Life will not always be easy. Even while enjoying the peace of a personal relationship with Christ, we are fraught with the myriad challenges of the human condition. For a variety of reasons, it is necessary to focus on a very real, yet less talked about subject within the African American faith community. Although we have become increasingly open to discussing and effectively addressing the realities of mental illness impacting those in our families, churches and neighborhoods, let’s look closer…
A CONDITION THAT WE DID NOT CHOOSE
Having been reared in the African American classical Pentecostal tradition, there seemed to be an unspoken, but sometimes spoken, devaluation of mental illness. Even more concerning and insensitive was the inappropriate use of scripture to justify these ideas. For example, because we should be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4: 6; New King James Version), anxiety, therefore, was [subjectively judged to be] “not of God.” Albeit subtle, this assertion, coupled with God wanting us to have life more abundantly (John 10: 10; King James Version), which was erroneously interpreted as the happy life, inadvertently degraded those experiencing the reality of being Christian, yet living with mental illness.
As a people who have historically held its faith in high regard, it has been especially challenging to effectively address mental illness within the African American community. Rather than being encouraged to participate in counseling or therapy with a qualified professional, African Americans have often been admonished to pray about their circumstances. As a result, many have asked themselves: Can I be saved and depressed? Can I be saved and have an anxiety disorder? Can I be saved and live with mental illness?
Through my personal growth process, I have realized that the answer to these questions is yes. If Christians can have cancer, diabetes, and hypertension, we can certainly have anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental illnesses. Moreover, while some experience the aforementioned maladies as a consequence of their choices (e.g., poor diet and limited exercise), others were born with these potentially debilitating diseases. The same holds true for mental illness: many are faced with managing the life-long course of a condition that stems from biological and genetic factors. And what about those who were victims of various types of abuse and trauma that affected their mental health? Regardless of what has led to your mental illness, be encouraged because you have been fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139: 14) in the image of God (Genesis 1: 27) and nothing—not even mental illness—can separate you from his love (Romans 8: 39).
SOCIETAL PERCEPTIONS OF WEAKNESS
Several years ago, I was working with a male high school student who was experiencing significant mental health difficulty. His father, however, felt strongly that his son’s condition was less serious than it was, and he instead needed to man up. For an impressionable adolescent who was particularly sensitive to his father’s acceptance and approval, effective treatment necessarily entailed reshaping the father’s perspective on mental health. Like this youngster, men (and women) who are living with mental illness need to know that they are not weak— a word that is almost always associated with negative connotations—but they’re human.
Unlike women, men are less likely to verbalize their feelings. Coupled with the fallacious thinking that mental illness is synonymous with, or even caused by weakness, this helps to explain why men don’t always seek the professional care that they need. For these reasons, it is incumbent upon churches and communities to create safe spaces in which men can express their innermost emotions. In the same manner that schools are often the point of access for a variety of services for children and families, it is more than appropriate for religious institutions to adopt a full service model and provide the much-needed supports to meet the spiritual, physical, social, emotional, and mental health needs of its parishioners and surrounding community.
MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT
Why me? Is God punishing me? Is my mental illness a consequence of sin? Why was I made this way? Why did God allow this to happen to me? Why doesn’t God take this away from me? For African American Christians living with mental illness, these are likely some of their most pressing questions. While I don’t have all of the answers to these questions, I find comfort and strength in 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10.
Written by the Apostle Paul, these verses juxtapose humanity with spiritual maturity. Although we do not know (and ultimately it’s not important) the specifics of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, we can be sure that it was inconvenient. Uncomfortable. Painful. It was a distraction designed to discourage Paul from fulfilling his purpose; and although he prayed, and prayed, and prayed for the Lord to remove this nuisance from him, the answer was no. But more importantly, the Lord’s response also included what He would do instead. Although I am not going to remove this difficult and seemingly impossible situation from you, my grace is sufficient—it’s enough—for you. Although you want this terrible thing to be taken away from you, what you really need is my grace—supernatural strength to endure.
Friends, have you considered that your mental illness could be your thorn in the flesh—something that the Lord will not remove, but whose grace is strong enough to sustain you? Like Paul, God doesn’t always take away our inconveniences because he is developing our Christian character (Galatians 5: 22-23). And as we are accomplishing great things for God, the thorn in the flesh reminds us that he is the one who chose us: not because we are perfect, but because he can use anyone because he is perfect.