Mental Health Sermon
Rev. Gabe Kasper, Lead Pastor
University Lutheran Chapel
Ann Arbor, MI
Text: Matthew 26:36-46
Goal: That the hearers find hope for their mental health struggles in the Christ who suffers with and for them.
I talked with a friend of mine the other day who was trying to convince me that human beings and animals have the same intrinsic value and worth, which is an extreme claim to make. I mean, even if we don’t take Scripture into account, common sense seems to indicate that there’s just some fundamental differences between human beings and animals.
But I wanted to be gracious to my friend, so I heard his argument out. And then I just asked him, “Since you believe animals and humans have the same value and worth. Are you a vegan? Or a vegetarian at least?” He said, “No, I eat meat.”
Now, I don’t mean to insult my friend, but this must be one of the most profound examples of cognitive dissonance I’ve ever encountered.
However, the reality is, we all deal with cognitive dissonance at some level, right?
Often there is a disconnect between our intellectual value system and our lived value system.
We see this in all sorts of ways.
We all know that junk food isn’t good for us…but those Doritos aren’t going to eat themselves.
We all know that binge watching TV isn’t the best use of our time…but when we’re exhausted after a long day, clicking “next episode” just becomes an automatic response.
And the list goes on. There’s a million ways in which this cognitive dissonance manifests itself.
One of the less trivial ways this happens is the relationship between our emotional or mental health and our faith.
A significant percentage of our population deals with a mental health struggle at one level or another. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18.1% of adults in this country have an anxiety disorder. And 6.7% of adults are living with clinical depression.
However, beyond depression and anxiety, the list could go on to encompass those who struggle with a host of other mental health issues. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) says that one in five US adults is living with a mental health concern.
What this means is that there is likely a significant number of us, here in our congregation, who struggle with these same mental health issues. Being Christians does not make us immune to mental health challenges.
In August of 2018, Pastor Andrew Stoecklin shared the story of the prophet Elijah (using 1 Kings 19 as his sermon text) with his mega church in Chino, California. He shared how the prophet despaired, how he was filled with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Stoecklin then shared statistic after statistic of mental illness and suicide in our country. He shared information on resources available, offered the help of the church, and the hope of Jesus. He told people they were not alone.
He concluded his message with these words, “There is hope, and there is help available.”
However, twelve days later, he died by suicide.
For this pastor, here was an example of cognitive dissonance. We are not immune.
Yet, we rarely talk about this in church. And there’s probably a few reasons for that.
First, out of good intentions, maybe we don’t want those who are struggling with mental health to feel like a spotlight is being shown on them.
Secondly, folks who struggle with their mental health may feel that it’s a sin, or they have been incorrectly told it is a sin. Likewise, the church has at times communicated the message, intentionally or unintentionally, that because you are dealing with anxiety or depression (or something else), it’s because “you don’t have enough faith.” Or “you’re supposed to be joyful in the Lord.” But does that mean if I don’t feel that joy, something is wrong with my faith?
Let me be clear today. It’s not a sin or a lack of faith to struggle with mental health issues. In fact, because mental health struggles are so multi-faceted, our faith can help us during our struggles.
And now, the third reason we don’t often talk about mental health very much in the church is because we don’t see or don’t know how our spiritual life can help bring healing in our emotional life.
Well, because of that, today we’re going to look at how we can take our anxiety, our depression, our stress, or whatever else we may be dealing with, directly to God. As we do that, we’re not promised instant healing, but we do find a God who suffers with us and for us.
So, here’s our outline for today – honest in request, clear in relationship, ending in relinquishment.
First, honest in request. In Matthew 26, we read: “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed.” (Matthew 26:36-39).
Here Jesus is on his way to the cross. At this point in the passion narrative, Jesus knows he’s about to be betrayed, arrested, put on trial, beaten, and crucified for the sins of the world.
So, what’s his response to all that? He prays. But as he prays, what happens?
He is sorrowful and troubled. But what does he do with that sorrow? He falls on his face and prays.
Now notice here, this is Jesus Christ. The eternal Son of God. The one by whom, through whom, and in whom all things were created and held together. The Lord of the Church, the King of Kings, the ruler of all, the savior of the nations. Jesus who is 100% God and 100% human says, “my soul is sorrowful, even to death,” so overwhelmed with grief, stress, uncertainty, sorrow, that as he goes to pray. He walks a few steps, falls on his face, and prays.
