Somewhere along the way, Christians decided that you are supposed to be happy. My guess is that it has something to do with our affinity for scriptures like “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace…” and songs with lyrics like “nothing gonna steal my joy”. I’ve heard people say they knew someone was a Christian by the way they smiled. It seems like if you aren’t happy the assumption is that you are having faith issues.
Maybe it’s because of those expectations that so many church leaders, myself included, rarely talk about the very real struggles that we face. My go-to description of what living with depression is like came out after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide last year.
“When you have depression it's like it snows every day.
Some days it's only a couple of inches. It's a pain, but you still make it to work, the grocery store. Sure, maybe you skip the gym or your friend's birthday party, but it IS still snowing and who knows how bad it might get tonight. Probably better to just head home. Your friend notices, but probably just thinks you are flaky now, or kind of a jerk.
Some days it snows a foot. You spend an hour shoveling out your driveway and are late to work. Your back and hands hurt from shoveling. You leave early because it's really coming down out there. Your boss notices.
Some days it snows four feet. You shovel all morning but your street never gets plowed. You are not making it to work, or anywhere else for that matter. You are so sore and tired you just get back in the bed. By the time you wake up, all your shoveling has filled back in with snow. Looks like your phone rang; people are wondering where you are. You don't feel like calling them back, too tired from all the shoveling. Plus they don't get this much snow at their house so they don't understand why you're still stuck at home. They just think you're lazy or weak, although they rarely come out and say it….
The thing is, when it snows all the time, you get worn all the way down. You get tired of being cold. You get tired of hurting all the time from shoveling, but if you don't shovel on the light days, it builds up to something unmanageable on the heavy days. You resent the snow, but it doesn't care, it's just a blind chemistry, an act of nature. It carries on regardless, unconcerned and unaware if it buries you or the whole world.” (full description here)
As the Church, we have to do a better job of talking about mental health issues. Too many people put on a fake smile when they walk through our doors. They pretend everything is fine and that they are too blessed to be stressed when really they are surrounded by a blizzard no one else can see. Instead of pointing out the 267 times the word joy is mentioned in the Bible, maybe we should spend more time talking about how there are more lamenting psalms than thanksgiving psalms, or how Jerusalem’s wall was rebuilt because the king noticed Nehemiah was sad. We glance over the times that grief and anguish overcame Jesus, Elijah begged to die, basically the entire book of Job, the fact that we have a “weeping prophet”, and David’s several low points. We unintentionally alienate those who struggle with mental illness by our avoidance of the subject.
But more damaging than ignoring mental illness in the church is trying to “fix” people. Depression is not a spiritual issue but a psychological and health issue. We can’t tell someone to pray the sad away anymore than we can tell someone who just had a root canal to pray the pain away. And that’s the rub. We believe in prayer. We believe that God still heals people, but we also know that God also doesn’t heal every person that’s been prayed for. The apostle Paul asked three times for the thorn in his flesh to be taken away, and God’s answer was “My grace is sufficient”. I pray that we all find God’s grace to be sufficient, that we learn to embrace our weaknesses for Christ’s sake, and that we never point to someone else’s weakness and think ourselves better.