I’ve been reading the book “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” over the last few days. It’s very different than the movie made of it — which I love — but it follows the same basic premise.
There’s a kid named Craig Gilner, and he’s depressed and anxious because, well, he’s a teenager and there’s a lot going on in his life. Written in first person, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” begins with these words:
“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint — it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.”
I’ve found in my life that my depression makes me quiet. Not just because I can’t quite get the words out, but because I don’t want the words to come out at all. I don’t want to scare my wife or my family. I don’t want people to question my commitment to x, y and z. I don’t want to talk about it.
But when the words do come out, they’re not very positive, to say the least. I tell my wife that she deserves someone better, someone who has it all together. I tell myself that it would be easier to walk away, to just disappear into nothingness. I tell myself, “Hey, heaven’s already going to be better than this — why not get there sooner?”
I’ve never made a suicide plan. But I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it as I’m driving on a highway and prepare to cross a bridge, wondering if my car could make it through the bridge’s edges if I drove fast enough. I’ve thought about it as stand in my kitchen, looking at the knives stashed in the block on the counter. I’ve thought about it while standing at the top of stairwells, thinking it would probably hurt and would hurt worse if it didn’t work.
I’ve done all this — had these thoughts, spoken these words, held back those comments — while professing Jesus Christ as my Savior. Because it’s not un-Christian to want to kill yourself.
This evening, before heading out to the local county fair, I scrolled through my Twitter and was devastated.
News broke that Jarrid Wilson, a pastor and author, had committed suicide at the age of 30. He was an associate pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, and a co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope. I followed Wilson on social media for a long time, and remember when Anthem of Hope started. I even offered to write for the site when they asked for regular bloggers.
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.
This makes two people this year who have had singular and significant influences on my life and faith, two people that have died. Author Rachel Held Evans passed away in May.
I usually know how to write a lot, and I started this blog post planning to write a long thing, but as I get into this, I’m losing words. So if this doesn’t come out right, I’m sorry.
I never met Jarrid or Rachel. I listened to podcast interviews, followed them on Twitter, devoured their wisdom. But they’re both gone.
Rachel died of a medical condition, but it was still shocking. Jarrid’s was shocking and unsurprising at the same time.
If you’ve ever considered suicide, you know that sometimes the feeling comes suddenly. I don’t know exactly what happened with Jarrid, and I may never know. But the desire to end it all, to kill yourself, to remove yourself from the world, can build up over weeks and weeks or just occur in an instant, and you’re in a place to make it happen.
Why, oh why, would this happen to a Christian?
Because Christians are people too. We are not superhumans, and we should never strive to be. We shouldn’t consider ourselves or other Christians above the fray from things like suicide, depression and anxiety. If we think that being a Christian means we’re immune, we don’t understand Christianity.
It’s my firm belief that wanting to kill yourself is not anti-Christian or anti-God. Both Elijah and Job, in their desperation, wished they had never been born (1 Kings 19:4 and Job 3:1, respectively), which I think is very similar if not the exact same desire. Even godly men, praised by God Himself in various ways, wished they had never existed.
Committing suicide does not condemn you to hell if you are a Christian. It does not exclude you from God’s love. It does not, I repeat, DOES NOT mean you are a coward.
Many Christians do not understand mental health. They do not understand the depths of it. They don’t understand. They just don’t get it.
Over the next few days, I will be posting some writing I did a while back on mental health and being a Christian. I wrote them a few months ago, not even sure what I was going to do with them, but Jarrid’s passing seems like a good time to share these things. Written in better times, those posts will do a lot better helping explain where I am than what I’m writing right now.
“Sometimes you can just be in a funk creatively or, you know, as a person, and it’s like there’s a fog around you and you can’t see out of it, but that’s part of the journey.” – Andy Mineo, “Clarity”
“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
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of something being “clear” or “transparent.”
In journalism, clarity and transparency are very important. Without those two things, we can’t really do our job right. If the truth isn’t clear, it’s our responsibility to dig and ask questions and figure out what is true. Transparency is vital, and it’s one of our main goals as reporters to be both transparent ourselves and to hold others to the same standard.
For most of my life, the faith journey as a Christian has been about gaining understanding and clarity, about trying to see God as transparently as possible and know what He says and what He wants. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I learn, it seems, that things aren’t as clear as I thought they were — with the Bible, with the world, what it means to be a Christian — and life seems to be more about the journey, about working through the fog instead of getting out of it.
These are my mediations on that thought.
Growing up, the message I got on the Bible was pretty clear: it’s God’s Word, it’s all true and it’s all applicable to us today.
In fact, the Bible was God speaking to us, a love letter, a manual, “basic instructions before leaving earth,” as it were. It was direct communication from God to me, with directions for how to live as a Christian. And I spent most of my life living that and believing that.
But in the last year or so, as I’ve dealt with more of real life and grown as a person and a reader, I’ve seen that the Bible, to my understanding, was never meant to be that. I’m choosing not to get into here what exactly led me to that, but I’m left with this uncertainty.
So when someone says something is “biblical” now, I’m left asking questions because, and I’ll throw you this bone here, the Bible is a very complex, complicated, ancient and diverse book. Its sections were written over thousands of years to several different groups of people by several different authors with varying motives, some of them clear and some of them unclear.
For example, near the end of his Gospel, John writes that “these [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But not every book of the Bible is that transparent in its meaning and purpose, so we’re left making well-educated, and often well-intentioned, guesses.
What are the psalms for? In some cases, it seems to be David’s personal journal, pouring out his heart before God — and for a choir director to put to music. In other cases, it’s a recounting of who God is and what He’s done. In other cases, it’s asking God to put enemies to death and provide victory on the battlefield.
For us to look at the Psalms as a whole and say it’s all trying to say one thing would be a bit silly, wouldn’t it? A bit intellectually dishonest? Ignorant of proper literary criticism?
Why should we not apply that method to the whole Bible? Yes, there are central themes — God, His relationship with Israel, the coming Messiah — but the whole Bible put together is not ultimately about one thing. 3 John covers hospitality and calling out one dude in the church that Gaius, the letter’s recipient, is running. Obadiah covers a prophecy from God about the land of Edom and Israel’s final triumph. The books of Esther and Song of Solomon don’t even say the word “God” in them. For us to claim the whole Bible is an instruction manual/“for us”/a love letter is at best a stretch and at most an improper appreciation for what it is.
It’s diverse. It tells different stories of different peoples at different times from us — or at least, my general perception of “us,” mostly-white America in the 21st century. The original recipients of the Bible’s sections looked nothing like us, spoke nothing like us and had a very different culture than we have. And since we didn’t live like them or experience that culture, how can we say for certain what specific things mean?
That’s not to say there’s nothing for us. There are timeless truths and indelible wisdom throughout the Bible that we can apply to our circumstances, our lives and our situations today. The book of Proverbs is chock full of wisdom both practical and spiritual. The life of Jesus and His characteristics as shown in the Gospels are perfect and worth trying to emulate in our own context, and we can learn object lessons from the stories in Exodus, 1 Samuel and the Kings, among others. And, most importantly, we can learn how to be in relationship with a perfect and loving God and be forgiven of our sins.