What does this say to us about our mental health struggles? If Jesus is that honest, that raw, that real in prayer, perhaps we should be too.
So, maybe the first step in connecting our mental health to our faith is to become honest. I think one of the biggest reasons that people struggle to connect with God during mental health struggles is that they don’t come honestly to God.
We may say our prayers. We may give him our polite and generic requests. We say our Amens. But how honest are we truly being?
This is not how Jesus approached God. Look at what the gospel of Luke’s account says of this same instance, “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Being in agony, what does he do? Prays more earnestly! Until his sweat becomes like drops of blood.
If you’ve ever met with me for pastoral counseling you know that one of the first things I always encourage is for you to have a gut level honest prayer with God.
I do that for two reasons. The first is, it’s biblical. Theologian J. I. Packer puts it like this, “When bad things happen to ‘good’ people…they complain with great freedom and at considerable length to their God. And Scripture does not seem to regard these compelling prayers as anything other than wisdom.”
He then goes on to point out that the plaintive question of God, “How Long?” is asked 20 times in the prayers of the Psalms.
So come honestly to God in prayer because it’s Biblical.
Several years ago, when I was amid a serious bout of depression, one of the first practices my therapist recommended to me was a prayer journal, where I would just write out my honest thoughts and feelings to God.
I had never done that before, and to be able to access God and to come honestly to God amid that darkness was a huge step on a path to healing for me.
So, friends, come honestly to God. Even Jesus did. Everything that’s on your heart, just lay it out to God.
The second thing we observe about Jesus during his prayer in the garden is that he’s clear in his relationship to God.
“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’ (Matthew 26:39)
Notice that Jesus maintains an honest prayer. He doesn’t say, “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death,” and then turn to God and say, “I’m okay. Thank you.”
No! Instead, he says, “If it be possible let this cup pass from me!” In fact, he makes this request three times. Three times Jesus makes this honest, bold request of God. And why does he do that? Because he’s clear about his relationship to God.
Look at his posture described in verse 39. Laying on his face. Prostrate in reverence. And yet, what does he call God? My Father. He calls God, my Father because he is clear on his relationship with him.
Here Jesus demonstrates what it is to be clear in who God is and who we are.
To lay prostrate before God in prayer demonstrates a “restful submissiveness” that recognizes that God is God, and we are not. He is above us. He is holy. He is powerful. He is wiser than we are, and his will is best.
And, to call God my Father demonstrates a relationship of care and intimacy, and a recognition that God wants to hear our prayers and that he loves us.
We can be bold and assertive in our prayers because we know the relationship we have with our Father. We come in humility knowing that he is God, and we are not.
When we see that God is God, that he is all powerful, all holy, all wise, and that he invites us to come to him as our loving Father who wants what’s best for us, our prayer life is strengthened because it frees us from thinking God will answer our prayers the way we want him to, rather than according to his will.
Did you notice what Jesus does in his prayer? He prays expectantly. “Father, if there’s any other way, let it pass.” And yet, he recognizes that the Father may say no. There is no other way.
Here’s how I think about it. My daughter Lila is 5 years old. And at this stage in life, if I were to ask her, “Lila, how do you know daddy loves you?” I’m willing to bet she would say something like, “When you do whatever I want.” Honestly right?!
However, 15 years from now if I ask her, “Lila, how do you know that I love you?” I hope she says something like, “Because there were times in my life when you didn’t do whatever I wanted.” Right?
It’s the same thing in our relationship with God, we come to him boldly, recognizing him as a loving father, but also a father who is all wise, and all knowing, and whose will is ultimately best for us.
There was a moment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life when he was put in prison for being part of the resistance against Hitler in Germany during WWII. On Christmas morning, he wrote a sheet of different prayers for the prisoners to pray and passed it around.
My favorite of them demonstrates Bonhoeffer’s honesty and clarity on his relationship to God even amid struggles. He prayed,
Early in the morning do I cry unto thee.
Help me to pray,
And to think only of thee.
I cannot pray alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with thee there is light.
