For years, Sunday was always the day of the week I dreaded most. For most people, church is a place to step outside of the stress of the work week, to encounter the goodness and peace of God, and to receive encouragement for the challenges ahead. But without fail, I would walk out of almost every service on edge, my thoughts spiraling down at an alarming rate.
The same thing was happening during meetings throughout the week, after small groups and worship services. I seemed to struggle to connect with God in worship like my friends, and I became hyper-sensitive to every sermon point, agonizing over whether I was in or out of God’s moral will. I was constantly anxious that I wasn’t satisfying all of God’s expectations for me, and church would remind me of these fears and keep them churning in my mind for hours and days.
I still loved God, and I loved my church and my community there, but as my anxiety increased, my relationship with God and with my church suffered. It wasn’t until I began seeking out help for mental health that I began to understand what was going on and that I was not alone.
Every year in America, millions of Christians experience mental health struggles, and while for many of them faith can be a source of comfort, it can also become a source of distress. For people of faith, mental health struggles often take on spiritual overtones. Many people shame themselves for not overcoming their anxieties with faith, or ruminate over a thousand miniscule spiritual shortcomings. Others may beat themselves up for not experiencing joy or spend hours just trying to feel close to God.
We are tempted to examine our spiritual lives with painstaking scrupulosity, looking for the defect that must be the root of our struggle. “If only I had a better relationship with God,” we tell ourselves, “then I wouldn’t feel this way.”
The reality is that people can experience mental health challenges regardless of the quality of their relationship with God. Great figures like Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, and Charles Spurgeon, to name a few, suffered severely with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, yet God used their spiritual walks to impact millions of people.
Depression, anxiety, bipolar and the like are not signs of weak faith but rather opportunities for our faith to shine through. As James 1:2-3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” James isn’t saying to stuff our emotions and claim we’re joyful; he’s challenging us to recognize that our struggles test our faith and reveal it to be genuine. Instead of seeing our mental health issues as a deficit of faith, we can realize that God is at work in us, sustaining us and giving purpose to our suffering.
While church can be difficult for many with mental health challenges, there are ways we can find peace, hope, and restoration in our communities in the midst of the struggle. Here are just five tips I’ve learned through my journey.
1. Savor what allows you to connect with God.
When mental health issues develop, it can seem like God is behind a wall. None of the things that used to allow us to relate with him seem to work. It can be hard to focus on Scripture, or wake up early for devotions. Maybe you can’t feel the same emotions in worship, or you find yourself overwhelmed by all the people, lights, and music at a service. Thankfully, God graciously accepts many kinds of worship. There are dozens of spiritual disciplines that Christians have used across the centuries to connect to God.
As you have the opportunity, try different ways of reading Scripture, praying, worshipping, and reflecting. As you find practices that make sense to you, savor them and work them regularly into your life. When Israel was journeying across the wilderness, God appeared in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night; we find that God shows up in different ways under different circumstances, even as God leads us to the same destination.
2. Know your limits.
All humans, not just those with mental health diagnoses, have limits! During the middle of a hard episode, aspects of church can become difficult to get through. If a loud worship service is overstimulating, give yourself permission to walk out (maybe invite a friend to come with you). Don’t force yourself to sit through a service or small group if you’re having a hard time. God desires mercy over sacrifice.
Instead, give yourself space to breath and ground yourself, and go back in when you are ready. Once you realize you are not trapped in the pews, the tension and anxiety around church can decrease, and worship services become less about performance and more about meeting God with the people of God.