I used to think that mental illnesses were a sign of spiritual weakness—that any depression or anxiety experienced by the Christian meant they just weren’t trying hard enough. I also used to think that any measures taken—whether counseling, therapy, or medicine—were unnecessary. The Bible was enough. The church was enough. God was enough. Anyone who didn’t see this was just weak.
But then I experienced an extreme bout perinatal anxiety (OCD)—real, crippling anxiety, more than just your usual “worry”—and I learnt what it was like to have intrusive thoughts enter into my head that I didn’t dream up. Thoughts that had no reason to be there. Visions of jumping or falling out of a window. An overwhelming fear of banisters and heights. And these thought were out of my control. Though I could control what I did with them, I couldn’t control whether they appeared or not. I knew they were unreasonable and they remained unwelcome—but that didn’t stop them coming and haunting me.
It was the revelation that I really couldn’t stop these thoughts coming that made me realise this was something more than a simple “being worried about life” or “not trusting God enough”. This was an illness. I needed help.
And so I decided that therapy was okay, but medicine was not. I mean, medicine was okay for some people, sure. Really sick people. People with real issues. All I had to do was get closer to God and do enough right things and I would be healed. The anxiety would go away. I was sure of it.
Was it pride? I’m not sure. Probably. Certainly misinformation. But I found, despite my determination, that I couldn’t fix myself. I was praying, studying, and involved in church. I was taking care of my physical health with exercise and good food. I was reaching out and being social, and I was being very busy with my new business. It was driving me crazy. All the boxes are ticked and there’s still something wrong!
Despite everything, the anxiety was still there. And it always, always is.
And there is nothing, nothing wrong with seeking whatever professional and medical help it is you need to find relief from your pain, whether it be mental or physical.
I believe I had to go through all this to realize this: having anxiety doesn’t mean you’re broken. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t trusting in God. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It means that you live in a broken world—and, because of that, you’re going to have to deal with some of the consequences of its brokenness.
You can have anxiety and still be right with God. Yes, read that again.
I may not always practice peace, but I know the God of peace. I know the one who stilled the storm. I know the one who slept while the storm raged. I know the one who—though crying—prayed to the Lord on the eve of his painful death. Yes, even the Lord cried and asked for His pain to be taken away from Him.
“Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared” (Hebrews 5:7).
What does this tell me about peace?
Peace is not the absence of trouble, tears, or fear in the face of your trial. It is not even the absence of anxiety and worry, as some would have you think.
Instead, peace is trust and hope in God: in His promise that He will never leave, in His provision, and in His promise to make “all things work together for good” for His saints.
I believe that anxiety is just like anger. Anger can be poured out in wrath upon others—but it can also be directed towards the things of God. I believe that anxiety is the same. Even Paul said through inspiration that he was anxious about the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28)—this was one of the many things in the list of the ways he found himself suffering for Christ. Were his worries about the churches wrong? No, he had directed his emotions in a godly way.
Notice the famous passage on “anxiety” and worry that we often like to quote when “helping” people with their anxiety:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Matthew 6:31-34).
Notice that wayward anxiety is clarified:
- Do not be anxious about the things of this world.
- Do not be anxious about tomorrow.
The only anxiety that is godless, is the anxiety that is not resting and confiding in God. Yes, you can trust and rest in God through your anxiety—despite your anxiety—even, dare I say, because of our anxiety, at times? Yes, anxiety can throw us down on our knees and into the presence of our Lord, if we let the trials of this world do what they are supposed to do (Philippians 4:6,7). As for myself, nothing has forced me to rely on Him more. Because I’ve found that anxiety is my thorn—and I can cry to Him, but He may never, ever take it away.
But that is okay.
It is okay because I’ve learnt through it all that it is not the anxiety which is my greatest battle, but where I turn to for strength when my own is failing. No matter what struggle or emotion is battling for the possession over my soul, the only choice I have to make is to always, always turn to Him. To rely on Him, no matter what it is I feel. We can’t always control how we feel, but we can certainly control where we turn to and what we do with those feelings.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
His strength is made perfect in our weaknesses—when we choose to praise and trust and live for Him anyway.
And in fact, the Lord can be glorified through this—through our anxieties—if we only let Him get the glory for how we cope, struggle, and survive. If only we refuse to allow our illnesses to stop us from doing good and seeking Him always. Then, He gets the glory. Then, we are living in His light, despite walking among and feeling the effects of living in this world of darkness.
Peace doesn’t mean the absence of pain.
Peace doesn’t mean the absence of a storm.
Peace is being able to be in the middle of the storm and still keep your eyes firmly fixed on Jesus.
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May you grow ever closer to Him, through whatever emotions and struggles you are battling with.
…and please, let’s change the conversation surrounding Christianity and mental health.