But I think it’s crucial for me, at least, and for all of us to take into consideration that the Bible isn’t quite clear on everything. There are contradictions, and there are instances of historical context that undergird everything we read. We need to take that into account when we read the Bible and give ourselves and it space and time to understand and be understood.
Stephen Covey’s seven habits for highly-successful people are well-known, and one particular one sticks out to me as I meditate on this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Before we go and try to put our spin on the Bible, it’s vital that we take the time to really understand what’s happening in the historical background of its pages before we go making pronouncements of our opinions on it. Where that might lead us — to the disappointment of many, including me — is uncertainty and murkiness.
And that’s so opposite what we’re taught as Christians. We are the bastions of absolute truth, of what’s real, of what’s clear. But in reality, if we take the term “biblical” at its most literal, which we should, there aren’t a lot of things that are really “biblical.” There are things that are “godly” — like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) — and things we can and should “think on” — like truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasure, commendation, excellence and worthiness (Philippians 4:8) — but to apply statements to the Bible as a whole, I think, is missing the point. It’s not always “clear” or “transparent.”
In sixth grade, I started going to school dances, at which I’d hear the popular music of the day while standing against the wall and, every once in a while, getting a cute girl to dance with me. She wouldn’t look at me much while we were dancing, something I always thought was weird, but now I see that as “I’m just trying to be nice to you, but I’d rather be slow-dancing with somebody else.”
Sorry, this isn’t supposed to be about me re-living past trauma.
I entered sixth grade in 2004, so some of the songs I heard included great songs like “The Reason” by Hoobastank (No. 6 on the Billboard Year-End chart), “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5 (No. 35) and “Sorry 2004” by Reuben Studdard (No. 53). Some of the other songs were a little less innocent: “Yeah!” by Usher with Lil Jon and Ludacris (No. 1), “Lean Back” by Terror Squad (No. 10) and “Get Low” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz with the Ying Yang Twins (No. 70).
That last one is particularly, well, explicit in its exploration of the artists’, well, appreciation for the female form while dancing. The popular line in the chorus — “to the window, to the wall” — would ring through my ears throughout the ride back home in my parents’ car.
I remember one time after a dance saying that I liked the music, the instrumental background, but some of the lyrics were nasty. I still think some of them are. For real, just ugly and disturbing.
There’s two reflections I have on this. First, I think it says more about Americans as music consumers than the artists as composers that songs like “Get Low” was that popular. It was No. 11 on the year-end Billboard chart in 2003, behind the classics “Ignition (Remix)” by the now appropriately-shamed R. Kelly (No. 2) and “Right Thurr” by Chingy (No. 7).
I could slide in references to these songs all day, but the second reflection I have on this time was a subtle lesson I learned: the world can’t be trusted. The world has it all wrong. They’re focused on the wrong things.
My perspective started to shift when I saw a tweet from then-Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson. He wrote about how bad pornography is for a relationship and how it harms you.
My mind was blown. This guy, who was an arrogant guy from all appearances, was saying something good and positive. Johnson has certainly had his off-the-field (and on-the-field, for that matter) issues before and after that tweet, but the message still stands.
Perhaps it was my misunderstanding what the church was trying to teach me about the world in the first place, but my mind was changed. The world wasn’t all bad.
In modern Christian culture, we often use “the world” as shorthand for non-Christians, usually in a context like, “The world does this, but you shouldn’t do that. You should do this. You should be different.” That was the general reasoning given for avoiding things from R-rated movies to alcohol to cigarettes to cursing. There were other reasons, but that was the underlying motivation. Having that mindset led to me having a judgmental attitude toward friends in high school or college that would watch and love R-rated movies (particularly ones with sex in them), cuss, do physical stuff with their girlfriends and more.
But as I got older, I learned more about why people did what they did, and I found it wasn’t so clear and obvious like I was taught. Sometimes people drink for more reasons than sin — it can be fun, and just like playing a board game or a round of golf, bonding can happen over a beer. R-rated movies can be good entertainment and even teach us lessons about life that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Basically, I learned that not being a Christian didn’t mean you couldn’t be a good person, that you couldn’t make a difference, that you weren’t worth listening to and understanding and appreciating. Non-Christians shifted from a salvation project to people and friends. Not being a Christian slipped from my list of judgment-worthy qualities. To be fair, it’s a list I probably shouldn’t have developed in the first place.
It’s not clear that the world is all bad, or that it’s just something we should “be in, but not of.” I think Paul argued this point: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22). His example is stunning, as is Jesus’ as he spent time with sinners and tax collectors (many times, but particularly in Matthew 9:10). In a society where the “righteous” Jews didn’t associate with outsiders and pariahs, not only did Jesus speak to them — see the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 — He ate with them and went to their houses — like Zacchaeus in Luke 19.
The examples are endless. Jesus and Paul not only observed the world and knew about, they engaged it because they knew it wasn’t as clear as “bad.” It was usually a little more complex and complicated.
BEING A CHRISTIAN
Similar to the Bible, I had what I thought was a pretty clear picture of what it meant “to be a Christian” when I was growing up, and one of the major stipulations was no cursing.
One time after church, I wrote a Facebook status about how Christians who cussed were bad Christians or missed the point or something like that. A school classmate of mine commented and said something about how that’s not necessarily true, and she was offended that I had said that. I wrote something back about Proverbs 4:24 — “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (NIV).
Looking back now, I feel like I was misguided about a couple things. First of all, I don’t know if the writer of Proverbs was talking about those four-letter words that start with certain letters. Second, where in the Bible does it say that Christians aren’t supposed to use those words? Third, I wasn’t going to win that classmate to my side with a snide Facebook comment lobbing Scripture — however wise it is — at them from the other side of a phone screen.
That story is an example of where I let the culture around me tell me what it meant to be a Christian when the reality is much different.
Because the Bible isn’t a clear, monolithic book, to me at least, there is no one version of “Christian” today. There’s the Southern Baptist Christian, the Methodist Christian, the Episcopal Christian, the Democratic Christian, the Republican Christian, the male Christian, the female Christian. Our faith and the wisdom of the Bible affects all of us differently and leads each of us in different ways that are not necessarily bad. They might contradict at times, but that shows even more that while the Bible may be “clear” about something to one person, it’s “clear” in a different way for somebody else.
To my knowledge, the Bible only gives one or two “clear” instructions for what it means to be a Christian: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame’” (Romans 10:9-11). Man, Romans is so good.
So what it objectively means to “be a Christian” is in one sense clear and obvious and in another a little muddier. There seems to be clear instruction for how to become a Christian, but after that, some of the practicals are up in the air.
Baptists believe in baptism after salvation. Methodists believe in infant baptism. The PCA and PCUSA, while both “Presbyterians” by denominational title, have several differences of opinion. But who am I to say that one is a Christian and the other isn’t? If they choose to follow Jesus, who am I to disqualify them for differing beliefs?
THE FREEDOM OF CHRIST
For a long time, I didn’t quite understand the idea of freedom in Christ. After all, if we’re Christians, aren’t we supposed to be restrained from doing certain things because what it means to be a Christian is quite specific?
Speaking about the “freedom” for which “Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:1,6).
Circumcision is a a topic in several of Paul’s letters. The Jewish Christian crowd was using it as a sign of faithfulness. Paul rebukes that idea in Romans 3:29-30 — “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” Here in Galatians, Paul argues, in Christ neither being circumcised nor uncircumcision means anything. The only thing that counts, he says, is faith working through love.
