extensive work on something like that, something so depressing and overwhelming, wears out your brain’s thinking processes, and it hurts. Literally hurts. The synapses have been firing so much that they’re tired.
As a result, you don’t think straight or clearly. You’re just exhausted and worn out. You’re less productive.
That’s why so many people have been stressing the need for self-care: for taking a break, not watching COVID-19-related media coverage, getting outside and taking a walk, that kind of thing.
But the world we live in doesn’t necessarily encourage that, especially when the economy is down. Productivity is primary.
It shouldn’t be, but it is.
I don’t have any call to arms with this. This is just more me saying I feel the same way.
If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you’ll know that anxiety is a major part of my life.
Or was. Praise God I’ve come out of the most anxious season of my life, aided by friends and family and helpful medication.
But not all are that fortunate. Their anxiety is much deeper than mine was, or they can’t afford helpful medication, or they live in a situation where friends and family or either non-existent or far away. And now, those people are living in a pandemic.
I could regurgitate everything about COVID-19, but I want to cut to a few things I want to encourage those with anxiety to remember right now. I don’t promise these will remove your anxiety, but perhaps they might help you cope. At least I hope so.
It’s OK to be anxious.
Don’t ever let guilt or shame overwhelm you about your anxiety. You have good reason to feel anxious. All over the world, governments are asking people to stay away from mid-sized gatherings, stay at home and homeschool their kids. You are not alone in this.
You are not alone.
You’re not the only person who’s feeling anxious right now. I’m not, but I know many who are, who are laying awake at night not sure what to do next, who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, who are trying to keep a restaurant afloat when they’re forced to only do takeout or delivery.
Take a deep breath.
Anxiety often takes the form of your mind racing a million miles an hour. By practicing breathing techniques and calming yourself, you just might give yourself a second or two to think about nothing.
“Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” – Winnie the Pooh
Read a book. Watch a movie. Play a video game or a board game. Play with your pet. Dance like no one’s watching. Distractions often get a bad rap, but they serve a good purpose more often than we expect.
Remember you are loved.
God loves you. No matter where you are. Right now He does.
Growing up in a religious household, in a religious community, among religious people, you learn certain things. One of the first things I learned was this: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).
I don’t know if I heard that in a message from Leviticus or it was told in another form — the “be holy for I am holy” part is quoted in 1 Peter 1:16 — but the message was clear: you are to be holy. What does holy mean? Be obedient and do not sin. God doesn’t sin, Jesus doesn’t sin — so to be like them, don’t sin. If you do sin, you’re failing and you need to do better.
When I got to college, I eventually figured out, thankfully, that everyone sins and that’s just part of being human. So it’s OK that we’re sinners! We have nothing to be ashamed of because everyone sins, and the grace of God steps in to help us.
Wrong, apparently. Confession of sin was saved for one-on-one conversations, filled with religious platitudes like: “Thanks for sharing,” “I admire your honesty and transparency” and “We’ll pray for you.”
So simultaneously, it was holy and righteous to be a good person — to be obedient and righteous — and to confess how much you suck — to be honest about your failures and how much you needed Jesus. In fact, the more you needed Jesus and the more you confessed it, the more holy you appeared.
So which one is it? Or is it both? I’m not quite sure.
Doing an “About” Face
I listened to a message recently from Crosspointe Church in Cary about the first few verses of Matthew 6. Here’s the Scripture the preacher covered, in the words of Jesus:
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Jesus Christ, in Matthew 6:1-8
The base of the message was this: Why do you do what you do, and who do you do it for?
So often, he said, we try to seek people’s approval by being certain things. We’ll stoop to any level to find satisfaction in what people think of us.
Not that it’s a bad thing to be loved and accepted by others — in fact, he said, it’s “normal” and “healthy.” We as humans — and Christians, specifically — have an amazing opportunity to make a difference in this world by loving others, particularly those who are looked down upon by society.
But we end up draining ourselves and others, our relationships, when we seek to be approved by others as the reason why we do certain things. That thought process made me think about my life as a Christian, made me ponder my life and what it looked like and does look like. And as I hinted in the open, it has relied both on being an amazing Christian and being a sucky Christian.
