This title (and topic) has been floating around in my head and heart for quite some time now. Recently, I went to a Stephen Ministries conference where I learned quite a bit about the ministry end of this equation. But let me tell you: I’ve been on the other end too many times to count.
Today, I want to focus on that part of the story. If what I describe in this article has been a way you have personally interacted with someone, please know there is a learning curve. I have a lot of grace for that. I am not writing this to cause any shame.
But I have spent so much of my time, passion, and advocacy on the intersection of faith and mental health, that I can’t sit still and be silent. In fact, my small publishing house, Ground Truth Press, is due to put out a fascinating and very thorough book on this subject in a few months. I am so proud of the author who took the time to try to explain both “subcultures” (for lack of a better word) and why they do not need to remain polarized. She has taken great care to educate both camps on the other’s perspective/viewpoint.
Today’s words are my own, but when she approached me about publishing her manuscript, my soul screamed: YES!
Too much pain, too many misunderstandings, so much disillusionment on the topic of mental health, and I’m sorry, fellow Christians, but I’m referencing the inside of the church.
I’m so pleased to be part of a church body that is very committed to educating its members on mental health inclusion and ministry, but that has not always been the case. I have attended churches with a mindset that was openly hostile toward those struggling with emotional and mental health. I’m sorry to say that in more than four decades of church life, in this arena specifically, I’ve found the most support in secular environments.
I believe this can change. I know it can. In fact, I think the current title of this article can one day change. “Church” as a verb can have a positive connotation. Ministry to this group of fellow sufferers (we all suffer with something, right?) can be righted within the church environment.
One honest conversation,
one willing, humble heart,
one good shepherd (pastor and church leadership) modeling our Good Shepherd (Jesus) at a time.
I am fully aware of the risks I take in writing this. I know there will likely be backs up, egos bruised, and eyes slammed shut. I hope you will have the courage to read this anyway.
But I also know there are many of you out there, like me, who want to see the mentally and emotionally broken loved as the physically and spiritually broken are—without partiality or distinction. See, Jesus went after the blind, the deaf, the demon-possessed, the broken-hearted, the confused, the victimized, etc., to bring His love from heaven to earth. He didn’t go after the perfect because He couldn’t find any.
While boundaries are essential in this type of ministry, that’s a topic for another day. Today I want to focus on how crucial it is to stop “church”-ing the mentally and emotionally broken.
Here’s why I write on this topic:
- I almost took my own life in 2008. I should have been on medication. We lived on a tiny island where a psychiatrist only visited for a few weeks at a time but wasn’t a regular part of the medical care. My pastor at the time thankfully did not tell me my depression was because I didn’t love Jesus enough. Thank you, Rick. You always have a special place in my heart because of your wisdom, care, and discernment.
- Without going into stories that are not my own but are a significant part of my back story, I can tell you I know the bitter and volatile marriage of insufficient or misdiagnosed mental health care and the self-defeating behaviors of addiction. I’ve lost a dear one to it.
- One of my children struggled several bouts of childhood depression between the ages of 3 and 7 years old. Another child experienced this in the teen years. While genetics play a part, this second child’s struggles were rooted in significant physical illness. This child couldn’t “Bible verse” their way out of it even if they had wanted to.
- I have been part of and have led support groups for parents of children with special needs and mental/behavioral health struggles (which often go hand in hand). I see this pain daily on the faces of weary parents with little sleep and few answers but with huge faith in God.
Years ago I sat in a church body where the emotionally and mentally broken came regularly to seek God’s answers. They were told God addresses their needs in Bible verses and they really don’t need medication or therapy:
“Just read those verses, and if you really believe them, you’ll be fine. We’d have fewer people in mental health institutions if they simply believed the truth of these verses.”
This answer is very damaging because it offers the very opposite message of Christ, which is hope. It puts faith as the measuring stick for wellness. This side of heaven, our bodies fail us. Christ never does.
To be clear, yes, there are Bible passages addressing their struggles. And I absolutely believe the Bible is true and inspired by God. But the emotionally and mentally broken need tangible expressions of love.
Is a cancer patient more inclined to feel hope amidst their diagnosis with pamphlets about chemo treatments piled on top of their bed or with a real-live person holding their hand, hugging them, and sitting with them in their news?
God does address all of our needs in His Holy Word, but that does not necessarily cancel out the chemical need for medication and the benefits of psychotherapy. We are broken this side of heaven.
The scope of that argument is too big for this particular article, but let me share some ways in which we often unintentionally “church” mental health. Maybe some of these have happened to you, and perhaps you are guilty of a few of them. I’ve been on both sides. I’m so glad to be learning more now about how to invite God into my compassion ministry and not assume I know a perfect response to others’ pain.
Let’s start with this:
Pain is not intellectual.
