Hurting and Healing in the Church

By Jesse HarpJune 21, 2021

My sorrow has a song to sing. Maybe yours does too.

Even if we can’t hear it at first, at the heart of most sadness lives some illuminating melody waiting to be sung, a melody of clarity and growth and truth.

But sometimes, we intentionally keep our sorrow locked in a cage, wings-pinned, out of the sunlight in hopes that no one else will notice it. We throw a sheet over the cage to stifle the sound of its song. If no one can see it or hear it, it was never there to begin with, right?

This has been my mindset for far too long. I’ve never liked talking, writing, or even thinking about hard things.

What I’ve learned about myself is that when the windstorms of adversity sweep through this life and finally fall to their death, I promptly shove all of the wreckage into a corner instead of sifting through the debris. I never give myself the chance to figure out what’s missing, what’s broken, and what’s still here. With all the fragments shoved into a corner, nothing ever gets mended or tossed out or salvaged.

And that doleful little bird that remains after the storm? I lock it up.

But after years of waiting, I think it’s time to unpin my sorrow’s wings and open up the cage door. I’m unfettering it into the open air and letting it clear its lungs of all the dust they’ve gathered. It’s time to let sadness fill the world with its story because if I don’t, it will just keep filling me with its burden. And maybe if I let it fly and grace the treetops with its long-suffering anthem, the people down below will lean into the good news of healing and redemption it has to offer. Maybe they’ll lift their world-weary hands after keeping them clenched for too long. They might even let their sorrow rise to meet mine, creating a chorus that sounds like the resurrection of all we’ve lost. Who knows, maybe this music could help the entire forest grow.

It’s taken me a really long time, but now I realize that it can be gratifying to talk about the hard thing.

Mental illness was my hard thing.

If you know, you know.

You’ve felt the sunlight breaking through the crack in your blinds every morning to touch your despondent face like a nurse tending to a patient on their deathbed. You’ve listened in envy to laughter leaping through the air to join a gale of others. You’ve witnessed joy and lives well-lived with the same wistfulness as a child watching a shooting star through a telescope. You’ve laid in bed at night, listening to the sound of your heartbeat ticking like a metronome waiting for a song that never begins to play. But the heart beats on, the metronome ticks on, keeping time of the nothingness. There are no good or bad days, no kinds of days at all, just an endless succession of monotony separated by darkness and light. Christmas, birthdays, Halloween, the smell of new babies, feeling your heart melt into the serenity of a purple twilight in October—these things might as well not exist to you anymore.

If this is or ever was you, you can take a little comfort in the fact that our demons seemed to have joined forces and drove us into the same corner. You are not alone.

Since most of my young life had been hedged with American Christianity, it became very clear to me that, while the church does and has done some things right, its perception of mental illness is skewed at almost every angle. The church’s approach to mental health, from my own experience, is just thrusting mental and emotional unrest into a baptismal of sanctification as if it’s another human error that we’re personally responsible for and need to surrender to God. If I wasn’t healing, it was because I wasn’t choosing to trust Jesus enough. It might be because some other area of my lifestyle wasn’t mirroring the Lord’s desires, and He was punishing me through this. The joy of the Lord is a choice, and I just wasn’t choosing it. And if I did choose to try medication in an attempt to rewire my brain, it was no more than a crutch I was using as a substitute for Jesus.

Altar call

After altar call

After altar call

When the first few notes of that guitar rang through the sanctuary to announce the invitation, I would touch my head to folded hands and sometimes dump myself at that altar.

I tried to inject more fervor into my voice as we sang the lyrics to “I Surrender All,” thinking that if I was able to prove to God that I was truly trying with all of my might, His decision-making scale would tip in my favor and He would finally heal me of this dark entity that hung over my bones like moss on a dying tree.

The first adult decision I made entirely on my own wasn’t buying a car, moving out on my own, or getting a tattoo. My first adult decision was to call my doctor for help as I sat shaking in my car in a parking lot, my face wrenched beneath a film of sweat and gray tears. When the nurse asked me what the appointment was regarding, all I could bring myself to say was, “personal reasons.” I could hear my voice snagging on the hooks of shame as it gracelessly escaped my lips.

“Is it your mental health?”

Guilt-ridden, I said, “yes.”

The secret was out. I was the culprit of my own downfall, or so I had always thought. I was just one of those people with depression and anxiety, too hung up on my own problems to care about anything else.

Sitting in the waiting room that February afternoon felt too shameful, so all I could do was flee to the bathroom and heave silent sobs until it was time for the appointment. The very walls of the doctor’s office mocked me, taunting me with the menacing lie that I was wasting everyone’s time by being there.

