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.
In 2003, Ralston was exploring Bluejohn Canyon in eastern Utah. While making his way down a narrow gap, a boulder dislodged and crushed his right arm against a rock wall. His arm was literally between a rock and a hard place.
One hundred and 27 hours later, he cut his arm off to escape.
The Oscar-nominated film 127 Hours, starring James Franco in an Oscar-nominated role, illuminates the difficulty of Ralston’s predicament. With little food and water, he stretched out his rations to survive as long as possible. The scene where he cuts off his arm is pretty gruesome, but it’s illuminating how far people will go to stay alive and find freedom.
Ralston’s book about his ordeal — which I have on my bookshelf but haven’t read — is called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” playing off the well-known phrase about being stuck between two unlikable options. I know what that’s like, in a way.
Twice in my life, I’ve dealt with mental health disorders while having a crisis of faith, and while I’ve since learned some key truths to speak to me in those times, it’s an area the church at large doesn’t really touch but needs to confront.
My Year of Doubt
At the beginning of the year 2014, I was in a strange spot.
I was months away from graduating from college, and a job was being lined up for me. I was going to work with a college Christian ministry, hanging out with college students part-time telling them about Jesus and spending the rest of the time managing the ministry’s social media accounts for the whole region. It seemed like a pretty sweet gig.
But one day, something struck me. I remember the moment it happened. I was on the phone in the sunroom of the house I was living in with three other guys, talking to someone about a different ministry opportunity, when I stopped believing in God.
It wasn’t that simple of course, but it felt like that. Over the ensuing weeks, I felt like I had to work hard to pray. Reading the Bible was not as fruitful as it had been the previous months. Each time I led prayer at our Sunday night prayer meetings on campus felt like a stretch. I was faking it. The emotion of faith was gone, and it seemed like my belief in God was gone too.
In the ensuing months, however, things got more complicated. I lost that potential job with the college ministry, I applied to several other jobs with no luck and, contrary to my desire, I was set to return home after college, not move off to some strange place and begin my career. Plus, I started talking to a sweet girl.
Throughout that time, God seemed distant.
Once or twice in your life, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of that classic prank — you’re about to sit down in a chair you know is there, but when your rear end is supposed to land, all it hits is air. I’ve done that to a couple people, and it’s been done to me a few times.
That’s what my relationship with God felt like. I felt like God was there, and I was going to lean on Him, but he seemed invisible, removed from my life by a force I couldn’t control. I doubted He was really there. I doubted He cared. It was a crisis of faith. I felt like I had done something to earn it. I was constantly praying to God, or at least trying to, trying to assure that I was a Christian.
It was a tough year. Along with getting rejected for that ministry job, the girl and I broke up twice because I was scared to commit, and I struggled mightily with certain sins that I was sure were separating me from God on a daily basis. But I didn’t know how to explain what I was feeling.
That time led to a lot of depression. Being a Christian was dependent on faith, so if faith is gone, was I a Christian? I would pray all the time. I would pledge things to God, pledges I would break so quickly.
At the end of the year, I learned that I likely suffered from a form of OCD called “scrupulosity.” According to the International OCD Foundation, individuals with scrupulosity “are overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine.” Suffers will repeatedly seek reassurance from religious leaders and loved ones as to their adherence to faith, make excessive trips to confession, praying excessively, repeat passages from sacred texts in their head and make pacts with God.
When I read about scrupulosity, it provided an answer to the question of why I had been acting the way I did.
The issue with scrupulosity — in simple terms, a specified and sometimes severe form of anxiety around religion — is that I could look at the description and think that’s just the normal Christian life. Aren’t we supposed to be concerned at all times whether or not we’ve committed a sin? Aren’t we supposed to be praying without ceasing? Aren’t we supposed to always have faith, always feel like God is with us? Those are the ideas I grew up with, the concepts that made sense to me. Scrupulosity, on first look, seemed like the normal Christian life, and here I learn that it’s abnormal and ultimately unhealthy.
“OCD makes it harder to practice one’s faith,” Pollard wrote. “However, there is no evidence that the moral or religious character of scrupulosity sufferers is any different from that of other people. Many notable religious leaders have struggled with this condition, including St. Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, St. Aphonsus Liguori, John Bunyan and St. Veronica Giullani.”