I am lonely, but thou leavest me not.
I am feeble in heart, but thou leavest me not.
I am restless, but with thee there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with thee there is patience;
Thy ways are past understanding, but
Thou knowest the way for me.
Do you notice his honesty here? Do you notice his humility before God? And do you notice his intimacy with God?
From a prison cell, we see how to struggle well in prayer. And as we do that, we can find some level of comfort in our mental health struggles.
We come to God honest in our requests, we come clear in our relationship, and we ultimately end in relinquishment.
From our reading in Matthew – “Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’” (Matthew 26:42)
Notice that Jesus says, “your will be done.” Earlier he concluded his prayer by saying, “not as I will, but as you will.”
Here he prays, “your will be done.” This is the prayer of relinquishment or surrender.
See, there are two parts to what’s called petitionary prayer, when we ask God for things. The first part of is for God to put the world right. That’s why we pray, “thy kingdom come.” Here we are asking God to affect the circumstances of our world and our lives.
In doing so, that may include praying for God to bring healing for our mental or emotional health issues, as well as our physical health issues. There is nothing wrong with asking for healing. We want his kingdom to come in this world and in our lives.
But there’s a second part to petitionary prayer and that’s for our hearts to align with God’s will, for his will to be done, for us to give up control, and for him to shape us into the kind of people that want to do his will.
You see, as we come honestly in prayer, as we are clear in our relationship with him, we may discover that his will for us is not what we want, is not what’s comfortable for us, is not what’s easy for us. In fact, we literally invite his direction in our life as we pray, “not as I will, but as you will.” To relinquish control over our lives and commend ourselves wholly to him and trust that his will is better than ours, even if it doesn’t look like it.
Richard Foster puts it like this,
The Prayer of Relinquishment is a bona fide letting go, but it is a release with hope. We have not fatalist resignation. We are buoyed up by a confident trust in the character of God. Even when all we see are the tangled threads on the backside of life’s tapestry, we know that God is good and is out to do us good always. That gives us hope to believe that we are the winners, regardless of what we are being called upon to relinquish. God is inviting us deeper in and higher up. There is training in righteousness, transforming power, new joys, deeper intimacy. Part of the answer lies in the face that frequently we hold on so tightly to the good that we do know that we cannot receive the greater good that we do not know. God has to help us let go of our tiny vision to release the greater good he has in store for us.
I love that last line. “God has to help us let go of our tiny vision in order to release the greater good he has in store for us.” Now, don’t hear that as some bizarre prosperity gospel.
What he’s getting at here is that, as we relinquish control of our lives and submit to the will of the Father, we get a bigger vision than our own comfort, than our own timeline for healing. Instead, we receive a glimpse of what God is doing in the world and our part in it.
In fact, for Jesus, as he comes honestly to his father in prayer, and submits to the will of his Father, what happens? He saves the world. He saves you.
In his prayer of relinquishment, Jesus gives up his comfort, his safety, his health, and conforms to the will of the Father and goes to the cross, so that you could be saved from the judgement of sin, saved from death, and delivered from the devil.
The writer of Hebrews says it like this: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9).
Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, and through his suffering on the cross and in his resurrection, he saves you. He gives you eternal salvation.
Jesus’ prayer of relinquishment leads to your salvation.
What might your prayer of relinquishment lead to?
One more Bonhoeffer story. Two years after that prayer from Christmas shared earlier, Bonhoeffer was taken from the prison he was in to Flossenburg, an extermination camp. It was in Flossenburg that Bonhoeffer was martyred for doing what he called the “plain duty of the Christian to suffer with those who suffered.”
Years later the “Doctor”’ at Flossenburg said this, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Brothers and sisters, I don’t dare compare our time to Bonhoeffer’s, nevertheless we live in a time in which there may be severe mental anguish for many of us for several reasons. But amid that, God invites you to come honestly to him, to trust him as your loving heavenly Father, and then to relinquish control of your will to his and trust that his will is best.
And as you do that, may you find rest for your soul. Knowing that on account of Christ’s death on the cross for you, nothing can separate you from the love of God.
No sin. No mental health struggles. No emotional trauma. No secret pain. Nothing stands in the way. You can simply rest in the grace of God.