There seems to be a false dilemma that if someone wants to live authentically, that they will be joyless and unhappy. So much of our culture's impulse is to run and hide from truth instead of being brutally honest with ourselves and others. The quick fix being practiced is that any bad feelings need to be merely numbed. But does it deal with the actual issue? Why do we have this impulse to live in virtual reality? With the rise of people chasing an alter reality, there seems to be a rise into anxiety, not a decrease.
For instance, let's examine our education system. Over the last 50 years (approximately) with the rise of self esteem, the massive changes in philosophy of education, and the ongoing diagnosis of "ADD" and "ADHD" among our students, it seems that the suicide rate, school shootings and bullying have actually increased, not decreased. How many more warnings do we need beeping on our proverbial radar before we realize that what we are doing is not working?
This is not isolated to our education system. With the rise of pill pushing among our veterans, we have also seen increased anxiety, suicide, mental disorders, etc..., Something is not working!
What about pastors in the ministry and our average church congregant today? According to research in 2014 by Lifeway, about 27 percent of churches have a plan set in place to help families affected by mental illness. Nearly two-thirds of religiously observant Protestant Christians with depression reported wanting their churches to speak openly about mental illness, but 66 percent of pastors said they spoke to their church on the topic merely once a year or less.
Recently, Lifeway found that 8 out of 10 Protestant lead pastors believed their churches were equipped to handle those who were becoming suicidal. But further research found that just 4 percent of respondents who had lost a loved one to suicide said church leaders were aware of that person’s struggle beforehand. “Despite their best intentions, churches don’t always know how to help those facing mental health struggles,” Scott McConnell (LifeWay)
Warren Kinghorn, associate research professor of psychiatry, pastoral and moral theology at Duke Divinity School, when asked about how well Christian clergy were handling questions of mental illness overall, admitted that they are “on the front lines” of mental illness response because of the importance of faith communities in religious people’s lives — whether or not they were equipped to do so. For this reason, he said, it was all the more vital that faith families respond effectively to congregants dealing with mental illnesses.
So how should pastors and churches provide the room in congregations to deal with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and other issues? Often, issues of depression are seen as rooted in sin or the result of sin. However, we can see that the Christian life is full of trials, tribulations, setbacks and we are quite simply weak people. It is a life filled with spiritual warfare. Church history is full of examples of godly men who struggled with depression and other issues. Charles Spurgeon struggled greatly with depression for most of his ministry. Martin Luther, the great reformer, struggled with deep depression during moments of his life. Even Paul at times seemed to struggle with deep distress. What about Jeremiah in the scriptures?
Pastors need to provide a level of honesty and openness (to a degree) regarding the issues of depression, anxiety and even suicide. Honesty about this struggle will in the end, help us not only keep watch over our own lives, but over our parishioners as well. We need to give our people permission to be human, and struggling with depression and anxiety is a human problem. If they cannot be honest with their faith family, who do they have?
Here is what usually happens in a church. When you look at the prayer list, it is FULL of physical needs. That section is 95% of the prayer list. The other 4% is missionaries that they support. And the 1% might be a few people that need salvation. It is greatly skewed from how Paul prayed and how Jesus did His ministry or taught us to pray. Our people gravitate towards physical needs and any discussion of mental illness is taboo. But a pastor who is honest with himself and lovingly honest with others will provide room for the congregation to be open about their own struggles, whether it is privately with the pastor or safely with another brother or sister in the congregation. If we are just fake and hiding all the time, people will not have the space, room or resources to deal with what is going on inside and in our heads. So much disaster has been rendered in the mind. If our people can't get help they will feel alone and vulnerable.
Even people from strong backgrounds of faith will be surprised at how this hits so close to home, and there have been many of these situations in recent years. In the evangelical community, for example, 5 years ago the son of the well-known megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay, took his own life.
How did they respond to this tragedy? They responded with the grace of the Gospel that God can mean everything for good. Kay Warren has become an outspoken advocate for mental health care, encouraging pastors to educate themselves to recognize the warning signs of congregants in need. In an interview in 2014 with Christianity Today, Kay Warren criticized the tendency of her own evangelical community to focus on the positive at the expense of dealing honestly with spiritual crises and doubt: “It was all just happy, happy, joy, joy … [we need to] tell people that we are just like everybody else. We are sinners. We are broken..."
And we need to offer the hope of the Gospel to those who are suffering by allowing room for honest discussion to take place. We don't need to put on a three act play every Sunday, rendering some canned speech to our people. We need offer honest conversations through the Word of God. They need a place where they can open up about their struggles in order to be honest about sin. Only when we can start to be honest about our struggles, can we find Jesus taking our anxieties and all our cares and giving us the hope of the Gospel. The pathway to hope is by coming face to face with our own sin and the greater grace of Jesus Christ. May God help our congregations to be places of honest self evaluations in His Word. The Psalmist's hope was only placed properly in God when He was honest about his need for Him. So, let's make room in our own hearts and in our own congregations for honest conversations about our struggles. As we follow Jesus and lead others to Jesus, we will be able to have the Gospel conversations necessary to bring about Gospel healing.
But let's be aware of these things to offer healing whether it's getting people medical help, psychological help, or it could be that many just need the room to be honest in order to flesh out years of pain, hurt and sin. For this they might need a certified counselor or a pastor who has been trained to help in these matters. But providing an atmosphere of honesty and being aware is the first step to dealing with anxiety issues no matter what shape it may be.
I am a great sinner saved by far greater grace. God has blessed me with a wonderful family and a beautiful Gospel congregation at Twin Lakes Bible Church.