If you are planning to minister to or love on someone with emotional or mental brokenness, unless you are a degreed therapist or psychiatrist, please leave your intellect and academics at the door. The person in pain needs to know you are with them and that you are not going anywhere. Today—not three weeks from today.
Their pain is immediate. If you can’t sit with them today, wait until you can. Don’t promise them a timeslot two weeks from now. Their pain is relevant now. They can’t picture tomorrow. That feels so dismissive to someone feeling so strongly in the “now.”
Okay, here is a short list of the ways in which we often “church” mental health. Perhaps you can think of a few more. For the purposes of simplifying this content, I will focus on clinical depression as my example.
- You just need to be positive. This will get better. God will come through.
Where is this biblical (other than God being faithful)? Can positive thoughts cure cancer or cystic fibrosis? How then can they cure depression? I know this is meant as encouragement, but it expects action from a weary, emotionally war-torn depression traveller. It also promises “getting better,” and I’m not sure that should be a guarantee we toss out so casually.
- Depression is a mindset. Make your mind submit to Jesus.
The second statement is truth spoken directly from the Bible but out of context. Yes, Jesus should be our focus and we should cast our cares upon Him, but when speaking of any mental illness, let’s remember it’s an illness. Can you make your diabetes or asthma do that very same thing? Negative thinking is a mindset. Clinical depression is an illness. Please don’t confuse the two just because someone with depression is obviously inclined toward negative thoughts.
- You need to focus on hope.
I challenge you to do this while experiencing deep depression. Ministering people need to be the hope for hurting people. They need to sit alongside the pain. Hope is what we bring them; if they had it, they wouldn’t feel the way they do. If you were able to do this for yourself at a time when you had low feelings, I submit to you they were low feelings and episodic—not clinical depression.
- The Bible verse I use to help me through is _______________.
I’m so glad that helped you, but I’m the one in pain right now. Me. Please realize how very personal God is. His verse for you may not be the one He uses to minister to me. Now I feel as though I need to meet an expectation that your magical verse will help me, and that is too much pressure on top of everything else I am dealing with.
- You are forsaking the fellowship of believers. You need to stop socially isolating.
Um, that’s what depressed people do. We can’t engage with others until we feel stronger and safe. It’s both a coping mechanism and a survival instinct. It’s a symptom, not a cause of clinical depression.
- Depression is a sin. If you had enough faith, it would go away.
Could you show me this Bible verse, please? Enough said.
- You need to stop focusing on your feelings. God wants you to focus on Him.
The first part is virtually impossible for a clinically depressed person. It’s chemical. Our minds are not thinking clearly, so focus isn’t even a possibility.
The second part is true, but it is always true whether or not we are emotionally and mentally whole. God always wants that relationship with us.
- Well, we’re all praying for you, so you should be just fine. Trust God.
That’s so good to know people are praying, but honestly, God is sovereign—not mankind—so telling us we will be just fine is to make you feel better. It’s not necessarily truth. Tomorrow we might want to throw ourselves out the window. And then what will we think about that God you just promised would make us feel “just fine”?
Our faith is not tied to our illness. Some of the strongest believers I know love God in the depths of their own personal mental hell.
Our mental illness is not a measurement of trusting God.
Also, the statements above (Well, we’re all praying for you, so you should be just fine. Trust God.) suggests this is a little virus we will get over in a few days. It lets the person making the statement feel good for having said something positive, but it compounds the pain of the sufferer for not living in that easygoing place. When we treat clinical depression (or any other mental illness) that casually, we indirectly send the message to that person that we need to “keep it light” and we can’t acknowledge the depth of their pain. It’s better not to say anything at all than to make a deeper issue sound so surface-level.
I would like to revisit this topic more in a future post about what Jesus does say about this topic. But in the meantime, I wanted to provoke thought and hopefully build understanding.
Again, if you have done or said some of these things, I get it. It’s not that much different than having the right words for someone grieving. We are not going to get it right all of the time.
But if you want to love people better, and you care about the mentally and emotionally broken—or you need to heal from a season when you felt let down by people “church”-ing your mental health—please take a minute and rest in the fact you are not alone.
People want to love us. They genuinely do.
But to love us like Christ does, they have to first grab the towel and be willing to wash our feet, figuratively speaking.
Bring your towel for those dirty feet. Love is messy and risky. It’s serving from the depths of ourselves, where Christ fills us. It can’t be done in a rush or with our own agendas.
I wrote this because I deeply love both the mentally and emotionally broken and the willing hearts out there who want to learn how to love the hurting better.
But most of all, I love Jesus for meeting us at the well (regardless of our condition), telling us who He is and what He came here for. Whether or not He heals us this side of heaven, I know that I know that I know that He heals us eternally, when we believe in Him and confess He is Lord.
John 4:9-14, ESV
The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart: How to Relate to Those Who Are Suffering, by Kenneth C. Haugk, Ph.D., is a fantastic book on this topic and gave me the courage to write this article.