What the church gets wrong about mental health

When was the last time you heard a sermon preached on mental health? Good question. In a time when the church ought to cultivate ongoing conversation surrounding mental illness, it too often resorts to silence. Up until recently, far too many Christians, myself included, steered clear of topics ranging from anxiety and depression to bipolarity and suicide. Human nature has a built-in tendency to shy away from the raw wounds these realities slice open. We don’t want, or know how, to confront the pain those among us quietly face, and for good reason — sometimes we just don’t have answers. 

The thing is, the local church was designed to spread its arms wide open and care for hurting people walking in deep valleys. As believers, we have a mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we engage in tangible acts of love towards our neighbors? Jesus Christ specifically sent His own disciples “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9: 2b). We are to look our friend in the eye, put our hands on their shoulders, and say, “I am here to love you and serve you as you navigate this season. I’m crying with you. You are not alone!”

While Jesus Christ is all we need to live a life of ultimate victory and holiness, this does not mean that one should not get professional help for overcoming his or her medical struggles.”

Yet instead of making eye contact, we too often glance away. Worse, we are oftentimes guilty of turning church into a performance. Perfect doesn’t exist, but many believers act like it does and strive for it. The reality is that each of us are dealing with our own hurts. We silently scream on Saturday night and smile for the crowds on Sunday morning. Inevitably, people burn out from the pressure of putting on a facade that God never asked for. They drift away, never to return. This is not the behavior Christ commanded from His followers.  If you hurt your foot, you don’t just cast that appendage off to the side, so why would our metaphorical church body act any differently? How can we, as an assembly, return to the way we were designed to function?

Enter Jesus. He encountered multiple people who struggled with various physical and mental disabilities, diseases, and disorders. He did not condemn them or try to explain away their suffering, He healed them! As David says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). While the road to recovery can be excruciating and filled with setbacks, it does not have to be desolate. Jesus Christ knew what it was to be tormented in the mind — He endured unimaginable physical and mental anguish for your sake. If we believe that He is powerful enough to cleanse us from our sins, then it follows that He is powerful enough to provide “peace … which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). We know that people may fail us, but Jesus never will! 

That being said, it is important to dispel a myth that often tacitly pervades the church community. While Jesus Christ is all we need to live a life of ultimate victory and holiness, this does not mean that one should not get professional help for overcoming his or her medical struggles. Few Christians would advise against going to the doctor if one’s femur was broken, yet believers dealing with mental illnesses are oftentimes told only to pray or wait. The subject is rarely mentioned inside church walls. Some church members may even be treated as if the illness is a punishment for past sins. It is true that prayer always ought to be first and foremost on our minds: “In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6), but we shouldn’t neglect the fact that Jesus can and will work through people — doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors — to bring healing to His creation. As God has chosen to work through human missionaries to bring His gospel to a broken world, He has likewise given humans the gifts of knowledge and discernment to aid one another.

While Jesus never changes, His imperfect followers often do. Far too often, we, as the Body of Christ, have not exercised His love in coming alongside other hurting people — believers or not — and supporting them. May we reflect God’s heart in pointing those suffering from mental health disorders to the help they need, acknowledging that it is okay to not be okay.