February 11, 2018 Eric Blauer

God & Darkness: Why a Christian can be spiritually healthy and mentally ill

Here’s the Audio if you want to listen instead of read: http://www.jacobswellspokane.com/?p=964

There’s a Russian expression: ‘If you wake up feeling no pain, you know you’re dead.

For anyone who lives with or has struggled with seasons of chronic mental illness it’s hard not to look at Job and not conclude that he too suffered from serious anxiety and depression.

Are not my few days almost over?
Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy
Before I go to the place of no return,
To the land of gloom and deep shadow,
To the land of deepest night,
Of deep shadow and disorder,
Where even the light is like darkness.
Job 10:20-22

Job 3:25
“For the thing I feared has overtaken me,
and what I dreaded has happened to me.”

Read Job Job 3 & Job 7:1-4, 13-19

We might be tempted to just brush off the descriptions of Job’s dark despair because of the magnitude of his ordeal. In the West, we are often spared from such devastations due to the advancements of science, the prosperity of our time and the safety nets of our social systems and community care. So we read of his trials and the seem magnified in a manner that is so out of proportion to what we see around us in day to day life. Sure we know bad things happen, but for some reason, when Job it brought up his story evokes low hush tones and a desire to move quickly to another topic.

We all know that life deals out pain and suffering no matter who you are, Christian or not, but there’s an idea in our brains that Job’s sufferings are exaggerated for some kind of story effect. Or we see it as a suffocating molase of moralizing, meant to pacify or silence the people who are always so heavy, negative, whiny or perpetually in need. A stop-gap for the wounds, so all this bleeding can be cauterized and we can move on to the abundant life we are all supposed to be experiencing.

We cynically read the story as some kind of harsh and dismissive response from God or the religious community that’s an equivalent of the “Well be glad something worse didn’t happen to you!” Or we read it through a jaded lens developed from other people’s well meaning but clueless attempts to ease our pain. Yes, the dreaded response that always begins with: “AT LEAST….” “Oh you lost and eye? “Well at least…you have another one!” Oh your spouse died? “At least…you still have your kids.” Oh, you got cancer?” “At least we live in the modern era that has chemo!” On and on it goes.

But these are the troubles of everyday life in many places in the world. Job’s sufferings, his sickness and disease, the loss of his property and provision by violence, war, greed and corruption. The Sudden death brought on by chaotic natural disasters or the impact of poverty on public and private infrastructure in underdeveloped countries.

We read Job through the eyes of our culture and shrink back at the horror of imagining ourselves having to go through such pain and suffering, while many people wake up every day with such realties being their norm. Job isn’t unique, he is the average man. We fool ourselves, if we think he is the anomaly, in reality, anything less, is the exception to the norm. We too easily dismiss one another, we push aside one another’s stories, judging them irrelevant because they’ve suffered too much or…too little. But before you jettison this book onto the pile of irrelevant Bible moralisms that just add more questions than answers, allow me to offer up another way to look at this story.

I understand that when you are suffering from an executing headache or an actual, clinical migraine, you don’t want to hear stories from anyone who says they have also had an headache too. No, you are in no mood to go philosophical or theological either, you are in pain and you want to stop the pain…now. There’s no comfort gained hearing someone pontificate about their deep existential conclusions or contemplations when you are frantically, scrambling through the medicine cabinet praying to God there’s one more Imitrex!

That said, you may come to a place in life where medicine, medication, meditation, diet changes, increased exercise, sitting in the sun, drinking more water, laughing and having sex, counseling and support groups ease but don’t eradicate your illness. You may come to experience a place when you discover that prayer, fasting and bible reading might help…but don’t always heal you. It is in those seasons that you will find there is wisdom for your pain and suffering in the book of Job. God intentionally put a book about pain and suffering and the impact it has on one’s physical, emotional and spiritual life. It exposes and highlights how friends and family can often hurt instead of help us when we face acute or chronic pain and suffering.

This book is here for you, his story, how he felt, how life hammered him, his fears, his agony, his horror. The loss of support from those you love and the over involved and intrusive care of his friends. How others viewed him, what they said and just how they said it. His darkness, self loathing, the pain, suffering and his utter sense of betrayal and abandonment. the stream of words and the long silence at the end. His anger, exhaustion, ambivalence and hopelessness. His reasoning and unending questions. The discovery of God in the whirlwind, the revelation of creation, the surrender and the defence and restoration. The naming of the new, in honor of the old. Joy mixed with sorrow, restoration among the ruins.

