What are your thoughts on mental illness and religion? I’ve seen some Christians state that you can pray mental illness away and once you’re saved you won’t be depressed or have suicidal thoughts anymore. As someone in the mental health field, it kind of annoys me to hear people say this. Mental illness is so complex and multifactorial but obviously there is a biological component to it. These people need medications and counseling to get better, not JUST God.
Hey dear friend, I once did an interview about this subject here:
I agree with you 100%. The way the church has approached mental illness has been misinformed at best and atrocious at worst. It’s the same with the westernized brand of bright-sided “positivism” and attempting to tell someone, “Cheer up, snap out of it, don’t cry, it’ll be okay, you have to be strong.”
Here are some thoughts to consider about the church and mental illness:
It’s a crazy incredible thing to be in a place where people slow down and listen, where they hear your whole story and let you paint your full heart in the air.
I was telling one of my fellow hospital chaplains about life lately, about my health problems and secret panics and suddenly about a billion other things, every humiliating and painful and neurotic moment that had been twitching over for the longest time, and I didn’t realize how much I had bottled up in my neatly wrapped fortress. My chaplain friend never judged, only nodded, never flinched, stayed engaged. She then prayed for me, a really beautiful prayer, like cool water for bruised purple hands. And I wept. A lot. Quietly, but inside, loudly. It was a little embarrassing. But something shifted and settled and became still for a moment, like the leaves of a tree coming together after a strong wind, a momentary painting. I left lighter.
Later I visited a patient who had nearly died from a brain bleed, and when I offered prayer, the nurse grabbed me and said, “Me, too.” I took her to the side, and she whispered, “Cancer. I might have breast cancer, and I’m afraid, chaplain. I’m so damn afraid.” She clenched her teeth and tried not to weep, but I put a quick hand on her shoulder and she wept anyway. She talked. I listened. There was nothing for me to say but to be there. And maybe nothing had changed—except we were made light somehow, and together drew something bigger than us. We drew colors into the gray.
There are still places, I believe, even in a busy and unhearing time, where we can draw free. I hope to meet you there, where we are not okay, but less gray than yesterday. I hope to pray for you, that we become bigger.
When they wheeled him in, the doctors said it was already too late. They put him on an iron lung, and the only thing left to do was let his mother decide on his organs.
He was young, good-looking, tall and strapping, face beat up from meth. His mother had given him countless chances and a free bed, but he had relapsed every time, back to the muse and to back alley corners and then crawling home again. His mom finally kicked him out. Shortly after, he found one of those hideouts to do his meth in peace. He fell down a flight of stairs. Traumatic brain injury. A brawl, possibly. Someone had called an ambulance and left him there.
The only thing the hospital could do was stuff him full of tubes to keep him breathing. There was no brain activity. His head was held by a neck brace the size of an oven and his bed was a mess of angry plastic tentacles, sprouting and twisting in veiny stubborn circles. I could still tell that underneath all the life support, he was a handsome kid.
In the waiting room, his mom kept blaming herself.
I often pass myself off as more put-together than I really am, but most nights I sit down after a long social gathering and I beat myself up for all the dumb cheesy things I said, and things I wish I had said differently or didn’t say at all, and how off-balance and weird and twitchy I must look, and how I’m not really making progress on becoming this whole acceptable well-adjusted cool approachable guy that everyone else seems to be already without even trying.
I end up thinking I’ve failed something, or lost at life somehow. I replay that joke I told which completely bombed and derailed the banter. I sometimes think everyone else has this secret ingredient to being blended in so smoothly to the inner-circle, like there’s this key or password that no one has told me about, and maybe one day I’ll achieve that code and I can go home in peace without this stomach full of remorseful anxiety over my lack of tact and style, and it’ll be as easy as those wrinkle-free people in fast-talking movies.
Does this happen to you too? The late night regret twitch? Social hangover? The crazy replay loop?
“Are you Angela, the wife of Tyrone Simmons?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she said, voice rising, searing the phone in my ear. “Yes, chaplain, why?”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but your husband Tyrone is here at the hospital.”
I hate this part. I’ve made this call so many times. “Are you able to be here? Will you be with anyone? I’m not sure yet, the doctor can tell you. The doctor can answer that. The doctor will update you. Please drive safely. The doctor will know.”
Angela’s husband Tyrone had been driving to work and he was hit by a truck. Most likely died instantly. He probably never knew.
There are days or weeks or even months when I read the Bible and there are no grand epiphanies.
