“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.” – Jeremiah 29:12

Last Easter I set my hair on fire in church. It wasn’t exactly my fault- the entire congregation was holding lit candles, I looked down to check my purse was still under my chair, and my hair was longer than I thought. Happens to everyone, right? Not really, but I’m sure we have all had the experience of an incident changing from mortifying to funny when shared with friends.

Sharing what is going on in your life is good for you, and this is a key part of what we do in prayer. Prayer is something which should be instinctual for Christians: the first reaction upon encountering difficult situations, an automatic turning of the heart to God. Prayer is conversation with God, and like all relationships, our relationship with our heavenly father requires communication. In prayer, we speak to God, we present our needs to him, and as our loving father, he listens to us.

Furthermore, prayer is an amazing opportunity to grow in trust in God. The practice of placing all our needs and feelings in God’s hands is a wonderful habit to adopt. Through prayer we become closer and more dependent on God, we grow to rely on our conversation with him, and the closer we are to him, the better we are able to hear his voice and discern his will in our lives.

For all these amazing benefits of prayer, why doesn’t it work like a medicine in our spiritual or mental lives all the time? We know that “God’s got us.” Our lives are in his hands, he knows every little thought in our minds, he is all-powerful and all-loving. So, why doesn’t prayer work like antibiotics on an illness? Why isn’t it that the more you pray, the better you feel?

Prayer—The Miracle Drug?

Prayer isn’t a magical drug that heals everything in a heartbeat. Sometimes, prayer seems to be portrayed as the sole and best solution for those suffering from mental illnesses. Unlike physical illnesses, in which people are directed to get medicine or see a doctor, mental illnesses are often dismissed as a problem with the person’s inner life, which can be solved by being “more spiritual”. Got problems? You must not have a strong enough relationship with God! Things will get better if you just pray more!

This shows a real lack of understanding in our culture about mental illnesses. They aren’t just mood swings. They aren’t God abandoning us. They are real sicknesses. People suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or any of the many, many mental illnesses that afflict us cannot be cured just by growing in their spiritual life. Obviously, prayer is essential to any and every aspect of our lives, but mental illnesses have biological causes and real effects. The brain is the most complex organ of the body, with the potential to malfunction just like any other organ. Just as a disorder of the kidney is not (with the exception of miracles) cured by prayers, neither is a disorder of the brain healed non-miraculously through increased prayer.

Prayer is Not a Contractual Relationship

There is no direct correlation between how much you pray and how mentally ill you are. God never gave us a “pray more and you will feel better” promise. Prayer is conversation with God. It is not a contractual relationship in which there is only give and take; it is a relationship. We should not view prayer as simply a way to get something that we want, but rather as an opportunity to converse with our loving God.

A diagnosis of any mental illnesses, or even a feeling that one’s mind is suffering, should encourage one to turn more fully to God and strengthen one’s prayer life. A real danger of mental illnesses is the increasing possibility of disconnect from God, a feeling that God is not listening or does not care, and a temptation to stop talking or paying attention to God. It is essential to realize that prayer is not something one does to fix all of life’s problems, but something one engages in to grow closer to our Creator who made us for himself. A close relationship with God is critical for maintaining one’s strength when struggling with a mental illness. Trust in God may not cure your depression, but it will make handling it easier. Faith is not a magic pill that you take once a day and find your symptoms have disappeared – but it is a weapon in which you can utilize.

Prayer is Integral to Life

Saying that praying more is not the only solution to mental illnesses is not a suggestion of a lack of faith in God, or a disregard for the spiritual aspect of life. When we are sick, God wants us to try to get better. When you break your leg, God wants you to try to the best of your ability to heal. Of course, the suffering that the healing process may cause you should be offered to God, but this does not mean you are called to live with a broken leg.

Obviously, prayer should be integrated into every aspect of life. Furthermore, mental illnesses can be connected to a lack of spirituality, and one’s mental life can be improved by a closer relationship with God and stronger prayer life. But, prayer is not the only measure one can take in the steps to healing. The attitude of treating prayer as a medicine for a sickness of the brain is an erroneous one, and an attitude of seeking professional help for mental illness is one that should be more cultivated and encouraged.