If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or a similar mental illness, you’ve probably heard from those “helpful” friends and family that you should “just get over it.” If you’re a Christian who suffers from anxiety or depression, you’ve probably heard that that one plus another gem. “Just pray about it.” How does that make you feel?
I’ve heard this one before. And yes, the people saying it always have good intentions. But good intentions do not equal helpful. Good intentions are sometimes hurtful and even harmful.
Before my parents really understood that I had an anxiety problem, I was quoted this verse about one hundred times a week:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?[a]
Hmm, well. Can’t argue with that, can you? Except, I really don’t think Jesus was talking about mental health disorders. It’s pretty much universally understood (except by people who don’t really understand mental illness yet) that Jesus was talking about the unnecessary day to day worries and stresses that distract us from life. And as someone who has an anxiety disorder, I do have the kind of anxiety listed above too. And I know that anxiety is wrong and I always pray for peace when I’m stressed about money or school or relationship problems or anything else in that general category.
When people bring up this verse to try to combat anxiety, it can make Christians feel like there is something wrong with our faith. If only we prayed harder, or spent more time in personal devotion, or trusted God more we wouldn’t be anxious. I must be a bad Christian. I’m not listening to what Jesus said. He said, “Do not be anxious.” That was a command. And I’m failing.
There were times when I thought this. But we all need to realize that this is 100% not true.
In his book Do You Love Me: And Other Questions Jesus Asks, Dr. Victor Shepherd discusses the different types of anxiety. When talking about the anxiety Jesus speaks about in Matthew 6:25-27, he writes:
“This kind of anxiety is a spiritual problem. But not all anxiety is a spiritual problem. Some anxiety is a psychological problem. Panic attacks, for instance, are a psychological affliction. Panic attacks are a psychological disorder having nothing to do with one’s spiritual condition…it must never be suggested that someone’s faith is weak or that someone is a defection Christian.
If we wonder why some people are afflicted with panic attacks, we should also say, ‘Why do some people develop arthritis in their right knee? Why do some people develop astigmatism in their left eye? Why is it that when the Norwalk virus was going around two people out of ten came down with it, but only two?'”
(Do You Love Me?, Victor Shepherd, p.83-84).
We can pray about our anxiety. And we can trust that God will help us through the struggles. But, there are counsellors and psychologists and psychiatrists and doctors who are all trained to help with mental illness in various ways and just because we are Christians, that does not mean we shouldn’t take advantage of these (sometimes life changing) services.
If you are an anxious Christian, remember what quote above. Remember that your anxiety disorder does not mean you are defective or wrong or weak or a “bad” Christian. It is not a reflection of your faith.
“Just pray about it” is just as bad as “Just get over it.” We must be more careful with our words.