Depression, Grief and the Church
“I am so low. I feel like I can’t breathe sometimes,” I whispered anxiously to the women’s bible study leader. I was desperate for help.
I had two children under the age of five. I was in the middle of a brutal divorce – a divorce that was already causing me shame and ostracism at church. I had lost twenty pounds in less than three months. I couldn’t sleep, physically feeling the weight of all the pressure and anxiety crushing me.
I was a new Christian, trying so hard to figure all of this churchy stuff out.
When I read the Bible, I saw people just as desperate as I felt. I saw Jesus loving them, protecting them, standing up for them, teaching them, and leading them.
So, as depressed as I was, I reached out in the only place I thought could really help – the Church.
When I finally got the courage to admit how bad it was, I was directed to a resource, written and published by Christians, about anxiety and depression. It was obvious no one really knew how to talk to me about it, so a book made it easier. The advice in this book?
“Discipline your mind.”
“Turn your worries into prayers.”
“Don’t blame illness when the problem is poor choices.”
Basically, try harder.
I was so depressed at that point, reading these things didn’t even really bother me. I just shrugged my shoulders and thought, “It is all my fault. Of course I feel like this. I have made terrible choices. I am not disciplined enough in the renewing of my mind. I pray all the time, but I guess it’s not the way I am supposed to.”
Looking back, I know everyone in this situation was trying to help me, but depression was just not a subject that was ever really discussed. Moreover, it was not a subject that anyone really wanted to discuss.
Depression, Grief and the Church
The second Christmas season after my brother-in-law died, my husband took my mother-in-law with him to church. He was excited to have the time with her, and thought that being in the company of the Church body would help with the intense grief.
The message was about grieving in the holiday season, so it seemed like such a wonderful weekend for her to be there.
The pastor wrapped up his key point, with this direct quote –
“If you are grieving this holiday season, the reality is that you just don’t love Jesus enough.”
Years later, my sweet mom-in-law and I still talk about that Sunday. The sadness and the outrage. The heart breaking grief, and the idea that somehow Jesus couldn’t also be in the middle of it. The just plain meanness of it.
How did we get here, Church?
How did we go from the stories in the Bible – that are real, raw and messy – and somehow end up thinking that being a good Christian means plastering on a fake smile, patting hurting people on the back, and doling out platitudes like candy?
How did we go from “loving our neighbor” to telling a grieving mother, and who knows how many other hurting people, you just don’t love Jesus enough?
In the account of Lazarus’ death, Mary is beside herself with grief. She clearly believes in Jesus and his power, and says so – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Yet she still grieves.
Then, the recorded passage goes on to say, “When Jesus saw her weeping…he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” Then a sentence later, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:32-35)
Jesus knows he can and will raise Lazarus. He easily could’ve said, “Cheer up sweet pea. If you loved me enough you wouldn’t grieve.”
But what does he do instead?
He grieves with her. Even though Jesus will restore and heal it all, he enters into the grief, and himself weeps.
The past few months have been a time of grief and depression for me. The news of my son’s serious and chronic illness, on top of all we are trying to do to help prepare him for life with an autism spectrum diagnosis, has been a lot to take. Some days it just feels like it is all too much.
The only thing that has helped, is feeling like Jesus is right there with me in it.
The only thing that has continually reminded me of his closeness, his love and his goodness?
The ladies who enter into my grief with me. Who see my tears and start to cry themselves. Who hear my desperation, and point me back to the grace and mercy and love that is Jesus Christ.
They are the body of Christ. They are the Church.
I am so grateful that in this season, no one is telling me to be more holy. No one is responding with a caution to not be too sad.
Instead, they have simply yet profoundly, acted like Jesus.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. – Psalm 34:18
We live in a world filled with brokenness and heartache. To me, it seems appropriate to grieve that sometimes. It seems appropriate to feel the weight of it.
Grief and pain remind us that we are meant for more, and that we belong to the one who promises to save the crushed in spirit – but not through our own actions, our praying harder or better disciplining our minds.
I pray that we, the Church, walk closely with those who are grieving.
I pray that we, the Church, cry out in one voice against the darkness that so easily creeps in.
I pray that we, the Church, draw near to those who are brokenhearted, because that is exactly what Jesus does, over and over again.
May we not be known for our to-do lists and platitudes.
May we not be known for hard words and little emotion.
May we not be known for our Christian pride.
May we instead be known as exactly the place to turn to, when life feels like it is caving in.
May we be known as the ones who draw near, who draw close, who live life side by side, and bear each others burdens.
May we be known as the ones who look like Jesus.
Shawna Wingert is a former training and development professional turned education specialist, and has homeschooled her two children for the last ten years.Shawna has written four books about homeschooling unique learners and has been featured in homeschooling discussions on Today.com, The Mighty, Simple Homeschool, My Little Poppies and Raising Lifelong Leaners.
You can find her online here at DifferentByDesignLearning.com.
Breaking free from the “try harder” was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my faith. It’s so worth it, but it further alienates you from churches that are full of “Christians” and pastors who believe trying harder is the answer to pain. Or who think you should recover from devastating loss or pain in a few weeks to a month max. It’s often a lonely road, but thankfully Jesus is always there. Thank you for sharing this.
Thank you so much for words, Sallie – and the reminder that no matter what, Jesus is always there.
Yes. I am sorry you had to go through this. When I had severe post-partum depression with my first child, the church helped me (w/ childcare while I went into the hospital, for example), but also hurt me. I got a lot of comments like “go to the gym, exercise helps depression.” They wanted to help me, and they felt uncomfortable/anxious, I think, by the fact that they didn’t know how to fix me. Fortunately there were a few people who were able to be with me, love me, and trust Jesus to heal me (which he did, in a miraculous way . . . eventually).
One good outcome of that horrible time is that I grew in compassion for others who are suffering and became more able to love/pray/serve without needing to fix. 2 Cor. 1:3ff became more real to me. I join you in praying that the church will be more the real, messy, compassionate life-giving body of Christ to the broken-hearted.
Beautiful reflection on a tough subject. I struggle integrating my depression/anxiety and my faith. They are not mutually exclusive – as you’ve proven here. Thank you.
I found this post after leaving church services for the umpteenth time this Easter because of crying I can’t get under control. This has been going on for the eight months after my daughter’s passing, and I have found myself embarrassed and frustrated by my behavior. I wanted to tell you how comforting I am finding the verses you used in this post. Jesus weeping with a mother who was grieving is a reminder that He is with me in this.
I am so very grateful for your comment. I am deeply sorry for your loss. Praying for you tonight.
Thank you for writing this.
Ah, just beautifully put Shawna. We’ve seen depression first hand in our family.
“My wife has battled personally with depression. What if joy was so far from her that she was numb and felt like she was on her back in the bottom of deep pit with no way out? What then? Imagine she was at the back of the crowd with Jesus, dragging her feet and stumbling along behind all the happy dancing followers? Could she still call herself a Christian, a Jesus follower?
Is she not going in the same direction? Is she not following Jesus anyway? The judgement here is on those who didn’t care to turn around and help carry her, and those others like her.”
Keep on keeping on, y’ all.
Beautiful post, Alex! Thank you for sharing.
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