My doctor knew. She didn’t belabor things with “how’s your family?” and “are you going to the same college?” She didn’t adhere to the manners and niceties of our southern decorum. She took one look at the sum of my broken parts sitting on the exam room table and that was it.

This is where I think I really met Jesus for the first time. I met Him at an altar of crinkling paper atop an exam table in the sanctuary of a private practice doctor’s office. My doctor ministered to me in ways I could never convey to her. I cried into my hands as she told me the truths my soul was starving for. In that moment, she was the revivalist sent to preach my salvation sermon. Her eyes held mine with the same resoluteness as the gravity that holds us here when she said I was brave for coming, none of it was my fault, I was not weak, I was just sick, and God wasn’t angry at me for coming—He’s the one who led me there in the first place. The tears streaming down my face were different, they were baptizing me in a new truth: In this world, there is heartache. And it’s not always our fault and it’s not God’s fault. But somehow, under the same sky where death, destruction, violence, disease, and even serotonin blockages inevitably steal our abundance and our peace, there is always hope for new life.

The healing came in subtle waves. Little things like drinking coffee I believed I deserved and talking to nice strangers were the first signs, like the first few raindrops serving as a harbinger for the merciful monsoon to come.

I could feel it coming as the medication swept through the pathways in my mind, my heart growing lighter as the warm air sauntered north in 2016. As spring began rubbing the sleep from her eyes and dandelions peppered the ground, the foreign rush of dopamine began to tenderly nudge awake my every cell and fill my brain like the headiest wine and I remember thinking, “what is this feeling?” and then, “oh yeah. This is life as it should be.” The days grew longer and the anxiety left my chest like the last few sandbags falling from a hot air balloon as it begins its ascent. I was finally here.

The year after the healing felt like a dream. I was Julie Andrews sashaying through a valley of singing flowers in the cheesiest, most cinematic way. Each day I wrapped my whole body in the warm sound of my own laughter like a sweater I forgot I had. I clutched joy to my chest like a mother reuniting with her child after a house fire. “I almost lost you,” I whispered. The main street in my college town now seemed to roll itself out before me so graciously. I can remember thrusting the window of my dorm room open each morning to greet the day with a song in my heart. That sun was shining for me. The October breeze sweeping against my cheek was a messenger of God’s goodness. I was awestruck by the simplicity of life’s true abundance and how sweet simply existing could be. To me, abundance became as easy as waking up and filling my lungs with air that tasted like a birthright. Abundance, I learned, isn’t a pristine succession of scrapbook-worthy days or a trophy case of grandiose achievements. It comes not in the form of money or status or perfection by any degree. It’s far, far sweeter and I pray it for you too. I pray you meet abundance in the form of county fairs and baby goats and residential streets named after flowers and fruit. I pray it comes to you in the form of a balmy night clutched lovingly in the palm of summertime as you laugh until you cry with your best friend. I pray you meet abundance dancing in damp grass on the first warm evening in the springtime. I pray it comes to you when you’re helping a mommy turtle cross the street so she can safely lay her eggs. It’s early work commutes and pumpkin patches and sparklers in the hands of clumsy toddlers, squealing as the embers fall to their feet.

I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you, but you can know this abundance again.

I’m writing this to tell you that healing isn’t a fabled ideal you’re reaching toward in vain. It’s real. It happened to me. But I know if I had tried to wave this healing banner before myself all those years ago, I would have spat in my own face. How dare anyone attempt to embellish this drudgery with false hope and empty promises. Reality can sometimes laugh in the face of encouragement, and it’s not always wrong. But I’m just here to say healing is real, and if you’re waiting for someone or something to propel you into seeking the help and treatment you need, please let this be it. Maybe you need counseling or relationships or medication. Maybe you need all of these things combined. And to those of you who are being told that medication is only a crutch, only a sign that you’re not relying on God, well, I’ve built a fortress out of little orange bottles, and the kingdom is still expanding. For those of you that have been told to brush it under the rug, to hold it all together, that it’s really nothing: you have permission to fall to pieces, nestled in the wings of your Savior. Or a doctor. Or a counselor. I promise you there’s someone out there who cares for you. I know because I’m one of them.

Before modern technology, coal miners would bring canaries with them down into the mines. If there was any type of harmful chemical permeating the air that posed a threat to the miners, the canary would die first, serving as a warning for the miners, letting them know they should retreat. Coal miner, let me be your yellow bird. The things that wait for us in the darkness didn’t take their toll on me. I’m still here, singing my healing song. I don’t know your circumstance. I don’t know when or through what means your healing will come to you. All I can tell you is there is hope to cling to.

