One of the exciting things for me about engaging in dialogue over faith and mental illness is the diversity of perspectives from persons with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. As I have interacted with blog readers, small group participants, conference attendees, and listeners of my podcast, I have been impressed both by the level of understanding and, more significantly, the desire to learn and grow for the sake of all those impacted by mental illness.
Two questions I received from two readers illustrate well this sort of distinct perspective.
First, from C.C.:
Does having mental illness make a person struggle with knowing God more than the average person?
There are no doubt particular challenges a person with mental illness has that someone without one does not. Recently I had a conversation with a woman who was going to give a talk at a nearby Walk to Emmaus retreat. She told me what a positive spiritual growth opportunity it had been for her, how much healing she had experienced, and how she had been knit together in faithful friendships with other participants.
Then she said one aspect of the retreat weekend is that you get very little sleep. Right away, I knew I couldn’t do it. With bipolar, I rely on a steady diet of sleep. When I don’t get enough sleep, I need to be alone. Lack of sleep readily sets off a manic response which can lead to embarrassing and risky behaviors. As much as I would enjoy experiencing a spiritual high in fellowship with other believers, I can’t take the chance.
Many living with mental illness have other limitations. Medications can cause dulled perception, making it difficult to focus on God’s Word. Depression can certainly lead to isolation from the life-nourishing fellowship within a body of believers. False voices speaking to those of us with psychotic symptoms can drown out the voice of God spoken in Scripture through trusted Christian friends. In many ways, having an unquiet mind inhibits growth in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
But, as a question from E.R. suggests, there is another side of the story.
What are the spiritual benefits of living with a diagnosis?
What the heck? You may be wondering. How can a person struggling to maintain sanity spiritually benefit in any way? Well, for one example, look to the Apostle Paul.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12.7).
Paul was consumed by an ailment that impacted his body, mind, spirit. There is no consensus as to what this was precisely and I would not suggest it is the equivalent of a modern day mental health diagnosis, but the effect was much the same. Paul felt chronic pain that prevented him from doing what he wanted to do in his life and ministry. He writes —
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12.8-9)
Paul had a great desire to be relieved of the hardship caused by his illness, but his prayers for healing were not answered in the way he most wanted. Instead, God gave him what he most needed. Grace. For himself, and, through his ministry, for others. By bearing Christ’s cross of suffering, he was better able to empathize with the the suffering of humankind and respond with compassion.
So, you have a mental illness? I’ve got some bad news and some Good News. The bad news is you will experience limitations both spiritual and physical and these limitations will cause you great pain. The Good News is God’s grace will be sufficient to turn these weaknesses into strengths for Christ’s kingdom.
What spiritual struggles have you had as someone with a mental illness?
How might a mental illness actually lead to spiritual benefits?