Being a Christian, he argues to the Galatians, is not about doing certain things or acting a certain way. It’s about faith. The Greek for working is energeó, and properly means, according to HELPS Word-studies, “working in a solution which brings it from one stage (point) to the next.” Love, Paul argues, is energizing faith. Love brings faith from one point to the next.
Whether that’s love of God or love of others, Paul does not specify in Galatians. But as Jesus says, the two greatest commands are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). The Greek root for “love” in those verses and Galatians 5:6 is the same — agapaó, “to love.”
I think this gives us a snapshot of a framework by which we can look at the Bible and look at life. Faith, being increased and improved by love, is the guiding light. From there, we can determine what it means for us to be a Christian. Of course, we should take into account loving God and loving others; this is not a free-for-all where we define it for ourselves. The Bible shows us helpful wisdom and guidance.
But trying to define what a Christian should act like on our own terms, without taking into account love and true wisdom, is a dangerous mission. I think it’s a lot more gray than we’d like it to be.
That means this, even as I write this to you, is an exercise for me. I have to give you space to live the Christian life you choose just as I ask you to give me space for me. They may be different – heck, in some ways, they may be completely contradictory. But as long as it’s not sinful — the Bible and the Holy Spirit can help us understand that — it’s usually A-OK.
DOES CLARITY EXIST?
So here’s the real question: does true and clear and black-and-white clarity exist? No. And yes.
There are some things that seem to be pretty clear. Gravity. Man as sinful — theologian Reinhold Neibuhr (the same guy that composed the “Serenity Prayer”) wrote that the doctrine of original sin was “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Salvation by grace through faith.
But there are a lot of things that aren’t clear. It’s dangerous, therefore, for us to paint with a broad brush, especially when we jump into conversations with other Christians. Cussing isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Voting for a Democrat who supports abortion rights isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Supporting the maintenance of Confederate monuments isn’t universally accepted as sinful.
So it’s good for us, in light of this, to carefully enter conversations and define terms. Because clarity doesn’t exist as much as we might think.
NOTE: All Bible verses quoted come from the New Revised Standard Version, except where otherwise noted.
My personal mental health problems, namely anxiety and depression, started in my teens, and I’m not alone in that.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition, and 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24, and 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness.
The mental health of teenagers recently caught attention in light of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which graphically portrayed the suicide of a high school girl character who turned to self-harm as a result of a poor life at school. A recent study said there were more than 195 more suicides by kids 10-17 than would have been expected in the nine months following the show’s March 2017 release.
Researchers said they can’t prove the show is why the jump occurred, but they argued that the graphic portrayal of the act can be a spur for kids considering suicide.
This is not a piece where I’m determined to level 13 Reasons Why, to say that it’s bad for teen mental health. In fact, another study (note: it was commissioned by Netflix) showed that 58 percent of teen viewers reported talking to their parents about the show and the issues it raised, while 51 percent stated they apologized to someone for how they treated them after watching it. So I’m far from qualified in evaluating the show’s effect on teen mental health — mostly because I haven’t watched it myself.
But 13 Reasons Why has at least done one thing, whether you think it is worth watching or harm’s teen mental health. It’s started the conversation over what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And that is always a good thing, because America’s teens, and teens around the world, need more than what they’re getting, particularly from Christians.
The Precarious State Teenagers Live In
The world has changed a lot from when I was a teenager. The year I turned 18, 2010, was very different. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the top new album, Toy Story 3 the highest grossing movie, and Barack Obama was president. Man, it seems so long ago.
But as a former teenager myself — quite recently, in fact — and through my conversations with teens over the last few years, I’ve lived and heard what it’s been like to be a teenager in the 21st century and to deal with all the pressures that come with that age group.
Teenagers nowadays — and maybe always, to be fair — feel that they are not respected as much as adults and not loved as much as little kids. They feel that they are asked to be adults in many ways, but are not given the same level of respect and the same voice as adults. They go to school, have part-time jobs, take care of siblings and try to have social lives simultaneously. Adults may spend their time on specific things quite differently, but the amount of commitments is similar.
Many teens fall in one of two categories: living under some level of pressure from their parents’ expectations, or living without one or both birth parents. Both situations cause stress and anxiety from a young age, with other mental illnesses affecting them depending on their circumstances. The 69 percent of children under age 18 living with both parents — a decrease from the 88 percent in 1960, by the way — will often find themselves struggling to meet standards set for them, whether in the classroom or on the sports field. The 23 percent of children living with a single mother — an increase from 8 percent in 1960 — and 4 percent living with just their father are missing a parental figure and thus a significant part of their development (statistics here).
Therein lies another problem facing teenagers and their mental health. Remember how that 13 Reasons Why study said the show helped some talk about the issues presented? The same study stated that 80 percent of adolescent and young-adult viewers said others their age dealt with similar issues to those in the series, and younger teens and teens with higher levels of social anxiety said they felt more comfortable talking about the topics present in 13 Reasons Why with parents, peers and other supportive adults after watching the show.
There’s a stigma wrapped around mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. Unlike some diseases, even mental illnesses, things like depression and anxiety are not bodily visible, but take a lot of work to keep hidden. A lot of teens seem to have not learned how to control their emotions, and that’s not necessarily their fault. They’re learning who they are, and they’ll often learn through experience how to control their emotions. But in a world where looking good, talking good and living good are prized above all else, anything that gets in the way of that is scary for a teenager. They want to be prized by their peers, and anything that makes them stand out or be different for any negative reason — like being sad all the time or coming to school with cuts on their wrists or arms — is something to be hidden.
Adults are no different, really. We all put on faces when we go out in public, desiring for our colleagues and friends to see us as the put-together person we desire to show. Most of the time, we even want to see ourselves that way. In my 26-and-a-half years of life, I’ve rarely met an adult who I could tell was totally and completely themselves the vast majority of the time. I’ve met one, a good friend of mine from college and even he, deep down, struggled with self-confidence from time-to-time.
Teenage-dom is a precarious state. Whether it’s the still-developing brain or the lack of life experiences, life is on a tightrope, a pendulum stuck in the middle, shifted up or down, back or forth, at a moment’s notice.
A Personal Matter
It’s in this environment that mental illness thrives.
Struggles like anxiety disorders and clinical depression live for this scenario. Anxiety gets activated by the slightest uncertainty, with the mind beginning to race and rumble over the smallest worry. Early experiences with rejection or being left out can add substance to the feeling of depression — “Look what’s happened to me! Can you blame me for being depressed?”
I write this because I’ve been there. This has happened to me. The slightest uncertainty has sent me into a tailspin, wondering about the 50 different outcomes to a particular situation, which one is best, which one is worst, which one is most likely.
Allow me to be nerdy for a second: It’s like Doctor Strange using the Time Stone to see the potential outcomes of the Avengers’ fight against Thanos, but he gets stuck in the time loop, preventing him from telling Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy that there’s one way to win out of 14 million-plus. A remembrance of a specific time of rejection — either by an eighth-grade girl who didn’t want to dance with me or a place of employment going “another direction” with the opening — can kickstart a half-hour of unbreakable sadness.
Most people can shrug off those perfectly normal scenarios. But those of us with severe anxiety and depression try to avoid them like the plague because we know what they do to us. They cripple us. They lead us down a path we don’t want to go down, and most of the time we can’t help it or get out of it.
