spirituality

Mental Health and Spirituality

Guest Post by Brandon Smee

Photo by  whoislimos  on  Unsplash

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

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.

Photo by  KEEM IBARRA  on  Unsplash

Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

3. Embrace community.

A great temptation for those of us facing mental health challenges is isolation. Others can have difficulty understanding what you are going through, and a mental health episode can make you feel like you have no energy left for connecting with people. But God has designed us to function best both in faith and in life when we are walking with other people. When we embrace community, we can find people to pray, seek God, and have fun with.

Moreover, being with other people can help take our focus from our own struggles to those of others, allowing us to have a positive impact in the lives of those around us. Whether it’s a small group, a Bible study, or a volunteer group, it’s a great idea to find people to walk with.

4. Set up healthy boundaries.

At the other extreme from isolation, mental health struggles can lead us to rely too heavily on others, whether we find comfort in them solving our problems or us solving theirs. In Galatians 6, Paul balances his command to “Bear one another's’ burdens” with the admonition that “each one should carry their own load.”

We support each other, but at the end of the day, we should be carrying our own load, no more and no less. When we find ourselves beginning to rely on a relationship or person at church to take care of us emotionally, keep tabs on us spiritually, or make decisions for us, it’s time to take responsibility for these things ourselves.

While it can sound scary to limit the amount we rely on a friend, it is actually empowering and freeing to carry what God has given us to carry, as it allows us to trust in an unfailing God to support us rather than another person. In addition, a mental health diagnosis in no way diminishes our worth or value as Christians, and as such we should not be okay with people taking advantage of our struggle, abusing or manipulating us, but we should assert boundaries as the respect that comes with bearing God’s image.

5. Maintain a perspective of grace.

Grace is unmerited favor, and God extends it to us abundantly. In our mental health journey, we will find that at many turns our spiritual lives are difficult, and as humans we often mess up and sin. In the process, there is grace for when we walk imperfectly, and grace to strengthen us as we continue toward the future.

Moreover, there is grace to extend to other people who have difficulty understanding or supporting us in the struggle. For people who don’t experience a mental health challenge, what you’re going through may be totally unfamiliar, and they may say or do things in response that hurt more than help. There is grace for them and for you as you seek healing and restoration. As we hold onto that grace, we will find peace, hope, and love accessible to us along the way.

Wrapping It Up

Jesus invites all people to come to the Father through him, including those who experience mental health challenges. He healed whoever he came in contact with, and he has the power to restore the broken thought patterns, neural connections, and trauma that underlie these issues. As long as we remain in the process of healing, may church be a place where we find the love of God among the people of God, and receive empowerment and encouragement to move toward recovery.

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Satisfaction in a "Just Enough" Culture

Satisfied. This word has been on my mind for the past several weeks. It's what I've longed for on the daily for months. It's what I've craved when I've been anxious.

I've found a lot of things that have brought temporary satisfaction—just enough to get me to the next hour, day, or week. TV shows, peanut butter M&Ms, songs and books and random events. 

Stock photo from Pixabay.com

Stock photo from Pixabay.com

I'm reminded of this pair of red headphones I have on right now (listening to "Unchanging" by Antioch Live—check it out!). I bought these headphones for $15 in Cambodia, and they're knock-offs of a famous brand. The sound quality is still stellar—much better than the cheap ear buds I usually buy at Target. They're not the real thing, but they're good enough for my needs. Plus, I feel super cool when I have them on because no one else knows they're knock-offs!

When I think of the activities (and foods) I've found satisfaction in over the past few months, I deemed them all "good enough for my needs" at the time. And perhaps they were, for a season, as I transitioned back to life in the US and struggled through a dark wave of depression. But now, I crave something more.

I crave the real thing. Not a knock-off. Not something that's good enough for now. Something that will fill me up, from the soul outward, not just filling my stomach or my five senses. All around me, marketing schemes pitch ideas of why a product or experience is the greatest "for now" satisfaction—just enough to tide me over. I could live my whole life like this, going on the next adventure, viewing the new movie, or binge-watching the newest Netflix sensation. I could live like this, and I wouldn't be unhappy. I could hop from one distraction to the next, and I could even feel like I was bettering myself and my community with "the next big thing:" online classes, community projects, and more.

