I will admit—I enter into articles like this one with a metaphorical (and sometimes quite literal) holding of my breath. I've seen the intersection of faith and mental health too often handled harmfully in the past, and I can't help but approach it with a bit of apprehension.
Some of you, like me, have felt the sting of judgmental words and deeds by people within the Christian community. Some of you have silently suffered, afraid to honestly share your struggles. The need to acknowledge this causes me grief not only for the pain that has been inflicted but also because such experiences can cut us off from life-giving conversations about what role our faith as Christians might play in our mental health.
Some of you, like me, have felt the sting of judgmental words and deeds by people within the Christian community. Some of you have silently suffered, afraid to honestly share your struggles.
As we approach such conversations, I find it helpful to remember the analogy of a road with a ditch on either side. Our human tendency is to land in the ditches, but if we can stay on the middle road, we find a helpful and true path forward.
One of these ditches conflates our mental health and spiritual life. It holds the hurtful and accusatory lies that so many of us have had to endure. It says that mental illness reflects a lack of faith or a personal failing. It suggests if we pray more, increase our Bible reading, or "just choose joy" our depression or anxiety would dissipate. It suggests we must search ourselves for unconfessed sin or find a way to stop thinking about ourselves so much. In this ditch, the community we should be able to turn to for Christlike compassion and comfort becomes one that heaps more judgment and guilt on our weary heads.
The other ditch severs our mental health and faith completely. For those who bear wounds inflicted in the first ditch, this is an understandable swing. But this ditch runs the risk of overlooking the ways we operate as holistic beings, sometimes leading to an overly medicalized approach to mental illness. It can segment our lives into distinct categories of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, leading us to forget just how integrated these parts of our lives are. Most importantly, it can present the spiritual life as something we can keep tidy and contained, instead of something that encompasses all of our being and every facet of our life.
If, however, our spiritual life is not a separate and discrete entity that we sometimes engage in and at other times keep separate, and if all of our life—every season, every decision, every habit, every mundane moment—is an opportunity to follow Jesus, then our mental health relates to our life of faith as much as every other part of our life.
When we are aware of the ditches waiting for us, we are freed to seek out the middle road. We need not be afraid to ask how our faith interacts with our mental health and what role it may play in the midst of mental illness, and we can do so without feeling like a spiritual failure when we struggle. We can invite God into our mental health journey and ask what faithfulness may look like in our particular circumstances.
We need not be afraid to ask how our faith interacts with our mental health and what role it may play in the midst of mental illness, and we can do so without feeling like a spiritual failure when we struggle.
As I've personally explored what faithfulness looks like in the context of mental health, I have found a helpful guiding principle for staying on the middle path: if it wouldn't hold up if I was talking about another acute or chronic illness, I need to rethink it. We can ask what it looks like to follow Jesus faithfully in the midst of cancer just as much as we can when living with bipolar disorder and being aware of the parallels between the two will serve us well.
In both cases, we embrace the care of medical professionals and the medication they prescribe as gifts from God to allow us to live healthier lives. We pray for healing, but we also go to therapy and take our medication with the expectation that they may be God's means of answering those prayers. But in both situations, our faith as Christians can play an important role in helping us to find hope in the midst of all that our diagnosis may bring with it.
In my own story, these questions of faithfulness and hope have been lived out in the context of depression. In my book Companions in the Darkness, I share how I've learned from the lives of brothers and sisters alive today as well as companions from the past about how my faith as a Christian informs my mental health. The shape this takes for each of us in many ways is quite personal as we explore the role our faith plays within the context of our own circumstances, diagnoses, and seasons of life. But as I've walked closely with the stories of others, I have seen again and again the ways the Christian faith and the hope of the gospel can speak to us in the midst of mental illness, provide encouragement, and promote resilience.
The message of our faith meets us with hope when we seem to have none and speaks truth back to us when we can barely believe it. We meet a God who cares about and keeps company with those who are suffering and a Savior who is well acquainted with grief. We are promised that regardless of what our feelings may suggest, there is no height or depth or any darkness too deep to separate us from him. We are anchored in a story of the relentless work of God to redeem all things, where ultimately suffering and sin, sickness and death—including the harmful effects of our mental illness—will all fully and finally meet their end.
We pray for healing, but we also go to therapy and take our medication with the expectation that they may be God's means of answering those prayers.
As I am surrounded by the community of faith—past, present, and future—I am reminded of truth when it is easy to forget. They hold on to hope for me when my grasp on it feels weak. They surround me with prayer and love and grace when I need it most. I am reminded that my life has value, I am beloved, and depression will not be the end of my story. I am given words to pray when I have none and the freedom to approach God in full honesty, assured that my cries are heard by a God who sees, a God who hears, a God who will always meet us with grace.
My faith as a Christian is not a quick cure to life's ailments, including those related to mental health, but it was never intended to be. Instead, it offers me anchoring points to keep me tethered, it gives me the assurance I am never alone, and it gives me hope to carry on.