In January 2020, I preached a three week series on the topic of faith and mental health. Over the course of the three week series I broached the topics of addiction, suicide, and depression/anxiety. Below is the text of the second sermon of the series entitled, “No Way Out,” which looked at the subject of suicide.
The most difficult part of preparing sermons to preach into these areas was ensuring that they remained as sermons and did not become mere public service announcements. I hope I managed that.
As with all my sermons, what you are going to find below is the general script I followed. The script will always be close to what was finally preached in the sermon, but there also will always be those last minute edits, and inspired moments when something was added to the script. To get those, you might want to check out the video of the sermon, which you can find here.
Each of these sermons was opened with video of an interview I had recorded with members of our church who are mental health professionals. The one for this sermon can be heard in the sermon video above or it can be seen on its own here.
Thank you for taking the time to read.
You Are Not Alone.
We have reached the last of our three week series on faith and mental health. In the last two weeks we have explored the areas of addiction and suicide. My hope is that we have had our collective awareness raised as to the sheer volume of people in America who are live life in an on-going battle with their mental health. I have shared numbers and stats with you to paint a picture of the numbers of people around us who battle addiction and who are impacted by suicide.
Another hope in preaching this series has been that not only will we know the numbers about this stuff, but that we will take a moment to think about mental health struggles in the context of our faith. I hope we have realized in the last couple of weeks that no-one is immune to mental health difficulties. If one thing has been confirmed to me by the conversations I have had at the door after worship these last couple of weeks, it has been that this stuff is as real for people of faith as it is for anyone else. Our Christianity does not protect us, or those closest to us from the possibility of having our own struggles and issues mentally.
Finally, my hope is that we have taken the elephant in the room and we have started a conversation about it. The stigma around these things is colossal and it creates a barrier to ourbeing a help to one another. Friends, my hope is that you know now more than you ever knew before that your church is a place where it is indeed safe to seek help if you are struggling in life. Churches have had a reputation in times gone by of being places where everyone looks their best and appears as if there is nothing to worry about in their lives. I hope you know that your church is a place that understands that real life happens, that struggle is real, and that being part of a grace filled family matters if we are to face the struggles.
This week I want to start the conversation about depression and anxiety.
- As of 2017, 300 million people around the world have depression, according to the World Health Organization.
- According to datafrom the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 17.3 million adults in the United States—equaling 7.1% of all adults in the country—have experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.
- 11 million U.S. adults experienced an episode that resulted in severe impairment in the past year.
- Nearly 50% of all people diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
- It’s estimated that 15% of the adult population will experience depression at some point in their lifetime.
Here are the most recent depression statistics in children and adolescents:
- 1 million young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year in the United States.
- 2% to 3% of children ages 6 to 12 may have serious depression.
- 20% of adolescent girls have experienced a major depressive episode.
- 8% of adolescent boys have experienced a major depressive episode.
- 71% of adolescents who experienced a major depressive episode in the past year experienced a severe impairment.
- 60% of children and adolescents with depression are not getting any type of treatment.
- 19% of children with depression saw a health care professional for treatment.
- An estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults had any anxiety disorder in the past year.
- Past year prevalence of any anxiety disorder was higher for females (23.4%) than for males (14.3%).
- An estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives
- GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, yet only 43.2% are receiving treatment.
- An estimated 31.9% of adolescents had any anxiety disorder.
- Of adolescents with any anxiety disorder, an estimated 8.3% had severe impairment.
- The prevalence of any anxiety disorder among adolescents was higher for females (38.0%) than for males (26.1%).
Friends, these numbers are real. Depression and anxiety are real, and according to the numbers, the chances are that there are many of you here this morning who know that already because you have suffered your own bouts of depression and/or anxiety.
There are any number of places we could go to in the Scriptures to read about the biblical reality of depression and anxiety. King Saul in the Old Testament is a primary example of someone who was crippled with anxiety. The prophet Jeremiah is known as a prophet who could provide a biblical case study in depression. You have heard me talk often about the words of the Psalmist and how they speak clearly of the struggles of this life.
