The American evangelical church spent the last generation telling church attenders how to manage their money, raise their kids, build a happy marriage, and win political elections all the while those church attenders grappled with issues in dark places we seldom discussed. We pretended that people with mental or emotional health issues were on the fringe, that they were the exception. We created counseling ministries for them, often in off-site locations to avoid embarrassment for them or for us, no one knows. We asked them to come out of their closet and into ours.
While we believe and teach the Bible, while we affirm the powerful work of the indwelling Spirit of God, we too often assume the church has little to say or few ways to really help those who are suffering with mental illness. So while we build, baptize, and budget, many of our people (and even our leaders) are dying on the inside. They attend church and join the church, but they never fully engage in the life of the church because they just cannot seem to fit in.
They say with the psalmist,
My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long people say to me, “Where is your God?” 5 Why am I so depressed? Why this turmoil within me? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise Him, my Savior and my God. 6 I am deeply depressed; therefore I remember You from the land of Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Psalm 42:3, 5-6
Church leaders lament the lack of commitment from church members, and very often the root of that is a poor understanding of the church or just good ole fashioned sin that requires repentance. But the reality is we have reached for Christ, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and included in the body of Christ people who are broken by sin. Actually, that is the only kind of people Jesus saves and the only kind of people in His church.
Just as God calls us to participate with Him in His work of saving souls through personal evangelism and Gospel proclamation, so He calls the church to participate with Him in the sanctifying of those same souls through Christ-centered friendship, biblical teaching, skilled care, and ongoing, Spirit-filled, Gospel ministry. Our church members are not soldiers in our army; they are souls in our care.
God has entrusted the church with the souls of His people, and we should be safest place in the world for those who suffer with depression, anxiety, addiction, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, gender dysphoria, and sexual orientation confusion. The origin of these struggles is unique with each individual, but as Ed Stetzer recently wrote, “All suffering is the result of sin.”
If that is true, then the church can be silent no longer. If anyone gets the overwhelming nature and effects of sin, we do. And if anyone gets the boundless grace of God, we do. We do not offer pat answers or coffee mug clichés to tell fellow sufferers to just read the Bible more or pray harder. We know that suffering hurts, that it is hard to explain, and that it often endures much longer than we expect.
Even our hero, the apostle Paul testified,
For we don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, of our affliction that took place in Asia: we were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength —so that we even despaired of life. 2 Corinthians 1:8
Suffering is a common human experience, and sometimes it overwhelms us and blinds us to the love and power of God to rescue. We do not always see the good purposes of God, but our lack of clarity is not the measure of His love for us. Just as believers get sin and grace, we also get hope.
Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. Romans 8:24-25
In his life, death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus defeated sin, death, and the grave. So while we suffer, while we groan, while we wait for our adoption and the redemption of our bodies, we can suffer with real hope.
There is light in the darkest places, and the church can flip on the switch, and we can hold the light steady while fellow sufferers learn to trust God, experience His grace, and walk by faith. Here are a few ways we can begin to do just that.
Talk about mental health.
Humans are complex. The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual components of our lives are interrelated, and sin affects it all and Jesus redeems it all in us. Grace and compassion should determine our tone and our approach to the subject of mental health, but we must talk about it. It is not taboo. It is instead a common experience in a fallen world.
Depend on the Holy Spirit.
We may be overwhelmed, but the Holy Spirit is not. He is our comfort, our teacher, and our guide. He literally and practically dwells within every believer. Answers are hard to find. Healing is slow in coming. But we pray, we trust, and we walk in the Spirit. We ask Him for help in understanding the Bible, and we lean on Him as we apply it to our lives.
Reach out for help.
Just as we rely on physicians to repair a hole in our heart due to a physical defect, we can turn to professionals to help us with mental illness. Qualified doctors and biblical counselors, as well as appropriate medication are valuable resources to individuals and to the church.
Learn to comfort others.
Criticism comes easy, but Jesus followers learn to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Jesus is our healer, but many times the solutions come later rather than sooner. Sometimes suffering is excruciating. So we wait together. We suffer together. We cry together. We walk together. And while we wait, the church becomes a community of comfort, a greenhouse where believers grow to trust God and love each other. And sometimes that is the healing we need the most.
Don’t quit on God.
Suffering lies to us, and tries to convince us that God is aloof, that He either does not care or is powerless to act. It tells us that the Bible is not relevant, and that Jesus is nice but that our particular problem is over His head. It tells us we are freaks at church, and that whatever the church is it is not a place for people with mental or emotional issues. We give God a nod, but after prolonged or unexplained suffering, we just do not trust Him anymore. But even when the darkness closes in, even when we cannot see God, we can still trust Him. We can trust His Word. The Gospel, not our suffering, tells the truth, and Jesus proves it.
So let the end of the silence begin. There is nothing else to hide. Our brokenness is out of the closet, but so is the power of God over our brokenness.
Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7
Let us talk of our suffering in whatever form it may come so that we may also talk of the greatness of our God and the power of the Cross of His Son.