Please notice the quotations around the word Christianity in the title. I put them there because I do not believe true Christianity causes depression. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. I believe and love the Lord Jesus Christ with everything in me. Despite that fact, however, I am standing here right now saying that the “Christian religion” is a major trigger for not only my mental health issues, but for a lot of other people as well.
Take a deep breath. It’s okay. I’m not leaving my faith. I’m not encouraging you to. What I am doing, however, is trying to help you see that some of the modern day “religious” practices are not Biblical commands and may in fact be hurting those in your congregation. It may even help you realize why people are leaving, or not joining your church. Most importantly, however, I hope to show what you, as a fellow Christian, can do about it.
I have re-written this post at least four times now and I’m still not sure which way to go about it. A part of me wants to go into a lot of details that lead up to the day I stood outside in the snow looking into the creek below and wondering if maybe, just maybe, the world would be better off without me. I wasn’t suicidal. I wasn’t going to do anything. But I did wonder if I should. And while I can’t say the church was completely responsible for my mindset that night, it was definitely a big factor. That being said, however, just writing out that paragraph has my hands trembling which tells me I’m not ready to rehash all of those details just yet. So I am going to speak generically about ways the Christian religion can cause and worsen mental health disorders.
1. Being Alone
I am putting this in the number one spot because it is the biggest one for me. I have never seen as many cliques as there are in most churches in my area since I was in high school. But even then, the cliques were much easier to infiltrate. Now, I don’t mean that people are rude. But if you are new to a church, at least what has been my experience, is that everyone rushes to shake your hand and tell you how glad they are you’re there. Then you’re alone. After a brief handshake, and maybe a name exchange if you’re lucky, everyone goes their own directions. You sit, watching this group of ladies talk about their hobbies, and this group planning the next church social event. You see these men talking about their latest fishing trip. And all you can do is watch.
As the service starts, everyone hurries to their seat. Some sit with their families. Some sit with their friends. You sit alone. As someone with depression and anxiety, what’s happening in your mind at that moment is heartbreaking. You think, “Wow. I just met 30 people. And not one of them liked me enough to even sit down beside of me. What’s wrong with me?” You then began to analyze everything, “Am I too dressed up? Too casual? Did I do something wrong? Say something wrong?” When this happens service after service, week after week, month after month, the feelings it invokes can be detrimental to someone’s mindset and can be the start, or worsening of depression.
There are very few people who truly wish to be alone. Almost everyone wants companionship. So why is it that we as Christians leave first-time visitors sitting alone in the pew? And not just first time visitors, but even our faithful members. Is it too difficult to leave your own seat to give someone some peace of mind to know that they matter to you? Is it too difficult to sit down and fellowship with them at the church breakfast or pot luck? Do we need to stick to the exact same circles each and every time we enter the Lord’s house? I was taught as a child that church is “family time.” But why is that? Does the Bible say we should neglect others who aren’t related by blood? I don’t think it does.
I have to laugh as I write that one because I am the worst for getting frustrated at someone who stands up in a whiny voice and says, “Don’t judge me!” Or “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Generally those comments are made in situations where someone has said, “The Bible says this is wrong.” That’s not judgment. If I am doing something God has already judged to be wrong, please rebuke me. That is not the judgment I am talking about here.
What I am referring to as judgment however is truly a Christian person, or perhaps even a pastor insisting that those who do or do not do certain things will be punished in certain ways. Did that even make sense? Let me explain a little better. I have heard it said, “If you take your kid to a sporting activity instead of Bible school, your kid is going to split Hell wide open.” That is judgment. That is not rebuke. That is not teaching. That is judgment. The Bible doesn’t tell us to even have Vacation Bible School, much less that our kids have to attend each and every night or else they can’t be saved.
In addition, in the world of mental health, judgment abounds in a lot of Christian churches. A lady who used to struggle a lot with anxiety didn’t come one service and I heard someone in the church say, “I just don’t understand what’s wrong with her. If she really has anxiety that bad, she’s afraid for a reason. She’s done something really bad and God is punishing her by making her afraid all of the time.” No. Just no.
This one is a little bit tricky but I can’t ignore it because of the complexity. Modern day Christianity seems to take pride in the worthlessness of mankind. For someone who struggles with their own self worth and importance, this can be very harmful. I want to tread carefully here because I do believe the Bible to be perfect. Therefore, I absolutely believe those verses such as, “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”, “There is none righteous,” “We have all fallen short of the glory of God,” etc. God’s word is true. And I don’t doubt those things. Compared to God, we are very, very, very far from perfect creatures. In no way I am saying we shouldn’t preach and teach those verses.
What I am saying though is that a strong emphasis on those verses, without an equal emphasis on verses that show how much value God sees in us (such as Psalms 139:16-17, Psalms 8:5, Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 28:29, etc) can be damaging. In a home where the religious parents repeatedly use Scripture to show their children their wrong doing, but rarely use it to uplift them and show them that they are loved, cared for, and valuable, destruction is sure to follow.
