I am frequently not at peace. Anxiety twists and torments me, makes me run through my head over and over the same worries and fears. Anxiety makes me fear, and fear turns to depression in me. My soul is troubled by many horrible thoughts, by destructive thoughts, by the haunting idea that I am not worthy, I am not good enough, I am not loved, I am not liked, I am nothing. All the rational thoughts I have become drowned out – no matter how many books I read on our worth to God, on my worth as a person I cannot believe it.
Illness is terrible. Illness turns me inward, makes me lose sight of other people, other needy people, people I could help. Illness makes me selfish – and yet makes me hate that self too. Illness makes me and my (lack of) worth the centre of the universe, when the Creator of that universe should be my focus. Mental illness is a rapacious monster, who takes and takes and takes from me, leaving behind it a life no longer recognisable.
Again and again this illness comes back to me, again and again in my life it takes my peace, my joy, and my future. I have lost jobs, friends; I remain “in the closet” about my illness to most people, although that hurts. I still seem to get ill when working, and I don’t know what to do about that. And through it all I remember that my illness is judged in a way that other illnesses are not – the myths and misinformation abound: that we are lazy, feckless, workshy, fakers; that we are dangerous, crazy, mad, and should be locked up. I cannot forget – and by worrying about it, I cripple my future.
Mental illness is a peace-stealer – all the things that go with ill-health, the worries about money, the worries about jobs, careers, children and relationships that may be damaged by our illnesses. I worry about everything, well and ill my anxiety lives with me, though I wish I could kick it out. I need peace, I crave peace, but I struggle to find it.
And yet I serve the Prince of Peace. He who greeted others with the words “peace be with you.” He is the God of Peace, who gives as the fruit of his Spirit peace. He said:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)
How can I claim to serve him, when I am so manifestly fearful and troubled? Am I then, as some would claim, some sort of inferior Christian, some sort of extra-special sinner? Am I really a Christian at all? This, then, is where we run into the stigma associated with mental illness among Christians – we must not have the Spirit, must be morally worse than others, must be failing to claim our share in God. If we only tried hard enough, we would be as anxiety-free as the Christian we are being condemned by.
And yet, do any of us lead lives that are anxiety-free? Although Christ said we were not to worry about tomorrow – which of us has done so? Which of us, having no food, does not worry about what we will eat? Or being arrested, does not worry about what will happen to us? I would say that worry is a natural – as in natural to this sinful world – phenomenon, and though we ought to, and do resist it, we should not beat ourselves up for our worries. Indeed, worrying about worrying is a problem in itself!
When I look at what else our Lord had to say, I note that he also said this:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
We are not promised an easy ride. We are not promised a life free from care. We are still in the world. We are to have peace in Christ – but we may struggle to receive that peace, being in this world of trouble.
The Lord said to the waters “be still” – and so he does to our souls, but our physical bodies, our mental state is still at this moment unredeemed, for the body will not be redeemed until the end (Romans 8:23-25) And if the body is as yet unredeemed, it still has power over us, still goes wrong, still things happen to Christians as they happen to all, including mental illness. Those mental illnesses interfere with our sense of self, with who we are – they cloud that peace, which is our right, cloud our understanding of how much worth we really have in the eyes of God. But they do not eradicate – somewhere, somehow, in the deepest darkest corner of my heart there is indeed a sense of peace, faint though it may be, and that sense of peace, of hope, has sometimes been the only thing to carry me through the pain. If you believe, then you have a certain peace – even though the illness tries to take it from you with its lies of how worthless you are. You believe – and the thin shred of hope that that gives us can mean the difference between staying afloat and drowning. The Lord bids us peace – and it is my prayer that we all feel that peace more abundantly in our lives, that it break through the chains of anxiety, mental illness and the rest, and become so apparent to us that it finally break those illnesses once and for all.
May the God of peace bring peace to you all tonight.
- Let’s Talk About Mental Illness (writeintothelight.org)
- Mental illness: A difficult diagnosis with sometimes deadly | Latino Times (michaelbenjamin2012.com)
- Mental Illness: A Cry for Compassionate Workplaces (diversityandinclusionatwork.com)
- Living With Worry and Fear, Dread And Doubt (chronicillnesspaindevotionals.wordpress.com)