The first time I heard this question it stopped me in my tracks. I was doing a Q&A at REBOOT, a youth apologetics event run by the Zacharias Trust. We create a space where no question (about faith, life, science, sex, philosophy, God, you-name-it is) off limits, but that still didn’t quite prepare me for the rawness of the moment or the reality of the issues that dwell behind such a question. Here was someone brave enough to voice their darkest thought and ask for help.
That was five years ago. At every REBOOT I have spoken at since, whether in London, Belfast, Edinburgh or the United States, questions of mental health, depression, anxiety and suicide have been asked. These questions are an arresting snapshot of what it feels like to be a young person in a world where there is such craving for significance and approval in the eyes of our peers.
I discovered that questions about mental health are deeply profound apologetic questions: How can a loving God allow me to go through this mental distress? Why doesn’t God heal me? How could a loving God have let the underlying trauma I experienced happen? Will God punish my brother who died by suicide? Does relying on antidepressants mean I’m not relying on God?
Honour the privilege of trust
I have also come to realise that it is an unbelievable privilege to be trusted with these questions by so many precious young people. As an apologist and follower of Christ, I am so conscious of Jesus’ teachings on pastoral ministry. He called us to “take care of his sheep” (John 21:16), to stand beside those that are hurting or feeling excluded, like the bleeding woman who had “suffered much” (Mark 5:25-26).
Speak with empathy not distance
More than that, Jesus, through parables like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), calls us to empathy. We must walk in the shoes of all those whose experience differs from ours – by ethnicity, education, belief or disorders of the mind. Empathy is crucial as each one us will know someone who is suffering with issues of mental health, both personal experience and statistical evidence bears out the truth of that.
Every young life is touched in some way
One in five young people aged 16-24 experience a mental illness such as anxiety or depression. In 2015, 22 per cent of 15-year-olds reported that they had self-harmed and nearly half of 17-19 year olds with a diagnosable mental health disorder have self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point, a number that rises to 52.7 per cent for young women. The number of A&E attendances by young people aged 18 or under with a recorded diagnosis of a psychiatric condition has almost tripled since 2010.
Create a space for openness and vulnerability
We know that many young people who do or do not feature in these statistics suffer in silence. However, I see also a hope that, through the greater understanding of both the issues themselves and the place of God in the dark places of our mind, brave young voices are starting to fill the silence.
Grow in understanding
Over the last five years, especially in Christian circles, I have seen a seismic and sincere shift in our understanding and language when it comes to discussing and responding to young people who are suffering. That very shift has a beautiful underlying apologetic.
The theologian Miroslav Volf highlights that Jesus scandalously included anyone in the fellowship of humanity. He says: “The mission of Jesus consisted not simply of renaming the behaviour that was falsely labelled ‘sinful’, but also in remaking the people who have actually sinned and suffered distortion.”
Jesus’ simple act of renaming corrected distortions, like when he declares all foods clean (Mark 7:14-23), is mirrored in our renaming of mental health issues. For us in this situation, renaming means to realise that mental health issues cannot be cured by faith alone, but that they are part of our earthly experience.
The Bible ‘gets’ mental health issues
We human beings are made in the image of God but that does not mean that our mental health reflects a disconnect between us and God. I believe we need to roll back the boundaries between young people and God that have been caused by a message that often sounds like “the more you trust God, the deeper you go in prayer and Bible study, the quicker your depression will fade away”. There is no quick fix to mental health issues, it’s not as simple as re-setting a broken bone, and the Bible is keenly attuned to the depth of our mental suffering and the place that time and treatment plays in recovery.
The prophet Elijah is an obvious starting point for understanding how the Bible teaches us to identify and respond to those suffering. Steadfast and faithful to God, despite his obedience and bravery, Elijah suffered with mental health issues. In 1 Kings 19, he finds himself battling a crippling fear. He escaped to the wilderness, found a bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4).
God sees our anguish
The very fact that Elijah, such a faithful servant of God, suffers such mental anguish dismisses the notion that our mental health is commensurate to our faithfulness. God’s response to Elijah speaks profoundly into the apologetic that God is not blind to our mental health and it also provides a profound biblical lesson in the symptoms of depression and how to treat them.
