“Herein lies one of the most pervasive misunderstandings regarding mental illness: that God spares this kind of pain and suffering from those with a deep and abiding faith. All too often, the assumption in the church is that those who continue to suffer from mental illness lack sufficient faith.” ―Stephen Grcevich, MD, Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions
To make a difference in the conversation on mental health, we must face several stigmas that have infiltrated the conversation. A stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace or infamy, a stain or reproach on one’s reputation.6 Unfortunately, the church isn’t exempt from these. Rather, I believe the stigmas Christians face are some of the worst to contend with in the conversation. A non-exhaustive list would look something like this:
- Mental illness is a sign of weakness.
- Mental illness is a sin issue.
- Mental illness needs to be surrendered to Jesus, and he will take care of it.
- Mental illness should just be prayed away.
- Mental illness only affects people who don’t have enough faith.
- Mental illness is just a sign of being tested.
That’s a tough list to write and read, not because any of it is true, but because it brings to mind the conversations I’ve heard each of these sentiments. And it highlights what I know some people are hearing right now.
I hate to say it, but there were seasons when I believed some of these stigmas. As part of the enemy’s plan to lie and deceive me into thinking I was too far gone, he tried to convince me my illness was (1) easily solvable and (2) my fault.
Unfortunately, he often used God’s people to press in on that deception. Sharing about my struggle has never been easy, but it’s been most difficult when Christians have made me feel less because of what I’m enduring.
I’m so grateful to see the situation more clearly now. And that’s only happened because of the comfort and clarity the Bible has provided me.
I want to speak to each of these stigmas, but I don’t want to use my words alone to do so— I want to use God’s words. The reasoning for that might seem obvious, but it’s often been helpful to remind myself of the “why” of God’s word, especially in seasons when I’m struggling. I love
the imagery God provides in Ephesians 6 of the armor he has given to his followers. Why would someone need armor? Because they’re going into battle. And mental illness is a battle not for the ill-prepared. Therefore, he’s given us
- The belt of truth
- The breastplate of righteousness
- The shoes of peace
- The shield of faith
- The helmet of salvation
- The sword of the spirit
I’ve never fought in a legitimate physical battle, so I’m no expert on armor. However, unless we’re in some MMA/helmet-butting altercation, we have only one offensive weapon on this list. It’s described in Ephesians 6:17 (NLT) as “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Why six items for defense, with the sword serving a dual purpose, and one for offense? If I’m preparing my kids for a battle, I will load so many things onto them that they may be unable to walk out the door. The disparity tells me a couple of things.
First, we need a ton of armor to protect us because we’ll take a lot of shots. Jesus affirmed in Matthew 7:13–14 (ESV), “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” That’s not specific to mental illness, but Jesus consistently said following him will bring difficulties. The way is hard. So he’s equipped us with the armor to defend ourselves.
Second, he gives us just one thing for offense because he knows it’s sufficient. His word is all we need. This simplifies our attack so much for us. Instead of learning to fire several different weapons and involve every limb we have in that attack, he gives us one sword to achieve victory. His word is more than enough. So to counter the stigmas above, let’s look at the scriptures that do just that.
Stigma 1: Mental illness is a sign of weakness.
And what’s your point? Similar to the word “brokenness,” there’s a misunderstanding of the Christian walk if “weakness” is seen as a negative thing.
I was born in the late ’80s and have pushed back regularly to the perception that men should be this strong, unbreakable, everything-but-weak type of person. Nah, I don’t want any of that. I know I’m weak, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve felt the weight of the world and know I can’t carry all that on my own.
I had someone I love and respect dearly tell me as a compliment, “Aaron, you’re the weakest person I know. And therefore, you’re one of the strongest people I know.” I was really grateful for the second sentence because I did not see the compliment at first. At some points in my life, hearing I was extremely weak would have wrecked me. But after the season I’ve walked through, it is music to my ears.
So many passages affirm this:
2 Corinthians 12:7–10 (NLT): “To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Romans 8:26 (NLT): “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”
Isaiah 40:29 (NLT): “He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.”
Philippians 4:13 (NLT): “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”
Stigma 2: Mental illness is a sin issue.
Throughout scripture, people make mistakes. It’s kind of a cornerstone of the gospel message. God created everything and did so perfectly. People messed it up. God redeemed it all through Jesus. There isn’t much gray in the Bible when it comes to calling sin what it is. So this stigma is pretty baffling. There isn’t a single example in scripture of anxiety or depression being called a sin.
We’ve mentioned Moses and David and the mental struggles they had to overcome. In response to these moments of struggle, God often encourages or realigns the perspectives of these men. However, when dealing with sin issues they experienced, a simple realignment was never God’s approach. In fact, we see in Numbers 20, when Moses commits the sin of disobedience, God bans him from entering the promised land. And in 2 Samuel 11, God allows David’s son to die after David commits adultery. God has always dealt swiftly with sin. But with mental and physical illness, he doesn’t punish. Instead, he comforts.
The story of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 18 and 19 is another example of God’s response when we are at our lowest points.
