“For the last decade and a half or so, I’ve been on medication for depression and anxiety.” My words were strong, my voice steady, thank you, God. As I predicted, the ground in the sanctuary didn’t quake. No one was visibly alarmed, though it was silent there in my church. I thought this sermon was supposed to be about self-care, not mental illness, the congregation may have thought. Where is this going?
Our teaching team talks about mental illness in our sermons because we want to remove taboos, my pastor and friend had told me earlier that week. Absolutely, I had agreed; but I have to confess that “removing taboos” was not on my mind as I stood up in my worn-out sneakers, needlessly readjusting my microphone. To speak, I had to leap with the faith of a frog who doesn’t understand how a lily pad will hold his weight.
It was only afterward that I knew: regardless of how I felt that morning, the Church could handle the weight.
My Sunday morning confessional experience isn’t unique, or at least it shouldn’t be. Congregations have an opportunity, an obligation even, to be speaking about mental illness from stages and pulpits. I urge us, too, that we do this often and openly, focusing most sharply on God’s never-changing love and compassion.
Churches, we have to talk about this stuff. Because 1 in 5 Americans has a mental illness and because mental illness is invisible, congregations need to be full of people unafraid of naming this beast. Dominant, secular culture is decent at being “authentic” enough to talk about depression or anxiety. Shelves bend under the weight of self-help books. The Internet’s clogged with well-intentioned advice. But only the Church can speak to mental illness with the radical concept of redemption.
I’ve found few resources helpful, especially from a Christian perspective. Instead of redemption, the narrative seems to be one of two unhealthy themes. The first: maybe my depression and anxiety come from some unconfessed sin. If only I could repent of the thing, I might be healed. The second: my depression and anxiety are symptoms of an unhealthy spiritual life. More prayer—or the right prayer, maybe—could free me, if I were only willing. More faith in Jesus, more journaling, more Bible reading all hold the secret key to wellness.
My questions that begin with “but what about” won’t be silent. They tromp over the tiny pieces of those two themes that might be helpful. But what about the fact that I’ve never prayed so fervently than when I’m suffering most? But what about all the spiritual habits I’ve not dropped? I’ve surrendered my life to Jesus over and over, and still, anxiety induces a chest-tightening panic. What about that?
Both of these trains of thought imply a greater danger: depression is my problem and mine alone. The words may have beautiful intentions, but they distort by the time their echo reaches the bottom of the pit where depression traps me.
“Go fix yourself,” I hear. “This is your burden to carry.”
And this, Church, is the very message we cannot afford to imply.
“From a theological perspective, the most dangerous thing about mental illness is that it can lock us in ourselves, convincing us that we are indeed on our own, and completely on our own, isolated in our own distress,” writes Kathryn Greene-McCreight in her excellent book, Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006).
The narrative of God’s story of creation, fall, and redemption is the antithesis of isolation. God is drawing us to himself—us, plurally and individually. Emphasizing the personal component alone robs us of relationships with the power to inch us toward healing.
Depression (and other mental illnesses) can’t be a “me” problem or a “you” problem.
My mental wellness matters to us as a Church because if one of us isn’t well, the body of Christ isn’t well. Just as a body has many parts, so does the body of Christ, which is what we are. We are connected to one another, belong together. As the body places extra attention to a tooth or a headache, so must we put extra attention, prayer, care, and compassion on those who are hurting in invisible ways.
Churches are equipped to be creative in how we do this. For instance, a church might invite a mental health counselor to use its space to see clients. Partnerships such as this would strengthen the impact of the local church without adding to the church’s budget. A special offering could raise money to cover costs not paid by insurance, reducing the individual’s burden.
And we need to be talking about mental illness in sermons, in small groups, and in worship. Our message: Jesus came not to condemn but to save. The gospel.
Church, may we remind each other in these spaces that all of creation groans to be healed—even down to the very DNA that influences our health. May we preach that the Spirit of the living God is in us—the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. May we remember that someday that Spirit will call us to a place where there is no death, no brokenness. Remind us that nothing separates us from God’s love—not our illness, not our anxieties, “not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38b).
And, after we preach, may we, Church, be really, really good at listening. May we be good at the practices we’re known for: prayer, presence, and pointing others back to God. Consider that Jesus healed a paralytic man based on the faith of the friends who lowered the man’s mat through a roof (Luke 5). We will sometimes be carrying someone’s mat.
How we respond to this quiet, invisible illness speaks a lot about how much we truly believe about God’s love for us and his power to make all things whole. The church is uniquely equipped to offer hope and healing. We can pray together:
“May God, who puts all things together, makes all things whole, now put you together. May God provide you with everything you need to please him; Make us into what gives him most pleasure, by means of the sacrifice of Jesus, the Messiah. All glory to Jesus forever and always!” (paraphr. Hebrews 13, The Message)
I was reminded of God’s bringing us together on that Sunday morning that I preached. I usually stand in the back of the sanctuary, catching a couple “thank yous” and “that was nice” comments as people walk by. Instead, my brothers and sisters in Christ were engulfing me in “me too” moments. “My son…” some began, or “I’ve struggled for years…” or “I don’t know why I’m crying.”
God, putting all things together. The body of Christ.
One older woman, usually a generous (shall we say) constructive critic asked: “Do you like hugs?” We embraced. “Thank you for talking about that. We don’t talk about that enough and so many people are hurting.”
And so many people are hurting: there—can you see it? That’s our invitation to be agents of God’s compassion.