The Best Frickin’ Christian You’ll Ever See
When I moved from my small private school in fourth grade to the slightly-larger private school in fifth grade, I transitioned worlds. Granted, it was also an age shift, but the Montessori School of Sanford and The O’Neal School in Southern Pines were worlds apart, despite being 30-40 minutes away from each other.
At Montessori, “niceness” was the goal. It was the whole ballgame. We would be fussed at for picking on people. At O’Neal, at least among the students, it was a different scenario. I heard cuss words used by people my age for the first time.
So I became the “good guy.” People would come to me for questions on homework. They’d cuss in front of me, turn to me and say, “Sorry, Zach.” I tried to play it off as “I’m cool, do your thing” — most of the time at least — but inside I was deeply judgmental. That continued into college.
Side note: I had a wake-up moment early in my sophomore year when I was told by a friend of mine that someone else in our friend group felt judged by me for what they did or said. It was very enlightening.
Anyway, I began to feel like I needed people to know I was a Christian. Not necessarily outside Christian circles, mind you, but within the campus ministry I was a part of. The people that were cool and admired were the holiest — the ones that memorized Scripture, the ones that didn’t struggle with porn, the ones that did the most evangelizing, the ones that prayed the best prayers, the ones that confronted the most sin in other people’s lives, the ones that did the most mentoring.
“Christianity” became my calling card. I thought that was what it was supposed to be. But it wasn’t always a good thing.
I was in a group counseling session during my senior year of college — long story, maybe some other time — and the counselor asked us to draw pictures of what our lives would look like with X or without X, the thing we were struggling with.
I drew, not too artistically, what I thought it would look like.
Without X, I would go down a road that was winding and difficult, but had happy stops along the way: getting married to a good Christian girl, having kids, writing books for a living, just generally being happy. With X, I was alone, just sitting there.
But in the top right corner of the page, I drew a cross.
After we were all done, and a couple other people shared their pictures, I shared mine. The counselor leading the session asked about the cross. “Well,” I said, “God is always with me, right? Even when I sin, even when I X?”
The counselor did not dispute that claim. Instead, he said something to me that shook me. I don’t remember the words, but it was something to this effect: “Perhaps you’re wearing a mask of hyperspirituality.”
We had been talking about masks, the things we wear to hide our issues from the world, the coverings we have to protect our fragile selves from letting people know about our X. The counselor was right: I didn’t want to let people know that I was struggling, so “being a Christian” became the thing I did to hide my weakness.
I thought being looked upon as a “good Christian” was the right thing, that it was holy and righteous. But really, it was masking my insecurities, driven by my failures and many X’s.
I’ll always remember that conversation — maybe not the exact words, but the feeling I got when that was said. “But God will always be there,” I reasoned — can’t remember if it was in my mind or I actually said this. I probably said it. The response was something like: “But why is that so important to include in your drawing? Is it because you really believe that, or is that the image you want to give to the world?”
From that point forward, I knew I had to change. I knew there had to be something different. So I began writing, blogging and talking about transparency and honesty about personal sin.
I remember one time I posted a Facebook status that said something like: “Would you ever, unprovoked, confess personal sin in a public Facebook post?” Of course no one said yes, and I probably wouldn’t have said yes either. But that was the attitude I took.
I want to emphasize a couple things before moving forward: Believing that God is with you through your X’s is good and correct, because He is. Seeking to be honest and transparent about your life and your mistakes is good and correct, because it’s the way to healing.
But where I got confused is thinking that being those things made me an acceptable Christian in the eyes of people. I was hailed on one hand for being a “man of faith,” and on the other hand for “sharing honestly about your struggles.”
As I thought about this part of my life in the aftermath of the message I referenced earlier, I began wondering: Which one should I have been seeking?
After all, the song goes “sweetly broken, holy surrender.” To be broken down and ruined by your sin is considered a holy thing. To be sorrowed and mourn over your loss of innocence and failure to obey is “righteous.” But then, being obedient and a “good Christian” — whatever that means, that’s a whole other conversation — is what gets you book deals and speaking gigs and a good Christian wife and praise from people.
What the fork?
I’ve spent most of my life evaluating and re-evaluating my thoughts and actions, trying to make sure they are the “right” thoughts and actions. And while that’s not inherently bad — of course we should try to do the “right thing” — if that’s the motivation, you’re sucking the life out of yourself.