In chapter 18, Elijah finds himself in a head-to-head contest with 450 prophets of the false god Baal. Yes, 450 against one. The contest stems from a disagreement over which is real—God or Baal. It’s decided whichever one can create fire first must be a real god. For many hours, the false prophets attempt to conjure up a fire through Baal but have no success. When it’s Elijah’s turn, the Lord is immediately victorious and then he helps Elijah kill all 450 false prophets.
Moments later, Elijah’s life is threatened by Queen Jezebel. Anxiety takes over Elijah at that moment. Despite the Lord’s victory for Elijah over hundreds of people that same day, this threat hits home, and Elijah flees to the wilderness and prays he would die in verse 4: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” (1 Kings 19:4 NLT).
I’ve been there. I will watch God move mountains, do the miraculous, and then wonder how I will get out of a small pickle—all on the same day. And if that pressure and anxiety was a sin, then I think we’d see a different response from God than what we see with Elijah in this story. The Lord doesn’t strike him dead. He doesn’t require him to stop serving. Instead, he gives Elijah even more responsibility in overseeing another prophet and sends him out to continue his ministry.
Stigma 3: Mental illness needs to be surrendered to Jesus, and he will take care of it.
Ah, so close—I agree with the first part. We need to surrender any type of anguish to Jesus immediately. However, the word surrender implies an inherent lack of control, so by surrendering something, we’re opening ourselves up to the possibility it won’t simply be taken care of. Surrender is defined as “to give oneself up, as into the power of another; submit or yield.”7
If we surrender our mental illness over to the Lord, as we all should in some way, then we are giving up that we have anything to do with the result. Surrendering admits the possibility that the battle might stick around. But it’s no longer up to us, and Jesus will see it through.
Instead of immediate relief from pain, scripture paints a picture of an ongoing battle, a battle in which we need the Lord to uphold us, strengthen us, and provide endurance for us.
Isaiah 41:10 (ESV): “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Romans 8:31 (ESV): “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Romans 8:18 (ESV): “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Let’s surrender these trials to him daily. But let’s not oversimplify that surrender is equal to relief. Not at all the same.
Stigma 4: Mental illness should just be prayed away.
Illness, in general, should be prayed about, yes. Whether it goes away is outside of our control. We should constantly be praying just as 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (ESV) tells us, to “pray without ceasing.”
Also, whenever and wherever we need God, we absolutely need to be devoted to prayer. I believe wholeheartedly my prayers where I pleaded for healing were granted through doctors, people, and medicine. The Lord’s hand was all over that. But again, prayer isn’t a way for us to simply get a positive answer for a need we have. That’s entirely under the control of the Lord, and prayer is the act of surrendering our needs to him.
Pray for victory. Don’t allow this stigma to change how you see prayer. As we see in his word, prayer is critical and a necessary part of our walk with the Lord.
1 John 5:14 (NLT): “And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him.”
Ephesians 6:18 (NLT): “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.”
Job 22:27 (NIV): “You will pray to him, and he will hear you, and you will fulfill your vows to him.”
Jeremiah 29:12 (NLT): “In those days when you pray, I will listen.”
James 5:13 (NLT): “Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises.”
Mark 11:24 (NLT): “I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.”
Stigma 5: Mental illness only affects people who don’t have enough faith.
I would contend the most extraordinary faith comes from illness. To suffer personally from either mental or physical ailments and still believe in God’s goodness requires deep, intimate faith. I’ve seen my greatest faith come in my most difficult times. The times when I’m thriving are the times when I’ve sensed waning proximity to the Lord.
In Hebrews 4, God gives us a list of people who demonstrated remarkable faith throughout scripture. In this list, we see the aforementioned David and Moses, who had great mental trials but ultimately persevered and grew in their faith. There’s also Joshua, whom the Lord encouraged to be strong and courageous; and Sarah and Abraham, who struggled to wait for God’s promise that an enormous legacy would stem from their family tree.
Struggle isn’t reserved for people with little faith. As we see throughout scripture, the two absolutely coexist.
Stigma 6: Mental illness is just a sign of being tested.
Anecdotally, this is the least-referenced stigma I’ve heard on this list, but I think it’s a general oversimplification. Every struggle is, in some way, a test, I suppose. But this sounds pretty dismissive, and mental illness is anything but dismissive. Scripture speaks a lot about testing and is clear that trials will develop our character if we allow them to.
Job 23:10 (ESV): “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.”
1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV): “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Psalm 66:8–12 (ESV): “Bless our God, O peoples; let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept our soul among the living and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.”
James 1:3 (ESV): “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
James 1:12 (NLT): “God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”
These scripture references are just scratching the surface of God’s encouragement for you. Here’s what I want you to know more than anything: When held up to God’s word, the stigmas that exist in the conversation on mental health are entirely bogus. They’re not true. Your mental illness does not define you, and you certainly aren’t any less of a person because of it. God’s word is a refuge, and I pray you devour it in this season and in the months and years to come. It is an invaluable weapon in the war and is readily available to us daily.
- Which stigma about mental illness hits you hardest? Which stigma has affected you most?
- Which stigma do you see regularly, and how can you help counter it?
- What passage in the Bible do you need to lean into more in the coming weeks?