A friend of mine recently shared a quote on Facebook that he’d heard in a sermon, “Your levels of anxiety are an indicator of how far you are from God,” and that couldn’t have frustrated me more.
The Adventist Church is traditionally conservative in several areas: music, attire, and culture. There are even several forums and articles debating the pros and cons of whether or not drums should be allowed in worship services. If the church struggles with instruments in service, how much more would the church struggle to accept the concept of psychology?
One of the main aversions many church members have is the idea that counseling, and more broadly psychology as a whole, should be disregarded because it was developed by atheists (Freud, Rogers, Maslow, etc.). While this is true, the idea that because something was not invented by Christians means we can’t use it or integrate it within the church is mind-blowing. If speakers and sound systems were invented by atheists, would we deny their effectiveness? Or if a certain vaccine or medication was developed by a Muslim, would we refuse treatment? Do any of us background check the musicians on the radio before hitting play? The idea that something must be Christian to be used is simply a barrier many members of the church put up to dismiss things they do not wish to understand.
The truth is, the conversation about mental health and its importance are more and more frequently talked about, and while pastors are positioned to shepherd their flock, they unknowingly do their members a disservice associating mental health matters with closeness to God. There are many different reasons that people experience anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenic episodes, but dismissing life struggles, interpersonal relationship issues, and sometimes the need for medication to simply not praying enough does immensely more harm than good.
Prayer and a relationship with God are essential, and God may place some anxiety on your heart for something He has planned in your life, but that is not the only reason you may be feeling anxiety.
Diluting the struggles with complex issues that people face to simply not praying enough does nothing but discourage people from coming to God. Pastors, those who dedicate their life to doing the work God has placed them to do, struggle with mental health more than church culture would let them say.
Christianity Today International surveyed pastors regarding mental health, and found that, “23% of pastors indicated they had battled a mental illness of some kind on a personal level, including 12% who said it was formally diagnosed.” If those who God has called to speak His words to congregations, baptize believers, and help bring new believers to His flock struggle with mental health, then the idea that closeness to God equates fewer mental health issues is a non sequitur.
A 2013 LifeWay survey found that 48% of Christians believed that those with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could be overcome by Bible study and prayer alone. The idea that the relationship one has with God should cure all mental health illnesses is dangerous, and could very well shame those who need services out of pursuing them.
One misconception among church members is that psychology cannot fit inside of the church, when in reality it was and has been developed to be incorporated by any church, faith, race, or nationality. Some members believe that only seeing Christian mental health professionals is the only way to seek out services, but all counselors are trained to operate within the framework and understanding of the clients who see them, be they Muslim, atheist, or Christian.
Even our founder Ellen White wrote that in treatment of any and all diseases, the mind cannot be overlooked, due to its importance in the overall health of the person.
One thing that I’ve noticed is that those who are most adamantly against the benefits that mental health has to offer, are those who could benefit from it. In the poem Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, Charles Finn speaks as those who wish to say something, but for reasons around him such as people, status quo, or unspoken rules, he speaks out in the ways he can’t, or that he may not even know he is speaking out:
“Please listen carefully and try to hear what I'm not saying, what I'd like to be able to say, what for survival I need to say, but what I can't say.”
Mental health is disregarded by many church members because they don’t understand it, and that’s okay, we can’t expect every member to automatically understand concepts they’re unfamiliar with, or have been told all their lives that they’re corrupt. But what is essential in the body of Christ is a spirit of openness, understanding, and willingness to learn new things that benefit the person as a whole.
Mental health is on a long list of issues that the corporate church struggles with, including feminism, social justice, and homosexuality. Perhaps the church should move from an entirely doctrinal focus, towards a more social oriented focus. We are to be a place where broken, hurting people (which includes ourselves, and I think we forget that) are supposed to be able to come, be understood, and present themselves to Christ without fear of judgment, prejudice, or discrimination.
As Jefferson Bethke said in his spoken word, Why I Hate Religion, But I Love Jesus, “church isn’t a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken.” We are all broken people, and just because someone struggles with a different issue than us, or simply looks, acts, or has different views on issues than us, gives us no right to pretend that we aren’t just as broken and sinful as they are.
If we, even for a moment believe that we’re better than our neighbor, then we think we need that much less Jesus than our neighbor. Because when we think we’re even a little bit higher than they are, that’s how much less we’re saying we need grace.