Looking back now, that makes sense to me, because my inner faith crisis, the doubt that permeated everything — from my religion to my romantic relationships to my career path — made my relationship with God suffer.
Reconstruction of the Faith
The election of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 was an eye-opening moment for a lot of Americans, and as I’ve learned, a lot of Christians as well. As Andy Mineo put in his song “…There”:
“Did 81 percent of the people I call my brethren put an elephant in the room and say it was heaven-sent? I don’t know what Bible you reading, what God you believe in but that don’t sound like reason, it sound like you sleeping.”
My journey to what some would deem “progressive Christianity” started slowly. It really began with watching clips of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. As Stewart eviscerated conservative media like Fox News — which I had learned growing up was the “right place” for news — and exposed the flaws in most conservative political thinking, I was shocked. My Christianity had been tied so closely, at least in the political realm, to the conservative/Republican movement, but here was a guy showcasing the flaws. America was not a Christian nation. Barack Obama didn’t seem all that bad.
It was those kind of discoveries that made me start to rethink the religion I had spent pretty much my whole life dedicated to. Trump’s election more or less sealed me off from going back to where I was before.
I looked at the Bible and found some things that didn’t sit right with me, things that didn’t seem to measure up with the Jesus I knew, the Jesus who loved me so strongly as I was, without condition. I trusted Him, and He loved me. That love that I knew didn’t measure up with the church’s treatment (in general) of Democrats, the LGBTQ community and celebrities.
So quietly, I began to reconstruct. It started with conservative political ideology. I went through a few waves of different thinking, but I think I’ve landed on the idea that the government needs to spend its money wisely, but try to help those in need if they can. The government also needs to be proactive in killing discrimination and oppression, including that of Christians.
Other changes followed, particularly in how I consumed secular music, considered profanity and voted for Democrats. But it’s come to a head in how I think about the Bible. This is a text I’ve learned a lot about throughout my life, and as I’ve worked to take it more seriously, I’ve found that it seems to contradict some of the things that I’ve been taught about it.
I’m not going to get too much into the basis for that — that’s not what this is about — but I want to explore my mental state: Depression. Anxiety. Suicidal thoughts.
First, it was the fear that I was wrong, the fear that I had screwed up and God was going to disown me for not believing the Bible was perfect. Second, it was the fear of rejection from people who didn’t understand, from friends who thought I believed just as they did only to find out my thoughts had changed. Third, it was the fear of being alone, the only one in my circle who had these radical changes to my theology.
Two of those fears were well-founded. As a result, I ended up abandoned and alone, with only my wife to comfort me.
My days were spent wracked with shame and confusion. I’ve always felt the need to be certain about something. If I’m not certain, I don’t like to move forward. So when questions came about, I didn’t feel comfortable going back to where I was before or moving in a different direction until the question was answered, and I didn’t like being in between. The stress was a lot to handle.
It reached a peak when I felt, for the first time in my life, serious suicidal thoughts. I had felt them fleetingly before, but nothing serious enough to actually take any action. One time before I got married I had cut myself with a pair of kids scissors, but didn’t get too far because, in my heart of hearts, I knew it wouldn’t accomplish anything. I just wanted to see what it would feel like.
But with this new situation, I would drive over bridges and seriously consider making a hard right. I would look at a knife and wonder what it would be like to run it across my skin. I would consider climbing on the roof of my house and take a head-first dive. A neck break would do it, right?
Getting at the Root
We have a ton of weeds around our house, and no matter how much we pull them up, they always come back. I always think, “OK, if I pull out the weed at the root, that will kill it.” And I’m always wrong, or at least it feels that way.
Mental health and religious faith are linked so closely because they’re both conditions of the mind. They’re related to how you think, and thus become related to how you feel. Both thinking and feeling are centered in the brain, as neurons control how you react to something.
So when a crisis of faith meets a mental illness, it’s like a weed whose root is buried deep, deep down in the earth, and you’ll never be able to reach it. There’s something incredibly unique about the combination. If you struggle with depression, the feeling of loneliness associated with faith crises simply give you more room to feel depressed. If you have severe anxiety, the doubt and mental debates you have with yourself just exacerbate the uncertainty that anxiety exploits. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is for those with more several mental health illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Mental health and religion are rooted at a person’s core. Both play a role in how you view yourself, others and the world. A combination of pain at both points is hard to wrestle with, to put it mildly.
