It’s no secret that in today’s world, mental health is a major cause for concern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the percentage of adults in America with anxiety or a depressive disorder increased substantially. Youth mental health worsened as well, with the proportion of those seeking help increasing 9 percent between 2019 and 2020. If you followed the Olympics, you probably saw Simone Biles decide to drop out of all but one of her competitions, citing mental health reasons. Folks everywhere are grappling with how to deal with stress, anxiety and the pressures of life.
Sadly, there’s still a stigma around opening up about mental health challenges, with many people feeling too ashamed or hopeless to get help or support. What shame might we feel here in God’s Church around sharing that we suffer from things like depression or thoughts of suicide? We may think that as God’s people we shouldn’t have those problems.
I’m not an expert on this topic, but I’m a long-time student of these discussions, having witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of untreated mental disorders within my family as I grew up and into adulthood. Thankfully, I don’t have to pretend to be an expert in this area as the Bible has so much to say.
In this article, I want to share five principles of mental health. And more than anything, as opposed to a listing of clichéd responses to a complex topic, I hope this stimulates discussion, reflection, prayer and meditation.
1. Jesus cares about our mental health
Our physical, mental and emotional health is at the core of Jesus Christ’s message. In Luke 4:18, Jesus reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed . . .”
Christ says He came for a purpose. He came first to preach the gospel to the poor.
Why? Because in this life the poor don’t have much. He came preaching another world, a world to come. If you are rich, you likely don’t yearn for a new world to come. Your world is okay. But if you are poor, this physical life doesn’t offer as much. And in biblical times, a person’s chance of rising out of poverty was near zero.
Many in the United States have grown up in an environment where hard work plus time equals success. But it isn’t that way with everyone. The coordinator of a social program in the tenderloin district of San Francisco (a neighborhood with a high rate of homelessness and poverty) talked about his experiences at an orientation I attended. He shared that there is a great sense of hopelessness that leads to depression, anxiety and helplessness in those who experience poverty. Jesus Christ came first of all to preach good news to the poor—those without hope; those without resources or help.
Next, it says He came to heal the brokenhearted. These are people who have been so damaged emotionally and physically that their very being has been crushed and shattered. Christ came to heal those whose backgrounds and circumstances have scarred, shattered and irrevocably destroyed their hearts. This is about physical and emotional abuse. This is about suffering from trauma before we even knew we were suffering. Many people live 18 years with their families growing up and then spend the next 60 years trying to overcome the trauma that occurred in childhood.
Luke 4 then says He came to preach deliverance to the captives. This includes those who were in slavery physically, but also mentally, those who have no escape. He also came to give sight to the blind. Literally, He gave sight to the blind, but He also healed those with many different physical infirmities. And lastly, He came to set at liberty those who are oppressed. He freed those who lived under oppressive masters, or who lived under the tyranny of a world ruled by the great adversary.
I believe this verse shows we must begin with the premise that Jesus Christ came to address our physical, mental and emotional trauma. He cares about our depression and mental anxiety.
If this is true, then why do we still suffer from depression and mental illness?
We find one explanation in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul had a physical ailment that he called a “thorn in the flesh,” which God used to develop in him the mind of Christ. Mental ailments can also provide us strength through God as we grow to better understand our own weaknesses.
“Concerning this [thorn in the flesh] I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t get help. It just means that God may allow some suffering (rather than instantly healing any infirmity) for the benefit of our longer-term spiritual growth. In other verses, the Bible shows there are things we can do to strengthen our mental health and lessen feelings of depression or anxiety.
2. Reach out and connect with others in God’s Church
One way to counter mental health struggles is to reach out to others. We are not alone in this fight—we are part of the Body of Christ. Ecclesiastes 4:10 shows the danger of isolation, “Woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.”
Why do we, as God’s people, suffer in silence with depression and mental illness when there are people we can call? Many times, specifically in the Church, we are too afraid to admit we have a problem. We don’t want to appear weak; we don’t want to show our vulnerability.
I would like to tell you that I’m not moody, that I don’t get depressed and that I’m perfectly calm all the time. But I’m not. I’m not perfect and neither are you. And it would be great to think and believe that because we come to Church every week and pray and study our Bibles, we won’t have mental health problems—but that’s just not reality.