Last night — just under 12 hours before writing the first draft of this essay — I thought of rejection from multiple job interviews and another scenario where rejection was hurtful and got depressed, unable to have a good conversation with my wife and ultimately descending into an anxious state. I didn’t know how to get out of it because, no matter how hard you try, sometimes it’s impossible. And don’t tell me to “stop trying so hard.” I’ve done that too.
This is both a biological and sociological issue. We live in a society where mental health has either been put on the back burner, to be “talked about later,” or not discussed at all. And nowhere has this become more obvious than in schools, where America’s teens spend anywhere between 35-50 hours a week, depending on extracurricular activities.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the ratio of students per school psychologist was estimated to be 1,381:1 in the 2014-2015. That’s higher than the recommended ratio of 1,000:1 in general and 500-700:1 “when more comprehensive and preventive services are being provided.” Hiring personnel for public schools has become an increasingly significant political discussion, with legislation for funding such positions often reliant on the increasingly divisive political process. While I’m not going to take a political position on this — I recognize that state governments do not have a bottomless treasure chest full of money to spend on every needed thing — this shortage opens students to a significant portion of their week when they are either underserved or not served at all in the mental health arena.
This is not necessarily the fault of the schools or the states that fund them. I simply believe this is a sign that we haven’t taken students’ mental health seriously enough. I think that’s changing, as more and more groups advocate for increasing mental health services for students and increased funding for related positions in schools.
To take it seriously, we’ve got to start by listening to personal stories and see how mental health services can actually help people and create safe spaces for conversation and healing.
And the church is one of the best places to do that.
The Body of Christ as a Safe Space
You might think that a church youth group would be better than your average high school classroom. The kids are mostly, if not all, Christians, kind to one another, finding a home in the Lord’s house on Sunday and/or Wednesday nights.
While my youth group was fantastic, I brought my depression and anxiety into the room with me every time. That made common youth group experiences, like lock-ins and summer camp, a haven for anxiety-inducing moments and triggers for depression. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know that’s what I was dealing with.
Writing on why young people with anxiety and depression often don’t go to church, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Steve Grcevich states, “To appreciate the struggles that teens might experience in attending worship services, participating in youth group, serving in outreach activities or going on mission trips, we need to recognize how attributes of mental conditions common to this population cause difficulty functioning in the environments where ministry takes place. We also need to see how the interaction of those attributes with common elements of church culture — our expectations for how people should act when we gather together — creates real barriers to church involvement for teens with mental illness.”
Dr. Grcevich lists seven reasons why it’s tougher for teens with mental health conditions to connect: stigma around mental health, social anxiety in certain situations, struggle with self-control, sensory processing issues, weak social communication skills, social isolation and even past experiences with church.
I relate to those, but more in my college days with the student ministry I was involved in. I felt like social isolation was sometimes my only recourse for my straggling mind. For the crazy thoughts I had that didn’t make sense to me, so of course they wouldn’t make sense to others. For not feeling comfortable around girls because I still worried about how I’d be perceived by them. For not wanting to let others know I was doubting my faith because I felt I’d likely lose my position of leadership within the group and, even scarier, my place in the group as a whole. For not wanting to go out and share the gospel with people because making new friends, or at least acquainting myself with new people voluntarily, made me shiver in my boots.
It was in this environment that I did not find the body of Christ to be a safe space. I’m not totally blaming them. Christianity has historically lagged behind the “secular culture” in wrestling properly with problems, so why would mental health be any different? I’ve seen it on the bookshelves in stores recently, where new books claim to examine the Bible afresh with its diversity in thought and seeming contradictions, something “secular culture” has been doing for years.
It is vital, especially for the sake of our teenagers, both in and outside the church, that we become a safe space for those struggling with mental health issues. In the same way we seek to accommodate the elderly with wheelchairs and 12-year-old who broke his leg climbing a tree, we need to accommodate those struggling with mental injuries of any kind.
In today’s culture, some in the political sphere, or people leaning one way on the spectrum, mock the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses or other places. These students need to deal with reality, they say, and accommodations for their little fears and worries is babying and coddling.
Jesus babies us. Jesus coddles us. He meets us where we are, and while He does ask a lot of us, He’s willing to be the one who loves us as we are. We should be the same with those who are struggling with mental illness, inside the church and out.
Creating a Haven
How do we get there? Always the biggest question to ask when you’re suggesting a major shift in thinking, or working to consider something different.
We have to be like Jesus. That seems to be the end goal, the operative framework. But what does that look like in helping teens with mental health issues in the church?
Welcome them in, warts and all. One of the most popular paintings of Jesus — or what white Christian America deemed as Jesus — is the Savior sitting with a group of children, one on His lap, another sitting nearby. Jesus is either teaching with an arm outstretched or has his hand on a child’s head in a gentle, fatherly manner. The paintings are probably inspired by the Savior’s words in Matthew 19:14 — “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.”
Having that attitude with teens with a mental illness — and all teens for that matter, but that’s for another time — is vital. It’s an attitude of not stopping someone because of any nerve they might get on or annoyance they bring or difficulty they have. It’s about welcoming them in and loving them the way Jesus did. They have enough difficulties on their own. Far be it from us in the church to give them another one by rejecting them.
Learn about mental health from professional sources. Paul’s method of ministry was remarkable: “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). The original Greek word’s root, doloó, means to “bring into bondage, become a servant.” Paul said, “Hey, I’m going to turn myself into a slave to everyone, so I can preach the gospel to them.” He dedicated himself to being like others so he could relate to them.
The best example of this, to me at least, is when Paul preaches to the Areopagus in Athens, the center of Greek thought and academic discourse in the city. As Matthew Henry states in his commentary, “One discourse of this kind we had before to the rude idolaters of Lystra that deified the apostles (Acts 14:15); this recored here is to the more polite and refined idolaters at Athens, and an admirable discourse it is, and every way suited to his auditory and the design he had upon them.”
Paul even went so far as to quote the Greek philosopher Epimenides and poet Aratus in v. 28 — “For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” Both of those lines were attributed to Zeus in Greek literature, but Paul, being an educated man and dedicated to reaching people for Jesus, used that writing to make a point that God really is not that far away, and that the gods the Greeks worshipped were false.
We don’t need to have master’s degrees in psychology, social work or counseling to be able to love and counsel teens who have mental illnesses. We simply need to look to Paul’s example. It is good for those working with high schoolers and other youth to learn more about any relevant mental health disorders — anxiety and depression are a good start — so that we can better understand them. Find reliable sources, both Christian and “secular.”
Open the conversation, publicly. I don’t know the split, but the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Bible seem to be half in private conversations and half in public messages. There’s the notable Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. There’s the Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17.
I’m going to make a plug here that, when we speak about mental health to teens, we don’t limit the conversation or the scope to one-on-one interactions. The teens may feel more comfortable sharing their own stories and their own struggles in that smaller environment, but speaking about it in an open forum like youth group will help put them at ease that it’s OK for them to struggle and be a part of the group.