Something over the years that has led to anxiety and depression more than I can count is my sin. Whether it’s something simple like considering someone else negatively because of how they dress or something more severe like lusting after someone besides my wife, my sin has led me to more depths of despair than most other things.
I think it’s happened because I’ve been taught, rightly, that sin is harmful to me and offensive to God. Sometimes that leads me to deem every single sin I commit to be a haughty, selfish and horrendous act that requires penance, lots of prayer and a day or two before I can feel good about loving God again, and about Him loving me.
In fact, it’s my lack of love for God that will drive me to depression and anxiety more often than not. How can I, a simple human man, ever love God “the way I’m supposed to”? Somewhere in my spiritual upbringing, I learned, likely subconsciously, that I was always supposed to be a strong Christian everywhere I went, and that who we really are is visible when no one is looking, and so God sees all my sin, so I needed to be a strong Christian for God.
Failure at that meant a need for prayer, reading the Bible and making sure you were still saved. I’ve prayed the prayer of salvation maybe 5-6 times seriously in my life, just to make sure. I prayed it several times during my year of doubt, but that was born more out of desperation and panic than a sincere feeling of separation.
I know my story is not unique. But those of us who reach that point of a spiritual crisis and deal with a mental health disorder simultaneously find ourselves up against it. And as far as trying to resolve this conundrum, there’s only one thing I’ve learned that can tackle both.
The Better Example
In 2015, the year between my stretch of doubt and the beginning of reconstructing my faith, I learned to love 1 John 4.
I had come across it the previous fall, sitting on the porch of my parents’ mountain condo in Boone, North Carolina, reading the Bible, trying to find something to encourage me. The first section is about “testing the spirits,” then transitions into a meditation on the famous phrase “God is love.”
The NRSV translates 1 John 4:9, a pretty famous verse, as this: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” God showed His love for us by sending Jesus. It was something that I had heard many times, and pretty much accepted. But I had never heard verse 10.
“In this is love,” it says, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
The love of God as shown by Christ on the cross is the perfect definition of love. John tells his audience that God is love (twice, vv. 8 and 16), and the perfect example of love is Jesus on the cross.
What does that mean for humanity, practically? John tells us in v. 18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
Having severe anxiety or depression, like I do, often correlates with fear of something: the unknown, rejection, failure, mistakes, sin, hurting others, letting others down, harming self. All of those things have some kind of consequence, and so fear leads to punishment of some kind. All of those things have a punishment. Rejection’s punishment is loneliness; failure’s punishment is disappointment; sin’s punishment is death; hurting other’s punishment is guilt.
The perfect love shown by God through Christ, John argues, “casts out fear.” The Greek root for casts is balló, which is the same word used to describe the way Peter and Andrew cast their nets into the sea when fishing. In the same way that fisherman fling out their nets, away from the boat, away from themselves, when perfect love enters a situation of fear, that fear is flung away, far away, left to fend for itself. It only comes back if we bring it.
So when helping those with mental health disorders, faith crises and both, it’s imperative that we let the love of God show through, the love of God that was shown on the cross of Christ. And start fear-flinging.
I’m in a strange season of life because I’m trying to figure out what I think about the Bible. And as I was beginning to ponder how I was going to write this essay, a palpable truth struck me.
The Bible is both inherently ancient and applicably modern. It’s unavoidably diverse and yet surprising whole. It’s at once both distant and strange while approachable and present.
I don’t know if it was written that way, but it ended up being that way. Or maybe it’s not the Bible itself, but the stories it tells, the people it features, the ones that God put in a place to be an example, whether good or bad, for us here in the future, 2,000-plus years after its central event.
It’s with this new appreciation that I explore something very special and personal to me: mental health and its place in the Bible. It’s there. The words “depression” and “anxiety” are either completely absent or incredibly rare, and there’s nothing explicitly diagnosed as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, though those disorders certainly exist in biblical times.
But despite the absence of certain terminology, I strongly believe that the Bible shows us we are not alone in our struggles of the mind, and that because of that, we are not alone.
Running for Your Life
Elijah had just won a major victory for God.
