It has sometimes been said, as a negative critique, that religion is “a crutch.” I’ve never quite understood that rationale. Life has a way of bringing us to our knees. Whether from personal experience or a survey of the headlines on any given day, I know this to be true—so crutches can come in handy. Why crawl on one’s belly when you can at least hobble?
There have been several discrete moments in my life when the anxiety and depression were debilitating and profoundly isolating. What got me through those “dark nights of the soul,” to borrow the language of the 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross, was a combination of medication, therapy, and a palpable sense that God was with me. (Explore how mental health treatment can relieve anxiety and depression and improve quality of life at FHE Health.)
It seemed that God ministered more to me during these periods of pain and suffering than in the easy times when all was well. Among the things that I learned were these mental health lessons, inspired by Scripture, that hopefully can encourage others…
1. If You’re Anxious, You’re Not Alone
Severe anxiety and depression are undeniably a form of suffering that can make you feel alone. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that no one understands or has been through what you’re experiencing.
Yet Scripture contains hundreds of commands to not be afraid, often paired with the reassurance that “God is with you.” When God appears to Moses in a burning bush, calling him to lead the Israelites out of captivity, God tells Moses not to be afraid (Exodus 3). When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary with the news that she will give birth to Jesus, he tells her not to be afraid (Luke 1). Like a broken record, Jesus is constantly telling his disciples not to be afraid.
These constant reminders to not be afraid convey that anxiety is an incredibly common human experience, one that God sees and responds to with the reassurance that God is with us. We are not alone—not just because all humans have dealt with anxiety at one point or another, but because God is with us when we’re feeling scared.
2. Cultivate a Positive Mindset by Focusing on What’s Good
When you’re clinically depressed, thinking positive thoughts can seem like a very tall order. When you’re in that space, the brain just seems hard-wired for negativity. Yet catching and correcting those automatic negative thoughts can help to relieve symptoms and improve your mood. That is the basic premise of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a proven treatment that is also the most widely used therapy for anxiety and depressive disorders.
Long before the advent of CBT, the Bible was dispensing admonitions to remember the good. Maybe the most well-known example is Philippians 4:8 where Paul leaves the Church in Philippi with this exhortation: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Negative thoughts are to be expected when you’re feeling anxious and depressed. They’re also more likely to be false and unrealistic when you’re anxious and depressed. When you’re besieged by negative thoughts, try to reframe them in a more positive light or spend some time noting the good things in your day and thanking God for them. Sometimes keeping a daily journal of even the simplest blessings can be a helpful way to record and call to mind later “whatever is lovely” (the good).
3. Mental Illness Is Not a Sign of Spiritual or Moral Weakness
Many of Scripture’s giants experienced crushing depression. Spiritual greats like King David, Jonah, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Job may not have used the exact term “depression” to describe their experience, but it would be hard to think of a more fitting name for the despair, shame, and anguish that they express at various points in life.
Because of lingering stigmas, many people with depression feel ashamed about their condition and view it as a weakness. This stigmatization can occur in the Church as well. Whether overt or subtle, the message that mental illness is a sign of spiritual weakness or moral failure can often keep people from accessing the support they need to get better. It is reassuring to know that even great prophets in the Bible faced depression.
4. Suffering Is Unavoidable, but There’s New Life on the Other Side
Anxiety and depressive disorders are a cross to bear. Why only some people carry this cross is a question that medical science may one day answer. For people of faith who live with mental illness, the question is also one that many of us have put before God. Much like the apostle Paul, who repeatedly asked God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” many of us may have tried to pray away a mental illness. We may have asked God to remove it, and for whatever reason, like Paul, we’ve not gotten our request.
Suffering is unavoidable on this side of heaven. Medication, therapy, an active faith life, and other supports have helped many people successfully manage mental illness but don’t completely and permanently remove it. It’s still a thorn in the flesh. It still can exact pain.
Life will inevitably entail suffering of one kind or another. Like Jesus, each of us must carry our cross, but Christ’s resurrection means new life on the other side. It means suffering is but a prelude to resurrected life, not just figuratively in the here and now but in the world to come. We may walk with a limp but with God’s help will make it to the other side.
Kristina Robb-Dover is a full-time writer at FHE Health, a national behavioral health provider with treatment programs for mental illness and addiction.