This extends to talking about it on Sundays in front of everybody as well. It is my firm belief that we won’t make significant progress on mental health in the church unless pastors begin making mental health a topic of Sunday sermons, or addressing it in the context of other messages. The church thing to do — at least it was for me growing up, and I’m sure it still happens — is to talk about the sermon during Sunday lunch. In today’s small group culture, the message is often the point of conversation during those weekly meetings. By having an open message on the topic on Sundays, we further the church’s awareness of the topic and stifle the stigma so often associated with mental health.
I’ve worked with and around youth for years now, and having been a teenager myself pretty recently, I think I’ve got a decent idea about how they work.
There’s something they value a lot: commitment and consistency. I know because I failed at it myself.
I worked with a youth group at my old church for a couple years, helping out the youth pastor who was one of my best friends. He was a groomsman in my wedding and I was in his.
He and his wife were about to move to South Carolina for him to attend seminary, so he announced he would be leaving the church at the end of the upcoming summer. It was a devastating conversation. The high schools seniors who had him as their youth pastor all four years were destroyed. One of them, who usually didn’t show a lot of extreme emotion, began to cry.
Soon after that, my wife and I, who had just gotten married, left to go to another church. We didn’t really say much about it.
When we’ve returned to that church on occasion, the bond that we had with them has felt strained, if not cut off entirely. High school kids are a lot more intuitive and smart than we often give them credit for. They know when things are going on, and they have feelings about those things. But like most people, they have to know you’re there for the long haul before they let you in.
The relationship my friend had with them was so strong because he was committed. He went to their sporting events and music recitals. He went to their high school graduations. He would have them over to his apartment to hang out. He’d play video games online with them regularly. He was committed.
If you’re going to interact with youth at all and try to make a Christ-like impact — especially kids dealing with mental health disorders — you’ve got to be committed. You’ve got to show them, prove to them, that you’re going to be there for the long haul. You’ve got to, in a sense, chip away at the hard exterior to get to what’s underneath.
It takes time and effort. But that’s what Jesus did for you, right? It may have been one swing and He was in, or maybe He took little pokes until the shell cracked and He was in your life for good. He was able to do that because He lasted three years on earth, underwent every temptation known to man, and made it through all that without sin. Then He died the most horrendous death, in my mind, humanity has come up with.
The message of this piece is pretty simple: Be like Jesus when it comes to dealing with teens and their mental health, particularly in a church setting. Start chipping.
Author’s Note: Five years ago, I went through a prolonged season of doubt in God and His existence and me being saved. It was one of the most stressful years of my life. Yeah, it was all of 2014. At the same time, I was finishing up college, sort of dating the girl who would later become my wife (after a few complications) and trying to figure out what was next in my career.
One of my favorite things I’ve ever found on social media is an image of a guy giving a talk with a phrase projected on a screen behind him: “Be Who You Needed When You Were Younger.” This is me trying to be that guy.
Let’s slow down for a minute. I know you’ve got a lot in your head. It’s racing.
Later this year, you’ll figure out exactly what that is. It’s pretty serious anxiety and depression. You don’t quite know what those terms mean, and frankly, you probably think Christians don’t deal with that stuff. If I’m a Christian, you’re thinking, why do I feel this terrible?
I want to stress something to you: you’re wrong, but in the best possible way.
You’re trying to make sense of what’s going on in your head. And I’m going to go ahead and warn you: you’re going to be experiencing this for at least the next five years. Today, as I’m writing this letter to you, I’m feeling what you’re feeling now. Confusion, frustration, wondering why in the world God is letting you deal with all the crap inside your head.
Depression and anxiety is not abnormal to Christians. It’s part of life for a lot of people, even the clinically-diagnosed depression and anxiety that you’ll find out more about later this year.
I’m not going to tell you how to change your circumstances because 1) that’s cheating in this time-travel scenario. And 2) if you don’t go through what you’re about to go through, you wouldn’t be writing this letter to yourself. Don’t think about that part too much, you’ll hurt your brain. Just wait for Avengers: Endgame.
So take a deep breath, a few of them, and read on. I want to share three things with you.
Being a Christian doesn’t make you exempt from depression and anxiety, and that’s not sinful.
You may have heard a few times, and you’ll read it a few times in the coming years, that anxiety and depression is simply the result of “not trusting God enough” or “not praying enough,” that one day it will just end.
Maybe one day it will just end, but I want you to know that depression and anxiety are real, psychological afflictions that millions of people around the world have. It doesn’t disqualify you from being a Christian, and it doesn’t disqualify you from serving in the Church. I know you’re going to tell yourself that.
But in a couple years, you’ll be growing and learning about your mental health, and reaching out to others who are dealing with the same thing. You’ll be sharing the love of Jesus with them, writing about it and making a difference in your small area. Don’t quit.
You’re going to go through some changes in your thinking, and it’s going to affect your mental health.
If I could do anything for you, it would be to warn you about what’s going to happen to your thinking, particularly about God and the Bible. It’s going to change. You’re not going to stop believing, although right now it feels like that’s a real possibility.
You know God is real. How would all this get here without Him? His intricate design is too creative to be random chance. Remember in that psychology class your freshman year? Seeing those two bugs fight it out? You hate bugs, but you found the way the bigger bug devoured that littler bug so fascinating. Don’t lose that fascination.
Anyway, these alterations and challenges are going to shape you for the better. It’s going to affect your politics, your faith, the words you speak, the thoughts you think. And it’s going to make you anxious and depressed at times.
In those times, trust that God is there, that He is doing a work in you that will make you more like that bigger bug: able to handle whatever comes your way, as long as you keep His promises in your mind.
Don’t run. You’re not crazy.
You’re going to quit a few things in between now and then. You’re going to get scared: of relationships, of jobs, of faith.
Don’t run away from them. It’s all in your head. It’s the result of your anxiety. You’ve got this thing called pure O, the obsessive part of OCD. You get a thought in your head and then you obsess over it.
You’re going to start taking medicine for it real soon, and that will be very helpful. But it won’t take it all away, it’s not supposed to. In the times where you start freaking out about what you’re committing yourself to, remember that whatever happens, God loves you and everything will be OK. It might not be good, but it will be OK.
Really, that’s what I want to leave you with. Don’t quit. Quitting is so easy for you to do. You’ve done it since you were a little kid.
In a few months, your mom will tell you that when you were little, you would start building towers with blocks. After the first time they fell — probably because your brother took all the LEGO-building skill that came from your grandpa’s engineering background — you quit. You didn’t try anymore. You’ve done that with countless board games, card games, books, screenplays, videos and more.
Sometimes you will need to have quit those things. But not this time. Not this life. Don’t quit. Jesus really does love you, even if you don’t believe it right now.
Now, I want you to throw this letter away. Again, I’m not here to mess with your life path. It’s going to stay pretty much the same. I just want you to hear what I wish you had heard during that whole year of 2014 when you didn’t believe.
I don’t do this very often, but this is a special circumstance.
I’m working on a new personal project. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a book or a series of blog posts or a podcast…maybe even a documentary, who knows. But I’m surveying people.
It’s not a scientific survey, it’s more on the anecdotal side. There are a couple yes or no questions, but mainly, it’s about hearing about experiences and thoughts about growing up in church. Here’s what I wrote on Google Forms:
“Hello! I’m working on a personal project about being in high school and being a Christian. As part of the project, I want to get some input from teenagers and former teenagers about their experiences as Christians in high school. This won’t be a scientific survey, but simply one getting some other stories and input.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The results of this survey will be used in one way or another for a future public project. I haven’t decided exactly what that will look like. You can remain anonymous if you wish, or you can give your name, or initials, so on.