There was a severe famine in Samaria, which is now central Palestine. Jesus cited Samaria in his final words to the disciples, telling them to share the good news in Jerusalem, Judea and all Samaria (Matthew 28:19). Elijah was sent to show the power of God to Ahab, the king of Israel. Ahab had a death warrant out for Elijah — in 1 Kings 18, where this story starts, the king refers to the prophet as the “troubler of Israel” (v. 17).
Elijah says, in my paraphrase, “Hey Ahab, you’ve caused all the trouble because you stopped following God. I’m gonna show you. Get everybody in the land, including the prophets of Baal and Asherah, to go to Mount Carmel.”
At Mount Carmel, Elijah speaks to the people, telling them they need to choose between God and Baal. To prove God is supreme, Elijah and the prophets of Baal each take a bull and set it ready for sacrifice. Elijah instructed the prophets to call down fire to consume the animal.
From morning to noon, the text says, and past that, the prophets called for Baal to come down. Verse 26 says they “limped around the altar that they had made.” I guess they either wore themselves out or it was some kind of special dance. Baal was not impressed or had something else going on, as Elijah mocked them, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is music, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). Sarcasm from a man of God! I love it.
No fire came.
Elijah rebuilt the altar that had been town down, did some special stuff and called on God. Fire came down from heaven, consumed the offering and the wood, stones and dust around it and water poured in a surrounding trench. Fire consumed water. That’s not normal.
All the people of Israel, the text says, seeing this, fell on their faces and worshiped God. Elijah called for the people to stop the prophets of Baal, numbered at 450. The latter half of v. 40 says, “And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
All this happened, at least in the text of 1 Kings, after Elijah raised a kid from the dead in chapter 17, by the way.
After this intense display by God, the boldness to kill all these prophets himself, Elijah is confronted with some bad news. Ticked off by the death of her prophets, Queen Jezebel sent a message to Elijah: “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2).
No big, right? He had just raised someone from the dead and killed a ton of people after seeing God rain down fire from the sky that consumed water. But a death threat isn’t something most people take lightly.
“Then (Elijah) was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:3-4).
I don’t know how much time there was between these two events, between the killing of the prophets and the asking God to kill him. But Elijah became suicidal. He didn’t want to live anymore. Whether it was depression or stress or anxiety or fear, Elijah wanted to die.
And it doesn’t really make sense on the surface, right? From the far-removed standpoint we hold as readers of the text, Elijah has plenty of reason to not be afraid in light of Jezebel’s threat. He’s seen God do amazing things, many of them through his own hands. Why would Elijah be afraid and suicidal?
I’m not 100 percent sure. But he was.
Tears for Food
David, king of Israel, forerunner of the Christ, “man after God’s own heart,” spilled a lot of his guts throughout the psalms.
He writes about his response to his adultery with Bathsheba, the blessings of being one of God’s people, the greatness of God’s words and so much more. But his mental state is also a common thread.
Psalm 38 is a good example — “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (v. 6-8).
I don’t know how else you describe “tumult of the heart” but some kind of serious depression or grief. David indicates early in the psalm, v. 3, that his life seems to have disappeared from him “because of my sin.”
But I want to focus on a psalm that’s not by David, but instead is written by one of the sons of Korah, who wrote many of the psalms.
“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (v. 3). “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (v. 5).
The two verbs in v. 5 are wattehemî and tištōwhahî. Respectively, they mean “to murmur, growl, roar, be boisterous” and “to bow, be bowed down, crouch” in their root forms. The soul here for the author is both discontent and sorrowful. Both verbs are inherently active, visible expressions used to describe the soul. If this isn’t depression, I don’t know what is.
The author continues by saying that God has forgotten him and he goes on mourning “because of the oppression of the enemy” (v. 9). He stays cast down.
In Psalm 55, with enemies at his door, David cries out, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (v. 4-5).
The examples go on and on.
Sweat Like Blood
To me, perhaps the most notable example of mental health, or lack thereof, in the Bible is our Savior’s.
Three of the gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark and Luke — describe the Messiah’s mental state prior to his arrest, prior to his death. Jesus, asking God to take away this burden, is, in the varying accounts, “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37), “in agony” (Luke 22:44) and “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). In the latter account, Jesus tells Peter, James and John that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (v. 34).