It’s all here for a reason, and I believe that purpose is not to torment you, or placate you. It’s not here to trivialize or dismiss the struggles of your sufferings, whatever the source or size. All of us will experience Job a bit differently, but I truly believe all of us can find God waiting for us in it’s pages. It may or may not be the God we expect or even sometimes want, but He is there, waiting to meet us in the raw and unedited horror of it all. And if you come, you just might find grace that can hold you, even if it doesn’t heal you…yet.

Can a Christian Be Spiritually Healthy and Mentally Ill?
There is a real challenge talking about mental Illness, especially in some religious circles. We don’t seem to equate illness of the mind like we do with illness of the body. Today, people don’t generally think someone suffering from physical sickness or disease are spiritually unhealthy or sinning in some capacity. But when someone talks about mental illness, there’s an assumption that you can’t be spiritually healthy and suffer from a mental illness.

There’s a shroud of misunderstanding, judgment, confusion, ignorance and fear around talking about mental illness. Psychiatry is often maligned, dismissed or demonized in some religious circles. For some people they read the gospels and think the miracles of Jesus tell us that anything not as it should be, could or should be set straight here and now. If Jesus healed it, than the church shouldn’t accept it or make room for it. This can end up creating an atmosphere of low tolerance for anything that doesn’t change quickly or doesn’t change at all. It can lead to a shift from mercy and compassion to questioning, frustration, judgment and even ostracizing someone who doesn’t respond or perform as we think they should.

We Christian’s want answers not questions and that is one of the reasons some folks have such a hard time with Job. They don’t want 42 chapters to that story, it’s just too long and when people are around suffering, they want it to end quickly, be it their own suffering or the suffering of others. We have no patience for people who won’t get well in the manner or time frame we want or need them too.

This is a deeply problematic pressure that arises in religious circles. We don’t really want a crucified savior, particularly as Protestants. Christ Crucified is for Catholics, we are people of the Resurrection! We are people of the book but we are prone to jump to the end when the stone is rolled away, we have no place for a Holy Saturday as Protestants.

How can it be that God would allow Christ to be crucified, let alone descend into hell. Such contemplations are often quickly abandoned as ancient or medieval Milton or Dantesque dark fantasy. Sunny Countenanced Christians turn sour as soon as someone reads the second half of Job 1:21 “The Lord gave…and the Lord has taken away”.

Unfortunately some churches and christians are not always safe places where people can speak the truth about ourselves. According to a recent survey by LifeWay Research discovered that: a third of Americans and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study “alone” can overcome serious mental illness.

This means that whenever a vulnerable person shares their story among us, they are in danger of becoming the target for ministry or fixing by well intentioned and good hearted people. But that isn’t always the response that has been helpful for people suffering from mental illness. I am not saying that I don’t believe in the power of prayer or scripture, but in these matters, we need to maintain safe spaces for people to begin to reveal the realities of their lives without the pressure to perform for others and without the anxiety of being labeled as a project or problem but given place as a person with dignity, a story and real suffering.

The Suffering Community Among us:
Mental disorders are the number one cause of disability in North America. According to the National Institute of Mental Health and other expert, about 1 in 4 adults–a little more than 25% of Americans ages 18 and older–suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. One in four, That equates to around 50 million people in the the United States and that is only in a given year.

Serious Chronic mental illness is less common but still present among 6% of the population, or 1 in 17 adults. That’s almost 12 million people in the United States. Those mental illnesses considered “serious” are major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illnesses as “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning and often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.”

According to the US Surgeon general, every year, an estimated 20% of children in the United States are at least mildly impaired by some type of diagnosable mental illness. And about 5 to 9 % of children ages 9 to 17 have a “serious emotional disturbance.” That’s between 3 and 7 million children in serious trouble and millions of families in crisis.”

If your church is typical of the US population, on any given Sunday 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 children sitting around you are suffering from a mental illness. Many of them under the influence of powerful antipsychotic drugs and their side effects.

