The landscape of the human soul sprawls farther than the Great Plains and plunges deeper than Mariana’s Trench. The geography of each individual soul—though sometimes similar—is different. It’s unique. There are mountains where others have valleys, rivers where others have plains. Some hold great cities and yet others hold deserts. It’s in this strange cacophony that we find love and pleasure, deep friendships and a sense of intimacy. We stop feeling like islands and more like fascinatingly distinctive individuals under one same idea.
And then again, we don’t.
We are fragile and we are incredibly resilient and within those two states there is a lot of room for variation, deviation, and suffering. Life carries with it a knife that touches all of us in some way. Cuts some. Filets others. Either way, we each get a go with the steely blade, freshly sharpened from its last contender.
Not one person comes out of the knife fight unscathed. Bloodied and battered, we try to figure out how to continue on with our lives without letting the bandages peek out from beneath our skirts and trousers. Some are so good at hiding their bandages they themselves forget they exist. Their wounds still need attention, of course. But they’re so busy trying to move on as quickly and efficiently as possible that they pass up antibiotics and surgery in favor of Tylenol and a pretty blouse to cover the evidence.
However, those carrying wounds of the mind carry with them a thing that is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. Sure, they want to deal with the pain in a quick, cut-to-the-chase manner just as much as anybody else with a sense of self-preservation. But something, by the intrinsic nature of their suffering, prevents them from doing so. It seems that those illnesses of the mind resist painkillers and burn up blouses in a matter of seconds. These bandages refuse to be ignored, and can only be hidden for so long.
It’s a curse, yes. The suffering is immense, indescribable, and unquantifiable. The invisibility of the wound to the naked eye makes it seem outside of the realm of communication. It’s like arthritis of the soul, yet duller and more persistent. Yet at the same time it’s like daggers in your heart, only sharper and twisting far more than a piece of metal ever could. It spreads like wildfire, yet it contains itself like a prisoner in a cell. It’s enigmatic and frightening, tyrannical and relentless.
But shadows can only be formed when light is present. And there’s a genuine comfort in knowing that if you truly are in Christ, light is always present—regardless of it’s felt awareness or seeming absence.
So the curse moves into a blessing (as God is so apt to do), and the pain in your chest becomes the very thing that shows you who God is, and who you are in light of that.
One thing that seems to be a general consensus amongst those who suffer with mental illness is the feeling of intense loneliness. The isolation, this exclusion from community, occurs through many different avenues. Shame and guilt are some of the top runners since they both tend to quarantine their carriers and outlaw visitation hours. Intimacy is near impossible when you’re mortified at the thought of anyone seeing you as you really are.
Isolation is also dealt from the hand of the community itself. People push away that which they cannot understand and that which frightens them. Unfortunately, mental illness falls in that camp quite often. (In no way do I intend to place blame on anyone. Some with mental illness have a tendency to ask their friends to be their saviors, and in so doing push their support away by the sheer amount of pressure they place on their shoulders.)
And yet for some, it is an interior isolation. The community stands by. Friends continue to call. Loved ones don’t avoid you. But that feeling of being completely alone never wears off.
Regardless of how the feelings of loneliness arise—shame, guilt, ignorance, fear, or a combination of all—the destination is the same. Solitude.
The funny thing about solitude is every Christian needs it and most of us do everything we can to escape it. We fear it. We pack our days with meetings and lunch dates. We talk for hours on the telephone and sit for hours in front of a television. We lead, and we serve, and we do all of the things we can to end the day assured that we’ve done great things for the Kingdom of God.
And yet we never stop to sit in silence and take refuge in the Lord. We don’t think we need to.
I don’t necessarily believe that all mental illness is sent by God, but I do believe He uses it to make us more holy. And that isolation—if we are willing to let it—can be redeemed into the kind of solitude that produces intimacy with God.
In the words of Rich Mullins, we often have to be “lost enough to let ourselves be led.”
Solitude is what we find when we no longer use our schedules and relationships as numbing agents for the pain we feel in our soul. If you’ve ever suffered, you know things like depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, and a plethora of others make it difficult to maintain a steady schedule or close friendships. So you’re left with nothing but the aching of your own poverty. And if you’ll let yourself sit in that place of desperation long enough, you might come to welcome it.
