Believing for Comfort?

I have occasionally been told by others that I only believe in God because of my illness, that I have in effect chosen to believe in order to give myself comfort and a sense of purpose, to make sense of why I have a mental illness and not because God actually exists. I came across a quote which expresses this sort of view:

Almost everyone, when age,
Disease, or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
Or something very like him.
(A. H. Clough 1819-1861)

It is a similar idea to that of “there are no atheists in foxholes”. I would like to whip out some quotes about the number of conversions in people who are ill or dying, but I cannot seem to find any. Nevertheless I can well imagine that many people become believers as a result of, or during a long-term sickness or while dying.

I personally became a believer during my first, and worst bout of bipolar disorder. I was in the midst of a terrible depression, a depression where I very regularly self harmed and where the thought of suicide was never far away, and indeed I did attempt suicide twice. It was during that time that all I had read about Christianity – and I had read a great deal, works of biblical studies and theology as well as apologetics – became less important than simply trusting God. I had had intellectual reservations about Christianity, but these just went away, and I realised they weren’t so important after all.

I suppose you could say that I was reaching out to God when I was in extremis and I believe that he did indeed answer me. As I have said before, I was not healed – I was ill then and thereafter – but I did gain a wonderful sense of hope, of something to strive for. It was no Damascene conversion but it has lasted in me – now writing some ten years later.

Does that invalidate my faith? If I had come to God while completely healthy would that show more reason on my part? Am I just seeking a sop, a dummy for a fractious child in seeking comfort in my illness? Some would say so, and some see Christianity, or indeed any faith, as being like a comforter for a child, something unnecessary for adults.

Yes, I gain comfort from God, I gain hope and love and all manner of good things. I have a sense of purpose. I do not fear death (although frankly, you’re talking to a depressive here, I never feared death that much to begin with). But why should that invalidate it? Jesus presents himself as our Comforter, and there is the wonderful verse of Jeremiah:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
(Jeremiah 29:11-13)

The Bible does give us assurances of prosperity, peace, love, purpose, and hope. We can hardly be blamed for responding to them!

Are we like children? Jesus loved little children and I think that if we come to him with our tears still in our eyes looking for Daddy to make it all better that he is not displeased. I don’t see it as weakness that we reach out beyond ourselves when we are at our most vulnerable, rather than holding it in and seeking to be self-sufficient.

Paul writes about vulnerability (weakness) and strength when he tells of his “thorn”, that he prayed would be taken away but which God did not take away. This passage, although we have no idea what Paul’s “thorn” was, is of comfort to me as a person with a long-term illness.

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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

In God’s topsy-turvy world, with its different values, our weaknesses, our difficulties in this life are strength to us. I have here a quote from the Life Application Study Bible notes:

Three times Paul prayed for healing and did not receive it. He received, however, things far greater because he received greater grace from God, a stronger character, humility, and an ability to empathize with others. In addition, it benefited those around him as they saw God at work in his life. God, according to his sovereign plan, doesn’t heal some believers of their physical ailments. We don’t know why some are spared and others aren’t. God chooses according to his divine purposes.

I may not understand why I was not healed, but I trust God, simply. When I call out to God in my distress I do not feel that I am “only” believing because I am weak – my weakness does keep me from saying to myself ‘I can do anything, I need no god, I am sufficient for myself’.  My weakness in depression makes me aware of sin, but also all the more ready for hope and for love. I may not feel loveable, but that is where the great promises of the Bible come in, and not just the Bible but the hymnody of the church. I have been reading some hymns lately, and you will see some of them on the blog, but I would like to finish with one of the best-known and most loved hymns:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

John Newton

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