I love reading true stories, and I love reading testimonies, either online or in print. It is wonderful to read stories of people leading difficult, dangerous and sinful lives and meeting Christ, and to hear of their transformation. I like stories of people involved with drugs, crime, the occult, and I like stories where at the end everything is happy and wonderful. The bigger the sinner, and the higher the transformation is what pleases me most. They inspire me as a Christian, and make me see how powerful our God is.
Yet…where do such stories leave me? I can, and I have, related the story of how I came to faith, but my story is not like those stories. For one, I wasn’t an outrageous sinner – I wasn’t into fighting, or robbing, or murdering people. I was, it is true, a sinner, but to be frank I have known worse people. Then there is the illness – it was bipolar disorder, and most especially my depression, which threw me into the arms of God. If I had never become ill I might never have become a Christian. In my stories, there when I was terribly ill, a light would have shone and Jesus would have healed me. That is how those stories often go, but he didn’t. He hasn’t. I still have bipolar, and I have been ill many times since.
It is very tempting for me, in the period of wellness I have experienced over the past two years, to re-tell my story. It is tempting for me to exaggerate my sin before I became a Christian, to go on and on and tell in the most gut-wrenching way what depression is like, and to frame my whole story as if it was leading up to this moment, when I am well. It would end with me saying “and now I write on the internet to other sufferers and show them that God is with them…” That is partially true – I write to hopefully inform and comfort – but I also write for myself. When I am writing about my illness I am telling the story of it, putting it into a narrative so that I can better understand what I have been through, and how my illness impacts my faith. The triumphalism seems like a “better” story.
I have been reading about stories today. I learned that “narrative” (i.e. story) is an important part of being human. We all have stories – and our lives all tell a story, whether good or bad or indifferent. For Christians, our story is a story of God moving in our lives, that begins before conversion and will not end. As people with an illness, we also tell a story, we have a narrative – as Wikipedia puts it:
Illness narratives are a way for a person affected by an illness to make sense of his or her experiences. They typically follow one of several set patterns: restitution, chaos, or quest narratives. In the restitution narrative, the person sees the illness as a temporary detour. The primary goal is to return permanently to normal life and normal health. These may also be called cure narratives. In the chaos narrative, the person sees the illness as a permanent state that will inexorably get worse, with no redeeming virtues. This is typical of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease: the patient gets worse and worse, and there is no hope of returning to normal life. The third major type, the quest narrative, positions the illness experience as an opportunity to transform oneself into a better person through overcoming adversity and re-learning what is most important in life; the physical outcome of the illness is less important than the spiritual and psychological transformation.
I see, when I look at that quote, that I see my bipolar as part of a quest narrative. I believe I have learned, changed, and am different as part of my illness, and I believe or choose to believe that I am better as a part of it. We as Christians often have a quest narrative too – whatever trials and obstacles may be in our lives the Lord is pulling us through them, changing and transforming us through everything we go through in our lives. That is a part of testimonies, and a part of the story of our lives.
Yet the triumphant narrative is the one I am most familiar with – I had a disease, the Lord healed me, I am now a better Christian, a better person and bring glory to his name. How do we tell our testimonies when we are still struggling with illness? What value is there in the story of someone who still gets depressed, who still has psychosis, who still has terrible anxiety? Would anyone read a book about the story of someone who, yes, believes and trusts in God, but who has not been healed and who suffers, and not in a socially acceptable way either? It makes me feel alienated from others, that little fact that my illness does not just cause me pain but alters my behaviour in very negative ways. How can I witness for Christ in the depths of my illness, in a body whose mind is still faulty?
I don’t really have the answers, but I do know that there is more story than one. We are part of God’s story, the story started in the Bible and which continues today, part of his narrative to the world. That has to include all of us, all who believe and not the ones who are healed of their infirmities, who do not suffer, who always behave right, the ones who are “good.” I believe that God values us all, from the perfect to the definitely not perfect, and he values my testimony despite my not being able to produce a lovely story with a good ending. I would like to see, and to read, more “ordinary” stories – the ones where we still mess up, where things go wrong, where sin and illness are still part of our lives, stories of people like me, in other words. I remind myself of the Bible, of David whose wonderful Psalms still talk about his faults, the things he did wrong, and who was still loved by God. I read about Peter, always getting it wrong and yet the chief disciple, who even after the Lord had gone and the Spirit had come, still got it wrong, and got told off by Paul. The Bible is a story of the ordinary person, the people who aren’t perfect and don’t have a perfect story as well as of those who do, but it is a story of growth. I believe I do grow, well or ill, by God’s grace, and I believe you do too, even if you may only see it in hindsight. I may not have a story of total transformation to tell, but of course, my story has not ended – and will not end, and I may be able to conclude my story perfectly, once I meet him – then I might get my triumphant ending!
I also read an interesting article about narrative, the different views and whatnot, which some might be interested in. It’s called The Gospel is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony by Christianity Today, and is well worth a read.
- Is mental illness a sin? (samisaacson.wordpress.com)
- Narratology (slideshare.net)
- Why do the stories psychiatrists tell their patients matter? (madinamerica.com)
- Keeping Your Mind and Heart Healthy: Mental Health & Dating Relationships (healthyheels.wordpress.com)