I’m going to key in on the Luke account, because it includes a detail that I love. The Greek agonia is described by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “of severe mental struggles and emotions”.
All of the adjectives and adverbs that the gospel writers used are pretty indicative of mental struggles. But it’s Luke, the physician, and his description of Jesus’ physical state that caught my eye when I read this passage.
“And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (v. 44).
There’s a rare medical condition called hematidrosis, so rare that “only a few handfuls of hematidrosis cases were confirmed in medical studies in the 20th century.” WebMD’s article continues:
“Doctors don’t know exactly what triggers hematidrosis, in part because it’s so rare. They think it could be related to your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.
Tiny blood vessels in the skin break open. The blood inside them may get squeezed out through sweat glands, or there might be unusual little pockets within the structure of your skin. These could collect the blood and let it leak into follicles (where the hair grows) or on to the skin’s surface.”
How is it caused? Most reports indicate it has to do with severe stress. Pair Jesus’ mental state, according to the gospel writers, with the blood sweat — of course it’s referenced by Luke the doctor — and you have a pretty severe case of mental illness, at least shown here.
Jesus showcasing severe mental discomfort and stress should be comforting to us. After all, as the writer of Hebrews argues, that’s one of the reasons we can trust Him.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Theologians have debated over whether or not Jesus was actually anxious. After all, He was the one who said there was no need to be anxious, but “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Was He disobeying His own instruction?
That’s a theological debate for another day, but here’s my answer: I doubt it. At the very least, He was experiencing what mankind experienced so He could sympathize with our weaknesses. He was being human.
We’re Not Alone
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States, accounting for around 46.6 million people, experience mental illness of some shape every year, and 1 in 25 adults experience a sever mental illness “that substantially interferes with or limits one of more major life activities” every year.
And that’s just what’s discovered, and that’s just America, and that’s just adults.
One of the many beauties of the Bible is that it tells a very human story. It’s not a book that lifts itself beyond our humanity and our circumstances, our realities and our weaknesses. It quashes the myth that, to be Christians, we must be mentally well every minute of every day. It kills the idea that good Christians are free from mental illness.
After all, look at the people spotlighted. They were men who knew well the greatness of God, the love of God, the amazing things He had done, what He as capable of, men God worked through to do miracles. Yet they still struggled. Elijah was suicidal. David was depressed. Jesus was anxious. The Bible tells us that we’re not alone, that three of the most faithful men in history struggled with mental health issues.
It was like fire consuming water.
Let’s return to 1 Kings 18 for a minute. Elijah was building his altar for the sacrifice. Verse 32 records that he made a trench around the altar, “about as great as would contain two seahs of seed.” A “seah” is seven quarts or 7.3 liters. So imagine the volume of seven-and-a-half two-liter bottles of soda, plus a little more. That’s how much water the trench could hold.
If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, try drinking a two liter of water quickly.
Elijah instructs the crowd to fill four jars of water and pour it on the offering and the wood on the altar. They did it, and then repeated the exercise twice. After the third time, v. 35 says, “the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.”
You would think that faith in God would quench every worry and fear that would lead to suicidal thoughts, depression and sweat drops made of blood.
But no. In some moments, the fire is too strong to be quenched, and the water is lapped up.
We should not be ashamed if we ever feel that way. It’s not the end.
Throughout the Old Testament, God is shown to be a God who knows.
His omniscience is one of His most commonly spoken attributes. “God knows what you’re going through.” “God knows what’s going to happen.” “God only knows what I’d be without you.” OK, maybe that last one was a Beach Boys lyric, but it fits. It’s God’s omniscience that we see proven over and over again,
My favorite case of this is how Israel asks for a king. The story is found in 1 Samuel 8, when the elders of Israel asked Samuel the prophet to give them a king. Samuel is a little peeved, but when he speaks to God, God allows it.
“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them,” God says in v. 7. In v. 9, He continues, “Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
This is a fulfillment of what God had said in Deuteronomy: “When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose” (17:14-15a).
Just like God knows your struggle with mental illness. He may seem far away. I certainly feel that way many times, wondering why in the world God would leave me here on earth like this, crippled by a mind that doesn’t quite work right. But He is there. I have to believe He is there, or else this is all pointless.
But it’s not a blind faith. Just look at how God takes care of His people.
