A particularly strenuous bout of flat-pack furniture making and carrying said furniture up the stairs has led me to reflect on weakness. The Bible is very clear that we all do different things within the body of Christ – that we all are different parts of his body, and all equally valuable. Paul wrote, in 1 Corinthians 12, quite extensively on the different gifts that we all have within the church, and that we are not all able to do the same things. He tells us that some people are like a foot – and others like a hand, or an ear, or an eye – the body cannot function correctly without any of those things, so we are not to say that so-and-so is not as Christian as us, not as important, because they are not – a teacher, a speaker in tongues, a healer etc. He also says that some parts seem weak, and some parts even ugly! He writes:
On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. (1 Corinthians 12:22-25)
I often feel that I am one of these weak, unpresentable parts of the Body – that my mental illness makes me different from other Christians in a wholly negative way. I would imagine this is common, because mental illness is a big deal, and it can change everything in our lives from our friends to our work to our love life. Perhaps we who live with mental ill-health recognise our weaknesses more than others – when I am depressed I concentrate on my weaknesses beyond a healthy acknowledgement that I am not a perfect person, beyond and into the idea that I am worthless because I am flawed.
I see there two problems – when I am well (particularly when I am hypomanic) I may believe myself to be a great person, someone who knows their stuff, is right with the Lord, and is better than that person over there, her with the gossipy nature and grumpy attitude. When I am depressed, I think that everyone is better than me – him over there who we all know is struggling with drug addiction, an aggressive nature and a habit of stealing? He’s better than me, because I am just the worst person ever.
I think Paul here is telling me to have some moderation in my thoughts, to break out of my “bipolar brain” where I see myself as good/bad, acceptable/definitely not acceptable. He tells me that everyone is different, but we are all part of one Body, one faith, one Lord. We are all children of God and beloved of Christ. He tells me that my weaknesses, my faults, my illness, does not make me less a part of the Body, that God gives me honour, and considers me indispensable.
I may look and admire those who I perceive to be super-Christians, people who know themselves and do not seem to sin or ever do anything wrong. I am wrong – people sin all of the time, and everyone has a weakness. The fact is that we are all still part of Christ, be we weak or strong, be we gifted with the power to move stadiums of people or so fearful to speak in public that we throw up if we try. We are the same, but different.
We are God’s family, God’s body – we belong to him even if we are totally different from one another. Even if we do not get on with one another! My challenge is to accept that I am a part of Christ, that my weaknesses are accepted, that I am considered indispensable – while remembering that everyone else is indispensable to God too!
I also need to remember that mental illness is one among many weaknesses people face. I see my bipolar disorder as a massive, big deal, something which has permanently altered my life and will do things in my future. It is like a millstone around my neck and I am forever aware of it. I’m not sure that is a helpful attitude to have. I am more than my illness – and while I accept that this illness is a part of me it does not mean that it has to rule my life. I seek treatment when I am ill, and thoroughly enjoy being well, and I have to guard against a feeling that I need to introduce myself as “Hi, I’m Emma. I’m bipolar!!” in general situations. (I don’t actually do this but I feel that it is a big secret that I am hiding if I do not.) I would like to be someone for whom illness is a reality, but who is able to define themselves against it rather than as being it. In other words I need to get out of the habit of saying I am bipolar and more into saying I have bipolar. I would not say, I am dermatitis, so I should not say I am bipolar either. I also need to remember that everyone faces some sort of problem and some sort of issue – I have the bipolar, but other people might have other problems ranging from ill-health to a tendency to sin to being unable to assemble and move flat-pack furniture without getting a bit sweaty and unattractive. We all have something – I might never know what your something is, but I know that there has only been one human being without weakness, without fault, who always did everything right. We both serve that man, and regardless of your weakness or my weakness, we can rest in his strength and in the knowledge that we are part of one body, one Lord, one faith, which accepts us in our weakness and honours us even when we look ugly. We serve, after all, the God who exalts the humble and whose strength is made perfect in weakness. Sometimes I just need to remind myself of that.