For days I can remember experiencing extreme anxiety. When I would lay in bed, my heart would pound so heavily that it would actually shake the bed frame. Sleep was elusive. As a devout Christian, I went to my pastor for relief. I was able to get some time with one of our senior pastors at the end of service that week. He looked me in the eye and said, “Anxiety is a sin. You need to stop doing it.” After that, he walked away.
If I had come to church with a broken leg and crutches, people would have gone out of their way to help me. Doors would be opened; priority seating given. There is a misunderstanding in the teaching we receive as believers about mental struggles vs. physical.
I’ve been contemplating this subject for weeks for my first blog post – at church on Sunday the message was about anxiety and depression. I felt this was a subtle nudge from the divine that it was time to write this post. It was also a reminder that anxiety and depression are seen as something that can simply be overcome with prayer and willpower. You can read or hear this type of sentiment at church and in Christian books and videos.
First let’s take a look at the scripture that is most often quoted in these situations, Philippians 4:6-7.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I’ve included verse 7, which is often left out. In fact, usually everything is excluded but the first six words, “Do not be anxious about anything.” I’m not sure how this encouraging verse about peace and God’s power has been distorted into a command telling you that anxiety is a sin. It seems very obvious to me that instead, Paul is saying that if you’re anxious, in any situation, don’t hesitate to take it to God. He is amazing and will give you peace. Yet this wonderful and inspiring verse is often used as a tool of guilt. Guilt to those who are suffering from anxiety and depression.
Defining Anxiety and Depression
Part of the problem is that Christian teachers and believers do not separate clinical anxiety and depression from the normal everyday experience of these mental states. And yes, I do realize that there are some groups of believers that deny that there are clinical, pathological incidences of these conditions. However, I have experienced these states myself. I have a physiological condition that causes extreme anxiety due to hormone dysregulation. Sometimes, my brain and nervous system decide to send my body signals that it’s time to be afraid. That it’s time to fight, or even time to flee, regardless of the situation. Others have chemical imbalances in the brain that cause depression. The usual advice to “pray more” and “read the bible” or “believe” is inadequate for these individuals.
Related Post: Why You Should Stop Telling Yourself to Pray More
Think about it – if someone comes to church with a broken leg, we would expect that they have been to the doctor, had an x-ray, and other treatment. A church that believes in God’s healing power prays for healing, but in our real-life experience, such healings are rare. Yet someone with clinical depression, a proven, physiological problem, may not be treated the same way. Though they’d recommend treatment and medication for the broken leg, many Christian groups would not first assume that a person should see a doctor or counselor or take medication. In a healing church, if the person was not healed with prayer, often they are told to “have more faith.” But would we tell the person with the broken leg to have more faith if they didn’t receive healing that day?
Asking someone to pray themselves out of clinical anxiety or depression is the same as saying they should willpower themselves out of having a broken limb. “Go run around the building a few times, and believe you can!” is basically what we are often saying to these people. Certainly, praying and reading the bible are great things to do. Yet we need to offer more than these to any brother or sister, just as we would help out a fellow believer with a broken limb. We’d offer to help them get their groceries, or give them a ride to church, or even make them a meal. Sadly we rarely offer these things to someone who is ridden with anxiety and depression. Instead, many times we offer them simple scriptural platitudes or empty encouragements, promising that they can overcome if they just “try harder.”
Christians Need to Live in Community
If you are experiencing chronic and life-altering anxiety or depression I want you to know this: God loves you. He doesn’t expect you to overcome this in isolation. It’s not a matter of just fighting by yourself in mental solitude, of just praying harder and believing more. We are to rely on each other in the community of Christ.
The Bible includes several examples of people wanting to be healed whose friends or relatives brought them to Jesus. As believers, we are meant to support each other. If you see someone suffering from anxiety and depression, instead of telling them what to do ask what you can do for them.
It is important to understand that those with depression, anxiety, and other problems like OCD and ADHD often are unable to do something that others find very simple: change their thoughts. There have been some instances where I felt in my mind that I could not relax. I remembered how to do it, I knew what it felt like, but when I tried it was like something was broken in my mind. It would not function and was like trying to jump with a broken leg; it couldn’t happen. At those times we need people to believe for us, we need people to help us experience the love of God. Often our thoughts are telling us something that isn’t true and it is not a conscious choice.
What Sufferers Really Need
Depression and anxiety are often life-long, horrific struggles that are difficult to relate to. Those who suffer from them need more than a bible verse, they need believers, brothers, and sisters. They need people who are willing to commit their time and energy to help them become better. That begins with understanding. Christians, churches, and pastors must understand that this isn’t something that will go away with a single prayer. It won’t go away with an encouragement to read a certain book. In many people, it is a serious condition that of course can be healed by prayer. But if it is not, we should not expect someone to overcome it alone.
I would ask pastors to be accepting of those who need to take medication to get relief from anxiety and depression.
Sometimes it is the only thing that helps and is keeping them together and able to function. I would ask churches to encourage therapy and counseling as an option for believers. I would ask all believers to accept that mental illness is not something that can be willpower-ed away.
While God heals physical and mental problems, every prayer for healing is not always answered. We need to have a solution, in the Christian community, for when that happens. It all starts with love, understanding, and listening. Please stop and listen to the person next time someone is telling you they are dealing with anxiety or depression. Don’t mindlessly rattle off a Bible verse to them. Ask how you can practically help them. Sometimes we need to carry others while they are wounded, whatever form those wounds may take.