This survey will ask questions about how your church/youth group approached topics like sex & relationships, social media, media consumption, politics & government and more, as well as what you learned about them from your time in church as a teenager. The idea is to get a picture of what these groups are teaching about these topics ‘from a Christian worldview.’
It’s a decently lengthy survey, so give yourself some time if you’re willing to answer. Don’t worry about writing too much. The more, the better.
I’d prefer to hear from people who are 13-29, current teens and people who were teenagers in the ‘social media age,’ as it were, who grew up in church or became a Christian during their high school years. If you have any questions, let me know — firstname.lastname@example.org.”
I know the title of this post will make some people instantly protective. God’s not a God of confusion, they’ll say. How could you take something as clear as the Bible and get confused by that?
A few reasons: God may not be a God of confusion, but how we talk about Him often leaves me confused. And the Bible isn’t really all that clear, if we’re being honest.
It’s things like clarity and certainty that help people with anxiety, that give us a sense of peace and purpose in a crazy world. But the Christianity most of us follow do little to assuage those of us who think a lot and think deeply.
The reality is that the Christianity that’s real, the Christianity that’s true, allows us freedom to follow God mostly on our terms, in our environments and personalities and likes and dislikes. Of course, that does not give us license to sin willy nilly. But I’ve found out more about following Jesus when I learn it myself in my circumstances and my reality instead of following someone else’s prescribed rules.
The first key to finding this freedom is understanding what makes us a Christian. What does the Bible say? In Romans 10:9-10, Paul explains: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believe and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Being saved? Believe in Jesus and confess it. That’s it. There’s no list of stipulations we have to meet to be a Christian except for those things.
We get into trouble — and my anxiety ramps up — when we begin to place stipulations and clauses in our “contract for being a Christian.” We ask questions like, “How is your time in the Word?” And “how much are you praying?”
Well, if I am spending time “in the word,” whatever that means, how much is enough? How do I know if I’ve met the requirement to satisfy whatever your desire is? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes?
If I am praying, how much is enough? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes?
Inevitably, I’m going to fall short. And in so much of modern Christianity, we define “how Christian we are” by how our actions seem to reflect our faith. While there is biblical basis for that understanding — James 2:17 states that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” — there is no standard given. There’s no specific guidelines. So giving out specific guidelines, while it may be helpful, and implying that faithfulness is measured by a certain level of “obedience” is not biblical, and leads to more anxiety and confusion.
A list of stipulations shows us we will always fall short, and when we define our Christianity by our actions, we will always fall short of feeling that we’re a Christian. The Bible never defines our Christianity by our actions. James says that Abraham’s “faith was completed by his works” (2:22). Our actions are the out-working of our faith and being a Christian, not the essence of it.
The second key to finding this freedom is understanding what the Bible is. Other than the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law, there is no list of rules in the Bible that tells people how to live their lives. Even if there was, the Bible wasn’t written directly for us. It was written for a different people in a different time.
That doesn’t make it useless. In fact, the Bible is stock full of wisdom and guidance that we would do well to heed. But we need to understand that the Bible was not designed as a checklist of rule-keeping. It’s a bunch of letters, histories, prophecies, poetry, songs and advice. But there’s tons and tons of wisdom in there, in both the Old and New Testaments.
And most of all, we have the Word of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). That Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).
The modern church has a long history of making the Bible a list of rules, but it’s conveniently left some things out. For instance, women are allowed to speak in church despite Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and it seems that a woman not covering her head while praying is disgraceful and dishonoring according to 1 Corinthians 11:4-6.
Since the Bible is not a list of rules, or even “God’s letter to us” — because it’s made up of letters to people from people — we’re freed to read it as it is and gain the wisdom and guidance we need to live as God’s people.
The third key to finding this freedom is understanding who Jesus is. As already stated, the Bible says that Jesus is the “Word of God” (John 1:1), and is the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). But most importantly, a relationship with him looks like rest. He says it Himself in Matthew 1:28-30.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
That’s the words of God, in the person of Jesus. There seems to be some clarification here that when we come to Jesus, we don’t get a list of rules or a standard to uphold. We get rest. Taking his yoke upon us, it seems, leads to rest. It leads to learning.
If we’re not getting that from following Jesus, we’re not following Jesus. We’re following some picture of Jesus that has been created by ourselves or the “Christian culture” around us.
As I perused Facebook and Twitter today, I got sick. I think I ate too much beef.
My feeds today were filled with all sorts of arguments, squabbles, disagreements, outrage and, as the kids say these days, “beef.”
Franklin Graham and Lady Gaga. Cardi B — I’m still not entirely sure who that is — and people who say her latest music video undermines the #MeToo movement. No female directors getting Oscar nominations. Taraji P. Henson making some comparison that got people all upset.
There’s so much bad blood and people disagreeing over things and people mad at each other, politicians, musicians, actors, athletes. You name it, somebody’s mad at it. And all that madness and dispute and hatred festers on social media.
I think it does that for a few reasons. There are millions of people on social media, so it’s where the world interacts with one another. Social media allows people to voice their opinions, however well thought out or flawed. There’s also little oversight or moderation, so we often get to see the worst in others.
Today, I seriously considered quitting Facebook and Twitter. Honestly. I’ve thought about it hundreds of times, but it was fleeting thoughts.
I don’t think I’m addicted to the outrage. I hope I’m not, at least.
But I didn’t quit. For practical reasons, I have to use Facebook and Twitter for my employment as a reporter, but there’s one other major reason, and it goes back to why I got Facebook in the first place.
Becoming an Adult on Social
I almost completely missed MySpace — I had a page for about 90 days, then my parents made me delete it. I did get it kind of secretly, so maybe I deserved it.
I got on Facebook and Twitter during my freshman year of high school, 2007. So I spent the entirety of my high school and college years, save a few months, hooked into the machine.
I used Facebook first. It became the platform for my day-to-day activities, random comments on Carolina Hurricanes games and eventually the venue for me to post links to my fledgling blog, which mostly featured movie reviews. I analyzed my classmates’ comments on what was obviously their romantic relationships and misjudged people’s statements to me. It was the Internet, after all. It’s the haven for misunderstandings.
Twitter became the place to follow bands and athletes to see what they were up to, to keep up with sports news and highlights and find out when the latest track was coming out. As I got further and further into my studies of journalism, I learned that Twitter was a tool for sharing news in real-time and live-tweeting from sports games, much to the annoyance of at least one college friend.
I graduated from college and, a couple years later, found myself utilizing social media in my most recent job, as a newspaper reporter in my hometown. On my professional account, I would tweet often the latest news and highlights from local government meetings while keeping up with the news of the day, local, state and national. On my personal account, I would keep up with my favorite sports teams, authors and musicians, just like before. I’d occasionally post comments about Arsenal Football Club, hoping against hope that one of them would go viral amongst the Gunners’ rabid social media-crazed fan base. None of them ever have, by the way.
I knew those crazies existed beyond Arsenal supporters. I’d see it in response to the latest political development or social event that captured eyes and ears.