As we’re busy enthusiastically delivering meals to suffering people, we are largely ignoring the afflictions to 25% of our population (fighting mental illness). That’s about equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer each year, those living with heart disease, those infected with HIV and AIDS and those afflicted with diabetes combined. No wonder some call mental illness the “No-Casserole illness”. IN contrast to the care we provide for others, we have very little patience with those whose diseases happen to attack their minds. And many people suffer in silence.

Signs to Look Out for in relationship to Depression:

From a modern day medical point of view, if a person experiences at least five of these symptoms for one month they have major depression. Mild depression would typically be defined as having two to four of these symptoms for over one month:
-deep sadness or emptiness
-apathy, loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
-agitation or restlessness, physical hyperactivity or inactivity
-sleep disturbances
-weight/appetite disturbances
-diminished ability to think or concentrate
-feelings of excessive guilt, self-reproach or worthlessness
-feelings of fatigue or loss of energy
-morbid thoughts of death or suicide

Most experts claim that at least 90% of people who do die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. People with schizophrenia are 50 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Among people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, at least 25 to 50 percent attempt suicide. Among people with major depression, the suicide rate is 8 times that of the general population. For anyone to self-righteously tell such people they do not have a medical condition that requires treatment, and that more rigorous religious activity is all they need, is inexcusable.

What Comfort Can We Find in the Bible for those suffering from Mental Illness?

(In the audio, I extrapolate more on each of these points.)

1. God stands with you and will defend you: Job 42:7-10

“After the Lord had finished speaking to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken accurately about me, as my servant Job has. 8 So take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer on your behalf. I will not treat you as you deserve, for you have not spoken accurately about me, as my servant Job has.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite did as the Lord commanded them, and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer. 10 When Job prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes. In fact, the Lord gave him twice as much as before!”

2. God won’t abuse you: Matthew 12:15-20

“Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he left by another way. Massive crowds followed him from there, and he healed all who were sick. However, he sternly warned them not to tell others or disclose his real identity, in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: Take a careful look at my servant, my chosen one. I love him dearly and I find all my delight in him. I will breathe my Spirit upon him and he will decree justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or be found yelling in public. He won’t brush aside the bruised and broken. He will be gentle with the weak and feeble.”

Charles Spurgeon:
What is weaker than the bruised reed or the smoldering wick? A reed that grows in the marshland—let a wild duck land on it, and it snaps; let but the foot of man brush against it, and it is bruised and broken; every wind that flits across the river moves it to and fro. You can conceive of nothing more frail or brittle or whose existence is more in jeopardy than a bruised reed. Then look at the smoldering wick—what is it? It has a spark within it, it is true, but it is almost smothered; an infant’s breath might blow it out; nothing has a more precarious existence than its flame.

3. God won’t’ abandon you: Romans 8:38

“I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.”

4. God is the anchor of your soul: Hebrews 6:13, 19-20

“Now when God made a promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater than himself, he swore an oath on his own integrity to keep the promise as sure as God exists! And now we have run into his heart to hide ourselves in his faithfulness. This is where we find his strength and comfort, for he empowers us to seize what has already been established ahead of time—an unshakeable hope!…We have this certain hope like a strong, unbreakable anchor holding our souls to God himself. Our anchor of hope is fastened to the mercy seat which sits in the heavenly realm beyond the sacred threshold, and where Jesus, our forerunner, has gone in before us. He is now and forever our High Priest…”

5. God can bring meaning out of our pain and suffering: Isaiah 58:9-12

“Then when you do call out, “My God, Where are You?” The Eternal One will answer, “I am here, I am here.” If you remove the yoke of oppression from the downtrodden among you, stop accusing others, and do away with mean and inflammatory speech, If you make sure that the hungry and oppressed have all that they need, then your light will shine in the darkness, and even your bleakest moments will be bright as a clear day. The Eternal One will never leave you; He will lead you in the way that you should go. When you feel dried up and worthless, God will nourish you and give you strength.
And you will grow like a garden lovingly tended; you will be like a spring whose water never runs out. You will discover there are people among your own who can rebuild this broken-down city out of the ancient ruins; You will firm up its ancient foundations. And all around, others will call you “Repairer of Broken Down Walls” and “Rebuilder of Livable Streets.”

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About the Author

Eric Blauer I am barbarian, sage, saint, bard, husband and father. Bow my knee to only One, serve all, ruled by none.

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