Anxiety is Sin? Tell That to My Brain

EDIT: Rev. Moore has reached out to me to apologize for her tweet and she has removed it. I have accepted her apology and held/hold no ill will toward her. To be clear: My problem was never with her but with what she tweeted. There is a major difference. – Jonathan

Yesterday a prominent evangelical pastor within the United Methodist Church made a tweet that I and several others took exception to.

Yes, she has said that chronic anxiety stifles the work of the Holy Spirit and is sin.

So I responded, pointing out that by her logic I am deep in sin and I encouraged her to rethink her position. This is her response:

Sigh…

This conversation points out a few vital points for us – both as Christians in general as well as clergy – to remember when dealing with matters of mental health.

First, scripture does not address matters of mental health. There was no understanding that mental disorders are medical conditions beyond one’s control when the scripture writers were putting pen to parchment. Let me be clear: This is not me doubting that the scriptures are divinely inspired but we also must acknowledge that the writers were human and wrote based on their context. Because there was no knowledge of the chemical imbalances that often occur in the brain, mental health problems were thought of as a spiritual condition as opposed to a chemical one. That was then, this is now. We have the medical knowledge to confirm that mental health issues are most often caused by conditions beyond one’s control. We need to get away from this notion that one displaying anxiety is in sin or that depression is a sign of being deep in sin. To employ such a notion means that I and lots of other pastors are not fit for ministry and that many in our congregations are not truly faithful just because they struggle.

Second, we as pastors need to remember that our words have power and carry a lot of weight. The people in our congregations see what we post, share, and like and they form their opinions of us based on those posts. Is that fair? Probably not. No tweet or post tells one’s whole story but does give a glimpse into our hearts and in what we value. If a parishioner whose faith is strong in spite of struggling with mental health issues for their entire lives follows their pastor on social media, how are they going to feel when their pastor puts up a tweet saying that anxiety is a sin and quenches the Holy Spirit? As I said above, scripture was never intended to address mental health conditions and we should not use scripture as a way to explain conditions like anxiety and depression.

People once believed that people who we now realize were displaying symptoms of manic depression were possessed by demons. There was also a belief that people who we now realize were displaying symptoms of anxiety disorders had weak faith.  People who we now realize were displaying symptoms of depression were said to be in sin. With the knowledge that we now have about mental health, can we please get away from having such toxic and damaging viewpoints about mental health?

I would like to think that Rev. Moore meant no harm in what she tweeted. But, this needs to be called out and rebuked because these are the notions that add to the stigma of mental health and why more people – especially Christians – don’t seek help or hide their conditions until they finally break. These statements are what cause people to harm themselves or even to commit suicide. These statements are why people are looking at Christians as cold-hearted and irrelevant.

We should do better. We must do better.

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Mental Illness Comes to Church

adult dark depressed face
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a typical Sunday morning and the people are filing into the worship space at First Church in Some Town, Some State. The music flows, prayers are lifted up, and the Holy Spirit is very much present. The pastor comes up and delivers a well written and well prepared sermon and even throws in some humor to help drive the point home. Perhaps the people look upon the pastor and think that this is a person who has it all together, someone who doesn’t have many problems. Perhaps people in the congregation who are so inclined follow the pastor on social media and enjoy the engagement the pastor provides, the inspirational quotes, and the humorous posts they share. The pastor regularly makes posts about fun things they have done with their family, community events they have attended, church events put on, and such. In the pictures, the pastor is always smiling. Their words are always positive, uplifting, and give not one indication that anything is wrong in their lives. The pastor has it all together, they are among God’s favorites, and there is nothing bad going on.

Or is there?

Just from looking at your pastor, you may not know that they have some internal battles going on, battles that they have faced for up to their entire life. Specifically, they may have an invisible illness that seeks to destroy them, a disease that is raging in their brain and spreads to the entire body. If we knew that this person who did not look sick but actually had a disease such as cancer, we would be quick to encourage them in their treatment. But when the disease is not cancer but some type of mental illness, the reaction is often not as supportive. Many try to hide their struggles and live as normal of a life as possible. With the wonderful medications we have available today, counseling, and other means of psychological assistance most of the time people who struggle are able to live normally. But sometimes, the struggle gets harder. The patient – especially people who are in positions of ministry – dare not cry out for fear of being judged unfit for their position or as somehow not Christian enough. So, they struggle as quietly as possible until one day they get tired of the voices in their head telling them they are worthless, unloved, and a bad pastor. The person becomes so desperate to end this pain and – in their minds – improve the lives of those around them that they consider ending it all by killing themselves. And sometimes, they succumb to this disease and go through it.

This even happens to pastors such as Rev. Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in Chino, CA.

Rev. Stoecklein took his own life last weekend. The Instagram post from Inland Hills Church began to go viral and eventually made its way to my timeline. As I read it, I felt a lot of emotions. Mainly, I felt sadness for the congregation, his wife and children who must now deal with this tragedy, pick up the pieces, and move forward. The second place emotion was fear. Rev. Stoecklein’s suicide hit home for me because, like him, I’m one of the 1 in 6 Americans who struggle with mental illness. For both of us, this illness take on the forms of depression and anxiety, disorders I have struggled with for over a decade.

Why did I feel fear? Because this could have easily have been me.

To be clear, I have never been suicidal and I at least would like to think that if I found myself in that position I would have the wherewithal to cry out for help. Having said that, one thing I have learned from both firsthand experience and from seeing others struggle is that mental illness can make one do strange things. I have had days where I could not get out of bed to even brush my teeth because my mental illness had zapped every bit of motivation from my body. These bad days are rare; most days you would not have any idea that I have mental illness. Most days, I appear perfectly normal (well, normal for me).

Mental illnesses such as depression are real diseases, as real as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. It’s well beyond time that the stigma that exists about mental illness be ended, to have real and honest conversations about mental illness. People like me who struggle are not crazy. We are sick. We need help. We need love.

It’s time for the church to step up and give love and acceptance to people who struggle instead of judgement. Platitudes such as “You just need to pray more” or “You’re not sick, the devil is trying to steal your joy,” while well intended, are unhelpful and are actually harmful. Collectively, the church recognizes that diseases are real and generally encourage the faithful to seek treatment. But when it comes to mental health, this has not been the case. The church has generally preached that mental illness is purely a manifestation of a poor spiritual condition rather than a brain disorder. This, also, is harmful and toxic. This kind of thinking has caused more spiritual harm than almost anything else. To think that someone is depressed or having anxiety due to being in sin is a ridiculous notion and a gross misinterpretation of scripture. It’s not enough to just want to “pray it away.” In scripture, prayer is always followed by action. We have to act. We can no longer ignore mental illness and pawn it off as someone’s sin or stress.

The church must be a safe place for all of God’s beloved.

I am one of the 1 in 6. So was Rev. Stoecklein. I don’t know all of the details of his situation and it’s none of my business. But I would hope that he was surrounded by love, prayer, and was at least attempting to seek help. The harsh reality is, sometimes the voices telling a depressed person that they are worthless win. Let’s do what we can to be louder than the voices.

We do this with love.