Mental Illness Comes to Church

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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.

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Mental Illness from a Christian Perspective

Mental-DisordersOver the weekend we got the news that Rev. Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, committed suicide. Most of us know Warren as the author of The Purpose Driver Life and several other books as well as the pastor of Saddleback Church. I was not aware that Matthew had been fighting mental illness “since birth” as Warren states. Warren wrote that Matthew committed suicide in spite of receiving the best help available and that the decision to kill himself came in a “moment of deep despair.” My first reaction upon hearing this news was to relate all too well to what Matthew was going through and to pray for the Warren family. My request to you, dear reader, would be to pray for them as well. They are going through something that no parent should ever have to go through.

Unfortunately my reaction to offer condolences and prayer was not the first reaction of all Christians. It would seem that there are many in our dysfunctional family who feel the need to judge, to ridicule and shoot vitriol at the Warrens. Instead of offering comfort they are offering condemnation. Quite frankly it sickens me. I came across this post that talks of the Warren’s tragedy and some of the examples of the pure hate being spread to the Warrens the author included in his post made me want to throttle my laptop at a wall. Here are some of what Mr. Viola included (edit: I want to make clear that Mr. Viola did not make these comments, rather he shared them and did his best to rebutt the comments and admonish those who made them):

Train up your children in the way, live a godly example with right priorities, care enough to home-school despite the great sacrifice involved, don’t let them date unchaperoned, have daily family devotions, turn off the 1-eyed idiot, TRULY HAVE A PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE, and your children WILL NOT COMMIT SUICIDE, nor will they be involved in homosexuality, nor fornication.

He killed himself, it’s much worse than fornication or homosexuality or Onanism or eating pork. He denied himself a chance to get better. If your kids need a chaperone to date, why do you let them date? They shouldn’t be dating if they are not mature enough to control themselves.

He could not save his own because Mr. Warren does not truly understand how his own heart works, how it is broken and the mechanism by which Jesus laid out the example of how to fix it. Matthew killed himself because he did not understand either. He was a victim of his own ignorance and the ignorance of his family, friends, society and Christians around him — presently!

Personally I am appalled ashamed that the Warrens are having to endure comments like this. As Christians we are called upon to love one another and this is what they get? We are told to not judge and often we Christians are the most judgmental and hateful people in the room. When did scripture change to state that it’s OK for us to spread hate and judgment so long as we claim that we’re doing it in “Chrsitian love?”

It didn’t and it is unacceptable. We need to stop. Now.

I take this issue personally. I get so angered at the Warrens having to endure this hate because I had a battle with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. That period of a little over a year (I thank God everyday that it wasn’t longer) was the darkest period of my life. I felt alone and abandoned by my Lord. I was literally scared of my own shadow. Fear gripped me at every turn. I constantly had panic attacks and the despair I felt was indescribable. The whole experience was my vision of Hell and it’s not something I would wish upon anyone. I have to admit that before this experience there was a part of me who felt those with mental illness had some kind of weakness but my mind was changed when I was the one on medication and receiving counseling.

You feel differently about something when the issue hits home.

My mental health battle was not the result of a lack of faith or because of a demon. My mental illness was a bump in my life’s road, the same bump that many other people find themselves experiencing through no fault of their own.

I am thankful that through the miracle of medication and a wonderful counselor who is a Christian – not to mention the grace of God – that I was able to come out of this experience a stronger person with a heart for those who are struggling with mental issues.

Mental illness is not a sign of weakness, it is not a judgement for sin, it is not caused by a lack of faith and it is not caused by one being possessed by a demon (these are actual things I have heard for myself by professing Chrsitians!). Mental illness is just that: An illness. When one is fighting a mental disease they require love, support, the best help available and prayer. What they or their families do not need to hear is that their faith isn’t strong enough or that they have somehow sinned and are getting what they deserve.

Jesus said, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT). Would you want someone telling you that your son’s or daughter’s depression was being caused by a sin they had committed or that their suicide was because you had not “trained them up” correctly? Would you want someone telling you that mental illness is a sign of weakness when you know yourself that it isn’t? So why would anyone do this to someone else?

It’s time for us to become educated about mental illness and it’s time for us to be loving and show grace to those who are experiencing this dreadful and hellish battle. We need to stop looking at depression and other mental illness as a pox or a sign that one is unclean and find out what we can do to help that person and their family. It’s time to truly be the salt and light, hands and feet of Jesus to those who need it the most.

Let this experience with the Warrens encourage us to reach out to those who are experiencing difficulty with mental health instead of condemning them. Jesus loves them just as much as he loves us. Why can’t we do the same?

Jonathan