Know that who you are is loved by God, and you are enough on your own. We all have things to work on, things we struggle with, and of course we should strive to improve as human beings. But making it about impressing others or being considered the “most Christian” is not just incorrect, it’s harmful to yourself and others.
Be who God made you to be. Don’t be ashamed of your obedience or proud of your failings. Just be who you are, and know God loves you. Strive to improve, but don’t let that improvement or your quest for improvement define you or bring you satisfaction. You’re loved!
One thing I’ve grown up to believe in Christianity is that being a Christian is not about us. It’s not about what we do or how we act or what we believe. It’s all about Jesus.
That’s why I was confused this morning when I read Matthew 5:16.
I was praying this morning — an infrequent occurrence, by the way — when I thought of the idea of the “light on a hill.” Seeking some kind of encouragement, I turned to Matthew 5:16 and found these words: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I was encouraged, yes, but also slightly confused a bit.
After all, why would we want to act so people could “see your good works.” Isn’t this the Jesus who also said a little bit later, in this same sermon, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1)?
Now, what I would normally take from this surface-level contradiction is that it is no contradiction at all. In fact, the essence of Jesus’ teaching lies in the purpose of your works. Are you doing it “in order to be seen” by others, as He warns against in Matthew 6, or to encourage others to “give glory to your Father in heaven,” as He encourages in Matthew 5:16? But as I pondered this, a realization crossed my mind.
Far too often, I’ve withheld my efforts or not made them known for fear of people thinking I’m bragging about myself. Individuals spending a lot of time talking about themselves is one of my major pet peeves, perhaps because I grew up with the attitude that it’s not about me.
But in Matthew 5:16, isn’t Jesus encouraging His disciples, and thus passing words of wisdom onto us, to make their good deeds visible and known? That seemed blasphemy when I first thought of it. It seemed like the most arrogant thing to do. But if Jesus encouraged it, it has to be good, it has to be right. After all, Jesus did most of His works in public. At varying times, He did tell some of those He healed or helped to refrain from sharing the news, while at others he made no such request. And clearly His disciples saw no issue in writing down or sharing His works for future generations, or at least for the ones immediately after them.
So if Jesus says it’s good to do good works, and it’s His command that others see it, shouldn’t we be visible with our good works? Shouldn’t we make it plain what we’re doing?
The trick, I think, comes in the intent. Doing good things for the sole purpose of making yourself look good is no better than the self-righteous Pharisees and those who gave their alms to the poor with trumpets blowing, drawing attention to their charity. But doing good things for making the world a better place, and thus leaving an opportunity to tell people, “This is what God’s love leads me to do,” is something altogether different. It’s an act of love and giving, a way to encourage others to do good things and an opportunity to receive praise and say, “Jesus is the reason.”
I believe this is Jesus saying He wants us to be part of the story of humanity, and He’s challenging His disciples — and, through them, us — to make a difference in the world in a noticeable way. He’s asking us to write our phrase in a sentence in a section on a page in a chapter of the book of human existence.
What is our phrase going to look like? What words will be used to describe us and our impact? Why will our phrase be one worth reading? What difference will we make with the years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds we have? This is not an attempt to shame or guilt those who may feel they are “wasting” their lives in light of this — that’s a whole other conversation, and one I’ve been having with myself a lot lately. But how will we use the time we have?
I think it’s allowing God to use you, but not in a “I don’t matter, He does” way. It’s in a way where we choose how we’re going to be that light on a hill, and when people ask us why we do it, we say why. We say it’s the love of Jesus spurring us on, not just to obedience but to making a difference in the world.
We’re not here just to wait for Jesus to come back — although I wish that day were today. We’re here to create a place where there are lights on every hill. And think about what a light does — it shows what’s happening, it attracts people to it, it removes darkness. That’s what we’re called to be. Don’t be afraid to do it visibly.
Author’s Note: This is the second part of a four-part series in a new stretch of blog posts I’m calling “The Hard Things.” You can find the first part, which includes some background on why I’m doing this, right here.
In the movie Ocean’s Thirteen, the titular group of thieves knocks out the power to a new hotel on the Vegas Strip in order to take a lot of money from a casino owner who did one of their friends wrong.
I’m not advocating for you taking this course of action, but it’s a decently-entertaining film.