The fact is, we all suffer from some sort of anxiety, worry, fear or depression. And the sooner we start being able to share our feelings openly, the sooner we have a chance to bounce back from the mood swings that plague us all.
We tend to think about the “iron sharpens iron” analogy in Proverbs 27:17 in terms of a sharp sword sharpening a sharp sword, but sometimes our sword is pretty dull. That’s why we have some strange ideas about ourselves and what’s best for us, and we need to learn to take advice. We need to learn to listen to others: our parents, ministers and mentors in the Church. Especially in the teenage years, it’s easy to lack perspective, and sometimes this can lead to disastrous consequences, like finding yourself in an abusive relationship or making life decisions that negatively affect your future employment or finances.
3. Take the time to rest and gain perspective
Another way to boost your mental health is to make sure you have time for rest. God crafted a calendar of rest to help us recover and gain perspective. We know that God created the Sabbath and three Holy Day seasons (spring, summer and fall) to break the routine of our regular weekly pace.
Besides the Sabbath and the Holy Days, we should take the time to get away. Find some way to rest, even if it’s just for a little while. In Mark 6:31, Christ said to His disciples, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” We should follow this example.
This resting should also include exercise that helps get ourselves out of our heads and connects us with our physical body. Regular exercise and rest are well documented to regulate moods and behavior.
4. Go beyond self-control and trust in God’s promises
Self-control is one of the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and God expects us to exercise self-control over our mind. Self-control is important in managing negative self-talk, the brain chatter and the defeatist emotions that sweep over us. So, self-control is important, but our own willpower is often not enough when it comes to mental health. For this we need to go beyond self-control and trust in God’s promises.
We should be encouraged to know that God has promised to care for us. Look at Deuteronomy 6:8-9 and see that God commanded Israel to bind the law as frontlets between their eyes. We should be printing key verses and placing them in our homes to read and be reminded. We also know that we should write the law in our hearts. We should be memorizing key verses that will help us when we need to control our thoughts.
Consider His promises in these verses:
“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Psalm 34:17-19, English Standard Version).
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
“Don’t worry over anything whatever; tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer and the peace of God, which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, J.B. Phillips New Testament).
In the next verses (8-9) Paul makes it clear that we must meditate and focus on the positive, the noble, the true. This is our part.
5. There is no shame in seeking professional help
How we view mental illness in ourselves and our brethren is important. We need to consider carefully our mental model about mental illness.
A fairly well-known Christian blogger, Frank Viola, shared three mainstream Christian views about mental disorders.
“Throughout my years of being involved in various and sundry Christian movements and denominations, it seems that Christians understand mental disorders in one of three chief ways:
“Mental illness is demonic in origin. So, the antidote is to cast out the demons that are causing it.
“Mental illness is psychobabble. There’s no such thing as a ‘mental disorder.’ All so-called mental illnesses are just sinful behaviors. So, the antidote is for the person to repent and get right with God.
“Mental illness is a physiological disorder. The brain is a physical organ just like the heart, the thyroid, the joints, etc. Thus, if someone has panic attacks or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or chronic depression or ADHD, they have a chemical imbalance in the brain, not dissimilar to a hyperthyroidism or high blood pressure or arthritis.
“I cut my teeth [or began my career] on a movement that promoted #1. I’ve met many people who believed #2. But I believe #3 is often the case.
“Yet it’s not so simple.”
Frank Viola’s comments are very much on point. We understand that there is a spirit realm which exists and that it is possible for sin to affect us mentally and emotionally as well as spiritually. But churches can fall into the trap of attributing all mental illness to spiritual forces or sin, ignoring good research on mental disorders or throwing up their hands and saying it’s unknowable.
Be proactive if you are suffering and seek help. If you see someone suffering, don’t ignore it; go and get help for them. God’s hand is not slack to save. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer unnecessarily.
There are no easy answers, but God is merciful. There are biblical principles that we can hang onto; there are actions we can take; we can reach out for help.
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” When I become anxious or worried, I remember this verse and that Christ said to not worry or be anxious, but to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). We can take heart that our God is the ultimate Comforter, and Christ came to heal the brokenhearted.