For a long time, I’ve lived with the impression that when the prophets of the Old Testament spoke to the nation of Israel, they were simply speaking out of God’s displeasure, and it was all condemnation and judgment.
I knew there were bits of hope in there. Jeremiah speaks of the “righteous Branch” of David (23:5-8), a small encouragement smashed between words of condemnation and disappointment in the people of God. But most of what I remember from my first reading of Jeremiah is the warnings and the disciplinary words.
And I get it. The book was mostly written, scholars say, after the Israelites’ exile to Babylon. There’s explanation and context given for their circumstances.
But stuck in chapter 3, early on, is one of the reasons why I love God and I love Jesus.
After talking about how Israel has “played the whore” (v. 6) and “took her whoredom so lightly” that she began “committing adultery with stone and tree” (v. 9), Yahweh, through Jeremiah, offers an escape. He tells the prophet to face north and say:
“Return, faithless Israel, says the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the LORD your God, and scattered your favors among strangers under every green tree, and have not obeyed my voice, says the LORD. Return, O faithless children, says the LORD, for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (v. 12-14)
There’s something very — as evangelicals like to say, and that’s not a criticism — “Gospel-centered” in this passage. God is saying to His people, the ones who have abandoned Him, that they’re not beyond reconciliation and saving. He doesn’t ask them to do any spectacular acts of repentance or make up for their mistakes — simply acknowledge their guilt and return.
It’s so simply powerful to me that God offers this chance at reconciliation to the people of Israel. This is a people that worshipped false gods, disobeyed the real God’s commands and abandoned the One who had given them so much. As a result, they ended up in exile in Babylon. But God says they’re not too far gone, not too far away to be saved.
So many people will speak of the God of the Old Testament as a judgmental and angry God. And I get it. There are many words even here in the first few chapters of Jeremiah that get that message across loud and clear. And there’s confusion that even I have had recently about this seeming juxtaposition between the loving and grace-filled God of the New Testament, represented best by Jesus, and the condemning and disciplinarian God of the Old Testament.
These verses show that those versions of God actually meet in the middle.
What the authors of the books of the Testaments report to us is that God is a complex figure, but at the end of the day, He comes back to love. He centers on it. His inclination is to love. Even if His children have disappointed Him and He has to discipline them, He comes back to love, community and togetherness. That’s His default.
So when we speak of God, we must speak of Him faithfully, as the prophets did, as Jesus did, as Paul and Peter did — a God driven by love and welcoming, not one driven by judgment and condemnation. Yes, He has standards and desires for us, mainly one: to love others as He has loved us.
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.
Throughout the Old Testament, God is shown to be a God who knows.
His omniscience is one of His most commonly spoken attributes. “God knows what you’re going through.” “God knows what’s going to happen.” “God only knows what I’d be without you.” OK, maybe that last one was a Beach Boys lyric, but it fits. It’s God’s omniscience that we see proven over and over again,
My favorite case of this is how Israel asks for a king. The story is found in 1 Samuel 8, when the elders of Israel asked Samuel the prophet to give them a king. Samuel is a little peeved, but when he speaks to God, God allows it.
“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them,” God says in v. 7. In v. 9, He continues, “Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
This is a fulfillment of what God had said in Deuteronomy: “When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose” (17:14-15a).
Just like God knows your struggle with mental illness. He may seem far away. I certainly feel that way many times, wondering why in the world God would leave me here on earth like this, crippled by a mind that doesn’t quite work right. But He is there. I have to believe He is there, or else this is all pointless.
But it’s not a blind faith. Just look at how God takes care of His people.
Jesus the Miracle Worker
Jesus’ earthly ministry, in retrospect, seems to be a lot about healing people of worldly diseases. A list of his miracles would be incomplete without healing the son of the nobleman (John 4:46-47), casting out an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-28), curing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:30-31), healing a leper (Mark 1:40-45), healing the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), rising the widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:11-18) and raising the ruler’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26). And that’s just a small sampling of the many miracles that Jesus performed.
This is evidence of Jesus’ supernatural powers. In this age of reason and academics — both of which are to be praised at times — the miraculous supernatural part of Jesus may get the short end. But it’s evidence of His God-ness or, if you don’t buy into the whole Trinity thing, that God blessed him to perform mighty works in God’s name.
What these stories show, and Jesus’ overall compassion for the ill and needy, is the Father’s heart for those who are sick. Whatever form that sickness takes, the physical embodiment of God on earth stopped to take care of those who needed assistance. And there’s a good chance there were many more than we have recorded. John famously wrote that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30).
