A favorite part of running a podcast with David is when people reach out with their heart questions afterwards. Although the focus of our podcast is relationships, there’s an episode that views ours through the lens of my struggle with anxiety. At this point in my life, I’m very open about this struggle for several reasons: (a) I have a healthier understanding of how anxiety doesn’t define me, but still affects me and those around me (b) I’ve grown in confidence overall (c) I’ve seen how my talking about it helps other people.
Thus, I loved receiving this message:
Also, I was curious to know what your thoughts are on mental illness and the Gospel – I’ve been struggling with that question recently, since some of my loved ones have struggled with depression, anxiety, etc., I am pretty prone to being anxious myself, and I’m also taking a class on Abnormal Psych that has piqued my interest in how God works with and sees mental struggles. I know in one of the podcasts you mentioned that you had a lot to say about that, so I was wondering what your thoughts are, especially since you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety.
It’s a great question, and one I’ve struggled with for years. The Bible literally says to not be anxious (Philippians 4:6-7), so can I be a Christian and struggle with anxiety? As I’ve said before, I don’t believe that simplistic spiritual platitudes like “Just have more faith” work here. So how is this reconciled? Here are four key ideas to help us see it clearer.
Anxiety and Worry are Not the Same
There is no indication that Philippians 4:6-7 is talking about a mental illness; instead, it’s talking about stressing, worrying, or otherwise focusing on not-God in a situation. Secondly, this verse is meant as an encouragement to trust God, not as a “you heathen!” for struggling with trust sometimes. His constant reassurance is to see reality (“I am with you!”) instead of being too focused on the hardship (or imaginary hardship).
Even when Jesus interacted with His disciples or humanity in general, He encouraged them out of their worry instead of blasting them for it. Like the loving God He is, He invites us to trust Him more and to leave fear behind. That is the posture of such Scripture. (For some examples: Matthew 10: 26, 28, 31; Matthew 11:28-30; Luke 12:7, 32; Mark 4:35-41).
Mental Illness is…an Illness
Mental illness is like any other illness: cancer, pneumonia, multiple sclerosis… It’s just a mental illness. Thus, is someone less spiritual because they have cancer? Of course not. That’s the mentality of the Pharisees that the disciples caught: “Did this man or his parents sin that he has this affliction?” Jesus says neither (John 9:1-3) We perpetuate the sickness-equals-sinner mentality of the Pharisees when we assume that someone who struggles with a mental illness is, by default, not close to God.
Some people like to think mental illnesses aren’t real because they haven’t experienced them. I submit the same test: is cancer not real just because I don’t have cancer? That’s a ridiculous question.
Illnesses are Complex
Apologies for my fixation on cancer, but let’s continue: what causes cancer? That question will get you billions of results on a Google search — several of which are contradictory. I know people who were the pinnacle of health — I’m talking nearly raw-vegan, crazy cardiovascular health and strength, happy relationships, good sleeper, low stress — and learned they had cancer and died within a few months. What in the world!
But that’s just it. The bodies and the diseases in this world are complex. There are certain things that are completely out of our control. And yes, there are some things that are completely within our control.
We can spend time in freezing cold water and that can lead to pneumonia. We can contribute to a predisposition to high blood pressure by overeating salt. You get my point.
The same is true with mental illness: we can inherit a predisposition from our parents (both by nature and by nurture). We can do thinks that contribute to its severity or help reduce its severity. I’ve shared many things that help reduce the severity of anxiety for me — all things that are within my control. But even when I do all those things right, I still have anxiety. And it still affects me. And that’s just the way it is.
The Gospel Still Matters
Because mental illness affects the mind, the gospel can often have a more…apparent? effect. (Of course God can heal cancer, too, etc.) For me especially, understanding God’s love and goodness greatly reduces my anxiety. Trusting Him more, seeing Him more clearly, filling my mind with truth from the Word — all of these things have a direct impact on my anxiety.
Other people have severe chemical imbalances in their mind and they need actual medicine. This does not mean they’re not a Christian. It’s just what their body needs! At the end of the day, everybody needs and benefits from the gospel; and sometimes people need more than that to feel better. And sometimes people won’t feel or be functioning fully well until His second coming. That’s the nature of the fallen world we live in.
Whether you struggle with a mental illness or you love someone who does, I hope this has given a glimpse of how two seemingly clashing things can be reconciled. God’s love cannot be stopped by anxiety — it cannot be stopped by anything (Romans 8:31-39). And He loves us, woos us, draws us closer, and whether instantly or over time, He heals us.