What I Wish the Church Knew About Mental Health: Part 1

I’m pretty open in this blog about my mental health. That’s unnatural for me. Left to my own devices, I would huddle in a corner with my depression and anxiety and never tell anyone, much less strangers on the internet. But I know that somewhere out there are teenagers exactly where I was at their age: alone in their room, afraid that what they’re feeling means that something is terribly wrong with them, that God doesn’t love them, or that they don’t have enough faith.

Ideally, the church should step in to combat these lies, offering support and love in their place. Unfortunately though, lots of people have stories of the opposite experience in the church. As more of the population struggles with this issue, the church needs to equip itself to minister to them. To do that, the church must first understand the issue. In this four-part blog series I will share, from my own experience, what the church should know about mental illness

Truth #1: It doesn’t come from a lack of faith

The rise of clinical depression in American teens and adults has sparked a debate within the church: can Christians be depressed? If we truly have the joy of the Lord within us, how can depression creep in? If we have God’s listening ear, how can we be anxious?

Honestly, I hate this debate. I hate that we’re still having it.

I’d like to begin by saying that when I refer to depression and anxiety, I mean a chronic condition rather than a passing feeling. For more information, see the National Institute of Mental Health webpage.

The hope we have in Christ does not banish fear, anxiety, despair, or anguish. In the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus considered the cross before Him, He was so terrified that He cried out to God and sweated drops of blood. He knew what He must do, and had faith in the sovereignty of the Father. But in the moment, His anxiety remained.

In Psalm 6:6-7, King David writes:

“I am weary with moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.”

That scene sounds familiar to many who battle depression. David endured many losses in his life, and captured his heartache for us to read today.

Jesus, the sinless son of God, felt. He wept. The Bible tells us repeatedly that the Lord draws near to the broken-hearted. There are no conditions put forth around why your heart is broken. Jesus never responded to weeping with “O ye of little faith.” He simply asks us to bring Him our brokenness.

As I write, I hear the common counter argument already: shouldn’t Jesus remove the mental illness of those with enough faith?

Again, I would direct the skeptic to the scriptures. In 2 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul, a hero of our faith and author of most of the New Testament, describes wrestling with a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me.” Three times he pleaded with the Lord to remove it. God instead responds this way:

“But he said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The scriptures never say exactly what the “thorn in the flesh” is. I can only imagine that’s purposeful; the feeling of wrestling with something that keeps us humble is universal. Those of us with a mental illness know that all too well, and are constantly exhausted from the wrestling. The hope the gospel gives us for our mental health is not that God will remove the illness if we only have faith. It is that no matter our struggles, His grace is sufficient. He is enough.

In fact, my mental illness has only strengthened my faith. Racing, irrational thoughts and a pounding pulse remind me that I can’t create a lasting feeling of peace within myself. I have to look up, admit my need, and ask for the peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7). Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, while terrible lies, remind me that joy does not come from me or the world around me. It comes from Christ and what He has done for me.

Reader, if you are a Christian feeling beaten down in your struggles with mental illness, know that you are not alone. Our God sees and draws near to you, even when others pull away. His grace is sufficient. If you are a church member wondering how to relate to other saints facing these struggles, understanding this truth is key. When we say that our struggles are real, believe us. God is with us — you should be too. We all should be.

Need to talk to someone? Reach out to me at madison.caplinger@gmail.com

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