[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series, we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.
Today we’re connecting with Mike Mileski. Mike is living his best life in downtown Hamilton with his wife Heather and their three young kids. He pastors Benediction Church, reads comics, collects action figures, and hopes you’ll wear a mask. A staff member of Power to Change – Students recorded this interview.]
P2C-Students: What do you think are some significant misunderstandings about mental health that are common in the church?
Mike Mileski: I do think it’s possible to underestimate the impact of poor mental health, but it’s also possible to overestimate it as well. I can flesh those ideas out a bit.
I have first-hand experience with Christians who have felt that emotional or mental suffering is evidence of a failure to trust God. If I’m doing poorly, if I’m experiencing anxiety or depression, for example, that’s a reflection of a sin area of my life. To remedy any mental health challenge is to trust God more, believe his promises, and repent. I would say that perspective really underestimates the impact and the power of mental and emotional illness.
Christians are not supposed to ignore issues that have a physiological cause, and in lots of ways, mental and emotional illnesses are rooted in our bodies. Mental health challenges aren’t things you can “pray away.”
Suppose you are a Christian and you believe you’re supposed to pray depression and anxiety away, and you do––you pray––and things don’t change. What does that do to you? You’re probably going to come to the conclusion that “God doesn’t love me,” “He’s forgotten me,” “He doesn’t want me to feel better,” or ”Maybe I don’t have enough faith.” I think it’s a matter of time before that person comes to the conclusion that Christianity doesn’t work. Whether or not it’s true, it doesn’t “work,” because it hasn’t actually changed my mood or given me a better outlook on life. For that reason, underestimating the impact of mental and emotional illness is really, really dangerous.
I would say it’s possible to overestimate its impact as well. I have first-hand experience with Christians who would say that their mental and emotional health issues are a barrier to experiencing God, or that it causes them to shrink back from pursuing God. They might think that there’s no point in trying to pursue God or in trying to grow and become more like Jesus, because they have mental health challenges in their life. That person might assume that they get a pass on discipleship.
I would say that, for this person, it’s even more important to develop spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study and memorization, giving to your church, and resting. Firstly, these things are going to help you grow in your relationship with Jesus. Secondly, these things are important because they help us remember who we truly are in Christ. These are not dispensable things. Spiritual disciplines root us in the gospel, because they remind us who we really are so that we’re not listening to the lies that our depression and anxiety tell us. The experience of anxiety and depression often involves dwelling on unhelpful thoughts, and without abiding in Christ and practising spiritual disciplines, we are much more susceptible to believing those lies. It’s important we don’t assume that if you have mental and emotional challenges, diagnosed or not, that they give you a pass on following Jesus.
So I wouldn’t want a person to overestimate, but I also wouldn’t want them to underestimate the impact of these things on them.
P2C-S: Overestimate or underestimate the impact of mental illnesses or health concerns on them as a person or on their spiritual lives?
Mike: I wouldn’t separate those. It’s probably a mistake to separate spiritual lives and health from our physical lives and health, because we are integrated beings. We are body, soul, mind, and spirit. Those parts shouldn’t be divided. To live as God designed, for us to flourish, we need to not assume that I can just learn my Bible and everything else will just take care of itself.
P2C-S: So do you think then that maybe parts of the church have over-spiritualized mental illness?
Mike: Very much so. Like I said earlier, when there is an issue in a person’s health, whether physical or emotional or mental, you can’t ignore physiological causes.
You wouldn’t say to a person born predisposed to cancer that they should just pray and that will take care of it. I mean it certainly can—God may choose to heal a person through prayer—but the normative approach is to go to a doctor. And if a doctor says, “Go on this regimen that’s meant to take you to greater health,” you wouldn’t ignore their advice. And so I wouldn’t want a Christian to say, “If I have a significant issue where my mental and emotional health are impacted, the only strategy in my toolbox is prayer.” Definitely do pray, but in the same way that a person who is diagnosed with cancer is going to use prayer and chemo and radiation and support from their church to bring them meals and encouragement, you need a whole host of tools in order to fight for mental wellness.
P2C-S: So you might even say, given the idea of being an integrated being, one’s spiritual life could be a part of their mental illness or at least a part of their healing journey, but it doesn’t need to be the only part of it––and shouldn’t be the only part of it.
Mike: Shouldn’t be the only part of it. I would say, if you’ve been told that the only thing you need to do to experience greater mental and emotional health is prayer or that the only proper interventions are spiritual, I would say, you’ve probably been poorly taught or misled. I’m a big supporter of seeing counsellors and, if necessary, using medication, and these things are proven to make a difference. Christians should not be afraid of these things.
P2C-S: Maybe to play a little bit of devil’s advocate here, what about those Bible verses that do say, “Do not be anxious” (Philippians 4:6) or “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)? This is where some people have used Scripture to say, “Okay, depression or these sorts of things are tied to sin.” What might you say to that argument?
Mike: Yeah, so regarding not being anxious, remember the apostle Paul was the one who also said he’s “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Paul’s not a guy who’s unrealistic about how broken the world is. He knows how much of a mess we’re in. He’s experienced deep sorrow, yet there is a deep, abiding, rooted joy that Paul is able to experience, even though he is also experiencing sorrow and suffering. I think that’s pretty normal.
We can’t use the apostle’s words against him; he knows the secret to being sorrowful yet always rejoicing. I’ve found that to be such a helpful reminder personally as I’ve gone through my own battles and issues with mental health. I think it helps me to have realistic expectations for what life is going to be like. I can expect to rejoice, have peace, joy in God, and feel sad. This is the same Paul who in Romans 7 says, “I don’t understand it: I don’t do the things that I want to do, and the things that I don’t want to do, those are the things that I do. I don’t understand what’s going on in my heart; who’s going to save me from this? Thank God for Jesus!” That’s the apostle Paul. The normal rhythm of his life is that there is this battle between the person he knows he is supposed to be and his own experience. That’s the deal on this side of eternity; it’s not unusual, it’s not exceptional.