It’s near-impossible today to 100 percent accurately attribute a healing to a miracle performed by God. The body created by God and its self-healing ability is so fascinating and intricate and powerful in and of itself, doctors just get better and better at what they do and new medicines can do amazing things. But if Jesus cared about people’s physical health on earth, it’s at the very least likely, to me, that He still cares about our health, extending beyond the physical to the mental and more.
The Spiritual Healer
After one of His miracles, Jesus was walking along the road when He spotted Matthew, a tax collector. Jesus called the man to follow Him, and Matthew did.
“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I come to call not the righteous but sinners’” (Matthew 9:10-13).
Aside from being one of my favorite gospel passages, this exchange shows why Jesus came to earth in the first place. He equated spiritual lostness — being a “sinner” — with being physically sick. The Greek word iastros is used, meaning “physician.” It’s the same label applied to Luke, the author of the gospel bearing his name and the book of Acts, in Colossians 4:14.
In this way, we see Jesus explaining the problem of spiritual lostness in medical terms, something they could understand. Being without salvation, without righteousness, was a sickness that needed a cure. And doctors, those who can provide that healing, do no good by hanging out with those who were well. They need to be among those who are sick.
Those of us who struggle with mental illness are sick. It’s a reality we can’t escape. It’s just a thing. But Jesus was willing to be seen and dine with those who were spiritually sick, as well as physically sick.
Cake and Water
Another one of my favorite Bible stories is that of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After defeating the prophets of Baal in the showdown of a lifetime and then killing all 450 of them by a river (read 1 Kings 18 for that Lord of the Rings-worthy tale), Queen Jezebel of Israel called for Elijah’s head. Fleeing a day’s journey into the wilderness, 1 Kings 19 records, Elijah asks that God takes away his life. Lying under a broom tree he falls asleep. Verses 5b-9 record:
“Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.”
In the depth of incredible mental and emotional distress, God provided respite and restoration for Elijah. He didn’t remove the situation, didn’t take away the feelings or thoughts. He simply provided some food and drink.
I feel like there’s something incredibly symbolic about this. Elijah wanted to die. He wanted to be taken away. He says in v. 4, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” The Hebrew word for “enough” was rāb. In other places, it’s translated as “so great,” “plenty” and “too much.” Elijah had reached a breaking point and was ready to give it all up. But God met Him in this moment.
The text does not say the “cake” is bread. For his sake, I hope it was one of my mom’s chocolate cinnamon fudge cakes, because those things are good. But God, though “the angel of the LORD,” provided him sustenance for the journey ahead.
This is not to say that every time you are in emotional or mental distress God will meet you with a cake and a jar of water out of nowhere. That’s just a part of Elijah’s story, and everything that happens to Him cannot be applied universally. But in these stories, in the Old and New Testaments, we see the character of God shine forth to those in need of healing, to those who are sick, to those who are hurting.
Who is to say that same character, that same compassion, does not shine forth to us today? We may not always see it, we may not always know it, but I bet you it is there.
He’s in the hand that reaches out to provide a meal, a warm hug, a kind word. Speaking of the Son of Man coming into his glory in later times, Jesus says of those who helped the needy, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
He’s in the person who ditches their whole schedule to pray for you or send you a note or play a game with you to distract you. Jesus says to His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
He’s in the one who doesn’t reject you in your weirdness or anguish or naïveté. “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way” (Matthew 19:13-15).
This is the God on whom you can rely, in your darkest hour of sadness, emotional turmoil and heartache. You may not see Him, you may not feel Him, but I promise you He is there. His character eliminates any other possibility.
Most public Christians would tell you up front that they’re not Jesus, they’re not saints (in the common slang-ish use of the word). They’re simply people who believe in a God and think He saved them.
It’s true: We’re sinners saved by grace.
That kind of faith — or at least philosophy, or way of thinking — has led Christians to do a lot of things over the years. It’s encouraged people to fight wars, colonize nations, keep slaves, free slaves, start businesses, save lives, commit crimes, teach, help, donate money, donate time, picket, protest, pander and argue on social media till their fingers are sore.
Why it’s led people to do those things — and why some of those bad things happened — is for another time, but built into Christianity and many, if not all, religions is this idea that what you think or believe spurs you to action. The faith/religion/commitment becomes a motivating force for some kind of activism.
Yes, activism. Though the term is usually allocated to special interest groups, nonprofits or political parties, we all participate in some form of activism — unless you’re a hermit. But even that in itself is activism.
