Where Faith & Mental Illness Connect

How Should Churches Respond to Mental Illness
Because of recent events in the news, discussions of mental illness (depression, in particular) are beginning to take place.  CNN ran an article by Ed Stetzer entitled “How Churches Can Respond to Mental Illness.”  It’s a great read and very important.  His advice in the article should be obvious, but I know that I’ve overlooked his counsel more often than I should.

Stetzer says churches need to:

  1. Stop hiding mental illnesses.
  2. Be a safe place for those who struggle.
  3. Don’t be afraid of medicine.
  4. End the shame.

Don’t Ignore Teen Depression
I wrote a post a few years ago about Teen Depression: how to spot it and how it’s different from depression in adults.  It’s a post I really think would be worth rereading, I know I’ve needed to refer back to it quite a number of times since writing it!

How Do Faith & Mental Illness Connect?
I don’t usually read comments on CNN’s Belief articles, it’s just too frustrating.  But I read some of the comments the other day and a few people seemed genuinely confused about how Christians understand mental illness (like depression and anxiety).  Here’s my short explanation:

Understanding mental illness comes back to understanding Creation and the Fall.  God made us, and He made us whole and perfect.  In God’s sovereignty, He allowed us to sin (this is often referred to as “the Fall“), and because sin has now entered God’s perfect Creation there is brokenness and corruption.  This is how Christian theology understands natural disasters, handicaps of all kinds, diseases, mental illness, and all other kinds of corruptions in our world and in human nature (this is also also where Christian theology could account for the “born this way” argument for homosexuality, but I’d rather not get into that today).

We still bear the Image of God, but it’s broken and corrupted.  Some people are born with a disposition to fits of anger and violence, some with a propensity to sexual sin, others are naturally proud and arrogant… others are born prone to depression and anxiety.  Because someone is “born this way” (in the broad sense, not in the way this phrase has been used as a justification for homosexuality), that doesn’t mean it’s right or good or whole.  We all want to be whole people… but we’re all broken in our own different ways.

Faith Doesn’t Remove All Struggle
God is faithful.  He is making us new.  That doesn’t mean if you pray enough you won’t struggle with depression anymore.  I hope that’s obvious.  It’s not always a matter of “having too little faith.”  Depression isn’t something I personally struggle with, so when I feel depressed it might be because I haven’t been seeking God enough.  But for someone who really struggles with depression or anxiety or any number of other mental illnesses, prayerfulness and spiritual discipline WILL help, but it will not remove the struggle completely.

Faith simply doesn’t remove all our struggles.  Through faith, God gives us strength in the midst of our struggles.  Battles are serious and dangerous, and it’s both unhelpful and unfaithful to simply say “Let go and let God.”  The effects of sin and the Fall are greater and more complicated than that.  God gives us strength, but that doesn’t mean

Helping Struggling Christians
There are no easy answers.  I hope I’ve made that clear by now.  Here are a few suggestions for Christians who struggle with mental illness (and for the people who care about them):

  1. God knows you completely, and He still chose the cross!  Your deepest and darkest secrets are not hidden from God.  He knows them completely… that is exactly why He sacrificed himself on the cross!  He gave himself to reverse the punishment, the brokenness, and the death that resulted from our sin.  He came to restore creation… and that includes you!  
  2. Because God knows you completely, you don’t need to hide in shame.  Don’t air your dirty laundry to everyone, that’s not going to be helpful.  Get connected in a local church and find a few Christian men or women (who are the same gender as you) who will pray for you and check in on you.
  3. Battle depression & anxiety by caring for others.  But don’t let your friendships be all about you, otherwise you’re still focusing on your issues in ways that only feed them.  I know that sounds easy for me to say, and these struggles you face seem completely overwhelming.  Again, I’m not saying you should hide your struggles.  But make sure you’re listening to your friends and caring for them in their struggles too.  Just because their struggles are different and maybe not as overwhelming as yours, that doesn’t mean their struggles don’t matter.  When you serve, God begins to make your heart more like his.  That’s always a good thing.
  4. Walk in hope, because you know God’s promise.  The journey will be long, and there will be dark days when you may consider ending it all.  Don’t.  Cling to God’s promise that He is with you and He hears you and He cares for you.  God does have a purpose for you, and He will work it out… even when you don’t see it at all.  Remember what faith is: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
  5. Joyfully receive professional help.  Find a good Christian counselor.  Take your medication.  Write in a journal.  If you wouldn’t reject a lifejacket when your drowning, why reject medicine when you’re battling significant and prolonged mental illness?   God has given us mental health professionals and medicine – you don’t need to be ashamed to joyfully receive their help.  Don’t run to medicine as your savior, that’s Christ’s role for you… but don’t reject what He has made available to help in your time of need.

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