I recently heard a sermon about ‘how to avoid contentment’. It was part of an otherwise-enlightening series about ‘how to mess up’ in life. In it, the pastor, who I greatly respect, outlined eight ways that we end up unhappy based on the choices that we make. It was a well-intended list: never having enough; being ungrateful for what we have; feeling entitled to things that we don’t earn; etc. But, it centered around the notion that happiness is intentional and is a learned behavior. That we can earn happiness simply by working for it. “Be a fountain, don’t be a drain,” he said. “Don’t live with a critical spirit. That just comes from poor self-concept.”
To that, I ask this: Where does poor self-concept come from?
This is exactly the kind of illogic that pins mental illness to the wine-stained carpet at churchgoers’ feet. This is why people with mental illness have such difficulty finding solace in the church. The church teaches that earthly possessions cannot make you happy, that only Jesus can. They reason that happiness and salvation are intertwined and are interchangeable pieces of life given by Jesus to all who believe in Him.
Well, just because He can offer contentment, it doesn’t mean He will.
And while it is certainly possible for people of sound mind to align with Christ in ways that achieve a form of happiness, it is equally impossible to expect the same from people with mental illness. Impossible, and unfair. Some of us are simply handicapped by faulty synapses.
You can’t teach a dog to sing the alphabet.
And yes, some of us need meds. Most Christians wouldn’t denounce those who take aspirin after heart surgery. Besides, not taking it would increase the risk of blood clots. Likewise, Christians wouldn’t say, “screw this little pill — I’ll just pray that God will thin my blood”. They would just take the pill.
Yet many Christians do say, and are taught that the depressed should be able to pray the sadness away. The stigma attached to mental illness is so heavy. The shame is so tangibly real. I have been warned by loved ones that even admitting to struggles with depression would have detrimental impact on everything that has gone right in my life: my wife and five kids; a rewarding job in health care; two ministries that I have been called upon to lead.
Churches try to upsell Jesus to the mentally ill —
“Jesus will solve all of your problems.”
“It is only through Christ that you will find joy.”
“How can you be a Christian and be so depressed?”
“Don’t you know that God will lift your burdens if you give them to Him?”
And it only perpetuates the problem.
I was raised in suit, tie, and dress churches in upscale suburban Detroit. The kinds of Nazarene churches that played host to Reagan-era conservatism and Free Methodist ones that awkwardly conformed to 90’s liberation. The kinds of churches where everyone knew each other and at the same time no one knew anyone at all. Where ushers exchanged feigned smiles at those who dutifully tithed. Where Sunday school teachers thought the best way to tap into high school kids’ faith was to show them B-movies about the rapture. Where youth leaders hid behind their insecurities, choir directors puffed their chests as if at symphonies, and congregants haggled with pastors who wanted their corporate discounts.
I was never courageous enough to tell my parents about my depression — there was no way in hell that I was going to confide in anyone at church. No one cared enough to see through my transparency. I was okay with that at the time.
I’m still okay with it.
I can’t rationalize my depression any more than others can sympathize with it. My depression is the self-deprecating and self-loathing kind. It’s completely unprovoked. It’s silly. I didn’t earn it. I didn’t endure childhood trauma, so it wasn’t borne out of PTSD, abuse, neglect, or family dysfunction. It just is. It exists in its own space in the back of my brain and bursts to the forefront when something triggers it. So, it would be absurd for me to expect a church to understand it.
But, there’s a big difference between understanding and trivializing. And this is where the church can learn and grow.
In some respects, little pocket-congregations across denominations have already made concerted efforts. It’s becoming more commonplace for churches to host depression support groups, sponsor events for suicide awareness, and offer pastoral counseling. These are certainly well-intentioned icebreakers for marrow-deep complexities, but they really only scratch the surface.
Mental illness will continue to suffer from guilt-borne stigma until Christians become honest with themselves. It will stay taboo until there is widespread transparency. It will remain a label until churches lift blame from their doctrines. It will forever be superficial as long as churches hide behind its roots.
It is time to unearth it.
Churches need to take up their crosses and fill the voids that are left by the rest of society. It’s really not an option. It’s a duty. As Christ followers, we are called to provide shelter for the sufferers and a safe haven for the oppressed. We are to be all-welcoming and all-loving and reserve judgment for our Creator.
We are to give grace as we have been given it.
Part of this grace is the absolute fact that no two people are alike. No two minds work alike. The things that bring you happiness – faith-inspired or otherwise – won’t necessarily bring your neighbor happiness. They won’t bring me happiness. People can be filled with the Holy Spirit and still be depressed, anxious, suicidal, manic, borderline, and have any other host of mental proclivities. Certain salvation doesn’t automatically yield contentment any more than certain death yields misery.
Some of us actually struggle to praise God, and oftentimes we do so in spite of how we feel. It doesn’t come easy for everyone.
We live in a culture free-flowing with antidepressants, yet most psychiatric hospitals are hollow shells of buildings long abandoned. We live church lives of big faith and even bigger bombast, yet even the Bethels of the world cannot stall the exponential rise in pastor suicides. We seek comfort in therapists and counselors, yet our government is trying to strip our insurance of mental health coverage, further extolling the stigma that illnesses of the mind aren’t medical diseases at all.
And it is time for people who do not struggle with mental affliction – including institutions like the Church – to stop treating it as some taboo anomaly. People do not choose to be manic depressive, bipolar, schizophrenic, borderline, anorexic, or to have post-traumatic stress. Mental illness is an effect, not a cause. It is always rooted in either genetics or as a result of experience. It originates from somewhere. No one wakes up and soundly thinks, hey, I want to see imaginary things today; or, hey, I want to curl fetal in bed today and sob uncontrollably for hours about nothing. Yet, society is conditioned against mental illness (Stop being depressed!).
It’s ludicrous. Other causes of medical illness, like smoking to cancer and obesity to diabetes and heart disease, generate all kinds of sympathy and rationale. Pray for my two-pack-a-day grandma who has lung cancer. Pray for my 400lb uncle who just had a heart attack. (The congregation raises their healing hands for God to wipe away the bad cells and mend the damaged muscles). Compare that to, Pray for my Paxil-and-Seroquel-filled son who is in critical condition at the hospital with gashes in each wrist. (The congregation sits mute, stoic, uncomfortable, and wracks its brain about how things got to this point).
Stop sad-shaming us.
Instead, church, embrace the mind as something that humans will never fully understand. Accept the fact that happiness cannot be forced upon or shamed unto people. Destroy the existential disgrace of “free will or else”. Turn the stigmatic examples of Biblical exorcism into real life accounts of family members who struggle, but find ways to survive. Deconstruct existing support groups in order to make room for root causes, and then expound on them and work toward healing. Foster transparent environments so that people feel safe being open about their struggles.
Love all. Give grace. Put faith in Jesus; don’t take it from people.
It might be all that they have left.