When you are in daily pain, peace isn’t so easily attainable. You are not satisfied with the false peace that comes from man’s praise or checking off a to-do list. You find no security in regimented devotional times and regular fasting. Leading in your local church gives you no certainty that you’re on the right path. Certainly no amount of self-esteem boosting practices touches that ache in your soul. No matter how much you work to remove the rot in your chest, you can’t. You’re still not healthy. You’re just covered in a lot of Band-Aids.
Of course prayer, self-discipline, and an awareness of sin should be apart of our lives. But beautiful desires for things like sanctity and virtue become sinful and self-centered when we are on a hunt for peace, joy, or acceptance—not God. Once again we fall into (or perhaps never moved out of) the sin of chasing the things of God and rejecting God himself. We just look a little less carnal and a little more holy in our pursuit.
So for those with a mental illness (and truly, any one who deals with prolonged suffering), new questions arise. “If all of my efforts don’t bring me the peace, the joy, the acceptance that I’m desperate for... if I am incapable of getting myself out of this rut, what’s the point of any of it? Is he even good/real/there for me? Does he even care? Does he want me? Because I have nothing to offer but a broken brain.”
I believe the crux of every human heart is the question, “Am I loved?” And the blessing of a broken brain is that it burns up all of the things we do to stifle that question that demands an answer, that feeling that demands to be felt. There are no masks left to hide behind. No Band-Aids big enough to cover what you’re desperate to really know.
And though you may have heard it since you were born, you don’t really accept it until you feel like your life depends on it.
People usually define mental illness as being out of touch with reality. And while it isn’t devoid of that, I have found that it has a tendency to wake people up. It can be a kind of proverbial slap to the face that shows you how reality really works. In a word, it shows you don’t have it all together, and you don’t have the capability of getting it all together. You can’t craft your own identity because you can’t even trust what your brain is telling you most days. The intellect you function out of is a bit faulty, so you need something outside of you to help you figure out who you are and what can be done. Because defining yourself by what you struggle with only convinces you that there is no hope for liberation.
Brennan Manning’s struggle with years of alcoholism led him to one conclusion:
“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”
If you have the nerve to take off all your masks and shed all the false identities you wear for comfort and stand naked before God and ask him if he loves you (even with all your intrusive thoughts, despondency, and poor coping mechanisms), you’ll get an answer. You have the choice to accept it or deny it. But if you accept it, something will shift.
You’ll stop listening to what the world and (probably most importantly) what your brain says to you. What they call you. You’ll stop listening to anything that’s not Christ’s love for you. Because the fact of the matter is it’s just not true. Because you are wanted, and valued, and loved just as you are—not as you should be. Because you’re never going to be as you should be. And there is nothing you could do, or say, or think that could change it.
And you start to learn how to trust that. Slowly. But you start. And you begin to believe it. And you’re going to learn that it’s okay to cry. And you’re going to learn what it really means to pray. You’ll learn how to preach the Gospel to yourself every day, multiple times a day, over and over.
Mental illness presses hard on your mind, so you learn how to press the Gospel in even harder.
And you’ll find out that he’s still there even when you fail. He’s still your friend. He still likes you. He’s not going to abandon you because he’s not concerned with what others think about him. He’s only concerned with you knowing how much he cares about you.
He’s not afraid of you, disgusted by you, tired of you. You’re not hopeless. You’re not a throwaway kid.
As someone once told me:
“Take yourself to the cross. Look at Jesus hanging there. Imagine locking eyes with him. And ask him there, ‘Jesus, did you leave me? Do you care about me?’ And let the blood from his wrists and the tears from his eyes show you that you’re not a throwaway kid. You’re worth giving up everything for. And he would do it a million times over just for you to know that you’re loved.”
Mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of. If you let it, it can cut away all the false things about you and leave you more beautiful than before.
And you’ll be able to join with Spurgeon saying:
“I would go to the deeps a hundred times to cheer a downcast spirit. It is good for me to have been afflicted, that I might know how to speak a word in season to one that is weary.”
Life is really hard to do alone. It is equally hard to love someone. It is especially hard to be caught in the crossfires of desires for both.
To love is, in its very essence, the choice to be vulnerable. How terrifying it is to filet your chest and let another peer inside, the meat of your soul raw and unfiltered. Unseasoned, unmarinated, unprepared cuts that you have not yet released into the marketplace to be perused. You vacillate between believing it is a spoiled, rotten thing and speculating that it just might be the most coveted dining experience in the world. So, you love and you leave and you get all confused about both and you scarcely notice that all of the actions you toss up in the air are manifestations of your indecisiveness to love and be loved in return.
