Christian brothers and sisters, would you try to offer your layman’s expertise to a person with diabetes? How about cancer?
If not, I beg of you to stop trying to offer it to those with depression and anxiety. Until you’ve either experienced these illnesses personally, earned a degree to help you understand them or spent years learning from people who do, I implore you to just listen and learn. And not just pretend to learn, but do the hard work of listening, truly listening, not to offer hollow solutions but to understand.
Please know that I believe that your intentions are good, that you love the people God has placed in your lives, and that you love God. I believe you are trying your best.
And some of you get it right, making sure never to minimize the seriousness or complexity of mental illness. Managing the tricky balance of offering wisdom while also realizing you are not an expert. Those who do are always careful to note their limitations, humbly deferring to mental health professionals as necessary.
But I’ve also noticed some whose lack of understanding of depression and anxiety heaps coal on the burning pain of those who experience them. Again, I think you are good intentioned, wanting people to be able to feel as light and free as you do because of what you see as hope in Christ. You can’t imagine how people could experience such low feelings if they know Christ, have faith and have their thoughts focused on Him.
And yet, there are so many who do. I know because I am one of them. I know that there is hope in Christ. I know that He is with me, that He delights in me, that He offers peace. I know that stillness, mindfulness, meditation, exercise and prayer can all be life-giving. But most of all, I know that Jesus loves me, that He is good, and that He will comfort me in my suffering.
When I started an anti-depressant several years ago, I was not what one would envision when they think of someone struggling with depression or anxiety. I exercised. I worked. I spent time with the kids. I prayed. I listened to worship music. I was doing all of the things I was supposed to be doing.
And yet, I remember going to a therapist for the first time and saying that everything just felt so hard. I pushed and pushed and got through all I needed to do, but it was all so very overwhelming. The only symptom I could really point to was not sleeping well, waking between 3 and 4 am each morning unable to fall back to sleep. My therapist eventually suggested an appointment with a psychiatrist who then prescribed medication. After a week on the medicine, I noticed my sleep improve, no longer waking up too early. Things began to feel a bit less overwhelming, and I was less irritable. I was getting better.
And when I hear my Christian brothers and sisters urging those who struggle with depression or anxiety to remember that God brings peace or that they need to make sure their thoughts are focused on God and His goodness, I get angry. Yes, I know all about thinking errors, those ways of thinking that can get in the way of our mental health. Yes, I know that God is a God of peace and He can bring healing. But what I in my suffering hear in those words is “You are wrong. You need to think harder about God’s goodness. You need to pray more. You need to try harder. Do more.” And that was the very last thing I needed to hear. And I imagine others hear the same, get the false message that their depression or anxiety is a sign of a sickly faith. That they must be doing something wrong. And this, this is not the message those with mental illness need to hear from the church.
So, I beg of you brothers and sisters, please don’t use the words depression and anxiety unless you’ve earned the right to do so. And I’m here if you want to learn, would be happy to talk with you, if you will truly listen.