By Michael Cooper
Unfortunately, the topic of mental illness has a stigma attached to it—even within the church.
Images of psych wards and straitjackets might come to mind for people who don’t struggle with mental issues. What’s more, it’s easy to quote “don’t worry about anything” and “cast your anxiety upon the Lord” when you’ve never experienced an all-out panic attack or a dark season of depression.
To shepherd struggling sheep wrestling with mental health is one thing, but caring for your own anxious soul as a pastor is another.
So here’s a confession: I have generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD. I’m a constant worrier. I can worry about small things, which gradually turn into big things.
This can range from health anxiety to other irrational fears (like public speaking when I was in high school). This worry sometimes manifests into a full panic attack. Adrenaline rushes into my system and my thoughts race uncontrollably.
Nearly 1 in 4 Americans, including pastors, have battled with mental illness on a personal level. And many pastors suffer in silence because of the stigma.
But brother, we don’t have to suffer in the prison of our mind. We can learn to embrace our weaknesses and display the grace of God.
Learning from the Prince of Preachers
Every human is created with a healthy sense of anxiety and anticipation. We’re hard-wired toward fight or flight.
But some of us, in our fallen nature, have a difficult time dealing with anxiety. It consumes us if we allow it.
Our affections become distorted and affect our wills. I have a friend—a licensed psychiatrist—who says, “You don’t correct anxiety. It’s a part of being human.”
Learning how to be human is hard. As we live between the already-and-not-yet reality of the gospel, we often grasp at straws, just trying to make our way down the path of life.
Our human nature is weak. Let me rephrase that: our fallen human nature is weak.
You see, those who have mental illness may seek medical treatment (which is something I did) or speak with a counselor, but anxious and depressed souls ultimately need the gospel.
The “prince of preachers,” Charles H. Spurgeon, said:
“If there are any of you in great trouble, I would like to remind you of this fact, that faith in Jesus is the best cure for every care, the best balm for every wound. Get you away to Jesus; at the foot of his cross is the best place for mourners. All our other sorrows die where Jesus’s sorrows are revealed. Faith in Christ is what you need beyond everything else.”
Spurgeon, the “Lion of London,” struggled throughout his life with depression and anxiety. This man, so devoted to the gospel and the church, wrestled with thoughts of despair.
Yet, he found Jesus to be the best balm for every wound.
This doesn’t mean that anxiety will magically disappear or that fear of the future will subside. Rather, Jesus is the deep-seated, heart-satisfying, and soul-soothing balm that eases the pain of the unknown.
During my journey, I’ve discovered Spurgeon’s Sorrows to be a helpful read as it reveals the humanity of a famous preacher who found rest in Christ. Brother, I encourage you to also find your rest in the gospel.
With that in mind, what are four things mental illness teaches us:
1. It Reveals the Inability to Control Today and Tomorrow.
Mental illness reminds us we’re broken. My anxiety has taught me I can’t control today or tomorrow—only God can.
I believe in the sovereignty of God…theoretically. But actually submitting my life to His will is another story.
Daily submission, even when I don’t want to submit, is the key to turning out-of-control thoughts into God-is-in-control belief.
My anxiety reminds me of the fallen state of my body. It gives me eyes to see my inability and God’s ability.
2. It Reveals Deep Longing for Something More.
I’m an emotional person. My affections drive me. But sometimes they also get me into trouble.
When my affections get the best of me, this is when anxiety and depression creep into my life. You see, my affections seem to overwhelm me most when I think about the future.
Simply put: I can’t control the future. I tend to worry about it and then seek to control the worry. To quote Charlie Brown, “My anxieties have anxieties!”
It’s an endless, vicious cycle. However, it’s in these moments I realize my deepest longing. This longing is not temporal but eternal.
And only Jesus can satisfy that longing today and every day throughout eternity.
My anxiety creates a fresh insight into faith and my walk with Christ. My anxiety causes me to long for another world.
Like C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
3. It Frees Us from Unrealistic Expectations.
This seems ironic, doesn’t it? Unrealistic expectations are usually what cause anxiety. My anxiety and depression are helpful reminders that the expectations I place on myself might not be from God.
Then I remember the words of our Lord: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The same person who said, “Don’t worry,” is the one who also says, “Come to me.”
When I feel the anxiety of unrealistic expectations, Christ is there inviting me to come rest in Him.
This mental illness, though a thorn in my flesh, actually proves Paul right when he quotes the Lord saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
4. It Allows Us to be Open About the Struggle.
The worst part about mental illness is that many don’t understand it. In our culture, mental illness is still somewhat taboo.
This is also true within the church. However, my anxiety has allowed me to be open about my struggle. Sometimes being authentic can cause some to feel uncomfortable, but for me, it’s a way of healing.
It’s freeing to let people know I’m not always OK. Hiding anxiety was the root of my struggle. The thought of what others would say about the pastor and his struggles terrified me.
But allowing people to know I’m an already-but-not-yet resurrected and fallen man is liberating. I don’t have to put on a face; I’m becoming who I’m supposed to be in Christ.
Struggling with mental illness is not the end of the story. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it doesn’t make sense sometimes. But Christ is our identity.
Though we may have an anxious or depressed soul, Christ calms the seas of our fears. He’s the balm for our wounds.
Commit your struggles to the Lord, speak openly about them, and finally, seek help. You’re not alone; don’t suffer in silence.