But over the last few months in particular — more or less revolving around the government shutdown, funny enough — I’ve gotten sick of it. It’s obnoxious. It’s hashtags and disses, beefs and slams. It’s trying to be first and trying to be funniest. In a lot of ways, social media shows the worst of us. We often take our gut reaction and make it public in the most public way: putting it on the Internet, unfiltered for all to see.
I’m just as guilty, although it’s usually about something as petty as a professional sports team. And most of the time I feel like I display enough patience. (Judge for yourself: I’m at @zacharyhorner21.) I feel like I carry that to Facebook as well.
So while I know I’ve made good use of these platforms in the last 12 years, both personally and professionally, it’s so tempting to leave it all behind, to let the beefs be on buns only and not on my phone screen.
But, as stated previously, I can’t for practical reasons. But because it gives me a window into the world, I need it.
In It, Not of It, As It Were
One of the more popular phrases in Christendom is that we’re called to be “in the world, not of it.” I think it’s been over-used and misunderstood, personally, and we get to see what it really means by looking at Paul.
Paul’s ministry, as outlined in the book of Acts, is one of living, eating and speaking among the people, wherever they were. He went to the synagogues, to the temples and to the places where the intellectuals spent their time. It’s that latter one that’s my favorite.
In Acts 17, Paul is hanging out in Athens and while there, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (v. 16). So he begins talking to people in the synagogue and the marketplace. Verses 17-18 record that he spoke with Jews, “devout persons,” everyday people in the marketplace and Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. It’s the stark difference of his philosophy and religion that catches the eye of the intellectuals of the city, and they take him to the Areopagus, where “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (v. 21).
What Paul says at the Areopagus is worthy of reading itself. He speaks about Jesus, relating Him to the Athenians’ daily existence and their philosophy.
But I want to key in on why Paul was there in the first place. He was out and about, listening to people, seeing people, learning from others about their lives and their existence. It’s because of that experience that he’s able to relate to those who spent their time at the Areopagus.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, we get to see his philosophy and thinking behind his method:
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not myself being under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
I love this so much because Paul tells us the key to his evangelism, and thus gives us an important piece of advice at winning the world to Christ. And for me, a reason to stay on social media.
A Snapshot of Reality
“Fake news” is everywhere. It’s in the media, it’s in the halls of politics, it’s in the corporate board rooms, the church sanctuaries. Yes, the church sanctuaries.
I’ve spent years in church, and one thing I’ve noted is that we seem to struggle at understanding why non-Christians do what they do. We care about them and we want to see them changed and following Jesus. And that’s amazing! That’s exactly what we should want. But far too often, we stop there without trying to understand their realities.
When we see someone who identifies as LGBTQ, we want them to be straight without trying to learn why they became LGBTQ in the first place. When we see someone who’s left their spouse, we want them to reunite without figuring out what caused them to leave. When we see a skeptic, we want them to believe without attempting to understand their rationale for not believing.
I’m not saying this is a universal thing, that all Christians and all churches are like this, but I believe that if we as the body of Christ adopted this method, we’d be able to shed the “fake news” we assume about the world and try to understand where people are really coming from.
We assume people LGBTQ rights because they don’t believe in Jesus. We assume people leave their spouse because they’re sinful and lazy. We assume people are skeptical because they hate Jesus and God. While there might be some truths in there, it’s often more complicated than that. The LGBTQ people I’ve known have given differing reasons for their lifestyle choice, and it’s often not simple.
I think of the recent controversy over the kids from the Catholic school and the protestors at the recent March for Life. I’m not going to weigh in on that controversy here, but in that scenario, we learned that it’s much better to wait, to understand what actually happened, where people were actually coming from, before assessing the situation and rendering a judgment. So many people, myself included, grew judgmental and critical of those in the situation before hearing the full story.
In the same way, we need to listen to others and understand their lives, their realities before creating one for them and approaching them based on what we’ve imposed on them ourselves. That’s what Paul did. He spent time in Athens, talked to people and then rendered his perspective and brought it back to the Gospel.
A word about “echo chambers”: Paul didn’t live in one. He spent a lot of time with Christians, yes, but he clearly took the time to understand viewpoints he didn’t share. We should, ideally, do the same.
Dipping the Toes in to Get Wet
In the same way, we should stay on our social media platforms and exist on them each day long enough just to get a snapshot of reality, to see what the culture is like, what it’s doing and what it cares about.
Of course, some of us should set boundaries about how long we spend, what we do on that social media, etc. That’s not what this post is about, but I wanted to re-affirm good boundaries and limits because social media, like most things, can become addicting.
Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Odds are, you found this because I posted a link to it on social media.
Social media can serve a great purpose. We can use it to share about what God is doing in our lives, interact with fans of our favorite sports teams for fun conversations, showcase photos of our meals and new pets and, in some cases, express our opinion on a difficult or controversial topic.
It’s up to you, of course, how much you share. But if you’re on social media now, I encourage you to stick with it. You never know what you’ll learn, and you’ll never know what you learn will mean down the road.
“I can take that Bible and denounce what I’m teaching.” – Carlton Pearson, NPR
I don’t write a lot of movie reviews, at least not anymore. I used to write a ton. But I’m taking it back up because “Come Sunday,” a new movie on Netflix, challenged me, my heart and my faith in a way only one or two movies ever have.
The story follows Carlton Pearson (played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), a popular evangelical Pentecostal preacher in Tulsa, Alabama. His church, affectionately referred to as “Higher D” by members and staff, is growing and popular. It’s fully integrated, with blacks and whites worshipping together in harmony. Pearson is counseled by Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen, who plays President Bartlett in The West Wing) and supported by his right hand man Henry (Jason Segel from How I Met Your Mother) and wife Gina (Condola Rashad).
But one night while watching a television broadcast about the suffering in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Pearson hears from God. Hell can’t be real, because why would God let children who’ve never heard of Jesus go to hell? That God would be worse than Hitler, Hussein. He forms what becomes known as the “Gospel of Inclusion” — there is no hell, everyone goes to heaven when they die because Jesus died for all.
The film explores how Pearson responds to this new belief he has, how those around him react and the decline of his church. Come Sunday is based on a “This American Life” episode titled “Heretics,” which you can listen to here. I listened to the episode, and it seems that the filmmakers captured actual events pretty well.
This will not be a traditional film review. That being said, I enjoyed the performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Condola Rashad. It was fun to see Jason Segel in something like this, and Lakeith Stanfield — appearing as Reggie, a worship team member struggling with homosexuality — was great.
I want to dive into a couple of the themes throughout the film and how they affected me as a Christian, a person and someone interested in the culture of religion and the church.
‘The Gospel of Inclusion’
The crux of the film’s story is Pearson’s acceptance of what he later terms the “Gospel of Inclusion.”
He explains it using the Bible. He points to verses like 1 John 2:1-2, which say, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Based on the text of that Scripture, he says, how does the blood of Jesus not cover everyone’s sins? Who are we to say that the blood is not that powerful?
I think it’d be easy for us to just write off this theology as obviously flawed. There are so many biblical passages that preach the need for repentance and belief in God — the film particularly cites Romans 10:9 — that contradict Pearson’s view. Even the original Greek of 1 John 2:2 states that “the whole world” referred to Gentiles, or anyone besides Jews. It means the forgiveness of the Gospel is available to all, not just freely given to all without repentance.
