Written by Abigail Simpson for EveryCampus
We’ve all been there.
You open up to a friend, mentor, or family member about your struggle with mental illness, and with the best of intentions, they remind you of Philippians 4:6-7:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
They mean well, and you know that. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been praying about your anxiety for years, and God hasn’t taken it away.
A misconception has taken root in some Christian circles, and the result—while accidental—has been incredibly damaging. Christians with mental illness have been made to feel like something is lacking in their faith.
If you are a Christian who struggles with anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, or any other kind of mental illness, we want you to know: your illness is not a reflection of weak faith.
We want you to know that struggling with mental illness does not disqualify you from God’s Kingdom.
It does not disqualify you from being a leader.
It does not disqualify you from being a disciple.
It does not disqualify you from being a disciple-maker.
It does not disqualify you from being a witness.
It does not disqualify you from being a faithful follower of God.
You are not disqualified because of your struggle. In fact, some of the most well-known leaders in the Kingdom of God throughout the centuries have faced emotional and mental struggles. Countless of these examples appear in the pages of Scripture.
Take David, for instance. He is primarily remembered as the man after God’s own heart. He was a mighty warrior and a respected ruler—and an imperfect man and an adulterer. He was also a poet, and his psalms reveal a deep and turbulent inner life.
In Psalm 13, David writes,
“How long, O Lord?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
While it’s easier to talk about rejoicing psalms, psalms like this one affirm that it is good and right to tell God how we feel. We don’t have to hide anything from Him.
Elijah’s story also offers insight into serving God while struggling internally. In I Kings 19, we read about how Elijah triumphed over the false prophets of Baal, then immediately fled for his life from Queen Jezebel. Feeling alone, afraid, and exhausted, Elijah tells God that he wants to die. He doesn’t want to go on anymore.
Elijah falls asleep and is awoken by an angel, who gives him warm bread to eat and water to drink. Then, instead of letting him die, God reveals Himself to Elijah in an intimate, unexpected way. After showing Elijah a powerful wind, a mighty earthquake, and a raging fire, God speaks in a gentle whisper. God assures Elijah that he is not alone, and instructs him to anoint his successor, Elisha.
Following God’s lead, this story offers insight into how we can support our brothers and sisters who are struggling mentally. God does not begin by telling Elijah that he should think or feel differently; He gives Elijah something to eat. Then He gives Elijah His quiet presence. Afterward, God tells Elijah that he is not alone, and He gives Elijah a mission: to anoint a co, Elisha.
God knew that the darkness Elijah had been experiencing did not diminish his ability to be a faithful servant and leader.
Jumping forward in history, consider Paul’s story. This persecutor-turned-apostle wrote nearly half of the epistles that now make up our New Testament. He preached the Good News with boldness and compassion, determined that all should have the opportunity to know Christ. Amidst his evangelical successes, Paul also suffered greatly. He was stoned, flogged, and consistently persecuted. It’s no wonder that we see him struggle mentally, as well as physically.
We may not know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, but it clearly caused him considerable distress.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
II Corinthians 12:8-9
Despite the difficulty, Paul shows us how weakness provides an opportunity for the power of Christ. Unique struggles provide God with a unique opportunity to work if we’re open to the Spirit’s leading.
We want you to know that you can struggle with mental illness and still be a leader on your campus. In fact, your struggles equip you with empathy to understand your peers who struggle. And, if you’re willing to be transparent about your experiences, you possess an incredible witness to the power of the Gospel.
Sometimes people feel like they have to get everything together before joining a Christian community. When Christians are open about their struggles, it lets people outside the faith have a more accurate picture of what the Gospel is all about: not achieving perfection before we come to Christ but experiencing redemption because of Christ.
Community has the power to shine a light on the darkness of mental illness. Can you find and create safe spaces for your fellow students to talk about their struggles? Can you be vulnerable and open about what you go through so that your friends and mentors can support you?
Since the pandemic struck last year, it’s taken a serious toll on our collective mental health. Now is the time for Christian leaders like you to speak about this challenge.
There’s a turning point just before the end of Psalm 13. All of a sudden, David shifts gears and declares,
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because He has dealt bountifully with me.”
Christians with mental illness live in the tension between struggle and hope. Although this may be a paradox, we serve a God who delights in paradoxes: like God becoming a man, or death giving way to new life. In fact, those who experience both mental illness and the saving love of Christ might be best equipped of all to witness to those who struggle.
One step you can take today is visiting Mental Health & Jesus, a website by Cru. You’ll find some resources there to help get the conversation started. May we all trust in God’s steadfast love, joining together to shine light into the darkness.