Jesus the Miracle Worker
Jesus’ earthly ministry, in retrospect, seems to be a lot about healing people of worldly diseases. A list of his miracles would be incomplete without healing the son of the nobleman (John 4:46-47), casting out an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-28), curing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:30-31), healing a leper (Mark 1:40-45), healing the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), rising the widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:11-18) and raising the ruler’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26). And that’s just a small sampling of the many miracles that Jesus performed.
This is evidence of Jesus’ supernatural powers. In this age of reason and academics — both of which are to be praised at times — the miraculous supernatural part of Jesus may get the short end. But it’s evidence of His God-ness or, if you don’t buy into the whole Trinity thing, that God blessed him to perform mighty works in God’s name.
What these stories show, and Jesus’ overall compassion for the ill and needy, is the Father’s heart for those who are sick. Whatever form that sickness takes, the physical embodiment of God on earth stopped to take care of those who needed assistance. And there’s a good chance there were many more than we have recorded. John famously wrote that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30).
It’s near-impossible today to 100 percent accurately attribute a healing to a miracle performed by God. The body created by God and its self-healing ability is so fascinating and intricate and powerful in and of itself, doctors just get better and better at what they do and new medicines can do amazing things. But if Jesus cared about people’s physical health on earth, it’s at the very least likely, to me, that He still cares about our health, extending beyond the physical to the mental and more.
The Spiritual Healer
After one of His miracles, Jesus was walking along the road when He spotted Matthew, a tax collector. Jesus called the man to follow Him, and Matthew did.
“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I come to call not the righteous but sinners’” (Matthew 9:10-13).
Aside from being one of my favorite gospel passages, this exchange shows why Jesus came to earth in the first place. He equated spiritual lostness — being a “sinner” — with being physically sick. The Greek word iastros is used, meaning “physician.” It’s the same label applied to Luke, the author of the gospel bearing his name and the book of Acts, in Colossians 4:14.
In this way, we see Jesus explaining the problem of spiritual lostness in medical terms, something they could understand. Being without salvation, without righteousness, was a sickness that needed a cure. And doctors, those who can provide that healing, do no good by hanging out with those who were well. They need to be among those who are sick.
Those of us who struggle with mental illness are sick. It’s a reality we can’t escape. It’s just a thing. But Jesus was willing to be seen and dine with those who were spiritually sick, as well as physically sick.
Cake and Water
Another one of my favorite Bible stories is that of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After defeating the prophets of Baal in the showdown of a lifetime and then killing all 450 of them by a river (read 1 Kings 18 for that Lord of the Rings-worthy tale), Queen Jezebel of Israel called for Elijah’s head. Fleeing a day’s journey into the wilderness, 1 Kings 19 records, Elijah asks that God takes away his life. Lying under a broom tree he falls asleep. Verses 5b-9 record:
“Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.”
In the depth of incredible mental and emotional distress, God provided respite and restoration for Elijah. He didn’t remove the situation, didn’t take away the feelings or thoughts. He simply provided some food and drink.
I feel like there’s something incredibly symbolic about this. Elijah wanted to die. He wanted to be taken away. He says in v. 4, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” The Hebrew word for “enough” was rāb. In other places, it’s translated as “so great,” “plenty” and “too much.” Elijah had reached a breaking point and was ready to give it all up. But God met Him in this moment.
The text does not say the “cake” is bread. For his sake, I hope it was one of my mom’s chocolate cinnamon fudge cakes, because those things are good. But God, though “the angel of the LORD,” provided him sustenance for the journey ahead.
This is not to say that every time you are in emotional or mental distress God will meet you with a cake and a jar of water out of nowhere. That’s just a part of Elijah’s story, and everything that happens to Him cannot be applied universally. But in these stories, in the Old and New Testaments, we see the character of God shine forth to those in need of healing, to those who are sick, to those who are hurting.
Who is to say that same character, that same compassion, does not shine forth to us today? We may not always see it, we may not always know it, but I bet you it is there.
He’s in the hand that reaches out to provide a meal, a warm hug, a kind word. Speaking of the Son of Man coming into his glory in later times, Jesus says of those who helped the needy, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
He’s in the person who ditches their whole schedule to pray for you or send you a note or play a game with you to distract you. Jesus says to His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
He’s in the one who doesn’t reject you in your weirdness or anguish or naïveté. “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way” (Matthew 19:13-15).