There are whole seasons of Sundays when I sing praise and feel nothing.
There are times of prayer where the silence kills me.
There are great Christian books and podcasts that I eat up which don’t budge my spiritual life.
There are too many times when I doubt the very existence of God and the sending of His Son.
It can all feel like a crazy lie.
It’s in those times that I ask myself, “Am I out of love with God somehow? Am I losing my faith here? How do I get back to where I used to be?”
But I keep reading my Bible. I keep singing on Sundays. I keep praying. I soak in books and sermons. I serve. I enjoy the company of mature Christians. I enjoy the fellowship of the broken.
And you know, sometimes the clouds part and God comes through and His love squeezes my heart and I fall to my knees remembering how good He is.
Then I read Scripture and can’t stop weeping and I turn on Christian songs in my car full blast and sing loud enough to scare the traffic. I serve with shaking hands and get convicted by those sermons and soak in God’s goodness all over again.
So I’ve learned over time: I wasn’t really out of love with God. I’m just a fragile human being who changes as much as the weather. I was setting a ridiculous standard for myself that can’t be defined by self-pressuring parameters. I was tricked by the enemy into judging my flesh. How I feel is important, but it’s not the whole basis of my faith. It’s wholly, solely, defiantly by His grace—and in that, I think I can finally relax.
You can really do the thing. You can really achieve the dream and pursue your goal and find recovery.
But it has to start with one thing. It has to start with letting go of a lot of other things.
Maybe that means your current group of people. Or one person. Or some late night habits. Or the thing you keep throwing money at. Or an ideal version of yourself that’s just impossible.
None of that is easy, I know. I have this habit of starting new stuff and then I quit halfway through. It’s because I look sideways, seeing what everyone else is doing. It’s discouraging. “I could never be that good,” the little voice says. Everyone else seems better. More witty or charming or articulate. I’m missing “it,” you know, the elusive charm they were born with. So I stop doing all the things. “They’re already giving the world what I can barely do myself,” is the voice that keeps me down.
I have to let go of comparison.
I have to let go of some romanticized self.
I have to let go of the fear that I won’t be well received, the fear of silent response, the fear of crickets and tumbleweed.
You can do the thing. It starts with letting go of fears, habits, harmful people, bad advice, even beliefs we once held dear.
You can really, really do the thing. The stuff that hinders can be shed.
Are you there, too? Is there anything you need to let go of? Anything you did let go of which changed it all for you?
“You will never be enough. You will never be okay. You will never be successful. You will never be happy. You will never be picked. You will never be loved. You will never be forgiven. You will never be trusted. You will never be friends again. You will never be at peace again. You will never be at home again. You will never be better.”
I know it’s a lie most of the time. But in the moment, in the worst of every downward spiral, there comes the voice that says “never.” It’s an irretrievable vacuum, like the lights are shutting off behind me and I’m getting chased by darkness. Getting nevered is to be exiled.
I had a math tutor in fourth grade who used to shout at me. “You will never be smart enough for this.” He made me write the Pythagorean theorem hundreds of times, until my hand was swollen, though I wasn’t sure how it was helping. For months, this tutor kept yelling how stupid I was. My parents never found out. I still think about this all the time.
I have had to grieve when “never” became true. Sometimes “never” does happen. Loss happens. All change involves loss. All loss is change. I have had to welcome “never” with a bitter embrace. I don’t like it. I still don’t.
I think there are times I must refuse to believe “never.” I have to know when to pick those battles. I have to fight that voice.
Are you dealing with this, too? What does it look like? Sound like? How do you get free? How do you fight this voice? — J.S.
Jealousy can cut short the empowering work of friendship and all the joy and vision it brings forth. I have two choices: I’m either your cheerleader or the loop of condemnation in your head. And I know which one I prefer to be around.
Forgiveness does not mean that the hurt should be forgotten or dismissed. In fact, true forgiveness actually confronts the very real hurt that was done to you and says, “This is not okay. This is something terrible that happened and it requires you make reparations.” The people who hurt you should still be held accountable, with all the mercy you can give and with all the justice that they’re owed.
Very often when I talk about the love of God, some of the first go-to responses are, Well what about repenting from sin? What about conforming to the image of Christ? What about purity and holiness and the narrow road? What about wrath and hell and judgment? What about discipline and submission and obedience? What about selling all your stuff and getting wrecked and radical for Jesus?