Yes, we are far from where we should be. But no, God does not view us as worthless little beings. Think about this for a minute. My one year old, Abbie, is a trouble maker. She loves scattering dog food around the house, knocking everything off the bookshelf, and tormenting her big sisters to no end. But I also see her hug her sisters when they cry. I get to watch her learn to put her dirty clothes into the hamper and beam with pride. I watch her go and get the dog’s toy for him to play with. And guess what? I love it all! I know she isn’t perfect. I see all of the mistakes she makes and I sometimes shake my head in frustration. But that sure doesn’t mean she isn’t valuable to me. Someday she’ll be able to do a lot of things that she can’t do now, just like we as Christians are constantly growing in our Christian lives. But, right now, while she’s a crazy little toddler, I wouldn’t trade her for the entire world.
But I have to tell you something amazing. Jesus Christ loved you so much that He did trade His whole world for you. He left the beauty of Heaven to come to earth to be ridiculed, mocked, and killed in order to restore our relationship with Him. Yes, he knows you’re not perfect, but in Psalms 17:8 David let us in on a wonderful secret: We are the apple of God’s eyes. We hold an enormous amount of value in the eyes of our Savior and unfortunately that truth seems to often be neglected in the house of God.
4. Rules Above Relationships
Why do you go to church? Why do you serve God? What do you believe about God? How would you answer those questions? Way too many church-going Christians would respond in some variation of this, “Well I go to church because that’s what I’m supposed to do because I’m a Christian.” They may say, “My parents always took me to church.” Or perhaps, “Because I have to.” As a young teenager I met someone who belonged to a different denomination than I did. I once asked her what her church taught and her response made me cringe. “Well we believe to go to Heaven we can’t cut our hair or wear make-up. And we have to wear dresses all the time.”
Jesus Christ did not die on the cross so we could be governed by a list of rules and requirements. He died on the cross because He wanted a relationship with us and knew that as long as our focus was on those rules, we could never truly have that.
A Game of Basketball
Several years ago I heard a story about three basketball players. I am sure I won’t retell it perfectly, but in general the story goes like this: a basketball team had three players. One of them was absolutely amazing! He could get the basketball into the basket from literally anywhere in the building. He would shoot from the stands, or even all the way at the concessions and every single time he would score. Except, he didn’t really score because he didn’t have any regard for the boundaries that were set up.
No one knows how good the second player is because he has never taken a single shot. As soon as he gets onto the court, he stands right by one of the boundary lines and studies it carefully to make sure he doesn’t overstep. He is completely immobilized by his fear of being called on a foul. So he just stands there, focusing on not breaking the rule.
The third player, however, is the one we all need to be like. He recognizes the rules of the game and doesn’t dispute them. But his primary focus is on scoring points for his team. He stands in the boundaries and shoots as many baskets as he can. When he does go out of bounds, he accepts the foul and then continues right on with playing the game.
Focus On The Goal – Not the Boundaries
As Christians, our primary goal should be to serve the Lord as He calls us. We should strive to see others saved and do our best to worship God in spirit and in truth. Yes, absolutely I believe there are things that God may convict us to avoid. But we aren’t to just focus on those things. And we certainly are not to make those things such a focus in our lives that others find us unapproachable or “holier than thou”. Rather, our primary focus should be on the goals of serving Christ while following the rules of the game. When we do stumble over the boundary lines God has set, accept our punishment from the Father, and get right back into the game.
Our goal also should not be to make sure everyone else is following the rules. Leave that up to the referee (God himself). Can you imagine a basketball game where every player focused more on telling their teammates their mistakes rather than on trying to make a basket? It wouldn’t be a very good game. In fact, I’m willing to bet some fights would break out pretty quickly.
Throughout my 27 years of being in church, insincerity has to be one of the biggest things I’ve noticed. Phrases like, “We love you,” “We missed you,” And “I am so glad to see you,” are way over used in the “Christian” world. Yes, absolutely, we are to love people. But love doesn’t mean to just say certain words when you happen to see someone. That insincerity is very harmful.
If you are praying for someone in your church or in your community, that’s great! Don’t stop! But if you truly love someone, you’re going to want to do more than pray for them. Ask them how you can help. And I don’t mean going to them in a crowd of people and saying, “If you need something let me know.” You and I both know, not many people are going to take that offer seriously.
If you notice someone is missing a lot of church, reach out and find out why. See if there’s a way you can help. Maybe they need transportation or gas money. Maybe they just need someone to walk in and sit beside of them. I remember a lady in our church several years ago who was criticized outwardly because of how many services she had missed. Come to find out she was caring for her elderly grandmother and had no one else who was able to sit with her during services. She would have been thrilled if someone had loved her enough to just give her a break for a couple of hours to sit and hear the sermon. But no one did. Instead, they criticized and pointed fingers. She eventually quit church altogether.
6. Lack of Respect for Limits and Boundaries
I have noticed this one to be especially true of smaller churches, but I am sure it happens elsewhere as well. There are two big boundaries I want to mention.
