He made his way up to the prayer tent rather sheepishly, waiting around until I was alone and everyone else had gone. I am accustomed to this: As a pastor, I recognize that it takes an enormous amount of courage to come forward for prayer. I always feel as though this is Holy Ground and silently ask the Spirit to move in powerful ways and to allow the person to feel at ease. Today was no different.
“Hi friend, how are you today? My name is Pastor Karen,.” I said. He spoke, barely at a whisper, his voice shaking.
“I really need prayer, would you please pray for me?” He said. I moved a little closer since we were wearing masks and I didn’t want him to have to speak too loudly.
“May I ask your name?”
“John.” *His name has been changed in this post for confidentiality.
“John - you look as though you are struggling. I’d love to pray with you. What is on your heart today?”
“I want to ask for healing. Every joint in my body aches. I am in chronic pain. I can barely sleep, it keeps me up all night. I have been to seven different doctors and they can’t find anything wrong with me. I am sick of all of the tests and doctors...I just want it to be over.”
“I am so sorry, John.” I replied. “I cannot imagine what it must be like to be in pain 24/7 with no diagnosis and no cure in sight. I would be honored to pray with you.”
As I started to bow my head in prayer, I could tell out of the corner of my eye that John was weeping: Slowly at first, but it was building. “Is there more, John? More to the story?”
“Yes,” he trembled so softly I could barely hear him. “The doctors are saying it is probably due to stress. Since there is nothing physically wrong with me, it must be….(he took a long pause before whispering a groan) mental. They recommended a psychiatrist and possible medicine. I am SO ASHAMED, Pastor Karen! What kind of a Christian am I that I am having physical symptoms due to mental illness? I swear I believe in Jesus. I trust him. I know God is a good Daddy, honest! I read my bible and I pray. What is wrong with me? I have failed my God and my family. Can you pray that God would forgive me?”
My heart broke as John wept with shame and guilt. I was able to pray with John and ask Jesus to whisper his great love for him - that God is his Daddy who sees John as His precious Son. I reminded John of Romans 8:1, where the apostle Paul reminds us, “There is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”
DON'T SUFFER IN SILENCE
I wish I could say that John’s story is a unique one, but often in the Christian community, people suffer in silence due to the stigma of admitting a struggle with their mental health. Even before 2020 and the extensive pandemic, our often fast-paced culture here in the Northeast has been plagued by anxiety. Statistically, "1 in 25 adults in the US experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities." (National Alliance on Mental Illness). The stats on anxiety and depression are even higher. There are plenty of people silently suffering in our churches, ashamed that they are doing something wrong, or not believing hard enough to stop feeling the ways they are feeling.
There are seasons in our lives where we may need to invite others into our struggles. Maybe it is a friend, pastor or a professional counselor. I have found that when I SPEAK the anxiety out loud, it takes away the shame and the guilt. Remember, anxiety keeps us locked in a cycle of imagining the “WHAT IFS?” Anxiety thrives and spirals in the darkness, until we are convinced that we are alone and must figure life out on our own.
However, when I bring that darkness to the surface by inviting others in, a glimmer of light pierces that darkness and seeds of hope can be planted. Often just the SPEAKING of the struggle - the anxiety, the depression, the fear - helps us know that we are not alone. Speaking those ‘what ifs’ help loosen their power over us. For some, that can happen with professional counseling. For others, medication may be required for us to be able to manage our anxious hearts. The most important reminder to all of us has to be - that even in the valleys, in the storms, in the scary places of life, Jesus is with us, guiding us, and whispering His unending love to us.
STEWARDING OUR EMOTIONAL WELLNESS
As Christians, our mental and emotional health is just as critical for us to steward well as we do our hearts and bodies. Jesus is our High Priest - and he understands everything that we are going through. He wants us to learn how to cast our cares on HIM. He provides us with loved ones, friends, pastors, and professionals so we can remind each other that we are never alone.