A recurring conversation I’ve had over the last several years is one you’ve likely heard whispered here and there among the masses, especially if you’re someone who grew up in or currently attends church. The phrasing is more or less the same and goes something like this:
If *insert name of struggling person* just prayed/read/fellowshipped more, he/she wouldn’t have *insert mental illness*.
In other words, if the person’s faith who is struggling with mental illness was truly as strong as those who do not struggle with mental illness; if their relationship was purely God-centered; if their relationship was “right” in the Lord, then the person wouldn’t suffer from depression, anxiety, or any other mental illnesses.
A + B = C, right?
The phrase above makes several hurtful assumptions and implications about Christians with mental illness. First, it assumes those who do not struggle with mental illness have superior faiths to those who do. Second, it assumes those with mental illness have a weak faith or false image of God. Third, it assumes those with mental illness are doing nothing to help themselves, both mentally and spiritually. Fourth, it implies those with mental illness have done something wrong to deserve his or her illness. And fifth, it suggests there is some sort of faith-formula they’re supposed to follow in order to “get right” with God.
There’s a lot to unpack here which we won’t do since my kids will need a meal at some point, but what I hope to illustrate is what it might be like for a Christian, in your community, to be in a relationship with the Lord while battling mental illness.
Imagine you’re walking down a familiar pathway. The sunshine is bursting through the perfectly green, towering trees, the birds are singing, the flowers are exploding with color, and you know the path so well, you’re able to walk with your eyes closed while you jam out to your song of the month (mine is Purple Rain all day every day so yes I am playing air guitar on the regular). Your friend is waiting for you at the end of the path, so you quicken your pace in anticipation. You feel safe. You feel good. You know the path forward.
Without warning, a dense, suffocating, dark fog envelops your surroundings. You can barely see your hand in front of you, much less the sun that was previously piercing through the leaves above your head. You’re unsure of yourself and don’t know where to step next. You think, “I know this place, I know where to go”, but you stumble on something – a twig? A stone? A snake? And that frightening moment of not knowing throws you into a frenzy of doubt and questioning. You frantically search for a glimpse of something familiar, and when there’s nothing to be found, you wonder if maybe the pathway will be like this forever. Maybe it was never a safe place to begin with. Maybe it was all a dream. Or a lie. Maybe someone told you to walk here as a cruel joke. And what’s wrong with you, anyway? Why did you choose to take a walk on today of all days? Why did you think for one second you’d be safe here?
You stop walking, you stop searching, and you’re deeply tempted to stop hoping.
Until you hear your friend’s voice float through the gloom.
This is a pivotal moment for the person, or persons, in your church community, who are struggling with mental illness. They are in a fog they did not ask for. They cannot see. It is absolutely possible that their image of God, prior to their mental illness, was safe, colorful, beautiful, trusting, but now that there’s a diagnosis, their image of God has gone gray. It is also absolutely possible that their image of God, with mental illness, was safe, colorful, beautiful, and trusting on Monday yet imagined God to be unsafe, dark, frightening, and untrustworthy on Wednesday.
Mental illness colors and distorts the truth.
This includes God’s truth as well as his image. From experience, I can tell you it’s a terrifying thing to be in the thick smoke of anxiety and hear myself question my God. It hurts and it’s isolating. But what makes it a little less scary and a little less isolating is that sister or brother in Christ on the other side of the foggy pathway because
they can see.
So put yourself back into the fog, hearing the voice of your friend at the time you need it most. Would you want them shouting things like, “Why are you so doomsday right now I walked the same path two minutes ago and I’m fine.” or “The fog will clear in a second. Just calm down!” or still “If you’d packed a flashlight, you’d have been here by now.”
I can appreciate, though, that it’s genuinely hard to be the friend on the other side of the pathway. Being that friend insists on showing up for someone else’s pain, and really, none of us are A+ at doing that. It’s uncomfortable, emotional, raw. And when our hurting people say things that call our own beliefs or feelings into question, we often reply with or offer up a dish of unwelcome advice that makes us feel better. We feel like we can’t let their doubt or anger or grief or suspicion just be. And when our hurting people are stuck in the fog, we assume if we yell directions or corrections at them, they’ll come out of it and all will be right again.
The world has plenty of directors and correctors; what the world lacks is an abundance of brothers and sisters.
We are in the Age of Awareness which is, I believe, a good thing. Mental illness is being discussed more openly and wisely than in years past. Christians are bravely coming forward with their pain and Christians are bravely moving forward to aid in that pain. Change is happening, and you’re part of it.
If you’re a brother or sister standing there on the other side of that foggy pathway, here are some things to note about your brother or sister currently curled up in the fetal position inside the thick fog that is mental illness:
- They don’t want to feel this way. They really don’t. Being diagnosed with a mental illness is like being diagnosed with anything from a cold to cancer: it’s not wanted.
- Mental illness is a physiological issue, not a spiritual one. To back the belief that mental illness is tied to the strength of a person’s faith is to keep that person in the fog. The depth of their depression or anxiety has nothing to do with their faith. The focus here is on psychology, not theology.
- Mental illness comes out in different ways depending on the person. The way anxiety looks on my worst day can look worlds different compared to someone else’s. Some withdraw while others overcompensate. It’ll be difficult for the person to communicate what he or she needs, but there’s a high chance they won’t want to “pulled to safety”. Some may need help setting small, easily achievable goals while others just want you to sit with them for a while. Follow their lead and walk at their pace.
- They know who God is, they just can’t see Him clearly right now. It’s hard to have total focus on God when your brain is trying with all its might to convince you that you and your family are in constant, certain danger. This is my reality, anyway. One day, I will have had just the best time seeing and feeling the Lord’s goodness only to question everything two days later. Though I get angry and accusative and doubtful and apathetic, my soul is anchored in his love just like yours. We’re not called to change the hearts and grow the faiths of others, but we are called to love; to be patient; to be kind.
Brother and sister across the way, that’s your calling. That’s all you have to do for your people in the fog. Love them, be patient with them, show them kindness in whatever form is most appropriate and helpful. And let them know, ever so gently, that when they’re ready to get up, you’ll help them stand; and when they’re ready to walk, you’ll find the way out together.