So I would go to the person who says, “Anxiety is a lack of faith,” or ”Failure to rejoice is a sign of a lack of faith,” and say, your argument isn’t with me but with Scripture itself. Scripture leaves a lot of room for people whose lived experience is, “This is really hard, and I just want to feel happy, but a lot of the time I don’t.” That’s really important.
P2C-S: How might the Bible inform an appropriate approach to mental health, if at all?
Mike: So it totally does. I would go back to Romans 7, point out that the greatest evangelist we have, the rockstar apostle Paul, had to make room in his life for the fact that there is this gap between the person he feels he is supposed to be and who he actually is.
His experience is an inner battle. Also, keep in mind that Christians are not the only ones who need to reconcile mental health issues with our worldview. If secular humanism were my worldview, and I believed that we are evolving and that things are getting better, then I still have to figure out why I’m depressed and not experiencing joy. Secular humanism doesn’t present a tidy explanation for where mental illness comes from.
What Christ does give us is a vision for discipleship where we each are carrying our “crosses” or burdens in life alongside each other. Your burden might not be the same as everyone else’s, but Jesus says. “If you follow me, you’re going to take up your cross daily.” His invitation to everyone who becomes one of his followers is this: “You see that big, heavy thing that sucks. that you don’t like? That burden? You’re going to pick that up. Your journey with me is that you’re going to carry that.” Discipleship is this team where we look around and see each other, and each of us is carrying our own crosses. Mine is different than yours, but everybody’s got one. So for a person who wrestles with mental illness, Jesus isn’t surprised by this, but actually says, “This doesn’t prove that I don’t love you, it’s a cross that you are to bear. Pick it up and follow me.”
Christianity also offers, unlike other worldviews, a promise that mental health challenges won’t exist forever. In eternity, you’ll be able to put down your burden and come into the joy of the Master. But for now, we carry our cross.
I actually think this is more hopeful, and more life-giving. This vision of mental health challenges, as discipleship and cross-carrying, gives me more peace than any other explanation. Given the other ways to rationalize mental illness, I just think that in Jesus we have everything that we need. It’s so motivating and inspiring, it’s beautiful. The gospel really gives us the power and the courage and the strength to do what God calls us to do.
P2C-S: Yeah, that’s really well said: seeing mental health challenges as part of your burden of discipleship. It’s beautiful because it injects them with purpose.
Mike: Absolutely. I think that if you treat your mental illness as a deal-breaker, as if “I could never be a good Christian because I’ve got _______”, then you’re actually missing out on the very thing that God wants to use to refine you and make you more like Jesus.
P2C-S: Do you have thoughts for spiritual communities on how to approach helping people who are struggling?
Mike: Yeah, I think churches should assume that their people are struggling with their mental health. Leaders should carefully choose their words in order to not add shame and condemnation. When you’re thinking about how to apply the passages of Scripture, it’s easy to say, “If you’re a Christian, you should be doing these things, and if you’re not sharing your faith, giving generously to your church, or whatever, you should wonder if you’re a Christian or not!” That’s just a very simplistic way of looking at how people live. Each of us has multiple motivations, and we’re wrestling with many different issues at a time, so there are many reasons why a mature follower of Jesus might mess up or might sin, and that’s not necessarily a chronic failure to trust God.
When you have a choice of how to motivate people to change, talking about the gospel and grace actually works. We don’t need to motivate people with shame and condemnation and fear. That doesn’t actually help. What does help is sharing the good news of what changed in the cross and the empty tomb. That changes people.
One example that comes to mind is a young man who had been wrestling with pornography and who believed that he would always struggle. He had incredible depression and lacked motivation to do anything––even leave his home. I spent time just listening to his story, and all I did was share the gospel from the vantage point of what has actually changed because Jesus died and rose. One big change is that you actually have a vote in what happens when you’re tempted. You don’t actually have to sin; you don’t have to look at porn, you don’t have to masturbate. You actually have a choice in how this goes down.
We also have the promise that sin has been broken. That’s something that actually happened at the cross: you’re no longer a slave of sin. There was time you didn’t have a choice, but now you do. Just think of what that does to you. If you’ve been taught that you’re powerless or hopeless, it’s so discouraging. But once it penetrates and goes deep down that Jesus actually died and broke the power of lust over you, then all of a sudden you realize that “Oh, I don’t have to do this anymore. It has no power over me. I’m free.” So this young man, maybe three years later, porn is gone from his life. I’m not saying that I did that; I’m saying that the gospel itself does the work. It has the power to do the transforming work so that we don’t need to lean on guilt, fear, condemnation, or threats. It’s such a beautiful thing. I love the gospel, and in pastoral ministry, I love that when it comes to motivating change, the gospel is the thing we need, it’s one of the main tools in our toolbox.
P2C-S: Thanks for this, I’m finding it quite edifying! I wonder if you have any resources for Christians who are struggling or know someone who is?
Mike: I’ll give you a couple of books. One is called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. Solid dude, I love that book. Another one, maybe for leaders, Managing Leadership Anxiety by Steve Cuss. Another book I would suggest is Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcy. It’s maybe more of an apologetics book, but she’s responding to some of the secular criticisms of Christianty by arguing that we are integrated beings.
Physical health is really important. And being in a thick, vulnerable community is so crucial. One more practical thing: I think minimal, careful, and strategic use of social media is key. Being careful and conscientious about how we engage in social media use is an essential strategy in mental wellness.
P2C-S: Definitely agree with that one. Thanks for sharing!
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.