At a recent conference I was at people wielded grace as if it was a magic pill. “I was an addicted drug user but God had grace for me!” “I used to be depressed but then I found Jesus.” “I used to self harm until a pastor told me that there was grace for that.” And as each speaker got loud applause I wanted to scream “That’s not the whole story!”
Yes, there’s grace for that. There’s also therapy. And medication. There is inpatient treatment and rehab.
Growing up evangelical I can’t count how many times I heard the “My life was awful and I was a terrible person but then I found Jesus and everything was fixed” testimony. Bonus points for if you could make your life really, really awful before Jesus.
I hated those messages because they always sent this subtle thing that if your life wasn’t perfect now it meant that you weren’t a good Christian. I expected better from this mainline Christian youth conference. I expected more nuance, a more robust theology. At the very least I expected something that wasn’t downright dangerous.
Think about what these messages say to a young person who is currently struggling: Jesus fixed me. Great. Except what about that kid who hasn’t found the fix yet? Who shows up to church every Sunday, who prays their heart out every night, and who still feels depressed? Or suicidal? Suddenly they get the message that maybe Jesus can’t them. Or that he can but he’s choosing not to. What a terrible thing to hear.
I believe in Grace. I believe in the power of God to work in the world. But I don’t believe it’s as simple as “Jesus fixed me.” I believe that when you have an experience of God where you know that you are fully loved, just as you are, that it frees you up to get the help that you need. I believe that God works through therapy, licensed professionals, and yes, through medication. I believe that you can find help and healing but not through a trite slogan. And that’s the thing: The speakers went to therapy, they went to rehab, but they often didn’t share those parts of the story. The conference put helplines up after some folks spoke (which I was grateful for) but I wanted…No, our youth needed more. They needed to hear something messier, but something more true.
(To be fair, some speakers did this better than others, they talked about how God worked through other people, they talked about how what happened to them wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t of God. I was grateful for those moments.)
Here’s the messages I wish I would have heard: God worked through therapy to give me my life back. I went to rehab and it was hard, I relapsed a bunch of times, but that didn’t mean that I was without hope or that God abandoned me. God doesn’t just “fix things” even though we might want it to be that way, instead God stays with us as we put in the hard work to find health and healing and wholeness.
Grace (and God) isn’t some magic wand that we wave over issues to fix them. Grace (and God) is what’s with us in the midst of the issue that lets us know that we are worth doing the work to move toward wholeness. And yes, often getting to wholeness is work. It’s hard. It can be scary. We can feel like we’ll never get there. But grace helps to keep us going.
We owe our youth (and our adults) honest conversations about mental health in the church. About recovering from trauma. About what it means to be in recovery. We owe them hard conversations that don’t sugar coat the journey. And we definitely owe them something better than the cheap “Jesus will fix it” messages that keep getting peddled in all sorts of places.
When we speak badly about hard issues we compound the damage done to any youth who is currently in the midst of those issues. We need to be more responsible in our language, but more than that we need to be more responsible in our theology. We need a more robust theological language and we need it right now.
We cannot continue to do damage with cheap and poor theology. And that is what messages like the ones I heard at that conference do, they do damage. There are resources out there, there are therapists and medication and rehabs. God works through all of them to bring us to healing. And if you’re not feeling healed yet (which you probably aren’t because healing isn’t linear and it’s not a destination) it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about you or that there isn’t grace for what you’re going through, it just means you’re human and you’re in the midst of the struggle.
And God is in the midst of the struggle with you.