I am thankful that I have a few friends who live incredibly non-eventful lives. Their stories rarely take place in deep valleys or mountain tops, having all the pacing of a Thomas Kinkade painting, but the tranquility that accompanies their narrative makes it no less beautiful. They’re also people that I rarely worry about. Myself, being prone to obsessing over those I love who are hurting or teetering on the edge of destruction, take comfort that there are at least a few who, up to this point and to my knowledge, give no cause for alarm.
So with gratitude for these individuals, I want to share why I am so enamored with Christians whose mental health challenges have taken them to some incredibly difficult places. Why I believe that we, the church, must be diligent in excavating these narratives.
You Show Us the Far Reaches of God’s Grace
In Psalm 139, David asks the question “Where Can I go from your presence?”
Speaking theologically, I believe most of us could say confidently “Nowhere. There is nowhere I can go where God would not follow.” Speaking experientially, I believe most of us would hope to avoid having to test that statement.
So when those of you who have lived with an unquiet mind being constantly assaulted with intrusive thoughts, or who have slept in the pit of relentless depression, or who have been physically ill with anxiety, or who have tasted the jarring experience of a flight from reality, tell your story, we should be quick to listen.
Quick to listen because your story takes us to places that many of us will never have the opportunity to go. Though I’m the first to admit that the predominant feature of a mental illness is the suffering it produces, I’m also inclined to believe that there’s an element of blessing. If only that it gives us eyes to explore the hidden reaches of God’s grace. To go places that are so saturated with pain and darkness and despair and still be able to return home and tell others, “I found Him. He was there too.”
Please disavow the deeply ingrained belief that tells you the best you have to offer in the community of the church is a happy face, a boring testimony, and an uninformed hope. Show us your battle scars. Tell us on what fronts and which foreign shores the battle is still being won.
You Serve as Guides to Those on Similar Journeys
When I was younger I found it fun to entertain friends who we’d gone out to eat with by stepping behind unattended host stations and seating customers. Regardless of the fact that I was dressed in street clothes and had no clue which sections I should actually seat people in, no one who entered the restaurant questioned it. It was a stupid game, and looking back, an unkind one. Still, it taught me something.
Anyone can play the part of a guide. Anyone can pretend to be the authority in a given situation. Acting the part of a host at a restaurant, relatively inconsequential. Acting the part of a mental health expert, potentially deadly.
So your experience in having actually lived with a debilitating disorder is invaluable. At any point in your journey you’ve already walked farther than someone else, experienced things they haven’t experienced, pursued health in ways they haven’t pursued. It’s a resume that we can’t do without.
Allow me to share something I experienced that demonstrates just how powerful this can be. In the early days after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was desperate to find someone else who had lived with this and had remained faithful in their walk with Jesus and the church. In time, I would meet many, but in those days all I needed was one and I couldn’t find them.
In expressing this frustration to a friend living on the other side of the country, he revealed that he knew such an individual. A man in his sixties, a husband and father of many years and a long-serving and active member in his local church community. I never met this man, never heard the particulars of his story, but just knowing that he existed gave me the hope to keep fighting!
You can’t underestimate the power of your mental health experience. Just existing and being known can guide others on their path to healing.
You Open the Door For Others to Let Their Hurt be Known
I focus my energy on speaking about mental health issues not because it’s the only important issue facing members of our churches. It’s just where most of my experience with suffering has been born. Suffering knows no bounds. As Psalm 34:19 tells us, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous”, and the diversity of those afflictions are endless.
What makes the experience of living with a mental illness so powerful is that it’s a form of affliction that few are comfortable talking about. The stigma that surrounds it, though incrementally abating, is still a force to be reckoned with. When you lead in sharing your experience with a mental health challenge, even with a small handful of individuals, you may be unknowingly gifting them the freedom to talk about their own hurt.
As I mentioned in this article, we all have a fear of letting our burdens be known. It’s not just those with burdened brains who are hurting. Suffering of all kinds can be remarkably difficult to share. But it’s in the context of being known in gospel-saturated communities that such sharing should take place. When you take the lead in bravely recounting your own experience with something as hush-hush as a mental health challenge, bravery becomes less and less a prerequisite for burden-sharing of any kind.
A Final Encouragement
Heeding my own advice as it pertains to acting the expert in an area where I’m not qualified, I have to say this. I cannot tell you when and with whom you should share your story. It’s a personal decision that’s influenced by a number of factors, including the spiritual maturity of the faith communities where you live. I just want you to know how much your stories have meant to me, and my firm belief that you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I think you have something remarkably powerful.
Because you have made your bed in the depths, and found that indeed, He is there.