Mental Illness and the Church: They Don’t Want Me When I’m Messy

My wife recently wrote the following on her Facebook page…

While in treatment I’ve had a few people speak with me about the church because they know I’m married to a pastor. It’s been so saddening and has even made me angry to hear how people dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have been treated in church.

One man said, “They don’t want me when I’m messy. They don’t really want to hear how I am when my answer is not ok.”

Another said, “I don’t have it together enough to go to church. They avoid me”

Last one, “I texted my associate pastor about how I was feeling and he told me I shouldn’t talk like that.”

Over the course of the three-week group therapy my wife received for her depression and anxiety she heard many more reports, each one more tragic and heart-breaking than the last.   Real people with real problems voicing their very real trouble with the body of Jesus – the church.   For far too many people the church is the last place on earth they would consider going for help.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, this should not be!

Since hearing my wife’s report my heart has been broken over my own ignorance and prejudice to the need around me, even in my own home.  I confess that over these past few months while my wife has been suffering my response has been less than holy.  On far too many occasions I wanted the problem to just go away.  Too many times I put my own needs before hers.  Too many times I resented what she was experiencing because it ran against my expectations of what I wanted our marriage to be.

When Amy tearfully pleaded with me that she felt very lost and alone and desperately needed me to be to her “Jesus with skin on” I shamefully told her I’m not Jesus and can’t bear that burden.

But that was just a cop-out.  While the part about me not being Jesus is true, it’s also false.   I am, for better or worse, the body of Christ.  And if you are a Christian, so are you.   When my wife and millions of others suffering from mental illness are looking for Jesus they are, for better or worse, seeing him in us.

I am heart-broken by the image they too often receive.

I believe with all my heart that the church is still the best hope for the world.  I know she has her flaws but, when she is at her best, she is a hospital for the broken, openly confessing that she does not always have it all together but faithfully points towards the One who does.   I will not defend the Church’s actions to the group members who confided in my wife their distrust apart from saying this:  Hurting people hurt people.   Perhaps our failure is our pride, not admitting our own weaknesses and powerlessness and, because we have deep-rooted hurts and fears ourselves we are unable (or unwilling) to look at yours.

The answer in all of this, I believe, is massive repentance on both a global and individual scale.    We must be able to hear the cries of those hurting around us, desperate to see Jesus with skin on, and repent for our inability or unwillingness to be with the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.  We must admit we ourselves need healing and a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit in order to carry out the work first begun by our Lord, who came not to be served but to serve.  Jesus said it’s not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.  Jesus was drawn to the hurting and his compassion drew them to himself.   It’s difficult to imagine anyone suffering from mental illness saying of Jesus, “He doesn’t want me when I’m messy.”

Luke, a doctor and follower of Jesus, wrote that if we will repent, and turn again, our sins will be wiped out and times of refreshing will come from the Lord (Acts 3:19-20).   To be offered the opportunity to begin again is a gracious gift, and one we as a church must seize both for our own salvation and that of those looking to us for help.  We can trust that the Spirit of God will refresh us, enabling us to bear the brokenness of the world as Christ’s body must, so that it might be transformed into something new for the Father’s glory.

This repentance begins for me, and perhaps for you, with a desire to listen and learn.   I’m writing this post not because I have answers but because I’m seeking some.   I want to know how to better posture myself as a pastor, and my church, so that when people suffering from mental illness look at us they see Jesus with skin on.  Here are just a few ways I am presently striving to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and I invite you to improve upon these and offer more of your own.

  1. Talking about depression and mental illness from the pulpit. I recently concluded a sermon series titled, “When Life Hurts.”  Here is a small taste from the first of that series:

If you are struggling with depression or other mental illness today I want you to know that you are not alone.  I want you to know that you don’t have to carry the weight of shame or guilt. I want you to know that you are worthy of love and that there isn’t a dark place on earth or in your mind that you can go that Jesus isn’t there with you.  I want you to know that there is no judgment or condemnation here. I want you to know that I find it to be spiritual malpractice when the church can safely ask for prayer for a loved one who has diabetes and needs to be on insulin in order to live but we feel ashamed to say I am struggling with depression and need some medicine to help me survive.    Where and when that happens to you, here me please – I’m sorry.    I’m sorry that has happened to you.  I’m sorry that you have been judged when what you most needed was love.   I’m sorry.