And I need to reconvene with my own self for just a moment. After I was healed, I took that scrappy, anxiety-ridden heap of a girl and abandoned her, eschewing the shell of who she was like it was nothing more than a skin I had molted out of. I didn’t claim her or mention her to my friends. I pretended she didn’t exist or matter. So, right now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take her face in my hands and tell her she is worth it right then, before the healing. Let me drop some gold into the dark, empty wishing wells of those eyes, girl. Keep praying for the miracle. You deserve it. It’s not your fault.

You are not weak for wanting or needing support. If you’re seeking professional help, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected]

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Comments (13)

  1. Audrey

    I don’t think I have ever resonated with a piece more. I grew up in the church and have experienced a lot of the same things you’ve have described – being told mental illness is a choice and that all I have to do is choose to be happy. Your piece spoke to me on so many levels and in ways I didn’t even know that I needed. Thank you!!

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  2. Jennifer

    Wow. I feel like I could have written these words myself. I’ve had a similar experience with my own mental health and the church. I remember waking up one day and feeling different like you had described. It gave me the courage to divorce my husband even though I knew I would be shunned by my “Christian” family and the Bible said God hated it. That journey ended up taking me down a very hard road, not because of the divorce but because of my own mental health and not getting the care I needed. I am still recovering from a very horrible thing that happened in January of 2019. I get better every day but God is not the same and I feel lost and only possess the most shattered faith. As a writer and fellow recoverer I would love to connect with you. If that’s not weird please email me!? Thank you for sharing this. I feel like I have a kindred soul out there in the universe. jennsationalatyahoodotcom

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  3. Sandy

    This is an excellent & well written description of healing & salvation. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. Tammy Copland

    Deep ❤

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  5. Karen

    I thank you profusely for telling your story so poignantly and as it really happened. The truth of it is penetrating and offers the message of Hope others need to hear.

    I was given that same hope and was led on a 7 year healing journey by a skillful Christian psychotherapist, supported by needed pharmaceutical help. It opened the door to life I thought only existed for others.

    It’s critical that others hear what you offer here. There is help and healing and real life available. It takes humility, that it’s ok to seek professional help, and willingness to consider that I’m not the exception to experiencing fullness of life through the grieving, healing, truthful, grace-available path.

    May God use your open-heartedness in this forthright and exquisite piece to open the window of hope and healing to those who feel desperately depressed.

    God bless you! Thank you!

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  6. Caroline

    Thank you so much for writing this, you have no idea how much I needed it right now.

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  7. Brian Allen

    Wow! Jamie’s original story hit a chord in me like no other and helped me reimagine the Body of Christ. This is beautiful and true – a story to be told and a song to be sung. Thank you so much – what a gift. B. 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

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  8. George Wood

    So good, and so necessary! Thank you for bringing your truth to the world! As a Pastor who is in this battle of bringing awareness to mental health and recovery as a whole it is awesome to know I am not alone!

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  9. Lisa Townsley

    Beautifully written!!!!!
    I grew up in the UMC being told there was a blueprint for your life when you are born. Everything that is happening or will happen, is supposed to. At the same time I was being emotionally, physically, and sexually abused. Messed me up and my relationship with God for a very long time. Actually, I’m still struggling with it. Reading ‘Conversations with God’ helped a lot. And now your article is helping me.
    Thank you!!!!!
    Is there a way you could send me this article?? One of my son in laws is a UMC pastor. I would love to share this with him but the app won’t let me share it.

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  10. Leah

    Thank you so much for sharing. This piece is not only beautifully written, but it is anointed with healing words from the Spirit.

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  11. Cate Reddell

    You have written a wonderful article. It is well written as well as being well thought through. But I am left wondering, what about when mental illness doesn’t relent? What happens when a person doesn’t wake up to see the sunshine out the window and have rediscovered that sense of joy? What about when you don’t get the abundance you said I can have? For some people, mental illness is severe, or chronic and life-lasting. That’s the boat I am in, and have been in for most of my adult life. Where does God fit in my type of world? I’m not in any way wanting to criticise what you wrote. Like I said, I liked your article. The problem for me is that it seems a bit one-sided and suggests that this recovery of joy is a guaranteed thing. It’s not. It doesn’t always work out that way. Just saying.

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  12. Leah Brenner

    Beautifully stated. I grew up in the church and I believe in God very much but I don’t believe in religion or “artificial flowers”. I believe what you’ve stayed and it took me a while to come to that conclusion. The horribleness of this life isn’t “God’s will” His will was peace. I believe God gave us freedom of choice and unfortunately free people don’t always make the best decisions and there are always consequences-good and bad.

    Thank you for sharing

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