To open your heart, well that would be madness. You would be placed on the stage with a spotlight on your naked body while a crowd below ogles and whispers to themselves about what they see. You would run the risk of being pelted with tomatoes and booed into the next century. You would chance becoming the butt of the audience members’ jokes as they drive home, and the star of that ruthless critic’s review column in the next morning’s paper.
To keep your heart closed, however, would be just as insane. There, in that place of sterile isolation, you would be safe from the gaze of the eyes that would gladly come through the door if they but had the key. Your ears would become so used to the painful quiet they would go deaf to the sound of the knocking on the door. Sitting in that windowless cell of safety for so long without the warmth of the sun and the refreshment from the rain would erase the memory of what it feels like to change. The recirculated air of that chamber would make airplane cabins seem like a forest of pines, and you may consider the possibility that you never once breathed at all.
Yet you remain standing on the crossroads, wanting to know life and terrified of how to get it.
“My heart,” you cry, “It is worse than all others, sicker than the rest of the lot combined. Who could handle it?”
For you know the innermost cavities of your heart, those places you mask for fear of someone seeing the darkness and rejecting you outright. You feel the intimacy with those thoughts that flow from the deepest of valleys, still taste those frantic journal entries that say loudly what you bite your tongue on—
“I feel the pain through the entirety of my body. indeed, the emotion flows into my wrist, into the very tips of my fingers. a heaviness on my skin. a headache baked into my very fiber. completely aimless. here but for no reason. walking, but dead.”
And (considering you are a Christian) you close that door saying, “Surely a Christian should never feel such a thing. I must be defective.” That conclusion takes hold of you like new love, and you categorize it as truth. In reality, it is born from an imbalance of chemicals between the nerve cells of your brain.
For others it will be a pack of cigarettes, a frequented website, a need for approval. We bar the entrance to those places, deciding to do the whole blasted thing alone, never stopping to consider that what we believe is a lie. We never toy with the idea that our belief systems are warped and skewed, and the people who ask to walk through the door just might see us differently than we see ourselves. We never wrestle with the notion that maybe that is the whole point.
Chester Bennington once said in an interview,
“This place right here, this skull between my ears, that is a bad neighborhood and I should not be in there alone. I can’t be in there by myself. It’s insane. It’s crazy in here. This is a bad place for me to be by myself. I don’t say nice things to myself. There’s another Chester in there that wants to take me down.”
And so it goes, there are moments in our lives that we are in the shadow land where the sun dares not venture. We become convinced there is no possible way to go on, and even if there was, we would rather die than continue. Yes, there is agony. There are moments of seeming isolation, moments—as Spurgeon puts it—where, “The Lord knows, and has made me to know that I am but dust.” But if you can remember—and I pray you do—a story of a Vinedresser and His Vine… if you can let it carry you from behind those prison bars… well, you may just be free.
The Vinedresser is active in His work of pruning and cultivation, and His Vine pours life into the branches. The Father shakes us free from all of our hang ups and establishes us on the only sure footing there is—that is His Christ. There, I think, lies the beauty. The act of establishing ourselves in Christ is (if we will have the simple faith to believe it) the work of the Father. It is a work that He is delighted by, a work that makes His heart sing, a work that is not thwarted by a heart that struggles to believe.
If the God that establishes and enables to obey, the One who “perfects that which concerns” us has commanded us to love one another, you can trust that your fellow branches can love you as you are. It is something divine, this love. Though the partakers are painfully human, the work of loving one another is energized by God Himself.
So let us delve back into our individual stories. Right here, right now. No polish or masks. Let us show each other our struggles, and never fake it. Let us see each other as we are, and know that redemption is ours because Christ has us— even if we, at this very moment, are not fully bought in, are disillusioned, stubborn, prideful, selfish, lazy. Let us tell each other how deeply we long to be strong, courageous, bold. Let us learn to love life, to enjoy the little things, to appreciate the feeling of laughter rolling deep from our core. Let us burn with passion as we look into each other’s faces and understand there are stories, hopes, realized and abandoned dreams in the world outside of our own. Let us fight for people because they are as fragile as we are, and let them flourish in their own ways, loving them for who they are instead of hating them for who they are not. Let us understand that things happen in this world simply because we are in it, and that life is still beautiful and worth the living even so. Let us learn to talk with nostalgia, but never move in with Him. And let us begin to dance with God, and really love Him. After all, what is this entire thing if not a love affair?
