A God for messy Christians
Emma Scrivener explains why the Church is a place for everyone – including those who struggle with mental health problems
I grew up in Northern Ireland, a place where religion was part of the fabric of everyday life. It was the early 80s and Church and moralism were easily confused. To me, faith was about rules and not relationship. God was a headmaster who wanted me to perform; and the Church was a place for good people who were getting better. Proper Christians weren’t like me – they didn’t get mad at their parents or hurt those they loved. They had their lives together and they were always smiling.
The speakers who came to our youth group talked about a before and after experience: “I was a drug addict and then God made me clean.” “I had a stutter and now I can speak.” “I was bullied but today I’ve got friends.”
These Christians seemed perfect. They didn’t have problems (especially not with their moods). They didn’t feel sad or angry or afraid. They trusted God and he took their problems away.
But I trusted God and he didn’t take them away. I trusted God and I was a mess. Bullied at school. Anorexic. Frightened, angry and depressed.
God was meant to save my life, but I felt like he ruined it. He wanted me to come to him – but only once I’d cleaned myself up.
I told myself to give it time. A few months, at least. “When you’re 15, you’ll be better. When you’re 20, you’ll be like everyone else,” I thought to myself. Each year I waited for the change I expected – 27, 29, 30, 35.
Thirty-nine – and I’m still waiting. I still don’t look like those Christians at youth group. I still get anxious and depressed. I’m frightened of having needs. I try to be perfect and do everything right. I’d rather be comfortable than brave. I’m controlling, insecure and desperate to prove my own worth. God is at work in me, but it’s taking time. I’m a Christian, but I don’t always feel like it.
One in four
If Church is for shiny, happy people who are better than everyone else, then I don’t belong. But it’s not just me. One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem every year, and Christians are not immune. Depression. Stress. Eating disorders. Self-harm. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schizophrenia. Borderline personality disorder. These are some of the issues that affect one in four people in our home group, in our pews and in our pulpits. So what are we saying to these people? What are we saying as these people? Are we offering gospel hope? Or is our message, “Come back when you’re better”?
I’m a Christian, but I don’t always feel like it
Twice in my life I’ve had lifethreatening anorexia – once as a teenager and again as an adult. Both times I’d have said I was a Christian. Both times I sought help from medical professionals and the Christian community. Yet still, I nearly died.
Today, I write and speak on faith and mental health and I’ve heard from hundreds of Christians with similar stories. Like me, they sometimes feel “too much” for God, “too much” for the Church and “too broken” to change. For many, the expectations and teachings of other Christians have harmed them as much as they have helped. But what if mental health issues are not the problem of an unfortunate but limited few? What if everyone struggles? And what if there is a way forward? This is why I wrote A New Day (IVP). I wanted to move beyond “them and us” thinking on the issue of mental health – the idea that Church is for the fixed, while the broken are out there. The Bible tells us that when it comes to our struggles, there’s just us. And when it comes to lasting help and hope, there’s only him. It’s only as we see our shared need and his rescue that we can move forward as his people.
Can I be a Christian and have mental health issues?
Yes. Here are six reasons why…
- Jesus comes for the sick. Time and time again, He reaches out to all those who know themselves to be weak…weak in body, weak in spirit, weak in mind. He goes to those who cut themselves off from others and harm themselves; whether through promiscuity (the woman at the well), or addiction or self-harm (the man who cut himself in the caves) or workaholism (Martha). He offers them grace and truth. Grace for the ways they’re enslaved to their behaviours; truth for the choices that keep them enslaved.
- Jesus doesn’t deal with us according to labels. He deals with people as individuals and he never pigeonholes us, or our problems.
- With mental health struggles, we can easily lose our sense of self. But Jesus not only sees us as we are, but as we can be – as we were made to be.
- When our brains are broken, it raises all sorts of questions. Why am I here? What am I worth? What does the future hold? Christ answers these things, and our church and faith gives us ground to walk on as we explore them.
- If you’re struggling with mental health, your feelings and selfperceptions are constantly changing. With Christianity, your identity is based on an unchanging person – Jesus and his life and teachings. This is vital, especially when life is full of fear and anxiety.