God’s template for responding
God sends an angel with bread and water. Elijah “ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:6). That slump back to sleep in the face of nourishment and the lack of energy are common symptoms of depression. Although, as Rachael Newham, founding director of ThinkTwice, makes clear in her powerful personal story of depression: “The range of symptoms that can present themselves as part of depression are as varied as the people who are afflicted by it.”
Crucially, God’s continued response to Elijah’s conditions offers us a framework for our own response to those suffering. God expects nothing of Elijah. Instead, he sends an angel a second time, who speaks to Elijah with gentleness, understanding and knowledge of a way forward. For another 40 days, Elijah retreats from the world – a condition that will be familiar to many who suffer from depression – and God gives him space in his despair.
Mental health issues are no bar to heaven
It is worth noting that Elijah, the prophet we now most readily identify with depression, is the very same prophet that God chose to take directly to heaven (2 Kings 2). Mental health issues do not bar you from heaven, they never have, and they never will. To understand that, is to move closer to understanding God’s grace.
Understanding counsel, rest, space, time, food and water all helped Elijah towards recovery but sometimes that is not enough. As Christians we should always acknowledge that, alongside an understanding of the nature of God’s love for us, we have a duty to guide those that are suffering to seek professional psychological or medical help, or both as the case may be. While I believe it is God “who comforts and encourages and refreshes and cheers the depressed and sinking” (2 Corinthians 7:6), to turn to medication or therapy is to turn towards God not to replace God, it is to use all that he has created to heal.
The gospel affirms the sacredness of life
At the same time, I have found that pointing a questioner to the truth of the preciousness of their life is also worthwhile and that this truth is not a blind hopeful stab in the dark, rather, it has a coherent intellectual foundation in the Christian faith. The truth that there is hope and that your life is worth everything – to those who love you and (whether you believe in him or not) to God – is a beautiful and powerful truth.
John 1:4 says of Jesus that “in him was life and that life was the light of men”. Jesus is the source of life and that is something that he can reveal to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. A grasp of the value of life is a work of the Holy Spirit and it is a legacy of Christian faith.
When I carry this message, I do so in the knowledge of how mental illness can warp and distort the words that a person hears. As Rachael Newham writes: “I didn’t want to be afraid of life, I didn’t want to hate myself, I didn’t want to feel like I was losing my sanity.”
The Bible really does know your pain
Rachael says that in her darkness she tried to squeeze every last drop of hope from the Bible – verses such as this: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). As Rachel writes: “Paul was Timothy’s pastor and he writes to him here in such a tender and caring way. Verse four says that Paul recalls Timothy’s tears, which reminds me of the shepherd of Psalm 23 leading his flock home.”
The Psalm that Rachael references in her article, Psalm 88, stands as its own powerful apologetic for God’s understanding of mental health 7. It is a Psalm that theologian Walter Brueggemann described as “an embarrassment to conventional faith”, such was its absence of celebratory faith.
The Bible never shies away from the darkness of life. In fact, an overview of the Bible shows us that pain and suffering are anticipated in life including illness, death, depression and even suicide. These experiences are described and lived by characters in the Bible with real empathy and compassion.
Suicide is not the unforgivable sin
Some people have grown up in churches that have shunned the family of someone who has died by suicide – perhaps refusing to allow them a Christian funeral or burial. But the Bible does not condone that. The examples of suicide in the Bible like Saul and Samson are presented as lamentable, dark and dreadful, and in Saul’s case come after what has been interpreted as periods of mania and depression throughout his life. There is great sorrow. Life is precious. But David engages with what happened to Saul in a way that shows us that those who die by suicide and their families are not to be shamed or shunned (2 Samuel 21:12-14). In other words, suicide is not the unforgivable sin.
Mental health questions are particularly poignant and require time, energy and an investment in experience that leads to empathy. The good news is that the Bible has much to offer us in our questions about suffering, whether that be through acknowledgement of the darkness, templates for responding, words of solace or the saving grace of God.
Through REBOOT, we are hoping to introduce successive generations of young people all over the world to the profundity and robustness of the Christian faith across the range of questions that come up, to equip them with the very best in apologetics so that they can live for Christ and bring others to know him.
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