Lifelines and the Happy Gospel

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Before I begin, let me offer full disclosure: I have suffered from depression and anxiety on and off for more than five years. Granted, my illness falls fairly low on the spectrum, but the fact that I’ve left a couple jobs because of the overwhelming experiences of anxiety shows you that this has caused a serious and ongoing struggle in my life.

For me, there has been no life experience more isolating and terrifying than the severe, debilitating moments of a panic attack.

I have been fortunate enough in my journey to be comforted and supported by loved ones—my wife, family, friends, counselors—in the midst of despair, many of whom were also members of the faith community to which I belonged.

But I am at the same time painfully aware that many who have walked the same journey through depression and other mental and emotional ailments have not experienced the same level of grace within their congregation.

While most haven’t been outright rejected, a common experience for many of us with mental illnesses is to feel marginalized, judged—or, worst of all, avoided—as if our ailments fall low on the priority list of concerns, they are a result of a lack of faith or selfish ignorance of the obvious blessings in our lives, or they create too much uncertainty, discomfort or risk to address.

The latter results when people are afraid of that which they cannot control. In other words, we are all painfully aware that a pat on the back and “I’ll pray for you” typically don’t heal a person with mental illnesses, but we lack the psychiatric knowledge and therapeutic experience to help people in these circumstances.

Let it be known: depression and mental illness are real things.

They are not coping mechanisms or reality escapes, nor are they the result of not focusing on the bright side and counting our blessings. They don’t plague only people of little faith or those who have made “bad” choices. Sometimes they are circumstantial; frequently, however, they are rather indiscriminatory and plague people across age, gender, ethnic and economic lines.

Churches—especially, sorry to say, Protestant Evangelical churches—fail people with mental illnesses when they perpetuate what we’ll call here the “happy gospel”.

This happy gospel distorts what it means to follow Jesus and distances those of us with mental illness from the healing presence of God and the comfort of community.

It causes churches to read the Jesus’ Beatitudes and omit his litany of woes. It encourages us to focus on triumphs—David over Goliath, the Israelites over Canaan, Jesus over death—and neglect to dwell in the deep agony of defeat, betrayal, loss, and despair. It inspires us to write fluffy contemporary praise songs that overlook the suffering and pain around us. It communicates to many of us that if we can’t bring a beaming smile to church, we are somehow missing the message of Jesus and left out of the body of Christ.

During the recent Envision Access webinar, ADNet program associate Christine Guth urged participants to throw people with mental illnesses a lifeline. The line she suggested was to worship with the Psalms of lament, which stands in opposition to the happy gospel mentality I introduced above.

But there are countless others, including fostering authentic community where experiences can be shared, integrating external mental health resources with the life and ministry of the church, and providing space for open and honest dialogue.

Church needs to be a place where people who are mentally ill can openly express their inner struggles and be met with grace, acceptance, embrace, healing. Let us strive to make it so.

Note: This post originally appeared at Beyond Laurelville, an online space for continuing conversation hosted by Laurelville Mennonite Church Center.

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11 Responses to “Lifelines and the Happy Gospel”

  1. Phil Wood Says:

    Thanks Brian for an excellent and reflecive post. I expect there’s a lot of us who know what depression feels like from the inside. I do think churches are gradually getting better at addressing mental illness but there’s still far too many congregations that only do faith ’sunny side up’. I have no idea whether there are any significant differences between the UK and North American on this but it would be valuable to hear if other readers think culture matters.

  2. Tim Baer Says:

    Hey Brian, thanks for your thoughts. The church is certainly not a place to receive medical help with depression or other mental health issues. In my 11 years of Christianity I’ve been to a lot of churches so I was a little shocked at this sentence: “It communicates to many of us that if we can’t bring a beaming smile to church, we are somehow missing the message of Jesus and left out of the body of Christ.” I’ve never experienced any church that sends this message; I’m sorry if you have.

  3. TimN Says:

    Brian, thanks for your vulnerability in this piece. I resonate with your naming of the sting of avoidance. The uncertainty of it can be excruciating.