- Our struggles don’t disqualify us from Christianity: in fact, they can be evidence of it. As believers we expect to face suffering, and mental health can be a part of this. We can speak with truth, grace and empathy to others who also face challenges. We can be a blessing to the Church.
In Luke 5, Jesus responds to the religious policemen of his day. They wanted him to let the virtuous in and keep the riff-raff out. Yet Jesus says the very opposite: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill...I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners...” (v31-32).
Jesus tells us that the kingdom is not a realm for the strong, or a reward for the righteous, but a hospital for sinners. Everyone qualifies for treatment, but there’s one condition: we must admit to our sickness.
This is the context for what we call original sin. It’s a way of saying we’re all messed-up. It’s not that some of us are basically healthy, while others are beyond cure. We’re all sick; and this sickness is bigger than our willpower, our resolutions and our good intentions.
We can’t fix it, and when we try, we only make things worse. To see how, we can turn to Genesis 3 and discover that Adam and Eve’s problems are our problems too. God gave them everything they needed, but it’s wasn’t enough. They were hungry for life on their own terms, so they became anxious about whether they’d be filled. They tried to take control by disobeying God and were then burdened by shame. Angrily they turned on each other and were driven east of Eden in despair.
That’s their story in a nutshell, but it’s our story as well. We too experience hunger, anxiety, control, shame, anger and despair. And we too develop strategies to cope. For some, these are subtle (overworking or perfectionism). For others, they’re more obvious (eating disorders or self-harm). At heart, however, we’re all desperately sick.
For those who think they’re OK, the Bible says, “Your problems are much deeper than you think!” But for those who fear they are beyond help, it says, “Your issues are everyone’s issues.” This is a huge comfort, especially as we think about mental health.
The picture of Jesus as a doctor is a precious truth. It’s not our health that qualifies us for medical help, but our sickness. In the same way, it’s not our goodness that recommends us to Jesus, but our badness. I’m utterly known, but I’m utterly loved. I’m a sinner, but that’s why he came. I need his help – and so do you.
As we acknowledge this, we can move forward. Yet the doctor offers a surprising cure. Instead of removing us from our troubles, he joins us in them.
We sometimes feel that suffering is wrong, or evidence that we’re not living the Christian life. Instead, Jesus meets us in our darkness. The God who is content, peaceful, patient, pure, compassionate and full of hope is the God who enters into our hunger, anxiety, control, shame, anger and despair.
Feeling hungry? He thirsted on the cross. Are you anxious? In the garden he sweated blood. Do you feel out of control? He was betrayed by friends and led to his death. Are you ashamed? He was stripped naked and taunted before a baying mob. Angry? He hated sin so much that he died to defeat it. Despairing? He cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is the God who speaks to us in all of our mess. This is the God who washes us and carries us, when all hope is gone. At the cross he bears our suffering and sin. And as he rises from the grave, he defeats it and brings us into a kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13).
Statistics on mental health
One in four people
experience a mental health problem at some point in their lifetime.
70 per cent of clergy
don’t feel equipped to handle mental illness.
1.6 million people
in Britain are affected by eating disorders and 14-25-year-olds are most at risk.
Up to a third of the population
will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some time.
Two in 100 adults
are affected by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and one in every 100 children and teenagers.
One in twelve adolescents
in the UK regularly self-harm – the highest rate in Europe.
Depression is the most common
mental health disorder. It affects nearly a fifth of adults in the UK. Eleven per cent of British women are taking antidepressant medication daily.
Every year 5,000 people
in the UK take their own lives. Almost a quarter of these are men aged between 16 and 24.
Feeling hungry? He thirsted on the cross. Are you anxious? In the garden he sweated blood. Do you feel out of control? He was betrayed by friends and led to his death. Are you ashamed? He was stripped naked and taunted before a baying mob. Angry? He hated sin so much that he died to defeat it. Despairing? He cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the God who speaks to us in all of our mess.
This is the God who washes us and carries us, when all hope is gone. At the cross he bears our suffering and sin. And as he rises from the grave, he defeats it and brings us into a kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13).
