They’re right next to you on Sunday, and you can’t see them.
They live half in darkness, always carefully crafting the public persona that will allow them to blend-in seamlessly; continually weighing their words and managing perception with every conversation—and ultimately withdrawing into the shadows of silence and solitude when it all gets to be too much.
They’re in your church, your small group, on your ministry team, and in your social gatherings. There are faithful, prayerful, devoted followers of Jesus who are in the life-choking grip of severe depression—and they’re terrified to tell you.
This is not their failure, it is the Church’s.
Organized Christianity has a full-blown mental health crisis that it has created and needs to reckon with.
We are letting people die on our watch.
The Church has been force-fed a feel good, pray-it-all-way,
Jesus-fixes-everything Prosperity Gospel cocktail, that makes it all but impossible for us to admit in the Church when we are internally fractured; to confess that despite all the reasons for the contrary and every effort to avoid it—we still feel hopeless and sad and dead inside. To do so feels like spiritual rebellion.
Modern church social media feeds now drip with gooey self-help seminar slogans, promising financial security, physical health—and yes, emotional stability—with the proper faith in Jesus. This dangerous and irresponsible simplification of mental health, only serves to add a crushing layer of guilt and a near lethal dose of inadequacy to the chemical imbalances, negative self-talk, and internal wiring already there.
You don’t just feel bad—you end up feeling bad for feeling bad.
The message isn’t always stated clearly, but it is almost always clearly received: If you’re depressed or despondent or contemplating ending your life, you need to pray harder or read the Bible more or give more money or do something—because all sad people need to not be sad, is Jesus.
“You aren’t physically ill, you have a demon that needs exorcising.”
“This isn’t a medical condition, it’s spiritual warfare.”
“You don’t have a chemical imbalance—you have unrepentant sin.”
“Ask God to free you from this.”
These are things church people actually say, or at least it is what they believe and how they make you feel.
For nearly two decades I have pastored thousands of people, many of whom have crippling anxiety and paralyzing pain. These are devoted men and women of faith who are finding it almost impossible to move or to live or to care. They’ve spent years, sometimes decades looking for just the right prayer plan or the perfect Scripture passage to magically remove whatever it is that has assailed them inside their heads. And if that all fails, (as it often does); when they’ve all prayed and read and worshipped and prayed some more and they still feel hopeless—the Church has nothing for them but guilt, and they have nowhere to go but into hiding.
In the same way much of Church culture has awkwardly declared war on Science, it has done so with Medicine. We have made seeking help from doctors or drugs or therapists a sign of weakness or admission of spiritual defeat. Christians have over-spiritualized religion and under-spiritualized everything else; restricting “God’s work” to only the pulpit and prayer room—never entertaining the idea that God can do miracles in medical laboratories or therapist offices or hospital rooms too.
But ultimately this is not about whether prayer or prescriptions are preferable ways of managing mental health. There can and should be a holistic approach that tends to body and mind, to external practices and internal patterns. We should use every weapon at our disposal needs to be wielded in managing this illness: exercise and meditation and diet and medication and therapy and creativity and prayer if these are helpful.
This is about our churches giving people permission to feel pain, even as they praise. The Bible is filled with real, raw emotion, and much of it sounds like the terrifying stuff we feel, but don’t get to admit.
You may be a Christian struggling with deep hurt and feelings of hopelessness, and even self-harm and suicidal ideation, and you’ve been told (and perhaps even begun to believe) that such things shouldn’t be present if you simply trusted God.
That is simply not the truth.
We’ve been taught that depression and faith are incompatible (by those who’ve apparently never read the stories of Moses, the prophets, David, or the disciples, the Apostle Paul—or even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane). Yes, Jesus heals a man the Bible describes as being “possessed by demon,” but the Gospel writer John illustrates people who believe a man’s blindness is an issue of belief. We need to allow the past two thousand years of study and learning to inform our reading of the Bible.
As a pastor, one who not only cares for and ministers to those struggling with depression and anxiety, but who has personally battled it for decades (and is still in the thick of the fight), I can promise you that it is possible to have a deep and abiding faith and yet struggle to find hope some days.
The greatest gift the Church can give people is the space to be unwell.
We need to let mentally ill people step out of the darkness and speak their full, unvarnished truth.
We need to treat depression with the same sensitivity, compassion, and lack of moralizing that we give to people with lung cancer or heart disease.
We need to see those suffering in silence right next to us, and tell them they aren’t alone.
We need to see spiritual practices as part of a comprehensive plan to help people navigate their dark places—not the only options.
We need use every resource at our disposal to treat these illness as illness, not as spiritual failures or messages from God.
Let’s stop making people hide themselves in the name of Jesus.