  4. BrianP Says:

    @TimN, it’s true. It’s much easier for us to avoid conflict and potentially awkward situations than to walk patiently, lovingly, and with a willingness to understand the other.

    @TimB, I agree that the church isn’t a place to receive formal medical help. But our response to people living with mental illness shouldn’t be a simple (and can’t be) “Go see a counselor,” or “Take your medication.” But frankly, I’ve talked to many friends who haven’t found much patience or understanding within the walls of their church, and that pains me…it should pain all of us.

    @Phil, Thanks for your feedback. The body of Christ IS doing better in walking with people with mental illness. Here’s to increased faithfulness in that regard.

  5. Depression and the Church « No Longer Normal Says:

    […] found this article (HT: Rob Martin again, I believe) about the Church’s reaction to mental illness among its […]

  6. RustyP Says:

    Hey,

    Thanks so much for bringing this darkened reality to light. It’s soooo true and needs to be addressed. I am also one who struggles daily to put on the bright face of happy confidence in the midst of overwhelming contradictory feelings.

    It’s really important in establishing a ‘radical’ mental health paradigm to encourage ourselves and others to live fully in our experiences, and face them, acknowledging what they reveal. It’s equally important within the church to create structured environments where we can live fully in our experience, through songs and themes within our ’services’ that offer an experience of god and self, attempting to merge the two instead of denying one in favor of the other.

    Some emerging church folks have done this well, such as Jay Bakker in the UK and Pete Rollins in Ireland.

  7. Joe Says:

    Beautifully put - though I would take the issue wider and say that there is a problem with the ‘happy’ gospel whether or not you’re suffering with mental illness.

    In my experience, church often revolves around teaching that ‘God loves us’ and that ‘God wants to bless us’.

    It isn’t the prosperity gospel in the sense that we’re not being taught God will give us a massive income, however I think the effects are essentially the same - we say we are blessed and justify it by considering all our stuff/jobs/children/health. We don’t stop to question whether that is the case.

    Unconsciously, I think we’re also saying that people who do not have all our stuff/jobs/children/health are somehow not blessed, therefore somehow out of favour with God.

    Small wonder that those who already feel inadequate or depressed or struggling with mental illness wonder what this teaching has to do with the gospel.

  8. BrianP Says:

    @Joe, agreed. I studied in a Protestant reformed context and know how this theology has permeated expressions of North American Christianity.

    Jesus said it is the sick who need a doctor; too often we feel implicit (or explicit?) pressure to be healthy before we schedule our appointment.

    @RustyP, thanks for suggesting some existing embodiments of what the Church needs to pursue in relation to mental health issues and authentic worship and discipleship.

    We cannot fully receive God’s grace until we can name and acknowledge with our insufficiencies.

  9. Scott Hackman Says:

    Thanks for naming mental illness as “a real thing”. Most people have a hard time naming this because of the label or judgment that soon follows. Specifically in the faith communities which lack the capacity of living in tension with people. We want solutions and sometimes there aren’t any. Recently, I have started embracing the ambiguity of my own mental limitations. They were recognized when I was 13 and now at 31 after 15 years of therapy and medication have come with some realities.

    1. I am not a mistake
    2. I am loved by God
    3. I can love others out of that worldview

    With out the help of a reconciling wife and faith community at Salford Mennonite, I would still be lost and confused.

    Everyday is a challenge. Some might say the reality of this kind of limitation is a curse. I am looking for ways to use it to bring light to people with out hope because of their own mental limitations.

    Thanks again for your words

  10. TimN Says:

    Beautifully said, Scott. Your three points are deeply foundational and can be so powerful when we really own them.

  11. BrianP Says:

    Scott, your observations and testimony says it well. I just ran into a retired social worker and college professor whose life work has been around creating and supporting social networks for people who live with chronic mental illnesses.

    When we can be embraced by friends and folks in our community who assure us of these three observations through their actions and words, beautiful transformation can happen in and around us.

    May God bless you in this assurance as you continue your journey.

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