While God Offers Us Grace, the Church Can Be Stingy
Depression didn’t have to destroy my academic record, but it nearly did. I could have shared about the suffering I was experiencing, but I didn’t know how. Someone could have asked me about all the missed meetings, disheveled clothes, and poor performance. But they probably thought it wasn’t any of their business. Instead, I struggled in silence, trying to paint a stoic expression on my face. I made excuses about how busy I was, and for a time it worked. Eventually, depression would overtake me, and I was completely unprepared.
I grew up in a small town where real men didn’t talk about their feelings. In fact, the only feelings men were allowed to express were happiness and anger. I was marinated in that atmosphere to the point where I didn’t even have a vocabulary adequate to the task of describing the emotions I experienced. Since I had no words for them, I pushed them down. It was what was expected of men in that place; both inside and outside the church. Tears were only acceptable at conversion, because only God should have the ability to make a man cry.
It was easy, then, to cover over my struggles. In small towns, there are opportunities to do all kinds of things for the sheer simplicity that there are not enough people for everything to get done otherwise. I was able to make myself so busy as a teenager that I barely had time to appear at all of my responsibilities, let alone time enough to reflect on what I was experiencing. Youth was a panacea that allowed me to ignore the weight I carried, and present to the world the image of the all-American kid who played football and went to church anytime the doors were open. In those spare moments when I did feel the creeping feelings of inadequacy and self-hate, I was told I only needed more faith, and assurance of the Holy Spirit’s protection over my life.
As I grew up, I didn’t become less busy, but I did become busy doing fewer things. Where I could bounce around from school to event to church without ever thinking of returning home for a meal, the requirements of adult life meant more time was necessary to complete tasks thoroughly. It was then that I began to struggle with the depression I had been holding at bay. It would come on me in those quiet moments when I was supposed to be writing a paper for class, or preparing a presentation. Feelings of impending failure and unrealistic expectations left me overwhelmed. I sabotaged myself because I felt it better to not try than to try and fail. All the while, I lied and made excuses for why things were happening because I felt shame whenever I was forced to look myself in the mirror.
Eventually, it would come down to me sitting by myself in a dark apartment that had not been cleaned in far too long, and afraid of thoughts that came unbidden into my head. Though I would never actually plan my own destruction, I was so scared that I could consider such a thing that I did, finally, reach out for help. I told my family that I would be leaving seminary for a semester in order to go to therapy. And lucky for me, my seminary supported me and allowed me to return as a student the next term.
Though it is easy to number the things I could say depression and anxiety “took” from me, what I have learned in the years since is the greater gift. The realization that I am not nearly as different from everyone else as I would like to think, and the vocabulary to actually comprehend what I am feeling and experiencing are treasures without comparison. My only real regret is that I didn’t know I could ask for help, and then find it, sooner. As people called by one who implored us to heal the sick, why we treat mental illness differently than physical illness is something we must confront.
As a minister in Christ’s church, it has been painful to see how Christians still look down upon those who struggle with mental illness, especially when the struggling party is a minister. Stories abound of churches who push ministers out when they begin to seek treatment for these illnesses that affect their very existence. Often accusations that clergy have lied to their congregations abound, and questions of their faith usually follow. If these faithful servants of God do not take their own life due to the shame, which happens with surprising frequency, they end up never finding another place where they can live out the vocational calling which helps give meaning and stability to their faith. For years, I refused to speak of my own struggles for fear of the reaction of the people I serve, and now, when I have had the courage to share my vulnerability, it often creates tension for many.
It’s painful to know that while God offers us grace, the church can be so stingy. When a congregant suffers from mental illness, fellow members often express pity, which leads to more pain and less healing. When a minister suffers the same illness, the response is typically judgment. For a group family that is called to heal the sick, there are many in our own houses of worship who suffer in silence. And from what I read in Scripture, this seems to be the opposite of the gospel. May those who suffer know that they are not alone. May the Holy Spirit hear the prayers of the hurting, and may we all learn that the light of God’s love shines in the darkness. Even the darkness of mental illness.