Did you know that not everyone likes to be hugged? I know, you might be chuckling and saying, “But I’m a hugger!” That’s great! I’m not. When I go to a different place of worship and a kind soul wraps their arm around me, I immediately tense in fear. I don’t want to upset anyone, so I force myself to smile. But inwardly my anxiety has just shot up about 15 points. What makes it the most difficult however is those times when I am in a familiar setting and I know who the “huggers” are. I reach my hand toward them instead, making my intentions clear. And they say, “I don’t want a handshake! Give me a hug!” And they pull me in close. At that instant, things change. No longer am I just afraid. I now feel invalidated as well. I have made it clear that I don’t want to be hugged. But my wishes were entirely disregarded and that makes me question why I am not worthy to be respected by the “hugger”. Why does their need to hug trump my need to feel secure and safe?
Now, for those who are huggers, you are probably thinking, “Who would be afraid of a hug?” But I am going to tell you, there are a lot of us. Most are too afraid to tell you. But for those who know me personally, I am telling you now. I do not like hugs except from very specific people. To shed a little more light on this, let me enter brief story mode. At the funeral of my oldest brother, my other brother wrapped his arms around me and I immediately tensed something awful. I honestly don’t remember ever hugging him before and it scared me. Yes, my brother hugging me sent terror running down my spine. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. I am just not a huggy person.
But anyways, back to you. If you are a “hugger”, please take some time to gain a little bit of an understanding about those of us who prefer not to embrace by checking out this article.
As someone with social anxiety, I have a very hard time telling people no. When I do, however, and that limit is completely disregarded it causes a lot of negative emotions. As an example, when I made it known at my church that I could play the piano during the offering or invitation on occasion, I was instantly expected to play during the congregational singing as well. Accompaniment was way above my abilities and I knew it and made it known. Regardless of respecting that limit, however, time and time again people made it clear that I “needed to play.”
Eventually I gave in to the social pressure and sat behind the piano fighting back tears. I made a complete fool of myself, but everyone in the church assured me I had done well. As time went on, the expectations grew and I was expected to play every service. This meant, that every time I got ready to go to church, all I could focus on was trying not to ruin the song service. It meant I began dreading church entirely because I was so afraid of that moment. And even once the preaching had begun, I sat in my pew replaying every mistake I had made.
I loved playing the piano. I hated playing while someone else was singing because I didn’t yet have that skill. It was a major limitation and it was not respected. It affected me in so many different ways. My anxiety took on a whole new level which made it harder to be a good mom and wife. I also began to slip into depression because I felt I would never again experience the joy of a church service in the way I had before. So please, respect limitations set by others.
Two Super Important Disclaimers
“These Things Happen Everywhere”
Yes, I understand that Christians are not perfect people, we are just forgiven. As a result, yes, on occasion those who serve Christ will treat someone unkindly. However, many of the things mentioned in this article are not simple mistakes. They are things people in the churches I have attended know and even say out loud. But they continue doing it because of a “religious mindset” that tells them that their way is the right away. Let me say this: If it doesn’t line up with the entire council of God, it is not the right way. Please don’t forget that Jesus didn’t shun sinners. He went to them. If he scolded anyone, it was the religious crowd who felt as though they were better than anyone else. Even back in Bible times, religion wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
If a new believer, or even a mature one comes into a church or even has attended for years on end, the things listed above can truly destroy their mental health. My husband, a former pastor now proclaimed agnostic, has said even before leaving the faith, “Christians are some of the most depressed people around.” And truthfully, I have to agree. Depression and anxiety plague the church in ways many wouldn’t believe and I think it boils down to a lot of what I’ve already mentioned. Making it worse, however, is the fact that the church should be a sanctuary, a place of refuge or safety. And so when people instead find judgment, loneliness, hostility, and legalism, the shock is insurmountable. By definition, Christians, those who are “like Christ” should be the least likely to turn a blind eye when they see someone hurting. But just like the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan, it happens way too often.
So, yes, while these things do happen elsewhere, in my experience, they happen much more often in the church house than they do in the world. And that fact is hurting the cause of Christ daily.
I’m Not Mad At You
If you go to church with me, please know this post is not about you directly. There are certainly some amazing people who do not do the things I listed here. You are probably one of them. But even if you’re not, I don’t hate you. I’m not angry at you. I love you and if anything, I feel sorry for you because I was you. For a big portion of my adult life, I allowed religion to trump my relationship with Christ so much that I lost track of my true walk with God. It caused me to be completely and utterly miserable. So if you are there, I’m not angry. I’m sorry you’ve missed out on the amazing freedoms of the Lord Jesus. Reach out to me. I will do my absolute best to reach out, but if social anxiety makes that hard for me to do the first time, please try again.
If You Are Hurting Too
If religious institutions have created or worsened mental health disorders for you, please take the time to read this letter.
So What Can We, As Christians Do?
Check out next week’s post for an answer to that very question 🙂