In February of this year, I had the joy and privilege of teaching at our annual women’s retreat. I spoke to the women of our church about God being our refuge, our strength, a subject I had been studying for months leading up to it. Imagine my surprise then when, 17 days later, I would find myself being led in a wheelchair into station 32 of the psychiatric wing of the hospital, where I would spend the next eight days clawing my way out of the literal depths of despair. Those eight days are their own story in and of themselves, of which I would happily spend an hour or two discussing over a cup of coffee, but the question I want to try and answer in a small way here is this: How does a Christian bear up under the burden of mental health illnesses, of any variety, while maintaining a “give it all to Jesus” mentality? Is it possible? Is there an imaginary line somewhere where medicine and self-compassion stop helping so Jesus steps in (or vice-versa)? Or should we not even have these mental health issues to begin with because we should just believe/pray/fast/love/etc more because the gospel of Jesus Christ is definitely “here’s your shovel, now dig your way out”?
The answer, I feel, is two-fold, and I am going to steal our pastor’s terminology for this. This is a sun/moon issue, where we have a bigger issue, with a bigger answer, and a smaller issue, with a smaller answer, which really is just a reflection of the bigger answer. Clear as mud? Good, let’s move on.
The bigger issue is this: our separation from God. The bigger issue is this chasm that is so deep and so wide that we would never be able to cross it on our own, even if our mental health was at its peak. We could never have a sad thought again for the rest of our lives, and still our happy little smile-factories would not even be able to put a dent in the wide gap that separates us from our holy and good God. And yet, this gap was bridged, by a love that was wider and deeper than the forces that kept us apart. And the Gap-Bridger, the Chasm-Leaper, his name is Jesus, and the work that he did on the cross was far more powerful than the dark that may have surrounded you in the past, or perhaps surrounds you now. And the beauty of it all? You don’t have to see it to believe it. You don’t have to feel it to be so incredibly assured of its truth that you can sense a piece of calm, even if it’s a tiny piece, in the chaos of the storm. Because God doesn’t wait for the horizon. God IS the horizon. God spoke, and Light broke into the world, first in creation, then in Jesus. The darkness didn’t stand a chance.
The beauty of this, outside of the breathtaking beauty of the gritty and real and overwhelming love that God has for you, is that absolutely none of it depends on you, and especially on your mental health status. The bloody work that Jesus did on the cross happened outside of you, for you. You cannot make it better; you cannot mess it up. When you look to your heart and see its innate brokenness, which perhaps is even a bit easier to do when trapped in the dark, and you hand those broken pieces to Jesus, you leave yourself empty-handed… blessedly, comfortingly empty-handed. And when you are in the dark, that is a very good thing to be.
The smaller issue then is where do we go from that truth? Should that be enough? The answer is yes, it is enough, but also no, we don’t stop there. I told you, clear as mud. The truth is we are broken physical creatures, living in a broken physical world. There are things that, though they hold no bearing on our salvation and everlasting joy and peace with Jesus, can and should be attended to, and our mental health is most certainly one of those things. We have a God who has given us creative minds, minds that instinctually (for the most part) see a problem and want to fix it. And this is a good thing. This is a way that God has made us in His image. And we have minds among us that are passionate about learning about the brain, and learning how to help when things go awry. Use those minds. Seek help. It was not meant to be like this. Living in the dark is something that we can do if that is what the Lord has planned for us, but let it not be for setting aside the resources that He Himself has set before you. The weird, tricky call of Christianity is that we are to be prepared for suffering, expect it even. But the awesome, magnificent call of Christianity is also to cry out to the God who loves you in times of distress! And we can do that because of the gospel. We can do that because the gap is already closed. We can do that because having an illness does not mean that you are not redeemable, and we serve a God who delights to help His children.
In a group therapy session recently, the subject of hope was brought up. We were asked to talk about if we had it, and what we could do to bring more of it into our lives. I thought about that for a long time, and came away with this answer. There are days when I have no hope, where I am convinced that this is what my life will be for the rest of my days, the dark pushing in with no rhyme or reason, and me just barely surviving it. Those days come and those days go. But every day, I have Hope. I have a Hope that, though this feels unbearable at times, it is just a blip in eternity, and that regardless of how this plays out or if I ever find freedom from depression, the last chapter reads the same. It is a Hope unaffected by the amount of tears I shed, or the amount of hours I sleep to dull the pain. It is a Hope that can never be scared off by the thoughts that play in my head, because it has seen worse and prevailed. It is a Hope that has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with Him.
One of the most debilitating things for my own personal depression was the isolation, so if you are reading this and are currently experiencing depression or have and never sought help, I encourage you to start here: Pray. Tell God of your suffering, and then tell a trusted friend or family member. We were promised suffering, yes, but we were never promised isolation. We were promised a body with which to mourn and to rejoice. Let those around you help you. And on the days when you can do no more than that, rest easy, for the biggest work has already been done.
LAURA RINAS/GUEST CONTRIBUTOR