Anyway, by knocking the power out, the casino’s fancy new security system, which utilizes facial-scanning software and heat monitors, is disrupted for three minutes. During this time, the thieves are able to cheat at various casino games while going undetected by the system, which measures a winner’s reactions to see if the win is expected or a genuine surprise.
Funny enough, at this time of no security within the casino, the room that houses the fancy security system is locked down.
Our insecurities do that to us. When we sense a threat to our personal sense of comfort and security within ourselves — whether it’s from an external source or within our own thinking — we lock up, clam up, don’t let anyone in. And while these posts are intrinsically about being insecure and how to work with that and through that, I want to emphasize that insecurity is normal.
It’s OK to be insecure. Insecurity is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of the human experience, and part of working through your insecurity, I believe, is recognizing why it’s perfectly normal for us to feel that way. Here’s three reasons why, and they go along with the three reasons why we’re insecure from the last post.
We will always find something else to do.
I’m lazy. I’ve been lazy most of my life. That’s just part of who I am. But even I, in my laziness and my enjoyment of doing nothing, find myself at times knowing there’s more I have to do.
When you’re a kid, you’re not overwhelmed with the worries of the world like your parents are. All you have to do is go to school, get to Friday and just chill over the weekend. The older you get, the more work you have to do around the house or at a part-time job, and then college rolls around. By the time you’ve walked across that stage — or maybe you’ve foregone college and went straight into the workforce — you’ve learned that life isn’t as simple as it used to be.
When you’re an adult, there’s always something to do. Maybe it’s paying the bills. Maybe it’s going to the grocery store. Maybe it’s heading to church for small group or choir practice. Maybe it’s putting the final touches on that paper for grad school. Maybe it’s signing a permission slip for your child’s field trip. There’s always something next on the to-do list. Even if you find a moment to relax and not worry about that list, it will be there when you get back.
Because there’s always something left undone, you may find yourself worried about how much you haven’t done. And that’s perfectly normal. In this fast-paced world, there is always something to do.
We will always compare ourselves to one another.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my teenage and adult life comparing myself to my younger brother. He made better grades than I did and is smarter than I’ll ever be. He’s a mighty fine musician and a really good guy.
Because I have a brother who’s less than two years younger than me, I will likely always be making comparisons, whether it’s warranted or not. We’re different people, with different interests and personalities, but the temptation to compare will remain.
We live in a comparison-driven world. It’s impossible to avoid it unless you become a hermit and literally have no contact with anyone else. For whatever reason, our brains are made for comparison. With comparison becomes insecurity. Our selfish selves derive pleasure and contentment, sometimes at least, from being better than others, from having more than others. We can feel content if we’re the ones on top of the food chain, if we’re the ones doing well.
But if we’re on the bottom — or if we feel like we’re on the bottom — the opposite will happen. We’ll constantly be looking over our heads, over our shoulders, wanting more. It’s not inherently bad to want to be more or do more. Sometimes that can be a strong motivator. But sometimes it can de-motivate us. “I’ll never be like them, so why even try?”
That is in and of itself insecurity, a lack of confidence with who we are.
We will always have room to improve.
Whether it’s in our spiritual lives, our work abilities or simply our attributes as a human, there will always be room for growth. We will never be perfect. Because of that, insecurity or the temptation to it, for some at least, is a given and always will be.
There is no one perfect, and there will never be a perfect human. Perfectionism is rampant, and while some might say it’s a good goal and maybe a standard worth pursuing, it’s an impossible one.
What I want to get across with these three points is that what we feel when we’re insecure is somewhat true. We will never really accomplish everything on our to-do list, and we will always be not as skilled, talented or smart as at least one other person, if not millions. Those realities, and many others, can make us feel like we are not enough, that we need to be somebody else or make ourselves better than somebody else to feel secure in who we are as humans.
I was in a mall in South Africa a few summers ago — long story, no time to get into that here — and saw a sign in a clothing store. It said something to the effect of, “Try on the new you.” The effect was this: You are not enough in and of yourself. You need our clothes — translation: you need us — to be the best you can be. It was a marketing ploy, to be sure, but I wonder how many people saw that and said, “You know what, they’re right.”
Our insecurity is just like that sign. It says that we’re not enough on our own, that who we are is not as good as who we aren’t. There may be some truth in that, but I believe that idea is missing the point.
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.
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.