Be thankful that in the times our hearts grow cold and harbor resentment, He never stops loving us. It is more nuanced than I can write, and I do not really understand it all that much myself, except that it is folly. His love is folly, and we have believed ourselves too sophisticated for it. Yet now, every wrinkle upon our hearts are being smoothed out, like old skin becoming radiant, and the balm is Him. It has always been Him.
So here’s to all of us loving and growing together. The Great Iconoclast is drawing near, and there is room for rest inside His call. I sure hope your heart finds it. And I sure hope you know it’s okay to be as you are. God did not call us to be heroes; He called us to be His. So get gritty with Him, and get gritty with each other. It won’t be perfect, but it will be shepherded, for “the one who calls you is faithful, and He will do it” (1 Thess 5:24).
And when you wander, know that the voice saying you can never go back is wrong, and that there is always a place set for you at the table. You just have to be hungry enough to accept your invitation.
It is always important to remember that nothing can help a person who still believes he or she does not need it.
If you have seen an animal caught in a trap, you know of the absurd spectacle. The beast snarls, foams at the mouth, and bites the hand that attempts to deliver it. It writhes around in a frenzy trying every way possible to release itself, and every thrash only serves to rip the tissue a little more, sending the blade deeper into the flesh. Once at the end of its rope, the creature lies in defeat, hopeless and bloodier than it would have been if it had only trusted the hand that reached in to save it in the beginning.
So it is, I suppose, with the child of God. His leg is not caught in the metal mouth of the snare, but his heart is caught in sin. The meat of his muscles is not exposed from the lacerations, but his soul is crushed to the point of despair. Where the animal lies still in the recognition of defeat, the child abandons his stream of questions for the realization that he has no real questions at all. And in that moment, where the wounded brute relies on the mercy of the hand to release it, the child throws himself onto the mercy of the Spirit to intercede on his behalf.
There are moments where the heart is so low in the chest of the beloved that he cannot, and perhaps no longer wishes to, murmur a single word to God. He sits in that place of smug, agnostic loneliness that settles into near acceptance of the permanence of his state. He very well may have resolved to stay there, too, if the wind of change in the trenches of his heart had not continued blowing beneath all of the rubble…
The analogy falls short here, as it must. For all the love and understanding, sympathy and justice an animal rights activist can give to a fawn caught in a bear trap, it is far from close to a fingernail’s width of the willingness and devotion, intimacy and care God has for His battered kids.
C.S. Lewis once wrote:
“Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask - half our great theological and metaphysical problems - are like that.”
It would hardly be surprising if God’s only answer to the pleas for deliverance from His child—that very one walking through the death shade of the valley—was a simple command to go and clean his room. How offended he would be, too, when his deep and probing questions were met with a list of chores. What looks like inattentiveness is, in reality, God helping him on his way. What seems to be cruelty is truly the Father taking his hand and walking with him one step at a time down the homeward bound path.
The first step is clear—the child must clean his room. Past that, he has no earthly idea, not even the slightest inkling of what comes next. Which very well may be the whole point—to take the step and listen. It is not so much about what will come of the child cleaning his room as it is the act of him doing it because his Father told him to.
It seems that it is not faith that builds obedience, but obedience that builds faith. And if the question is raised of how man or woman can obey God without a lick of faith, the only true answer is that they cannot. They only can if Christ has initiated it, that microscopic amount of faith that gives us the courage to listen to the faintest echo of the command to fold the laundry and make the bed. So it goes to prove that we are, indeed, entirely at His mercy—commanded to obey but unable unless He has enabled us. As St. Augustine once stated, "The act of turning to God is itself a gift from God."
Should you, child of God, hear that call of His Spirit when you cry to him in your darkest hour, you can be sure that you are quite able to obey. God is not a god of confusion but peace, and He gives His Spirit to all who ask. It is one obedient step at a time to a deeper faith, to that sought after rest.
As for me, I am in the process of cleaning my room. I am not sure I will get another answer until I finish. And when it is complete, I suppose the next step will be ready for the taking.
I just hope it has nothing to do with the shower drains.