But can we for a minute try to understand where Pearson is coming from? It’s obviously a more appealing message, for one thing, and from our human understanding, it seems to be more reflective of the God we worship. Why would a good God send people to hell, goes the common question.
But for us to solely focus on the “goodness” of God in His grace and mercy is to leave out his passion for justice and righteousness. He will not let sin go unpunished, unless it’s taken on by Jesus on the cross. Then it is still punished in the form of Christ’s death.
I sympathized tremendously with Pearson and his search for understanding God. He just missed one of the biggest parts.
The Interior Turmoil
Pearson wrestled with this change in his theology. He said he heard from God directly that what he had believed all his life was in error, and that he needed to change.
In the evangelical Pentecostal vein of Christianity Pearson operated, hellfire and brimstone were as common as speaking in tongues and shouts of “Hallelujah” during worship time. The acknowledgement of sin of any kind would be replied to with, “It’s gonna send you to hell.” In his interactions with Reggie, who’s told his hero Pearson about his struggle, the pastor says he can’t “save” Reggie until he gives up his homosexual leanings.
It’s in this background that Pearson’s change of heart is explored, and it’s tough for him. He knows that he’s bucking years and years of church tradition and what he’s believed. He’s concerned about people leaving his church. He’s worried about how it will be taken. But it’s his new heartfelt belief that everyone goes to heaven, and he can’t ignore the strong conviction in his heart.
If we are unable to sympathize with Pearson, even while disagreeing with him, we are lacking. He just wants to love people, and based on what he believes God told him, this is how he can love people. There’s a couple times he almost changes his mind because of how those around him react, but he sticks to what he believes.
As Christians, we are called to love those around us with what we believe to be truth, just like Pearson. We might face backlash for our stances and what we believe, but it’s our call to stick with what God has revealed to us in Scripture.
The External Backlash
The climactic scene of the film is Pearson’s appearance before a council of charismatic bishops who are deciding whether or not to allow him to continue as one of their members. Pearson speaks passionately, even directing some words straight to the chairman of the group. I won’t spoil the scene because it’s powerful and you need to watch it on your own.
But he’s in a room full of people who are ready to crucify him. And that’s after months of criticism — to his face, on television, at the grocery store to his wife, everywhere. He loses the blessing of his mentor Roberts, the support of his ministry partner Henry and the large majority of his congregation.
How many of us Christians have lost friends and seen family abandon us based on what we believe? I hope no believer who sees the film is able to watch that and not feel sympathy. Just because we don’t agree with the reason for his change in belief doesn’t mean we can’t feel for Pearson.
It’s heartbreaking, honestly, and Pearson takes it hard.
Church culture usually doesn’t take too kindly to people who rock the boat. I understand the need for correction for incorrect theology, but the way we often go about it is displayed near-perfectly in Come Sunday. There are some in the film, particularly Henry, who do approach Pearson the right way, the biblical way. But for the most part, people speak about Pearson in a harsh, negative, unloving manner.
And that’s not what God would have wanted.
I don’t believe God would have wanted Pearson’s change of heart either. But I understand where he’s coming from.
And that’s what makes Come Sunday a compelling watch. Agree with him or not, Pearson and his quest for what he believes is truth is incredibly relatable, and I think it would be good viewing for all believers. Not just as a movie, but as a learning experience.
Whenever I get sick — cough, allergies, fever, etc. — I think it’s never going to go away.
I sink into it. I’m of the mindset that I will be sick for the rest of my life and nothing will ever change. I’m always going to have this cough, this nausea, etc. I don’t know how I got this way. Maybe it’s the cynic in me coming out. But that’s how it works.
I feel that way all the time with my sin. Whatever it is — lust, pride, laziness, jealousy — I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.
Well, and this is the bad part, it never will, this side of heaven.
My greatest desire in life is to be perfect, to not mess up, to not do anything that would be an offense to God, to my wife, to my friends, to my family, to anyone. I long for the day in heaven when I will be free of the sin nature that cloaks me every day. “What a day of rejoicing that will be,” as the hymn goes. My imperfections are the things that keep me up at night, that cause the most depression.
Sin is a nasty beast, lurking around every corner. You can feel as confident and comfortable in your pursuit of righteousness, I believe, that you can forget that sin is even possible. I know I feel that way sometimes. But it’s in those moments in particular that I am most susceptible.
It makes me wonder, “Will I ever stop sinning?” Or even, “Can I quit this one sin?”
The answer to the first question is a flat out no, at least here on earth. The answer to the second question is a little different.
Throughout the Bible, we see stories of men who have their obedience and righteousness worked out, only to lose it later. David is a strong and mighty warrior of God, faithful to trust Him enough to not kill his enemy when he’s a knife slash away. But he pursues the body of a woman not his own, and it leads to murder. One of my favorite Bible stories is in 2 Chronicles 14-16, where a king named Asa trusts God so intensely, but gives it up in the face of one army mounting up against him. Paul wrote half the New Testament, but still admitted he was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
So maybe the besetting sins in our life, the ones that seem to haunt us, will never go away on earth. Maybe it’s a battle we’ll continue to fight.
It’s comforting, to me at least, to know that grace is there whenever we fall. Always. It’s a cliché to write that, sure, but it’s true. The Gospel comforts us in our repeated weaknesses.
But ask yourself this, as I am right now: Do you really truly desire God more than that besetting sin? It may be that way 90 percent of the time, but beg the Lord to make it 100 percent. If we’re pursuing righteousness, if we’re pursuing obedience, that in itself is glorifying to God, and honoring the Father.
When I was growing up, even into high school and college, I would read psalms and other passages of Scripture and not be able to relate to when there were references to “enemies.”
I never had enemies. There was a guy that I didn’t really get along with for most of high school — God sent him to the same college as me to work that out — but other than that I didn’t have anyone that I hated and he/she hated me, or that there was tension between.
So I’d read things like this — “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28) — I wouldn’t get it. It wouldn’t make sense.
That’s changed in the last year.
About one year ago, I did a series of stories on a hot topic in Lee County — I work for a North Carolina newspaper, for those of you that don’t know me. Everything was factual, accurate, well-researched and documented. I was proud of the work I did.
Almost instantly, for the first time in my life, I received an outpouring of backlash that’s continued to this day. People started giving me affectionate nicknames, like #FakeNewsZach or #NoFactZach, saying my reporting was #FakeNewsbyZacharyHorner. I had people who used to love me and praise me begin to fuss at me, call me a liar. I would say hello to people and they’d ignore me. They attacked my family. They spread lies about me and my family.
That’s about as much detail as I’ll go into here.
It really refreshed my view of verses like Psalm 5:8 — “Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”
When we’re attacked, when our enemies go after us, when we get maligned and lied about, it’s a chance for us to grow in righteousness. David, the writer of Psalm 5, pleads for God to lead him in righteousness because of his enemies. When we’re attacked, we have the opportunity to show others what a life filled with Christ looks like — integrity, honesty, steadfastness.
It’s not an opportunity for us to bite back, to criticize, to hold hateful attitudes. I admit freely that my heart has not always been in the right place, that I’ve said and thought rude and mean-spirited things about my “enemies.” It’s a tough thing.
But it’s my desire daily to try to kill those thoughts, those feelings. I’m trying. And that’s where Psalm 5:8 challenges me. I hope it challenges you too.