Darkness; then light
Ever since the first page of the Bible, the way of God has been surprising. Before a “very good” creation, there was a formless emptiness. Before there was light, there was darkness. Each day follows the same pattern, and it’s also the shape of the Christian life. Evening, then morning; cross, then resurrection. We move towards a new day by going through the night.
Nine years ago I was dying of anorexia. But one day I picked up the book of Revelation and read about Jesus, the Lamb who was slain. Suddenly he became more real than anything else. The one who knew what it was to be a figure of disgust, the one who suffered and was shamed, broken and godforsaken, he was standing at the centre of the throne. The Lamb was my God, the Lamb was my saviour. “I love you as you are,” he seemed to be saying, “but I won’t leave you this way.”
I’m still learning what it means to live, but in my darkest moment, Jesus met me. In utter weakness I saw a Lord who had stooped even lower to save me. A God who became sin for us; a God for strugglers, like me and like you. This is what gives us hope – and this is what helps us to live in the light.
A struggling Church in a messy world
It’s rare for our friends and family to ask us, “What must I do to be saved?” But we all have questions such as, “How can I be happy?”, “Why do I sabotage my own success?”, “Why am I trapped in addictive behaviours?”, “How can I forgive my partner?”, Where does my anger come from?” and “Can a person really change?”
As Christians, we offer the world a hope and wisdom that is unlike any other. But first our churches need to be places where the grace of Christ is known and felt. We need to be vulnerable and willing to engage with the vulnerability of others. A community gathered around the cross is a community marked by honesty, humility, empathy and profound solidarity. I’ve tasted this in my own church, and it has pointed me back to Jesus, even when the world seems like it’s falling apart.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther wrote: “May a merciful God preserve me from a Christian Church in which everyone is a saint! I want to be and remain in the church and little flock of the fainthearted, the feeble and the ailing, who feel and recognize the wretchedness of their sins, who sigh and cry to God incessantly for comfort and help, who believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
Our God comes for the sick and the broken and the weak. He is not ashamed to call such people his friends. And as his Church, here’s the hope that we receive and pass on, a gospel with room for struggles, a community that refuses to run on shame or condemnation, a Church of the broken, for the broken, and a faith that’s not frightened of suffering.
Jo' s story: Breaking free from eating disorders
My story began when I was 5 years old. I was diagnosed with a medical condition that caused significant renal damage and the need for long term care. This meant that grown-ups around me placed enormous importance on my weight.
Weight going up was bad and weight going down was good. I connected my weight with my self-worth. It was a time bomb waiting to explode and in my forties this disordered approach to weight monitoring became an eating disorder. Many tricky life events hit together, and I was launched into darkness and felt unable to cope with the basic demands of life. I turned to controlling food and my weight. I was consumed with avoidance of eating, exercising to burn calories and using laxatives every day.
My journey of recovery started with the help of a wonderful friend who saw the crisis and understood the issues. In addition, a course called tastelife was starting up locally with incredible timeliness that was surely an intervention from God. Bravely, I attended tastelife, albeit in a very fragile, broken and depressed state, with another kind friend. I was truly terrified, but the members were non-judgemental. I began by wanting the chair to swallow me whole, but as I listened and observed, I started to understand what had happened to me. I learned how to take baby steps forward towards recovery using the new ways of thinking and the tools handed to me.
The course was also the catalyst for going to my GP and receiving help there too. I now feel like a new person! I am still journeying, but I am well, with a whole new sense of identity and purpose. I believe that ‘nothing is wasted in God’s economy’ and in September 2015 I completed the tastelife leader training. I am now part of the local team delivering courses and helping others see how change and recovery can happen. There is always hope and breaking free from eating disorders is possible!
tastelife is a supportive and educational charity that aims to inform about eating disorders. For more information visit tastelifeuk.org
But most of all, our hope is in a saviour who joins us in the darkness and leads us, as his people, into a new day.
Emma Scrivener was born in Belfast, but now lives with her husband and daughter in the south-east of England. She is the author of A New Name (IVP) which talks about her experience of eating disorders, and most recently A New Day (IVP). She blogs at emmascrivener.ne