This is the God on whom you can rely, in your darkest hour of sadness, emotional turmoil and heartache. You may not see Him, you may not feel Him, but I promise you He is there. His character eliminates any other possibility.
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’m not the least qualified person to write about Rachel Held Evans and what she meant to me. After all, I’ve read two of her books and followed her on Twitter for two long stretches.
But I can’t help but put words on a page about her work and her life and what it meant to me.
For those you who don’t know, Evans died last week of brain swelling. It was a shock to a lot of people. Only 37, and with two young children, her passing was heart-breaking not only because of her youth and motherhood responsibilities, but her love, care, concern and, of least importance, writing talent.
After hearing of her passing on Saturday, I re-read Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church over the last few days, finishing Tuesday afternoon. As a writer myself, I love her style of mixing emotional self-reflection with life story, biblical application with textual criticism. She was both humorous and intellectual, realistic and self-deprecating. I want to write like her, to turn phrases with emotional impact and spiritual depth while pointedly approaching problems she sees. She wrote with compassion, understanding the reality of life as a Christian and a human, not taking any crap while seeing people’s flaws and elevating them.
She spoke my language.
Most of us have a writer or musician with whom we relate. They’ve got a book or a song or a few songs that, when we hear them, we think, “That’s us.” I have a few music artists that have a smattering of songs that I love listening to because they feel like me — Ed Sheeran, two Australian artists recently recommended to me by a friend named Jacob Lee and Dean Lewis, and a few more. And when I was in high school, Relient K was me. Still are to some degree.
But I’ve only found two authors with whom I have that connection: Brennan Manning and Rachel Held Evans.
Not only did Evans challenge me as a writer, she challenged me to think critically about my faith. So many of us who grow up in the church environment have one of two outcomes: growing up and leaving the faith because we never made it our own, or growing up and keeping the exact same faith of our parents, never to be flexible because we didn’t learn how to be.
When I first read Searching for Sunday, I was in the midst of a bit of a sea-change in my walk with Jesus. I had more or less made my faith my own, but was struggling to find people with whom I could connect, who were thinking the same things I was thinking. I read Searching for Sunday and found a connection.
The book follows Evans’ church journey: growing up as a Bible drill nerd, asking deep theological questions at Easter lunch and going to college. In that journey, she discovers some things about the faith structure she grew up in that didn’t jive with the Jesus she knew and loved. Writing about the missionary Phillip’s conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch, Evans said:
“…we religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way.” (39)
It got so bad that she just dumped church. She didn’t want to be part of the evangelical church structure because it stressed her out, made her made, made her sad. So she left.
I don’t blame her. There are a lot of things about the evangelical church industry that stress me out and make me mad and sad. There are things that, to me at least, don’t seem reflective of Jesus and who He is.
Rachel Held Evans wrote that and lived it. She spoke out about the church’s often-painful treatment of LGBTQ individuals, its regular allegiance to unnecessary and sometimes harmful politics and our consistent and general inability to just love people as they are. She found the places within the church community that were doing that and praised them, encouraged them.
The thing that’s amazed me the most in the last few days is how many Christian authors and speakers from varying points on the evangelical spectrum have written or Tweeted about Evans. RELEVANT Magazine compiled a good list here. Beth Moore, Jen Hatmaker, Peter Enns, Ed Stetzer and Russell Moore are among those who have posted brief or lengthy reflections on her life.
It’s a testimony to a person who might have had theological differences with some, but found common ground as much as possible. A person who stood for the least of these and the weakest because Jesus loved them most. A person who wasn’t afraid to speak truth about power because that’s what Jesus did. A person who just wanted Christians to be like Christ.
The other book of her’s that I read was Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. It’s about the Bible, how she found a lot of things in the teaching she grew up with that didn’t match with the Bible she read. Like Searching for Sunday, it’s about reconsidering what you’ve grown up with, asking honest questions and finding answers that match what you see.
That’s the life I hope to live: open to being wrong, open to growing and open to what God has for me.
I write like I knew her intimately, but I never met her or talked to her in any format. But she wrote so honestly and plainly and openly. I want to be like that.