You are an activist, in the purest sense of the word, for some cause. Maybe it’s your kids’ academic excellence. Maybe it’s to get your friends more involved in throwing axes for fun. Maybe it’s to get your company to start stocking Reese’s Fast Break bars in the vending machine. If you have something you care about and you advocate for it openly, on a large scale or in a small setting you are an activist.
Christians have been activists for various things over the years, and as we’ve said, sometimes for good things and sometimes for bad. Something that’s often fallen by the wayside in this category is mental health.
That’s not to say that all Christians today don’t care about mental health. Some pastors regularly speak on the topic, and books have been written that tackle the subject from a spiritual and psychological angle. Authors and speakers share their personal stories of depression and anxiety, faith and doubt, fear and failure, relief and rest.
All that is much needed.
If you’re reading this essay, odds are you already agree with that statement. But if you don’t, or you need a supplementary push for increasing awareness in your church or helping your Christian friends understand, this is for you.
Because if God cared about it, we should too.
A Matter of Consistency
Many churches and parachurch organizations have made their name on the basis of their charitable works.
Samaritan’s Purse, which defines itself as a “nondenominational Christian organization,” has helped more than 39,000 families impacted by U.S. natural disasters since 1998 and has delivered more than 157 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 160 countries and territories around the world since 1993, according to the agency’s website.
World Vision, a self-described “global Christian humanitarian organization,” says it helps more than four million children in nearly 100 countries with education and healthcare and brought clean water to 3.2 million people in 2017.
On a much more local level, Cookson Hills Christian School in Kansas, Oklahoma — yes, a city called Kansas in the state of Oklahoma — provides “home, school and therapy for kids who are at-risk” for little to no cost. The organization states that contributions from families of the children in its care amount for less than 1 percent of their total costs. The school cares for up to 120 children at a time.
There’s a good chance your local church does work like this. The church I went to for middle and high school, Turner’s Chapel in Sanford, N.C., had several opportunities for people to serve and the church to make an impact. Four times a year, a group from the church served a meal to homeless and low-income individuals on Saturdays, and we provided items to the meal’s hosting agency for its food pantry year-round. Once a year, a group from the church goes to a deaf village in Jamaica to do light construction and maintenance work on buildings. Those were just the publicized things — there’s no telling how many little bits of assistance here and there were provided to needy members on a weekly basis.
That’s the modus operandi of most local churches. Along with giving the Gospel, churches seek to meet earthly needs of those, well, in need. The prayer lists are regularly stocked with sick members, relatives and friends, along with those who have lost jobs, had babies and are moving.
That’s what living out being followers of Jesus looks like. More on that in a minute.
It’s in the church’s DNA to extend themselves for those hurting and struggling. What should make mental health any different? How inconsistent would we be if we simply ignored someone’s severe depression, but put another person’s broken leg on the prayer list? Why shouldn’t we seek to offer meals to the one whose anxiety has kept them in bed for days? Why shouldn’t we aim to provide house-cleaning help to the person whose OCD has mentally paralyzed them?
If we’re aiming to be a consistent presence in this world, the church must care about mental health.
Following the Savior’s Lead
It’s amazing how often Jesus and the other Bible writers spoke about mental concerns.
Most of us will hear passages and apply them to ourselves and our everyday stressors — the kids, the mortgage, the in-laws. Those stresses are real and should be addressed. But individuals with mental health disorders face those situations constantly, often over things you’d never guess.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the audience to “not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” He says that God knows those in the audience needs all those things.
Jesus, it seems, was aware of His audience’s needs and stresses. He didn’t ignore their mental state and their worries. He addressed them, spoke directly to them — “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). What that actually means practically is certainly worth discussing, but at the very least, we can see that Jesus cared for His follower’s concerns and what weighed them down.
Providing some exhortations to the church in Philippi, Paul writes, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Paul, who spent time with the Savior and spoke with Him regularly, provides room for people who are worrying to express their fears and offered them some help.
He’s not saying “stop worrying.” He’s saying, “Hey, there is no literal foundation for your worrying. And God doesn’t promise to take away that worrying feeling, he’ll just replace it with something else.” I don’t think Paul is excluding the possibility of mental health disorders here. I think he’s just acknowledging that worry is there, and there’s help there. Worry and anxiety are not the double-edged sword of doubt that James speaks of.
