Mental Health and The Church
It wasn’t until after college that I realized I had struggled with depression. Looking back, I don’t remember a time in my life that I hadn’t. It felt like I was constantly treading water and trying to grasp for air, only to be pulled back under again. It was scary. It was exhausting. It was lonely. I worked in ministry, read my Bible, prayed, sought therapy, worked out, talked with friends, etc. No matter what though, I couldn’t shake it.
You have people in your community who are in more of a battle with mental health than you know. Or maybe you’re in a battle with mental health that is worse than you’re willing to admit. I’ve been there.
Unfortunately, when it comes to mental health, many of our churches perpetuate an ideal that the goal of human existence is feeling happy all the time. Two problems with this:
1) That’s not anyone’s experience.
2) That’s not what the Bible says.
My goal in this article is two-fold. First, I hope to give you a brief theological/ philosophical reframing of mental health (particularly depression and anxiety). Secondly, I want to offer you a few tips on how to approach mental health as a spiritual leader.
A Reframing of Mental Health
If Jesus suffered, suffering itself is not sin.
Jesus repeatedly was moved by compassion at the pain of others. Compassion literally means “to suffer with,” meaning he did more than remove sickness and disease. He felt the pain of others. In addition to his betrayal, torture, and crucifixion, we see this agonizing story in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus feels the weight of sorrow of the whole human race – full of physical, mental, and spiritual anguish. It’s full of starvation, torture, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, and immense anguish. He takes the cup of God’s wrath (Is. 51:17) upon himself for our benefit. Suffering itself is not a sin. It is a consequence of sin that has infiltrated our world. You can be deeply sad and have incredibly strong faith.
The story of the Bible deals greatly with people in the midst of suffering.
While the beginning and end of the Bible is great and happy, the rest of the Bible is marked by God meeting people in the midst of sin, brokenness, and suffering. In other words, outside a few pages of the Bible, we see a story of a good God not forgetting His people in the midst of their pain and brokenness and meeting us in it.
We are embodied creatures, and God cares for our whole beings: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Many of us have a mental separation between the physical and spiritual. This was not the conception of biblical authors. The resurrection itself is a bodily event and will be one for us. Likewise, mental health is not just a psychological or spiritual thing. A prime example is 1 Kings 19, where Elijah prays a suicidal prayer to God after seeing God do amazing things. God does not yell at Him. He sends an angel to address Elijah’s physical needs. He listens to Elijah, addressing his emotional needs, and then God sends him out on a purpose (spiritual) and gives him a companion.
God has, is, and will continue to meet us in our suffering.
When it comes to suffering, there is a sense in which God has already done something about it, a sense in which He is presently doing something about it, and a sense in which He will forever do something about it. In the past tense, Christ took upon himself the weight of human suffering on the cross. In the present tense, Christ is in the business of reconciling all things to himself, making wrongs right. He uses suffering and pain to showcase his power (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Yet, he weeps with us (John 11:35) and the Spirit comforts us (John 14:26) knowing what he will do in the future. He will make all the wrongs right, make broken things whole, and wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21).
Tips for Approaching Mental Health as a Spiritual Leader
If suffering itself is not a sin, be careful to not be overly triumphal when approaching mental health.
Sadness and faith can and do coexist. I can trust Jesus and be incredibly sad. In fact, I think I often trust him the most then. There is beauty and wisdom that comes in and from pain. Someone may or may not “overcome” their mental health issue this side of eternity. Maybe they’re not meant to beat it. Maybe it is their thorn in the flesh that leads them to dependence on Jesus. If we are to model Christ’s ministry, we are to be in the business of meeting people in the midst of their pain, not just telling people to have more faith that God will make their pain cease. If Jesus wept, and he knew he was going to resurrect, then we need to give people space to weep and feel the weight of their pain too.
If the Bible showcases God meeting people in the midst of pain and suffering, examine your ministry to see if it does the same.
In the early Church, Christianity was said to make sense of suffering, giving greater hope as well as more room for sorrow. This drew people to faith. Examine your sermons and your songs you lead people in. Are they all happy? Or do you leave room for lamenting and sadness? We sit in the position of knowing one day our pain will cease but today it is alive and thriving. We need to simultaneously proclaim hope and allow room for suffering. Hope and pain can and do coexist.
If we are holistic beings, our approach to mental health needs to be holistic.
We say things like, “Pray about it,” or “Trust Jesus more,” or “Choose joy.” Not that these things are untrue, but at times they can dismiss people’s pain and perpetuate a lie from the enemy that no one cares about their pain. They also limit mental health to only the spiritual when it is more complex. Particularly with more complicated issues, it is often best to refer someone to a therapist or even a physician to help them get the care they need. You can be a faithful Jesus follower and see a therapist and be on anti-depressants. We’re complex human beings, and God desires our holistic formation.
We’re meant to need help.
I struggle with the phrase, “You need help.” It makes me feel weak, but Scripture reminds me that I am to boast in my weakness. I need help. You do too. We’re made to need help. We’re meant to need other people. We’re meant to need Jesus. Whether you can be clinically diagnosed with a mental health issue or not, we all struggle. Mental health is more of a spectrum than a purely black and white issue. Our pain and struggles lead us to dependence. They can lead us to depend on numbing mechanisms like consumerism, avoidance, alcohol, drugs, binging social media, etc., or they can lead us to dependence on Christ and to other people. Choose the latter and help others do the same. Needing help is a sign of being human.
Trey Hayman is the Lead Pastor of New City Church in Nashville, TN. He holds his B.A. in Psychology and Christian Leadership from Belmont University and his M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary. Trey and his wife, Anna, love having people over for dinner, traveling, and helping people encounter Jesus. Trey is passionate about mental health and showcasing how Jesus meets us in the midst of suffering and not just at the end of it.