Psalm 88 is one such Psalm. In the first four verses that we read this morning we meet a poet who seems paralyzed by struggle. We read testimony of an individual who seems so lost, so isolated, so helpless in this world that the only place left for him to turn is to God. “When I cry out to you, God, let my prayer come before you. Incline your ear to my cry.” This is the plea of one who longs to be heard by the Almighty. This is the prayer of one who feels like there is nowhere else to turn. We have no idea what is going on in the life of the poet at this point, but we do know that he is in a state of desperation that has left him asking God to bend down close, to incline God’s ear so that God might hear his prayer. It is a plea. It is a struggling Psalmist asking God to come close and listen.
Why is the Psalmist so desperate? He says that his soul is full of struggles and that his life is drawing near to Sheol. Sheol was known in the Psalmist’s culture as the place of death, the grave, the abode of the dead. Sheol was understood as the place from which there was no escape. A dark place. A bleak place in which there was no light or hope. For the Psalmist to describe his plight as one of being close to Sheol, he was saying that he was close to the place of utter isolation and loneliness. He continues by saying that he is like one who has gone down to the pit, like one who has no help. These are the words of one who feels alone, helpless and who is desperate for help from someone. I think the Psalmist is describing his own experience of depression.
Why do I think that? Because when I read those words I can relate them to my own experience. Early in 2015 I started to notice that something was different within me. Margaret and I had moved to the USA again just over a year before – moving house, changing the continent we lived on, and starting a new job. It was a stressful time. It was also during that year that I had spent much time in chronic back pain, and then went through a surgery to have the issue repaired. It had been a big year for us.
Everything appeared just fine on the outside, but honestly I was feeling lost and alone in the world. I was feeling like I had no clue who I was or what I was doing in ministry. Without warning, I would find my thoughts drifting into what felt like empty, blank spaces. I spoke to Margaret and said I did not know what was going on but that I just felt like I had lost my mojo in life. I had never been depressed. I had never been anxious about anything in my life. I had pretty much had a worry-free existence so far, and here I was feeling absolutely blind-sided by this complete sense of emptiness within me. I called my ministry mentor, who listened to me for a while and then spoke these words: “Do you think you are depressed?” I had not thought of it, but as soon as she asked me that question, tears welled up in my eyes and started to roll down my face. Depression? Me? No way. Have you seen these shoulders? They are big enough to carry anything. Have you seen this life? It is good – I have no reason whatsoever to be depressed. To cut a long story short, I eventually went to see my doctor and was diagnosed with some mild depression.
So I think that the Psalmist is describing a bout of depression in his life because I recognize the desperation with which the Psalmist is crying out to God.
Depression and anxiety are real in our world, and they were real in the world of the Bible. So how does Christian faith speak to the matter of depression and anxiety in our world?
The first thing that I need to state with utter clarity is this: suffering with depression is not a sign that an individual is lacking enough faith in God, and neither is it indicative of a faith that is weaker than someone else’s faith. You may think it strange that I would say that, but I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time a Christian has told me that when they have spoken in church or small groups of feeling depressed, someone has told them that they just need to have more faith or that their faith is not good or strong enough. That is one of the most ludicrous and damaging things we can speak to one another. A quick look through any number of information sources will tell you that depression and anxiety have their roots not in the presence or lack of faith in an individual’s life, but rather they tend to arise out of a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.
All that being said, Christian faith does have much to speak to the soul who feels lost, lonely, and paralyzed by depression and anxiety, and primarily what our faith has to speak to our depression, anxiety, and all the other mental health matters we have discussed is this: you are not alone.
To the soul who can’t shake that feeling of being utterly isolated in the world, the God who moved close to humanity in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ says I am with you. God says I am with you and I will never leave you nor forsake you. To Isaac, God said “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” He said the same to Moses, and to Joshua, and to all of Israel through the prophets such as Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The angel Gabriel said to a frightened girl called Mary that she was not to be afraid for God was with her. Jesus said to his disciples, as he commissioned them to go in to all the world, that he would be with them to the end of the age. The enduring message of the gospel is the message of a God who refuses to leave us. So to the one who is depressed or crippled with anxiety; to the one who feels utterly alone this morning, I say to you that the God who created you and who knows you inside out sees you and states clearly that you are not alone.