In writing about individuals’ relationship with God, Peter exhorts the elders to be humble. He adds, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). I was once going to write a book on 1 Peter 5:6-7 — I’ve started probably 30 books over my lifetime and only finished one — because there’s so much packed in there theologically and about my own life. The driving force was that any anxiety you have, I was going to write, can be cast on God because of His care.
The root Greek for “cast” there is epiriptó. One of the stems, rhiptó, is used to describe Judas ditching the pieces of silver given him for betraying Jesus (Matthew 27:5). Just like Judas threw away the pieces of silver, like a burden to his guilty soul, we can cast our anxiety on Jesus, recklessly, lifting a weight and placing it somewhere else.
I just compared Judas Iscariot to casting anxieties on God. Isn’t the Bible amazing?
Jesus and His followers, those who wrote in the Bible, spent time addressing mental health and how we think about things. For us to not do so is to fail to follow in their footsteps.
Close Ties to the Spiritual
The Bible never instructs its readers, to my knowledge at least, to “feel” a certain way.
When I realized that, it was a great lift to my soul. But as I considered the Bible, and how Jesus instructed His disciples, and how the early church leaders spoke to the body of Christ, and even how God spoke to the Israelites through the prophets, it was clear to me that the instruction through the ages was about thinking.
One of Paul’s keystone instructions in Philippians 4 deals with this exactly: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (v. 8). Paul tells the Corinthian church that he and those in his ministry are marked by “tak(ing) every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). He writes to the Colossians, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2-3).
There is much instruction from Scripture that revolves around thinking properly. We often talk in the church about the “Christian worldview,” which is a way and pattern of thinking. Our thoughts are tied so closely to our spiritual lives, and our thoughts are where mental illnesses live.
Depression and anxiety affects my emotions, for sure, but they also affect my thoughts. They make me think things that are not true. They can even stop my thinking, clog up the thought process with fear and panic. They lead to obsession over thoughts that don’t make sense, take up precious minutes and hours of my day with their tight grip. Thus, it harms my spiritual life.
We are adamant, at least in our ideals, to eliminate things that distract us from Jesus, right? Any sin we commit is a barrier between us and God, and to truly have communion with Him, we must kill sin.
My mental health is a barrier between me and God. That doesn’t mean it’s sinful. That just means it’s a barrier. So ideally, we’d deal with it with the same level of fervor we deal with sin.
There’s a song by the band Paradise Fears called “Sanctuary.” There’s been lots of times in my life when the lyrics have spoken to me. It’s not a Christian song, but it might as well be the cry of someone begging for a place to call home.
“So go ahead and lie to yourself, and pretend that you’re a ray of light when you’re a broken candle. You keep in time with yourself — when did it all start moving way too fast for you to handle? You’re short on breath and heavy on time…It’s so dark in the room, and the ceilings are high. You know the feeling — you’ve been here before. It’s a broken old pew, and it’s an echoing cry.”
I’ve been there, many times before. The song rings true to me again now as I write these words. You end up in a broken place. You’ve been lying to yourself, saying everything’s OK, but deep down, you’re hurt. You’re struggling.
You need a place to go, a place to heal, a place to be yourself, open and free. Far too often for people with mental health disorders, the church has not been that place.
Shouldn’t it be the opposite? What did Jesus say about Him spending time with the sinners and tax collectors? “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12). Jesus came to earth, and exists still today, to provide comfort to those who are needy.
What did He say to those who are exhausted? “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
While on Earth, Jesus set Himself up as a comfort and a rest for people, even those who are young and naive. What did He say about the children who wanted to be with Him? “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).
Jesus is a welcomer, not a rejecter; a lover, not a fighter; a Good Samaritan, not a Levite passing by on the other side of the road. Shouldn’t His house be the place where we can find healing and rest? We may not come to church to be cured of our mental illnesses, but we can and should come to find understanding, rest and love.
“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 — email@example.com.”
I recently read my first full comic book arc: “Demon in a Bottle,” an Iron Man series of stories from from 1979.
First of all, I love the medium of comic books. I don’t know if I can exactly articulate why right now, but I just like them. Secondly, I loved the backbone of the story.
Tony Stark/Iron Man is in the midst of a ton of crap. His personal life is a shambles and the government is trying to take over his company Stark International. As he swigs some booze and ponders his troubles, the plane he’s in is cut in half by a flying tank.
Natural, right? Only in a comic book, and a 2000s-era Die Hard movie. I’m looking at you, Live Free or Die Hard.