These offers for satisfaction are delightful—at least for the moment, hour, day that they last. This is the message of our culture: "If it meets my needs right now, it's enough, even if it's not the real deal."

These days, I'm craving something deeper. I'm craving what only the Lord can give to satisfy my soul, my being. I'm learning, so far, satisfied only comes in abundance in His presence. 

I'm still a fan of my headphones, even if they're fake. They help me come into the presence of the One who brings me to the place of being deeply satisfied. I'm choosing to invest more time and energy into this deep, lasting, authentic satisfaction, the kind that starts in my soul and creeps into my bones and changes the essence of who I am. This is the real deal, and it's more than enough.

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Scarcity and the Spiritual

Scarcity is a topic just making its way into the public conversation arena. It can be summed up as the belief there’s “not enough:" not enough time, not enough happiness to go around for everyone, not enough money, and the list continues. It can manifest as “I am not enough”—not pretty enough, good enough, nice enough, productive enough—a lie I faced head-on after an experience in a Cambodian hospital left me painfully aware of my inadequacies.

The scarcity mindset is rampant and often leaks unnoticed into all realms of our lives, including the spiritual. I’m sure scarcity manifests itself in different ways for different people, but here are three ways I’ve noticed the “not enough” mantra invading my spiritual life.

1) I’m afraid there’s not enough grace and mercy to cover my sins.

As someone who grew up in church, the gravity of sin was hammered into me from a young age. Add perfectionism to church legalism, and it’s easy to understand why it’s such a struggle to believe Jesus’ mercy is enough to cover me every time I sin. Time after time after time, I stumble and fall, and sometimes it just seems plain impossible that Christ has any mercy left. Questions such as “How can God forgive me even though I’ve fallen into this sin so many times?” and “How can God still love me after all I’ve done?” are birthed. Yet the Word clearly says His love endures forever, and His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22). Viewing this lie as a scarcity issue has helped me understand where these fear-based doubts come from and freed me to rejoice in the abundance of the Lord’s mercy.

2) I start believing there’s not enough encouragement for all the times I feel down.

Every time I serve overseas, my mom has this wonderful tradition of collecting notes from my friends and family and sending them with me for days when I need a little extra encouragement. It’s a great resource—except for several years I convinced myself the number of moments of discouragement I'd have would exceed the number of notes to read. I stockpiled the letters for times when I “really needed” them. I tried to muscle through the hard days because I was so afraid a harder time would come and no encouragement would be left. At the end of several summer trips, I had a dozen unread notes to read on the plane home. They were still fun to open, but I found I’d robbed myself of the encouragement God had provided for the hard times.

These days I push past my fears and reach out to others when I'm having a rough day, either by sending a text or opening a note (though I try to be careful I’m seeking hope first from the Lord and not from other people’s words). It’s been a source of encouragement and strength, and on days I have no letters and no signal, the Lord continues to provide. The interactions I find most encouraging are, after all, the ones pointing me back to find strength in the Lord Himself.

3) I’m afraid God’s gifts are limited.

Even when I pray, I fall prey to the scarcity mindset. I’m hesitant to ask the Lord for hope, encouragement, or a boost in mood. I act as though there’s a quota for the gifts He gives each of His children, and we must be wise about when and why we ask for them. However, when I look at the life of Jesus in the Gospels, His generosity cannot be measured, and Paul refers to the riches of Christ as unfathomable (Ephesians 3:18). I must ask myself, “Am I robbing myself of asking for and enjoying His gifts because of a scarcity mindset?”


The root of it all, I suppose, is a belief that God is not enough. It’s a lie that creeps into my heart and makes subtle but significant changes in the way I view God and myself. When I start believing God is not enough, I search for “enough” in other places: in myself, in others’ approval, in “success,” or in knowledge. Yet Jesus is enough is a fundamental part of the Gospel. There is no scarcity in His Kingdom. I have to remind myself of this every day. He’s enough to hold my fears, my failures, my future, my down days. He's enough for my scarcity mindset and all it entails!

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