By Emily Martin, MA in Medieval and Renaissance Literary Studies.
Growing up as a Christian, I was often asked, “What is your favorite Bible verse?” (It’s Joshua 1:9, if you are interested). But there is a question no one asks, “What is your least favorite Bible verse?”. There’s definitely plenty of good candidates for that question. Take the Old Testament passages about genocide, for instance, or those about God’s day of judgment.
For me, though, my least favorite passage is Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (ESV). This verse is, of course, not bad in and of itself, but what I find so upsetting is how it is misapplied. This verse has been quoted at me by well-meaning Christians who want to sooth the look of panic on my face. But more often than this, most people just say something like, “Jesus said not to worry. You should just trust God.” Although well-intended, statements like these must be contextualised with modern understandings of mental illness and psychological well-being. As someone who has taken daily medication for anxiety disorder since age twelve, I don’t project my struggles to evaporate anytime soon. In light of this fact, what should we do? Instead of acting surprised to hear another Christian is struggling with anxiety, we should actually expect it. If we believe humanity is fallen, we should anticipate that even the mind has been marred by the Fall. If we believe the entire cosmos is fallen, we should understand that it will take a toll on us, physically and mentally.
If we can quiet inner voices of shame, we can begin to cultivate gratitude for who we are, just as we are.
Whether you are a Christian or not, I think we can all approach the topic of mental health with greater sensitivity. First, we can stop assuming psychological well-being is a given. I have, for much of my life, been ashamed of my anxiety. I have often asked myself, “Why can’t you just trust God? If you can’t do it, do you even have faith at all?” I have often quit my medication, just hoping that if I prayed more, my anxiety would go away, but, more than once, that has caused me to become mentally ill. I felt as if I was a failure, because I was unable to ignore or move beyond feelings of anxiety without the help of medication. As a Christian, what doesn’t help with this problem is how commonly Christians have, either consciously or unconsciously, communicated that it is not acceptable to struggle with anxiety. If this were true, Christ Himself would be deemed insufficient, because he certainly was anxious in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Whether you are a Christian or not, I know many people can relate to experiencing feelings of shame associated with taking medication for mental health issues, and it is important to understand that we must give ourselves grace to accept that we are not self-sufficient. No one is. We all rely on people and things outside ourselves to survive and thrive. My advice is not just that others become more accepting of those who struggle with mental illness; I am speaking to myself just as much. I need to become more accepting of my own struggles with mental illness and be more willing to extend compassion to myself during hard times.
We should remember to respond with compassion and support when we hear that someone is struggling with mental illness. If you are a Christian, you should pray. If you are someone who has never struggled with mental illness before and are unsure what words to say, you can start with these:
“Dear Lord, I thank you for my friend ______. He/she is such a blessing to me; thank you for our friendship. I pray that you would alleviate the burden of anxiety, sadness, and/or stress that ____ is experiencing. I pray that I would be willing to hear and empathize with my friend through this time. Please enable me to accept _____’s experience without judging or condemning him/her. I pray that you would comfort ____ even when I cannot be present to do so. Please allow me to be willing to help in whatever way I can to make sure _____ can return to health and wholeness. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Finally, we need to remember that everyone is different and that they must deal with mental illness in different ways. If you are a Christian, remember that meditating on Scripture passages, such as Matthew 6:34, might alleviate your anxiety, but that might not work for another Christian. It might just be that they have a greater struggle to maintain their mental health than you do, and the solution for them might be more complex. It might be a mixture of prayer, meditation, exercise, and medication; even all these might not be enough at times. We should be comfortable with the fact that, in this life, we might not always be well, and we should be willing to accept others, however they feel at any time.
For all of us, whether we are Christians, of other faiths or none, and whatever the situation of our mental health, practicing self-acceptance can help us with whatever we are going through. When we acknowledge our weaknesses and accept them, we become less critical of ourselves. If we can quiet inner voices of shame, we can begin to cultivate gratitude for who we are, just as we are. This frees us to make room in our minds for positive thinking. Over time, we can learn to be more content with ourselves and our surroundings.
Everyone will have good times and hard times. We should not feel ashamed to experience frustration, grief, anger, anxiety, or any range of emotions. Mindfulness, the practice of being aware of ourselves and the world around us, can teach us to be in tune with our own feelings and to accept what we feel without judgment. It is perfectly normal and acceptable to feel exactly how we feel. Once we know what we are feeling, we can then make a good decision about how we should act upon that feeling. We can choose to use whatever we are feeling to inspire us to create beautiful art, to bring about change in our world, or to reach out to someone else who is struggling. Our sometimes turbulent emotions can provide us with the depth to live with intention and to care for ourselves, others, and our world.