I won’t dive too much into the story arc because it’s really worth a read, and I don’t want to spoil it. If you like the Avengers movies, you’ll like this because heroes like James Rhodes (aka War Machine), Scott Lang as Ant-Man and Captain America play significant supporting roles, and the villain Justin Hammer, seen in Iron Man 2, is also involved.
But what Stark deals with, and the arc’s author and illustrator intentionally explored, is the crux of the story, and worth our examination.
Multiple times, struck by his troubles and out of options, Stark turns to the bottle as his only salvation. He feels that he has no other choice, that pursuing drink is what will calm his nerves and help him face what’s ahead of him.
But in reality, it falls short. There’s a couple times where he has a little bit to drink and then dons the Iron Man suit, leading to predictable negative consequences. It causes more problems than it solves. It takes a while for him to realize that, but once he does, that’s when he changes.
How often in our lives do we look to things to soothe the pain?
We’re no different than Tony Stark. We may not get drunk or harm people due to our addictions, but we’re really no different. Maybe we get a pint of ice cream and stuff it down to distract us. Maybe we look to sex to relax us and help us calm down. Maybe we seek attention and popularity to encourage us and boost our ego a bit.
None of those things — food, sex, attention — are bad in and of themselves. In fact, they can be used to help us rest and relax, recuperate and encourage us. Sometimes it’s nice to just get an ice cold cup of water to get us level. Sometimes spending time with our spouse in an intimate way can re-center us. And sometimes hanging out with friends can give us the love and encouragement we’ve been seeking.
It’s ultimately how we use those things that’s the issue. The things themselves are not to blame.
Tony’s butler Jarvis (the inspiration for the J.A.R.V.I.S. AI in the movies) and girlfriend Bethany Cabe try to drive home the point that he has to fix whatever else is going on, handle the problems that have come his way in his business and his personal life. It starts with handling his addiction to alcohol. It’s an arduous process in the comic. He shakes, shudders, experiences withdrawal symptoms.
But what’s most crucial, and what Bethany encourages Tony to do, is facing your issues head-on. Talk through what’s going on. Express yourself, be vulnerable.
If you’ve seen the Iron Man movies, they create a pretty accurate depiction of Tony Stark in this comic arc. He’s arrogant, self-centered and a playboy, while still retaining a sense of fighting for the good and justice. But he’s not a vulnerable guy, and it’s his inability to be vulnerable that leads him to another outlet.
It’s when he’s real with himself and his friends that he finds relief, and when he stops grabbing the bottle.
There’s a climactic scene near the end that’s just as melodramatic as you’d expect. Something in Tony’s business goes horribly wrong, and all the work he had done to shake the addictive nature of his alcoholism is close to getting undone. Jarvis and Bethany are begging him to say no. And he does.
It’s a choice. It’s a day-by-day battle.
Addiction is difficult, and it’s more common than you might think. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
16.1 million people in America suffered from alcoholism in 2011.
Over 800,000 people reported a cocaine addiction in 2011.
The number of people receiving treatment for addiction to painkillers and sedatives has doubled since 2002.
In 2010, around 13 million people reported abusing methamphetamines in their life and approximately 350,000 were regular users.
Addiction takes time and effort. For the body of Christ, it’s imperative that we see addiction as a physical and mental health condition that can’t just be solved by praying it away. It requires real support and encouragement and accountability. For people stuck in addiction, there is hope and there is help.
With any sin, we need to start with the root cause. Why do we feel the need to seek the addictive thing? Where does that desire come from? Whether or not we beat the addiction in our lifetimes, figuring out the root is a helpful, healing action step.
Do we ever think about what it means to “pledge allegiance” to something?
I admit that when I say the Pledge of Allegiance at certain events, I don’t really think too much about the words I’m saying. I just go through the motions.
If we can step back and not take it too seriously for a moment, let’s examine the first phrase — “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.” I know there’s more to it than that, and I don’t want you to take this as me being unpatriotic.
Why are we pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth? Doesn’t that seem a bit silly? You don’t see me pledging allegiance to the towel that dries me off after a shower, or to the pants that cover my legs when I go to work.
I know the rest of the pledge says the allegiance is to the “Republic for which (the flag) stands,” so it’s not really that silly. It’s a representation of the nation and the group of people, and when we pledge allegiance to the flag, we’re really pledging allegiance to America. Fun fact: we didn’t have an official pledge of allegiance until 1942, so we spent 166 years as a nation without an official pledge. I kinda like that idea.
My point is not to write a treatise on whether or not we should even have those — I could get on a bad rabbit trail there — but to examine the very idea of allegiance. Did you know that there’s not an official Pledge of Allegiance to Jesus?
