“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers them out of them all.” Ps. 34:19
“He cured those who had need of healing.” Luke 9:11
The anguish of mental illness is that the sufferer often bears the pain alone. Mental illnesses usually aren’t tangible, observable, or assessable to others. They are in the mind. Often mental illnesses develop out of deep pain that’s never been dealt with. The dominant culture around us tells us to deal with it, bottle it up, bury it, numb it, and mindlessly repeat the triumphalist messages that American religion has to offer us, wear painted smiles, and ignore the emotional trauma which over time has eroded our ability to see the world clearly. Therapists often approach it cognitively, asking great questions and pointing out flaws in the thinking of the mentally ill person. The logic of cognitive-behavioral approach is that correct thinking leads to correct living. But thinking patterns come from pain and wounds. Anger comes from fear & frustration. Fear & frustration come from pain.
One time I knew a guy who’s wife cheated on him with another man. This was not a success story. This man’s life had fallen apart from the dark thoughts he had allowed to poison his mind. He blamed himself and felt he never deserved another woman as long as he lived. This one wound had come to define his entire perspective on life, and that perspective had cast a dark shadow over every relationship in his life. How do you help a man like this? How do you help yourself work through the shattered pieces of the narrative you’ve been telling yourself about yourself and others so that you can be free from it?
The Bible often offers unapologetic portraits of great leaders and catalysts in the story of God who constantly fought mental illness. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul, the leader of the early expansion of Christianity, once wrote to a community of believers in Corinth about something that happened to him: “we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced while we were in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). We do not know exactly what happened to Paul in Asia; he doesn’t say. Whatever it was, he got to the point where he didn’t even want to live anymore. Yet, even in spite of this horrible experience that Paul went through, he expresses hope that came from the community of believers. I want to suggest a few things as we wrestle with the question of hope as it relates to mental illness. There’s three words that emerge from Paul’s experience for me:
Theology. Paul appeals to bigger ideas. He appeals to the suffering of Jesus that established forever God’s victory over evil. He appeals to the Cross. He reminds himself that whatever he suffers, he is sharing in what Jesus had already suffered. “We share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings.” People are critical of theologians these days. People are sensitive to those that want to quote the Bible all the time, because they’ve had too many negative experiences in which arrogant Christians have misused Scripture to condemn, accuse, and take stands on political issues. But for Paul, the theological truths of the Gospel were NOT for taking stands and winning arguements and living holier than anyone else. They were sustaining truths. This is where depression and mental illness must be met with the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the message of hope in the midst of suffering, life in the midst of death, and comfort in the midst of affliction. It is the theological reality of Christ’s death on the cross, as proclaimed through the Scriptures that provides us with hope and energy for life. If you’re aspiring to coach or help someone through depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses, realize that you have a God who has entered into the same suffering and who understands. That’s the power of theology when its used to encourage and uplift. A life rooted in the love of Christ is opened up to a peace that surpasses all understanding.
Solidarity. If you’re not into any of that Chrsitianity stuff, Paul still mentions something you’ll probably find helpful. He says that “our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” He is given hope because he knows there is a community of faith and there are people out there that are going through the same kind of thing he is. That’s what the word solidarity means. It means joining a community of people with shared experience. Its when people shave their heads because their friend has cancer and they don’t want him to be the only one. Its where alcoholics gather in groups to confess and pursue healing together. Its where popes live in poverty and strip the Vatican of ornamented thrones so as to relate to the poor. When someone is suffering mentally, the last thing they want is advice on what correct thinking is. They don’t have the energy for it. What they need is someone to identify with their pain. They need someone to say “me too.” They need someone to be with them. Part of embracing solidarity is choosing to enter into the suffering of another and suffer alongside someone.
Prayer. Paul finishes his short passage about his mysterious affliction (which I think had something to do with a recurring illness or mental anguish) by telling the Corinthians that they “must also help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayer of many.” There is something supernatural that occurs when we pray for people who are suffering. There’s something uniquely uplifting when someone calls, unannounced, and says “I’d like to pray for you, right now, on the phone.” It is taking the cries of people we love to the deepest place in our spirits, the point of connection with God himself. It is boldly asking for God’s healing power, and leaving it up to Him if He wants to say no. It is beseeching God in behalf of someone else. In essence, it is participating in the life of God through the faithful community of His praying people. Prayer is a protest against sickness and death. Some of the early Christians even believed that the “prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” Prayer is representing the pain of others before God, and thus it is a way of suffering alongside someone.
Theology. Solidarity. Prayer. These are what those of us who wrestle with mental illnesses need. These are what those of us who know the pain of mental anguish ought to be prepared to extend to other people. You’ll never imagine how far God might take even the smallest acts of choosing to suffer alongside others in their behalf.