From the time I was little, I grew up in churches where the pastor would beckon for prayer requests from the pulpit. Over those next few minutes, the pastor would look out over the congregation and field requests from the flock. Physical ailments, family struggles, and difficult job situations always prevailed.
Usually, about halfway through the list of prayer requests, someone would raise their hand and ask for prayer for an “unspoken request.” Then, the pastor would ask the congregation if there was anyone else with an unspoken request, and a spattering of hands would shoot towards the rafters.
I remember people asking for prayer for sick family members and neighbors. I remember prayer requests for job situations. But in the litany of prayer requests that were offered, I can’t remember a time in my life in the church where someone asked God to heal their particular struggles with mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicidal ideations, or any of the other brain illnesses that plague our society.
But I heard and saw the requests for prayer regarding unspoken (and apparently unspeakable) issues. And it wasn’t until my Dad died from suicide that I began to connect the dots between mental illness and unspoken prayer requests.
The Christian church must speak.
God’s people need to hear it.
I need to hear it.
And God wants His Church to speak—I’m confident of that.
I grew up in the Christian church and I am still a proud member of the Christian church, and I’ll be the first one to admit this unfortunate fact: Largely, the Christian church in America remains silent when it comes to the issue of mental illness.
My accusation is not an original one. Listen to Perry Noble, the former pastor of NewSpring church and author of the book Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry. Noble has had his own struggles with depression, and the church wasn’t a place that was equipped to heal his suffering:
“In late 2008, I sank into a black hole that I now know was depression. It was the darkest time of my life, and I honestly wanted to die. I was so desperate to find relief that I seriously thought about ending my own life. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love Jesus, but rather because I had allowed my life to get out of control.
Believe it or not, people [who belong to the church] on the right side of the cross struggle with depression.
The sad thing is that in all my years of church work, I can’t recall hearing a single message on the subject of depression. I’ve even heard church leaders say that if a person is dealing with depression, it’s because of some unconfessed sin that needs to be dealt with.”
Listen to Dr. Frank Page. Page is the president and CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a pastor for more than three decades. Personally, Page knows the pain of depression in a way few others could understand, as his daughter Melissa tragically lost her life to mental illness and suicide. In a special study I taught at my church, Paige writes:
“We readily pray for one another when we’re dealing with sickness, surgeries, cancer, or some chronic illness. Mental illness, on the other hand, is not often mentioned. Mental illness can take many forms, and it is estimated that 1 in 10 people suffer from depression. People suffering from mental illness are all around us, including the church. Instead of ignoring the issue, let’s consider a far more positive approach.”
(Both of these authors have amazing books that I’ve listed in the Library section of Seeya Bub if you’d like to check them out and read more.)
Listen to nearly any pastor in the Christian church today, and I think that if they’re being honest they will readily admit that mental illness is often something that is either ignored or could be discussed more within their own congregation…until it’s usually too late for someone.
Listen to the numbers. Lifeway Research conducted a comprehensive survey in 2014 where they talked to pastors about mental illness and the response of the church to these issues. In that survey, Lifeway asked how often pastors speak to the church in sermons or large group messages about mental illness.
- 3% of the pastors surveyed said that they spoke about the topic of mental illness several times a month.
- 4% said they spoke about mental illness at least once a month.
- 26% said they spoke about mental illness several times a year. And an overwhelming 66% of the pastors surveyed said that they spoke about mental illness once a year, rarely, or never at all.
So…7% of pastors are speaking about mental illness regularly, and 92% either infrequently or never discuss a topic plaguing a large number of Americans and certainly congregation members.
The reality is this: People who sit in the pews week in and week out are suffering from these issues. I’ve suffered, my Dad suffered, and countless Christians that I’ve had conversations with have had these same struggles. But for some reason, the church doesn’t speak to them.
And I believe people all throughout Biblical history have suffered from depression, even if they didn’t have a formal name to put to it. In the book of Psalms, David swings back and forth from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. And boy, are those lows really, really low. Take a look at Psalm 6 where David says:
Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long? Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
…I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. (v. 2-7, NIV)
Sounds a lot like some stories I’ve read from those suffering from mental illness…
The Apostle Paul accomplished more than any man in the church after Jesus Christ, in my opinion. He had more to boast about and be happy in than anyone, but some propose that even he suffered from a period or bout of mental illness. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 shines some light on this claim:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (NIV)
And don’t even make me get started on that poor Job fella…
I’m confident that God included these Biblical examples in our history to offer comfort to those who are suffering centuries later. If men like Paul and Moses and David and Job and Noah could suffer and still be loved and used by God, so can I. So can you. So could men like my Dad. I think God is telling us that it’s okay to not be okay…but that it’s not okay to stay that way. That’s where the church should come in.
Whether they are talking about mental illness or not, our churches are all sending a message about mental illness; unfortunately, the signal sent through silence is not the one that I believe Jesus wants us to send. When the church is silent on the topic of mental illness, it sends the message that the church doesn’t care. Or worse, that the church knows people are suffering but refuses to do anything about it.
This all comes back to my belief (not my original words) that the Christian church should be a hospital for broken people, not a museum for perfect people. If there is anywhere that people with mental illnesses should feel free to talk about their struggles, it should be the church. If there are any people that should be trusted confidants and judgement-free sources of help and support, they should be God’s people. If there is anyone that should be able to tell those with mental illness that God loves them and wants to see them healed, it should be God’s mouthpieces here on Earth doing the encouraging.
Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (GW). I know my Dad and the millions of others who suffered from mental illness felt tired. I know they felt weary. Jesus didn’t tell them to take their problems somewhere else because the church isn’t equipped. He said to bring those troubles to His feet.
We can’t be silent anymore. Jesus doesn’t want us to be silent. He wants His church to speak. And speak we must.
In the next few weeks, I am going to embark on a journey through this blog to encourage the Christian church and all believers to reflect on what they can do in the fight against mental illness, depression, and suicide. This is an important fight. It’s a fight for our lives and the lives of those we love.
In the next part of this three-part series, I will talk about the faulty thinking that I feel is at the root of the church’s silence. I will dig deep into the myths of mental illness that have paralyzed the church’s progress in this fight.
I’ll conclude this series by talking about solutions. I think Jesus commands His church to serve those who are suffering, including the mentally ill. I’ll talk about the practical solutions that will make the church relevant in this battle, and the need for all churches to stand up and speak out.
Above anything I write, I ask in this moment and in the weeks to follow for your prayers. I am not trained or educated in theology. I am not a pastor. I am, however, a hopefully-humble servant of Jesus Christ, and a grieving son who longs to protect others from the fate that found my Father. I ask that you pray for me in the days and weeks to come as I write, share, and engage. I hope you will ask God to direct my hand in everything that I do through this series. I’m speaking because I wish the church had spoken to my Dad. I speak because I want the church that I love dearly to speak, too.
I speak with the hope that some other boy will be able to sit in the pew next to his Dad longer than I did.
Dad, Since the time I was a little boy, you always taught me the importance of my relationship with Jesus. But you always taught me that my relationship with Jesus always needed to be reflected in my relationship with other people. I can’t imagine how many times we must have went to church together when you were hurting more than I ever knew. I wish I knew what to do then. I hope that I know what to do now. I’m trying my hardest to change the world around me, to make it a better place for those who are suffering like you did. Thank you for giving me a lifetime of inspiration, Dad. I’ll never get over losing you, but until we are together again, seeya Bub.
“Come to me, all who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 (GW)
Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry by Perry Noble (2014), p. 35.
 Bible Studies for Life, Fall 2014 Leader Guide: Ministry in the Face of Mental Illness by Frank Page (2014), p. 161.