I prayed before I wrote this letter today. I read Psalm 23 and asked God what He would have me say about one of my favorite passages. When the thought of anxiety and depression came to mind, I said an extra prayer. I know only a fraction of all there is to know about mental illness – the causes, the symptoms, the treatments. I can only speak from my own experiences, but God gives us our story for a reason, and I’m doing my best to use it for good.
Psalm 23:1 – “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Growing up in evangelical culture and attending a contemporary Southern Baptist church, I heard plenty of exhortations to read my Bible, pray as much as I could, and go to church every week. When we spoke of sadness, we always ended with God is our joy! When we spoke of worry, we quoted Philipians 4:6-7 to “not worry about anything.” In fact, some said, it is a SIN to worry and not be content with God’s provision!
I was first introduced to the idea of anxiety and depression as a physical condition in my AP Psychology class senior year of high school. Synapses, neurotransmitters, hormones… I never knew so much of the body was controlled by the release of specific chemicals. What I did know was how it felt to struggle for breath and white-knuckle a steering wheel as I started driving over a small mountain I had not intended to cross in the pitch dark. I knew what tired felt like when I got home from a band-trip-turned sour and all I wanted to do was lay on the couch and snooze. I knew how it felt to toss and turn and pray for hours at night but not fall asleep, and to do so for weeks or months at a time.
Psalm 23:4 – “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
I can’t say whether David ever struggled with anxiety and depression, but I think many people who have experienced mental illness could relate that heavy darkness to the “valley of the shadow of death.” Even so, David points to God as his hope in a horrible situation. God is not necessarily the almighty fixer in this passage. He is more than that. He is the reason David keeps fighting the darkness, the reason that David can lift his head when he really doesn’t want to. God doesn’t just take the problem away; He gets David through it.
To those in the church who would say that people struggling with mental illness should pray or read their Bible more, I ask that you consider 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. Paul says,
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Anxiety and depression is not deserved or a consequence of not being faithful enough. Mental illness is a shard of brokenness in this fallen world, just like painful childbirth and weak bodies (Genesis 3:16-20.) Instead of piling more rules and guilt on those struggling with mental illness, we should embrace them and guide them to a wholistic approach to coping. We do not deny cancer patients medical treatment; we pray that God will extend the efficacy of the treatments and wait on Him to do a miracle. If the cancer does not go away, we do not blame the patient for being unfaithful; we learn to accept God’s goodness even if the healing miracle never comes.
Why don’t we do the same for mental illness?