The Bible doesn’t forbid Christians from grieving. Neither does it teach that you should never feel anxious, argues Rachel Newham. This mental health awareness week, she takes a fresh look at the scriptures we most often misunderstand


Source: Thomas Shockey

The Bible is full of God-breathed wisdom and hope. It’s a gift from the father’s heart to ours, yet we often see verses isolated from the rest of the text that can obscure or even change the way we read scripture.

In my work as a theology of mental health specialist, it’s something I’ve become attuned to. Some passages come up time and again, quoted, half-quoted or misquoted in a way which heaps guilt and shame onto those who are living with mental illnesses and struggles.

Do not be anxious

Probably the most commonly misused verse when talking about mental health is Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

This piece of scripture has sometimes been used as a weapon to tell people that their anxieties are sinful, or that having an anxiety disorder is incompatible with being a Christian - but the truth of this verse is far more beautiful and comforting.

Scripture depicts grieving as a healthy part of life

Anxiety is vital for life. It’s a God-given gift that keeps us safe by releasing adrenaline and cortisol to enable us to flee from, fight, freeze or fawn in the face of a perceived or real danger. The physical effects were helpful when our dangers were mostly physical but, as the world has changed, the effects - like sweating (to keep us cool) or increased heart rate (to enable us to flee danger) - are now trickier to navigate.

Anxiety is also the first emotion described in scripture. When Adam and Eve heard God walking in the garden after they’d eaten the fruit, we are told that they felt afraid (Genesis 3:10). It’s also seen in Jesus’ earthly life, when Luke describes Jesus as “being in anguish”, his sweat “like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44). What is described here is hematidrosis - an extreme anxiety reaction - experienced by the sinless Son of God.

The verse in Philippians, therefore, cannot be a prohibition against feeling anxious, but an exhortation to bring our God-given anxieties before God in prayer. Just like Jesus did. The very next verse then promises us that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v7).

These verses are a recognition that anxiety is a part of the human experience, but also that, when we invite God into our anxieties, he promises to be with us in the midst of it.

Do not grieve

The second most misused verse on mental health is found in Nehemiah 8:10: “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” All too often, only the latter part of this verse is quoted - and used as an admonishment against those who are grieving or feeling sad.

This verse is a very specific request. In the book of Nehemiah, the people of God are rebuilding the broken walls of Jerusalem after a long period of exile. Previously, they had grieved their ruined city. Nehemiah himself had wept for an estimated four months - and these verses come at the end of the story, when the walls had been rebuilt. The people had mourned and repented corporately; now God tells his people that their period of repentance is over. They can enjoy the rebuilt city.

Anxiety is vital for life. It’s a God-given gift that keeps us safe

To apply this singular verse as a universal prohibition against grieving is a mistake. Scripture actually depicts grieving as a healthy and vital part of individual and communal life.

We are given the gift of lament to bring what hurts us before God. There, we find we are met in our grief with the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Prophets such as Jeremiah weep over their situations, and the psalms record countless calls to God from the experience of human distress.

This mental health awareness week, let’s look to scripture for the encouragement and comfort it brings us, whatever emotions we are carrying.