Words from a Youth Pastor for Students on their Mental Health Journey
Words from a Youth Pastor for Students on their Mental Health Journey
Guest Blog by Andy Franks, Pastor of Student Ministries
All of humankind is and always has struggled to find the answer to a universally common question: “Who am I?” This is a question of identity and individual uniqueness. It’s the question we subconsciously ask ourselves and arrange our lives around in an attempt to find meaning with our own existence. Throughout our lives, we subtly attempt to answer this question in different ways: “I am a basketball player,” “I go to Harvard,” “I am the class clown,” and so on and so forth.
I want you to know that there is a deep and painful flaw in our human effort to figure out who the heck we are. The problem is that our world is obsessed with trying to answer the question “Who Am I?” by looking to our actions, accomplishments, and affiliations and, I fear, we have just accepted this strategy as a good one. For example, saying “I am a basketball player” is identifying yourself by the sport you play, “I go to Harvard” is a subtle statement that part of your identity is wrapped up in where you go to college, and “I am the class clown” is using a set of behaviors to determine your unique you-ness.
In the midst of a mental health struggle, this is all really bad, terrible news, but only if we accept it and live as though it were actually true. For those who know God, there’s great news: it’s not true at all!
Here are two encouragements I have for you on your mental health journey:
Encouragement #1: You Are Not What the World Says You Are
On your mental health journey, my encouragement for you is to hang on tightly to what God says about you, even when you are having difficulty feeling like it is true: you are a son or daughter of a loving heavenly Father (Romans 8:15), you are freed and forgiven by God’s never-ending grace (Ephesians 1:7), you are intentionally chosen and loved by God (Colossians 3:12), and you are called “friend” by Jesus (John 15:15).
Now, I want you to notice something about every one of those biblical identity statements above: they have little (if anything) to do with what you do or what you have accomplished. Instead, these statements identify you squarely in relationship to God and what God has done for you. God declares that your identity rests in being lovingly made in His image (Genesis 1:27) and His love invites you to be covered by His presence, grace and peace. You’re not called a “son” or “daughter” because of anything you did right or accomplished and you’re not chosen by God because you’re somehow worthy of getting on the guest list to God’s party. While struggling with a mental health difficulty, this is good news. It means that you are not your depression or anxiety, you are not a diagnosis of any kind, you are not a label someone has stuck on you, you are not a medication you take and you are not a series of decisions you have made. Simply put, you are a son or a daughter of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and that will not change.
Encouragement #2: You Belong in the Family of God
In Mark 1, there is a beautiful story about Jesus walking along when out of nowhere a man with leprosy approaches him. Now, in the 1st century Jewish world, the fact that a man with leprosy would even think about coming near “clean” people is an outrage – the rest of the crowd following Jesus were likely terrified and appalled by this man’s indiscretion! But the man boldly comes anyway, falls on his knees before Jesus and says something rather peculiar: “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40 NIV). Notice that this man does not ask “can you heal me from my skin condition.” He asks to be made clean.
For Jews in the 1st century, being clean meant the ability to have and access to a full life. Cleanliness was required to enter synagogues for community worship, to eat with others, to hold certain jobs, to have a family, and so on. You may have noticed this theme throughout books like Leviticus where Jews would go to great lengths in performing rituals and ceremonies to be clean. Leprosy, on the other hand, was permanently diagnosed uncleanness. Leprosy was certainly terrible for the skin (and over time would lead to death), but maybe even worse for the soul: banished out of town, away from family and friends, required to announce your presence if, by any chance, you might come in contact with someone, no communal worship, and no backyard barbecues with friends. In short, leprosy robbed an individual of any sense of belonging.
Chances are that in the midst of your mental health journey you can relate to feeling isolated and lonely. You may even understand this man’s diagnosis making him an outcast and robbing him of quality human relationships. Luckily, the story does not end here. Like Jesus is in the habit of doing, he flips common understanding on its head and acts out the heart of God for everyone to see.
Jesus, Mark tells us, reaches out his hand and touches the man with leprosy! The significance of this little verse may get lost on us, but to the original hearers and readers of this story it would have been an absolute scandal: a rabbi touching a leper intentionally? To touch someone with leprosy was to render you unclean and it was an absolute no-no, a seemingly enormous mistake on Jesus’ part. But, instead of being made unclean himself, Jesus says, “I am willing… Be clean!” Now here’s the cool part of the story that is often overlooked: Jesus tells the man to head over to the local priests to be examined, and to offer the required cleansing-sacrifice. Jesus knew that if the priests examined this man and determined he no longer had leprosy, he would be pronounced as clean and given access to life again: family, friends, communal worship, meaningful work, and so on!
If you are in a place on your mental health journey where you look around and wonder if you have any place to fit, I want to encourage you: there is a place for you! The Family of God needs you: your gifts and passions, your unique personality, your perspectives, and even your willingness to share your mental health journey with others. Jesus does not just tolerate you or secretly wish you would do more or be better. On a mental health journey, recovery may take years or last a lifetime, but because of Jesus, every one of us is pronounced clean, with full access to God and participation in sharing life with one another. Don’t give up looking for your unique place of belonging in the Family of God.
Andy Franks / Pastor of Student Ministries at Bridge Community Church (Orange, CA)
Andy is passionate about helping others wrestle with big, challenging questions of faith and grow in their relationship with God, especially through seeing and hearing God’s Word in fresh and compelling ways. You can hear more from Andy by checking out his YouTube channel.