I’ve read that very few pastors talk about mental illness from the pulpit.  This must change.   In your church and mine are many who are suffering from mental illness – alone and silently – and they wonder each week, Does God have a word for me?  Will these people still love me if they knew my secret?    Assure them, routinely, that the answer to both questions is a resounding YES.

  1. Repeatedly affirming that the church is a hospital for the broken and not a morgue for saints. We say this a lot in our church and over the last several months it has begun to take root.  We lift up the values of humility and vulnerability and I strive, by God’s grace, to model these from the pulpit.   We began praying last year that God would make us the kind of people who want the sort of people nobody else wants or sees.  That certainly includes the people in my wife’s therapy group.   I’m growing increasingly confident that anyone can walk through the doors of our church and feel at home, like it’s a place where they can find hope and healing alongside others who are seeking the same (whether they are seasoned Christians or presently agnostic).
  1. Launching a recovery ministry. We have just launched a recovery ministry where every Thursday we offer a free meal, a worship service with a recovery related message followed by open share groups for things such as chemical addiction, sexual integrity and grief, pain and loss.   These are safe groups where people dealing with life’s hang-ups, including depression, can come and share their struggle with people who are on the same journey.   Here we get real, acknowledging that it’s our secrets that make and keep us sick.

These are just some of the ways we are trying to put skin on Jesus in our small neck of the woods.  My hope is that this post will generate discussion about how we can do better at addressing the needs of those suffering silently with mental illness all around us, both in our pews and out.   If you battle mental illness please consider sharing in the comments, anonymously if you like, how we can better serve you.   How can the church better serve your needs?

May our massive repentance lead to massive change in hearts so that we may never again hear it said of the body of Christ, “They don’t want me when I’m messy.”

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7 thoughts on “Mental Illness and the Church: They Don’t Want Me When I’m Messy

  1. Chad, as you know this is a topic that hit very close to home for me as well. I think I may piggyback on this article in a couple of days. In the meantime I would say now that I have come to think that we need to be careful not to emphasize ‘the already’ at the expense of ‘the not yet’. We also need to do a better job of teaching the importance of sharing in his suffering and all that entails. As much as we would like to think that the gospel is all about saving us from suffering, the old rugged cross stands there reminding that God saves through suffering. When the church overemphasizes the already and completely ignores the not yet we end up putting people into the vicious cycle of feeling bad for feeling bad.

    Any way, thank you for a much needed and very honest post.

    • Thanks, Cliff. Yes, I agree, we need to get better at sitting with people and journeying with them through suffering rather than project the idea that all must be well, all the time. We need to be I desire to be better equipped to help not just others, but myself, be OK to sit in the mess with someone. I’m learning…not fast enough though.

      I’d love for you to write something on the subject. I am thinking about a follow up piece as well. Given the absence of discussion on the topic I don’t think it a bad thing if we overdo it. 🙂

      blessings to you and yours

  2. James tells us “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Having faithful ministered to the homeless in Dayton for 4 years I find my struggles are time and resource to help all who have cried out for help. Matthew states “Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. “Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” The community at large is generous to give a hand out but few to give a hand up and share the gospel in love and truth.

    Jesus is the only Way to change hearts but as follows of Jesus we are called to share His gospel message to those open hearts. The only difference between the homeless and any of us who minister is God’s Grace. Those who shield themselves from other’s pain have been blinded by culture’s lies and find no value in sharing the free grace given to them.

  3. Thank you for the article. I am a Christian and depression led to panic attacks which led to resigning my job. After sharing my family’s story with the church, getting help, and slowing down, I have started to hear God again. I am happier than I have been in years, and it is amazing to see how the Holy Spirit works when we actually talk about true life. My only thought to share=Christians sometimes forget that Christ has overcome the world. There is hope. . .and we are called to live as saints (not sinners). . .depression is treatable.

  4. It breaks my heart to read or hear stories where persons struggling with mental illness “fallen through the cracks” or even been shunned by the body of Christ. As a former pastor who has battled bipolar disorder for over twenty years, I find the supportive grace I received within the church to be both exceptional and rare and I am very grateful.

    Excellent post. I will be praying for you, your wife, and your ministry.

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