“My parents don’t believe that I have depression,” A young woman disclosed to me in a conversation discussing her feelings related to suicidal thoughts and soul-aching hopelessness. From a clinical perspective, this young woman certainly presented with depression symptoms yet her family did not believe that depression was a “real” problem according to their religious beliefs.
My heart instantly broke with this knowledge, because I have met far too many young men and women who are struggling secretly with emotional distress, due to their Christian upbringing. They have been taught that their pain is a taboo topic and a measurement of their spiritual immaturity. I see this pattern all too frequently in the church and frankly, it is a dangerous ideology.
Emotional distress such as anxiety effects over 40 million adults with only 36% receiving treatment according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Additionally, depression, the leading disability in ages 15-33, affects 16.1 million individuals each year (ADAA, 2018). Since 2016, suicide has been the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54 (Cited by National Institute of Mental Health, 2018). Here is my point: emotional distress exists, regardless of whether we talk about it or not, and by not talking about it, we have left many of our brothers and sisters stuck in isolation and spiritual doubt.
So why do so many within the Christian community avoid talking about these difficulties? Why is the church not discussing these topics more often? Although I have seen some positive change recently related to mental health initiatives within Christian circles, there are still many unbiblical beliefs associated with Christianity and mental health. I want to look at just a few of these common beliefs associated with emotional distress and offer an integrative perspective that may help us to advance both the gospel and emotional wellness.
No. 1: My Feelings Do Not Matter to God
My first question in response to this statement is always, “Who told you that?” This is never a statement associated with scripture and from my study of theology, I am certain of at least one thing that contradicts this belief—It is this: You matter to God—feelings and all. I believe this false assumption is due to two primary sources: A distorted view of God and our experiences of invalidation. Both of these variables contribute to a sense of spiritual doubt and fear of our feelings.
Here is the problem: We have started to place the invalidation of our experiences onto our image of God. In doing so, we assume that when God does not respond to our emotional distress in the way we want, our pain is not acknowledged by God. This has a drastic effect on the way we handle our feelings and our faith. For many, it leaves them doubting God’s love, power and goodness. This could certainly correlate to the general decline in religious affiliation in young adults today. We are walking away from an image of God that has been damaged by the invalidation we have received throughout our lives.
What if God is listening, and does care? What if our struggle is not a result of God’s lack of goodness or attention to our needs but rather the outcome of our broken world, which WILL be redeemed one day and set right again. I have come to learn that my struggle is evidence of my need for the God of the Bible, who graciously gives our pain purpose.
One of the foundational skills in counseling is validation of emotions. God created us to feel, to connect, to experience pure joy. In light of sin, we have also been exposed to the weight of pain, disconnection, loss, etc. Throughout scripture, we see Jesus’ example of engagement with various emotions (Fear, shame, loss, discouragement etc.) He does not once dismiss them but gently offers relief, hope, grace, and healing. He hears and sees the broken pieces of our world.
Psalm 34 reminds us that God is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. He does not walk away from us in our pain but calls us to own our weakness in light of His strength (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Our feelings are real, maybe not always rational, but knowing that God loves us, messy and undone, helps us to be honest with our emotions and allows God into the raw and real feelings we may be fighting. Ultimately, our belief in God’s power cannot be dependent on an answer to our prayers. God is still God and His timetable is not ours.
I believe this is why scripture reminds us repeatedly to pray and to worship. Even when emotions are deep and pain is present; we can rejoice in the truth that our God is going to make all things new, and prayers will be answered in the promise of Christ’s return, where we will exchange our tears for shouts of victory (Revelation 21:4-5).
No. 2: I Just Need to Have More Faith
One of the most common and shaming beliefs held by Christians in response to mental health concerns is the assumption that we just lack faith. The comments like, “Maybe you need to pray about it” or my favorite, “Just surrender it to the Lord”, are not only assuming and condemning, but they also neglect to acknowledge emotional pain. We can acknowledge the biblical foundation of belief, as we are called in scripture to prayer and spiritual practices, which strengthen our faith.
Yet, if we start to believe that all emotional distress is a measurement of our faith, we are missing the Gospel completely. The assumption here is that our pain and emotional difficulties are a direct result of our lack of faith in God. I feel that we need to define faith here to clarify. According to Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”. By this definition, we can have faith and struggle at the same time. Faith cannot be measured by our experiences and feelings. It is actually by definition the exact opposite; trusting God even when we do not see or feel that He is working amidst our pain.
Here is the problem: When we equate emotional distress with a lack of faith, we default to a works-based theology and place the responsibility for our healing and emotional wellness on our behavior. This belief not only strains our relationship with God but also creates a pressure for perfectionism, which hijacks the central message of the Gospel. To say that faith cannot coexist with emotional distress implies that the state of our brokenness must be ignored. The Gospel provides a contrary message, asking all who seek healing to first acknowledge their insufficiency and in faith, accept the hope that Christ offers.