If we have a pledge of allegiance to our country, our faith and our book, why shouldn’t we promise fealty to our Savior?
Apollos, Paul or Peter?
The idea of “allegiance,” to my knowledge, isn’t discussed much in the Bible. After all, the New Testament followers of Jesus were under the rule of the Roman Empire and didn’t have much choice in the matter.
But we do see 1 Corinthians 1, where Paul discusses divisions in the church at Corinth. Now, this is a church where there’s TONS of divisions and difficulties and problems, but the first one he chooses to address is who people pledge their allegiance to. Verses 10-12 say:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’”
Reportedly, the people in Corinth were associating themselves by what teacher or important leader they aligned themselves with. Paul, of course, was the writer of a ton of important letters. Apollos was a powerful preacher. Cephas/Peter was a disciple of Jesus. Christ was, well, Christ. Each had some claim to allegiance or listeners. But as Paul emphasizes in v. 13, only one is worth following: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
Paul wasn’t the one who died on the cross. Paul wasn’t the Son of God. He was simply, as he states in v. 17, sent “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Jesus was the One. He was the One they were to pledge allegiance to. The Greek of v. 12 literally says that they were saying they were “of Paul” and “of Apollos” and so on. Just like Paul being a man “of Tarsus.” It’s who you’re associated, who you belong to.
No, Paul says. We don’t belong to a man. We belong to Jesus.
Where Do You Go to Church?
I’ve heard in a couple Christian comedy routines or other places that, in the south, after someone asks you their name, they ask you where you go to church. While I must say I’ve never had that exact conversation, it seems to be possible.
We often take great pride in where we go to church. As a journalist that covers small-town politics and government in North Carolina, I will often hear or read elected officials proclaiming that they’ve been a member of such-and-such church for this many years. The same information shows up in obituaries and bios of speakers at big events.
And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Churches can be amazing things that point people to Jesus.
We can often be loud in proclaiming that we are a Christian. Politicians do it all the stinkin’ time, saying that they’re a “Christian first, conservative second and Republican third.” There’s even some Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination that have begun to spoke about their faith. I remember having some conversations in high school and college where I would say, with some internal pride, that I was a Christian.
And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We should not be ashamed of being saved by the Savior.
We’ll often list the preachers we listen to and the authors that we read. We have our favorite authors and favorite musicians, and whenever they release a new project, we’re buying it as soon as possible.
And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We have learned from those men and women and can point others to them for learning, encouragement and help in growth.
Pride in our church or religion or favorite pastors and authors becomes a bad thing when that’s how we primarily identify ourselves. It becomes a bad thing when we’re not willing to admit or see flaws in those things. It becomes a bad thing when those things take precedent over our true allegiance: Jesus.
Defending the Hope
Apologetics and I have had an interesting relationship. I feel that I’m an intellectual guy, but far too often, apologetics can be an aggressive and hostile approach.
I know plenty of people that enjoy apologetics and do it well and aren’t aggressive and hostile. They’re people that have a passion for Jesus and want others to know Him, and they’re awesome. We need more of them.
One of the primary base verses for apologetics comes in 1 Peter 3. Peter is writing about those who would think ill of Christians, who might even want to harm them. He writes, in verses 14-15:
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
The Greek for “make a defense” is “apologian,” the root of which is “apologia.” The literal translation is “from intelligent reasoning” (“apó” + “lógos) (https://biblehub.com/greek/627.htm). Peter instructs his readers to use intelligent reasoning for the purpose of something. But what is that?
A reason for the hope in them. They were not called to defend their faith as an institution. They were not called to defend their particular church. They were not called to defend their favorite pastor.
I think the same principle, the same wisdom, the same logic, applies to us.
If our institution, church or pastor are being misunderstood, then sure, we can and probably should defend them. But the outworking of this is that we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that those things — Christianity as a social institution, our church, our pastor — have been, are and will be wrong at times. Why? We’re not ultimately aligned with them. We’re ultimately aligned with Jesus. He is the reason we have hope, not our faith as a societal construct, our church or our pastor.
Jesus deserves our allegiance, more than our country, our pastor, our books, our church, our institutions, etc. Committing to those other things is not inherently bad, and those things can be and have been incredibly helpful in helping us see Jesus.
But if they takes precedence over our allegiance to Jesus, it becomes bad. Jesus is worthy of our allegiance. After all, He’s our Savior. What other reason do you need?