I do believe these things are important and they need discussion. A God of love must also be a God of justice, and Jesus had some very hard things to say to us. We can’t skip them. I’m completely against sugarcoating and watering it down – the truth exists regardless of my whimsy. Christianity is not a feel-good fuzzy for tickles and giggles, and it really does require your whole life.
I just think that some of us say sin and hell and holiness with a certain type of glee that’s shamelessly smug and lopsided. It’s with a hasty thoughtlessness that doesn’t consider the nuances of a whole person. Sometimes “sin” has been a person’s entire value, culture, and identity for their entire lives, and to expect a person’s worldview to shift so dramatically in a single sit-down is to play God. We expect people to change and get qualified before walking in the door, when this is the very opposite of how we each got inside – by a divine miracle. You and I don’t make that happen.
My job is that I’d point to Christ, and you would get to a place where he would challenge you on something you had never considered, and whether overnight or over a lifetime, you would solidify your own convictions.
And if we’re not speaking from a grieving, sacrificial, truly concerned heart, then it doesn’t matter how much we “stand for truth.” A jerk is still a jerk, no matter how upstanding we look.
Leave your phone inside and walk the neighborhood. Talk with Him. Tell Him about your day, what’s been on your mind, what’s bothering you. Thank Him for the trees and the breeze and the sun. If it’s hard to talk with Him, tell Him. If you’re hurting, tell Him. If you’re mad at Him, tell Him.
The darker problem with “crushing” is that it occasionally turns a real live person into a trophy, a sort of non-independent rubber statue imprisoned on a pedestal, and if you ever finally reached it, you’d either squeeze it too hard or please it too much. In both cases, both people lose.
Relationships are hard work, and absolutely require more than the initial illusion of fleeting chemicals in our easily tricked brains. That rush of first feelings is overwhelming, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grander scheme: and we could save ourselves a lot of trouble if we took up Taylor Swift to “count to ten, take it in, this is life before you know who you’re gonna be.”
The person you’ll end up with is going to be their own person with their own hopes, dreams, goals, anxieties, and weird little habits. They’re not a checklist trophy that will meet your every size or quota.
They’re going to be way different and in fact way more interesting than the stitched up hologram made from half-baked movie cliches and choir-preaching memes.
Eventually I’ll say something that you’ll totally disagree with. I will disappoint you. I’ll come off shrill, inconsiderate, ignorant, and misinformed. Your favorite writer or pastor or celebrity will miss an angle or fumble a point or miss the whole thing. You’ll think, “How could I have ever liked this guy?” And we completely dismiss and demonize this person based off one sentence, one phrasing, one particular choice of word. I’ve done it, too. Farewell, forever.
Maybe it’s for a legitimate reason, and they really did go too far. I just wish we could give a little chance for conversation over coffee. It’s possible this person misspoke, because they’re just a person, and they don’t always get it right. It could be that they need the patience of dialogue to re-examine what they said, instead of the hasty hate-train that offers no fair exchange. I want your help. I want to know when I’m wrong – but it’s hard to hear what’s right when everyone is yelling. I want the freedom to make mistakes so that I’m not afraid to learn from you. I don’t want to be afraid that you’ll freak out when I don’t phrase things exactly as you’d like. We can tell when you’re ego-boosting your platform and winning internet-points with the choir. I’m not sure if you would listen to that sort of yelling, either.
I know there are some non-negotiables that we must agree on, like common dignity and humanity, but none of us will ever agree on everything. And that’s okay. I think we can have the nuance to disagree over a few things, but not judge an entire person based off a few degrees of difference. We can disagree and still be friends. It’s in our disagreements that we can become better together, and not worse.
What if I am angry at God. How do you cope with the frustration and anger towards Him?
Hey dear friend, I’m really sorry. There must be many things happening internally and externally, and I’m with you and for you. So is everyone here.
I have to tell you up front: I’d much rather be mad with God than mad without Him.
That’s not some cute little statement that only works abstractly on Instagram. I’m dead serious. If you’re angry with God, at the very least, you’re talking with Him. He’d rather you be mad at Him than displacing that anywhere else. God isn’t put off by our barest, most raw emotions: because He made them, and He made you, and He’s going to work with that.
About my journey from atheism to faith, and how our historical impulse for religion points to the hidden story of humanity. I also engage with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and his take on religious metafictions.
For my seminar and Q&A “Jesus for Atheists,” click here.
I was interviewed by Heather Parady on her podcast, The Weekly Parady. We talk about my hospital work, recent events and protests, and how to deal with disagreement. You can also download it directly here.