I grew up in Northern Ireland which meant that I was familiar from an early age with the writings and prayers of Saint Patrick. Patrick’s Breastplate intrigued me. How could God be before me, behind me, above me etc? In particular I was bothered when Patrick prayed that God be in his head. How could all of God, my child’s brain reasoned, be inside my head?
For the Christian who struggles with mental illness this fact of faith presents challenges which need to be worked out on a daily basis. I became a Christian as a child, yet for most of my life I have suffered from chronic mental illness. This has been challenged by well meaning Christian leaders who have sought to explain my ongoing struggles in light of one of three options 1) I never fully committed my life to Christ and therefore remain outside his Grace, or 2) I have shown insufficient faith in God’s ability to heal me from my affliction or 3) I have never learned the true meaning of being forgiven by God and therefore, by extension I am unable to forgive anyone around me, which, they reason must be at the root of my emotional and mental struggles.
I am thankful that God has shown me over and over again that He has walked with me every step of my journey. I am also grateful to the many saints who appear in the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, who are shown to struggle with the blackest of moods, with real emotional anguish.
Is it inconceivable that Elijah was suffering from emotional and mental exhaustion in 1 Kings 19? And how did God respond to those needs? Did He condemn him for not triumphing in the victory over the Priests of Baal? Did He admonish him from not trusting his Lord enough? Did He see Elijah’s anguish as a sign of breaking the relationship with himself? No, God brought Elijah to the brook Cherith and there he commanded nature, in the form of Ravens, to feed him. He drank from the brook and he slept.
‘Sleep is the season of the soul.’ As Shakespeare reminded us in Hamlet. It is not by accident that his most famous speech links the ultimate anguish of the soul with lack of sleep and the loss of reason and balance in mood and mind, as portrayed through Hamlet’s descent towards suicidal thoughts following his father’s death. For Elijah, God provided physical and emotional needs in order to restore him to his right thinking. Often, depression or other mental illnesses are exacerbated by basic lack of sleep or food, or other daily needs.
We are told in the New Testament that Jesus himself suffered intense emotional anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he faced the road to the Cross. As a Man he was crushed by the burden of facing the greatest Spiritual battle of all time and eternity, as God He knew there was no option if God’s plan of Salvation was to be fulfilled ‘Not my Will, but yours be done.’ The Bible tells us that He was tempted and tried in every way as a man. As God, we know, He overcame every frailty, including mental anguish and the darkest of nights, when he was separated from his Father in Heaven as God poured his wrath on Him on the Cross. This was so he ‘who knew no sin, became sin for us’ (me).
I thank God that I don’t have to carry the burden of being a ‘failed’ Christian in addition to battling my own thoughts and moods. Instead I can learn to see my own mental illness as God telling me that he has not finished with me yet, that I still have much to learn of his Grace and love towards me and through me. One of my childhood heroes, Corrie Ten Boom was reminded by her frail and dying sister, when they were imprisoned in a Nazi Concentration Camp, that ‘There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.’ My soul is secure because of Christ’s sacrifice and promise. In every dark night he has promised ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ If even the ‘winds and the waves obey him’ how much more will he be able to not only comfort us through the storms of our mind and emotions, but he is more than capable to calm them completely, if that is His will. My question to God needs to stop being ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why not me?’ and become ‘What now, Lord?’
When your Christian friend tells you they are struggling with mental or emotional anguish, please do not add to their distress by condemning them for being ‘less than’ as Christians, but help them to listen and wait for God to reveal his purposes through this time. Above all, help them to remember that they cannot do anything to change his love for them, ‘There is nothing I can do to make him love me more, there is nothing I can do to make Him love me less.’ And remind them to be kind to themselves. Would you allow your friend with a heart condition or cancer to constantly berate themselves for failing as a human being, or, as a Christian? No, all suffering is a symptom of our world as it is. For the Christian there is the promise that one day ‘he will wipe away every tear’ from our eyes.’