The Holy Awkward with Pastor Ryan

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Why “praying it away” doesn’t cut it (Confessions of a Broken Preacher)

The first one felt like a heart attack.  I was in my second year at UVA.  Picture a large lecture hall filled with

hundreds of students and you clinging to your seat with a headache as tight as a rubber band, tingling hands and a heart racing so fast your chest begins to hurt.  I thought I was gonna pretty much collapse or die in the middle of Intro to Politics 101.

Several blood tests, doctor appointments, medications, pastoral conversations, and late night phone calls later, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.  Contrary to common misconception, this is not the same as the various normal anxious responses to stress, change, etc.  It is a mental illness that many deal with day-to-day as others do with depression, bipolar, and others.

This has nothing to do with me getting nervous before I preach, nor is it about feeling uncomfortable interacting with people at all!  In fact, I find joy in being around lots of people.  The scary part of this thing I live with is that it does not always have a clear, identifiable trigger, but leads my body to react as if it were in constant fear or danger.  For me specifically, it is a fear of losing control over my body and my thoughts.  In its first iterations back in college, it led to many sleepless nights, constant coping with feel-good rom-coms, odd eating habits, and even some concerning weight loss.

I have always been a constant doer.  An extrovert.  A type-A sort of guy.  My Enneagram is a 2, which translates to “Helper.”  That is to say, I worry about people.  I care about people.  I read too much into people’s emotions behind emails or texts.  And with that, I sometimes lose track of me.  This and so much more had built up inside me that year in college to a point where I finally caved.   What had once been a strong animosity towards getting help for something I thought I could figure out on my own had been replaced by a new sort of attitude.  You see, I had associated counseling with shame and the stigma of being viewed by others as “complicated” or “crazy.”

I speak openly and candidly about this experience because I have come to a place of gratitude for the way the idea of counseling was presented to me by my campus minister when I thought I had reached a breaking point.  Deborah and I had met several times around the valley I was wading through, but I remember her being very clear that while faith was very much a part of the moving forward, it did not negate the importance of making informed choices.

The Psalmist acknowledges an understanding of God who created us out of fear and wonder (Psalm 139).  And with that, we have to recognize that we are delicate and susceptible enough to the complex things of this world that may impact us biologically, socially, or emotionally.  My concern, however, is that not all of these conversations around the Church and mental illness end with these thoughts in mind.  And it begs the serious question as to how we as the Church are or are not creating space where individuals or families facing mental illness can have support without a fear of being problematized.  The fear of being belittled or made to feel inadequate because one has a “lack of faith” or has lost in a conflict of “spiritual warfare.”

I don’t like to rain on one’s parade, but most Christian movies released in the last several years fall short of navigating such human realities without spinning them through a rose-colored lens, not to mention poor production value and troubling theology.  I like to call this the War Room heresy because I cannot tell you how many times someone has told me to lean into my faith and hold out with prayer in the midst of my most desperate trials with this anxiety disorder.  In all honesty, the last thing I wanted to do during a severe panic attack was center myself in stillness and pray.  I wanted to curl up in a ball in my bed with the lights off or stand in a steaming hot shower letting the water hit my face.  In conversations with some, it felt as if they saw my anxiety as a demon possessing me and that my faith was a measurable thing.  I did not like it.  I felt attacked when some would say I needed to be more true to the faith inside of me.

A couple of Sundays ago, I talked about the importance of letting our stories inform our ministries.  In other words, how can our various life experiences shape our response to God’s call in our lives or how we minister to others?  And so, I have been pondering lately through my own story what would be some helpful conversation points when helping the Church grow in its approach to conversations around mental illness:

  • Don’t present faith as the bandaid, but instead, the affirmation that nurtures choice and decision.  The Church really should avoid a “praying it away” “read your Bible more” attitude when it comes to mental illness.  This can often enhance the severity of the situation because it carries a patronizing or legalistic tone that says we are not doing enough.  God relates to us on this journey in unique ways that we sew together with God.  Leave room for the relational character of God to enter in and instead of telling them what they need to fix, remind them that we are called to lament just as much as we are called to praise.  In that lamenting, you might encourage them to seek resources that are available to them.   
  • Counseling and therapy resources are enriching integrations of faith and appropriate treatment.  The United Methodist Church has repeatedly adopted a resolution that states the following: We believe that faithful Christians are called to be in ministry to individuals and their families challenged by disorders causing disturbances of thinking, feeling and acting categorized as “mental illness.” We acknowledge that throughout history and today, our ministries in this area have been hampered by lack of knowledge, fear and misunderstanding. Even so, we believe that those so challenged, their families and their communities are to be embraced by the church in its ministry of compassion and love.  Professional help can be a means of grace in the way it allows individuals to receive guidance without having to put on mask.
  • Be a visible reminder of God’s grace and presence yourself rather than attempting to pinpoint what God is or is not doing.  “God is in control” (while one might think it sounds reassuring) carries a lot of theological problems. The last thing you want to say to someone who has hit a breaking point in their struggles with mental illness is this phrase, especially in times where he or she might feel helpless.  We have a God who desires a relationship with us and yet who also gives us the creative gift to act and to choose.  In other words, don’t attempt to rationalize mental illness as part of God’s plan.  The grace you are extending by listening, empathizing and encouraging is so much more important than trying to put a flag on where God is in the situation; for the grace you display is a window into God’s providence and dwelling within the space of uncertainty. 
  • Shift Church culture away from one of hesitancy towards one of understanding.  A posture of hesitancy is easy to adopt when there is a lack of knowledge or awareness a part from what media and culture have wired us to assume.  Imagine if a student joined a youth group and shared that they had chronic bouts with depression only to discover that the group was taken aback or that the youth leader had no idea how to respond.  Foster opportunities where these discussions can be had, be it a book study, a conversation group, or within the context of a sermon series.
Posted by Ryan LaRock with