Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Gospel and Mental Illness

I will begin this post with a confession: I struggle with anxiety and depression. There, I said it. The guy who stands up in front of a thousand-plus people almost every Sunday to talk about the good news of God regularly sees a shrink and takes crazy pills. Hypocrite... right?

Well, in many other ways, yes. But in this instance, I'm not so sure. Since I was about sixteen or so, I have suffered from anxiety and depression. I have wrestled with dark thoughts, moodiness, social anxiety, and, in my teenage years, suicidal thoughts. These symptoms have not been constant, but rather have come in year-long-or-so waves over the past twelve years. And in the midst of all of this, I have been highly functional- or at least good at hiding my symptoms from others. For a long time, this has been my dark secret that I did not want others to know about. It was a huge stumbling block in answering my call to ministry. I thought that there was no way a person who leads others in their journey away from the slavery of angst and into the glory of God could suffer from a mental illness. Something must be terribly wrong with my faith. But I have found this to be just the opposite.

I have confessed my illness to several preachers and, to my surprise, many have replied, "I struggle with it too." Recently, I read this excellent interview with a pastor of a large African-American church, who has struggled holding together his leadership in the church and his depression. In fact, one of the things I have learned from the more experienced pastors who struggle with mental illness is to share and be open with our congregation about mental illness and all of our weaknesses. Doing so allows us to be, as Henri Nouwen once fleshed out in his classic book, "wounded healers". It enables us to point to the enormous grace of God when we sing, "You are my strength when I am weak." It illuminates that old adage that the church truly is a "hospital for sinners"- even for its leadership (after all, physicians are not immune to disease). It gives us the ability to sit alongside those in the congregation who struggle, to empathize with them, and to be fellow-sharers with our flock as we all grow together into holiness. In short, I think sharing and openness protect all of us in the church from the truest illness, self-righteousness.

Someone once told me that upwards of 35-40% of Americans have some sort of mental illness. I have not checked my facts and I don't know if that's true. If it is, you can point to societal issues and personal "attitudes", and you can rightly assert that something is wrong with our world. Perhaps these are major causes of mental illness. Given that mental illness runs strongly in one side of my family, I am tempted to say that it is both these factors and a biological/genetic issue. I am no psychiatrist and I don't know for sure. But as a preacher, I can say, let's no longer chastise those with mental illnesses, fight the powers that are at its root, whatever those powers may be, and submit our weaknesses to God together in order to see how great and wonderful is his grace.

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