Although I agree scripture empowers us to confess our sin, surrender our lives to Christ and seek the peace of God in circumstances out of our control, I believe it also states that perfection is not obtainable here on earth.
Paul reminds us of this in Philippians 3, not having obtained the full righteousness of Christ, but pressing on to make it our own, knowing that our citizenship is in heaven, where our transformation will be complete. Scripture calls us to remain steadfast amidst our trials not to deny discouragement and disguise our deficiencies.
The greatest danger about believing this myth is the potential to shame our pain and equate our insufficiency with sin. We are all broken and regardless of the source, God’s word welcomes us to wrestle and find rest. Seeking support through counseling or other avenues does not negate our foundation of faith nor should it replace our prayers for direction and peace. By reaching out, we allow others to join our journey of faith, seeking endurance and encouragement.
No. 3: Mental Illness Does Not Exist
First, this statement holds a limited understanding of applied theology. Sure, so the New Testament does not discuss mental illness outright. If we want to use that logic, we will have to discount all scientific advancements not mentioned in scripture. Application of scripture must cross the cultural bridge of interpretation.
The Bible was not written to 21st century America, so understandably there will be limitations to our culture’s application. Due to scientific advancements, psychology has gained academic credibility through discoveries in neuroscience and other psychological research, which have foundations in scientific reliability.
Here is the problem: We are quick to run to the closest ER if we start coughing up blood, and we hug doctors who say the words “you are cancer free” but we cannot accept the scientific research that has granted avenues for mental health treatment. This incongruence denies hope for those who have experienced years of trauma and for individuals who have been plagued by psychotic symptoms since childhood.
From a scriptural perspective, we see an emphasis on emotions throughout the Old and New Testament as David used much of the Psalms to process his pain. Jesus also embodied the role of a counselor throughout the Gospels, embracing those who were in need both physically and emotionally. I am convinced this belief is a result of cultural thinking rather than biblical thought.
The controversial beliefs associated with psychological advancements trace back to the origins of psychotherapy. We all know the moral debate surrounding Sigmund Freud and his less conservative views on human development. At that time, the religious climate clashed with Freud’s psychosexual perspective and the Church disapproved of Freud’s moral impropriety. Over 100 years later, we continue to debate the differing theories of human behavior and overlook the advances evidenced-based treatment has provided to individuals. The bigger issue is that many do not even understand the purpose of a mental health diagnosis. Its primary use is to determine the best course of treatment for an individual. No one person fits in a single box or a single list of categorized criteria; yet by identifying specific symptoms of emotional distress counselors and other helping professionals can support individuals in obtaining effective treatment. For more information regarding the reliability of psychological findings and treatment, I encourage you to look into the research and be informed.
No. 4: If I Take Medication for Emotional Distress I Will Be Judged
This final belief, unfortunately, is all too common in the Christian community. Much like the previous belief, this assumption has a lack of biblical foundation and a high cultural stigma attached to it. Having worked in ministry and in the mental health field for 9 years collectively, I have seen the pain this belief inflicts on clients and friends.
Here is the problem: People judge because they do not understand. The Christian community likes to throw down the faith card, asking those who are seeking medication management to overcome their crippling emotions with Christian practices alone. That is the equivalent of saying, “fight cancer without receiving medical treatment”. We are not dismissing prayer and God’s power by obtaining additional support through medical advancements but utilizing all the supports available to us.
It may help to clarify the function and intent of medication in regards to mental health. First, emotional distress is not singularly a “brain chemical” issue. In addition to individual biology, adverse experiences significantly affect the brain and overall emotional functioning. Thus, emotional distress is complex, with several contributing factors such as one’s environment, genetics, family system, interpersonal interactions, and individual experiences (UNWS- Sydney, 2018). Medication management is a form of treatment to support an individual’s coping abilities. Brain science teaches us that increased amounts of stress in the brain decrease the brain’s ability to regulate emotions effectively and in some cases changes the brain’s structure. The Treatment and Advocacy Center (2016) explains that opponents of certain medications misunderstand such research. They argue that brain changes prove mental health drugs are dangerous. On the contrary, structural brain changes result from medications for many brain disorders and are associated with their effectiveness. Ultimately, I hope the Church can begin to learn the function and purpose of mental health medications so that members of the body may better support and encourage one another in seeking wellness and balance within their lives. Taking prescribed medication is not a moral issue and I think it is safe to say those who do, need to be better informed.
Here is what we know: Our feelings matter to God, we can have faith despite fears, and support is available to us through God’s work in and through the lives of helping professionals and our Church community. My hope is that we, as a generation of believers, can step out and start talking about how we actually feel, without fear of rejection or judgment. I pray that we will continue to dispute the lies our culture has adopted, learn to listen well, acknowledging the pain experienced by those around us; and press on, heavenward, reminding each other, “It’s okay to not be okay!”