You are not alone because God is with you. And you are not alone because God has called and appointed the family of faith to be with you. In Mark chapter four we meet a paralyzed man who is being carried by four friends to see Jesus, in the hope that Jesus will offer healing. Of course, this story is one about the healing power of Jesus, and Mark is using it to set up another conversation after the healing between Jesus and some of the scribes who took issue with Jesus offering forgiveness of sins. Of course this passage is all about those things, but we must also pay attention to the friends of the paralyzed man and what they are willing to do to ensure that their friend has the opportunity to be cared for by Jesus. You see Jesus had drawn a crowd that day. A crowd so big that there was no more room for anyone to get anywhere near close to Jesus. The only way they could get their buddy to Jesus was to remove the roof above Jesus. Yes, you read it correctly. You heard it correctly. These four friends got up on the roof of the building in which Jesus was teaching and they started to remove it just above where Jesus was so that they could lower their friend through the hole and get him right in front of Jesus.
It is as crazy as it sounds – but it is the kind of crazy we can skip over and miss when we want to skip to the healing power of Jesus in this familiar story, or to the conversation Jesus has with the scribes after the healing. We can miss that in this paralyzed man’s injured state he had friends that were willing to do whatever it took to ensure that he would be in the best position to be ministered to by Jesus.
Friends – we are not alone because the God who moves close is with us and promises to never leave nor forsake us. Whether we can feel it or not. Whether we know it or not. Whether we believe it or not. The one who created us and knows us inside out; who knows every thought and every feeling; the one who knew isolation and desperation himself is with us and remains with us in all things and through all things – even the crippling, paralyzing loneliness and despair of depression and anxiety.
And we are not alone because this same god who is with us in and through all things is embodied in God’s gathered community of people – the church family. We do not get it right all the time. We sometimes say really dumb things that harm more than heal. We are flawed and broken and in need of healing ourselves, all of us…but we gather in the name of the God who is with us and we are called to love one another and embody the presence of God for one another. That means that to the best of our ability we will walk close by those who are struggling. That means we will listen without judgement and we will do our best to imagine what it would be like to walk a mile in your shoes. We will listen, we will empathize, and we will walk alongside those who suffer and struggle and feel entirely alone, and we will remind them that none of us are alone in this world. We will remind them that we are a people captivated by love and called by the God of love to willingly and eagerly walk with the broken, lost, and struggling in this world; to walk alongside them in the name of the God who is with them, who can restore them and bring them through the dark night of the soul they are experiencing.
The sermon closed the series. To mark the end of the series, I invited my colleague, Drew, to take a set prayer we had found in preparation for this series, and make it applicable for our church family. He, as he always does, did an excellent job. The prayer is below. The words in bold were spoken by the entire congregation:
When we feel nervous, and the walls close in, and too many people are too close, and everyday noises are too loud, and every light is too bright, and all we can do is plan our panicked escape from the situation we are in…
When sadness and depression pull us down like a lead weight, making it hard to move, hard to concentrate, hard to find motivation, hard to be alive, just hard…
God help us…We are not alone.
When we can’t help but burst into tears, and we learn the difference between crying and weeping, and the weeping won’t stop, and we lose hope that we will ever feel hopeful again…
God help us…We are not alone.
When information comes at us in blasts that we can’t make sense of, and it seems like someone keeps randomly “changing the channel” when we try to focus, and it feels impossible to learn or keep up with what’s going on around us…
God help us…We are not alone.
When we get so revved that we want to take on the world, and leap tall buildings, and outrun freight trains and take on too many major projects at once, and stay up all night for days on end, and the only thing we know we can’t do is slow ourselves down, until we crash out of control…
God help us…We are not alone.
When voices inside our minds constantly intrude upon our lives, and when they won’t stop and they confuse our thoughts and make it impossible to be with other people, let alone have any kind of real conversation…
When all we can see is a world that is out to get us, and we get stuck believing that some grand conspiracy is designed to hurt us, or ruin us, or kill us, and we believe that only our constant vigilance can save us, if anything can…
When we simply don’t know how out of touch other people think our thoughts are…
When we feel completely isolated and alone, longing for social connections we cannot make…
When we feel utter despair, and we see more reasons to end our lives than to keep living…
When we strive with best intentions to stop addictions that are ruining our lives, and we try our best again and again, but we can’t resist, and we end up over and over again at the same helpless place that we would give anything to avoid…
When our thoughts jumble and things we thought we knew slip away, and we feel helpless, powerless, and scared, for the moment and for the future…