Sometimes You Can’t Pray It Away: Mental Illness & The Church

Yesterday, I spent an hour at a therapist appointment with one of my children. We were both looking forward to it because life has been hard lately.

She had done some work leading up to the appointment. We had not seen the therapist for about a year because she was doing pretty well. She didn’t want to forget anything important and wanted to make a list of things to talk about. She listed 4 big things. When I say “big”, I don’t want you to gloss over that word. Imagine one thing that really distresses you to think about. The sort of thing you would do anything to avoid. She wrote down 4 things of that magnitude.

It should have occurred to me that it might be too much for her for one hour of therapy, but it didn’t. I was just so proud of her for thinking through it on her own and wanting to be prepared. She’s 9!  Sometimes she blows me away in the best way! She had even drawn a comic about defeating the bully OCD. It was amazing and her therapist was seriously impressed.

**It’s possible that my perfectionist daughter is doing work to impress her therapist, but maybe we can address that another time. **

Anyway, our therapist worked through the list with her. I sat next to my daughter and watched her do what she could to talk about intrusive thoughts that were really upsetting to her. She did her best to downplay how upset these things made her. She tried to distance herself from them. Used words like “sometimes” and “kind of”to make it easier. But, after an hour and some comments about how hormones that increase at this time of her life can make OCD bigger and trickier, she couldn’t hold it together any longer. She wilted like my unwatered flowers in the back yard. Tears came and she couldn’t stop them.

She has some hard work to do. We have a list of things to work on to fight this bully. And we could use your help. Specifically, we could use help from our local church.


  • If you know someone who struggles with depression, OCD, or other mental illnesses, understand that a simplistic approach that assumes a spiritual issue is not helpful. It’s shaming and isolating.

I found this quote from an article:

“When we treat mental illness as a spiritual problem, prescribing more faith or prayer, we suggest suffering people aren’t eligible for God’s grace. We behave like the Pharisees, whom Jesus said “don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Matthew 23:3-4).

Our bodies, minds, and spirits are interconnected in ways too mysterious for us to unravel. And technically, all sicknesses are ultimately spiritual in origin—they entered our world as a result of humanity’s rebellion against God. But to assume that disorders and diseases which attack the brain have direct spiritual causes and solutions is to misunderstand the way we are made. Mental illnesses are real, treatable, and manageable conditions caused by genetic, biological, or environmental factors, or some combination of the three. To withhold or discourage medical and psychological intervention is as cruel as to deny treatment for a broken arm or a case of diabetes. I find it baffling that people who believe other physical ailments should be treated only with faith and prayer are considered cultists or heretics—but such a perspective on mental illness is accepted within mainstream Christianity.” (from Amy Simpson at this link)

Yes, please pray. I absolutely believe in the power of prayer. There is always the possibility of spiritual forces at play. However, an initial response of wondering if it has to do with something spiritual sometimes insinuates to the person who most needs your help and encouragement that this is their fault. That needs to stop.


Ed Stetzer had these powerful words to say:

“It is common practice in churches, however, to treat mental illness differently. We immediately assume there is something else, some deeper spiritual struggle causing mental and emotional strain.

The fact is that mental illness and spiritual struggle can be (and are) related. We are not separate things, we are complex people—remarkable connected in spirit, soul, body, mind, etc.

But, let me be direct here: if we immediately dismiss the possibility of mental illness and automatically assume spiritual deficiency, our actions amount to spiritual abuse. I know those are powerful and pointed words, but I believe them to be true. Please, don’t miss them.” (emphasis mine) (source)

  • Understand this is a big deal. 18% of the adult population in the US suffers from some mental illness.


(graph from this source)

18% is not an insignificant number. To put it in real numbers, of 100 adults, that’s 18. Of 600 adults, that would be 108 impacted. I don’t know that the numbers look like when it comes to children.

We are so thankful for the people that God has placed in our lives that truly have taken the time to listen and understand this struggle. Thanks for walking with us through this.

One thought on “Sometimes You Can’t Pray It Away: Mental Illness & The Church

  1. I truly wish more of the Christian community could better understand these points, but to honestly do that, I’d be wishing upon them the very things I struggle against myself. All fall short, but the analogies to the typical response and the over-simplification, as if repentance would eradicate this scenario, are bang on and obviously just incomprehensible to those who assume there’s a spiritual quick-fix. Pray for those of who suffer from true depression and anxiety, please, but stop dismissing it as easy to overcome by getting right with God.

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