Standing before the throne of God can be a terrifying experience. All the pious platitudes, the polite faces we put on in church circles don’t matter any more. My respectability is seen to be a sham, I cannot hide my face. All that I am – good and bad – is open, is in the light, and before God. I know, and I remember that Jesus calls me his friend – but I also know that I am before a holy God, someone who sees my faults, sees past the veneer, sees me. It can be frightening.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psalm 139:7-8)
I put on a good face – most people, here in this town that I moved to two years ago, do not know that I have a mental illness. Even when I am unwell many people fail to realise that I am ill. This has some unfortunate effects – many think that I am simply lazy, a benefits cheat, someone who pretends to have an illness but does not actually have one, who simply does not want to work. They think this because they see me, they see me in the pub, they see me on nights out, and they do not realise that I am not well, that those nights out are the only relief I have from the depression I am feeling. I do not show my illness, and that leads to discrimination.
I remember several years ago, I was very depressed. I self harmed, I was thinking about suicide all the time, and I did not know how to deal with my feelings, how to deal with my pain. I spoke to my psychiatrists and told them I was not well, but nothing happened. My medication was not changed, nor was any real advice given to me. They did not realise how unwell I was because I am able to hide it – and sadly, I do so without realising, so ingrained in me is the idea that I must not make a fuss. It took my GP to realise how bad I was, and then an emergency appointment with the consultant, and I was admitted to the local hospital. Later, my care was taken over by that consultant, and she did take it seriously when I said I was unwell.
Many of us with mental illnesses know what it is like to be misjudged – to have others think that we are not really ill, not ill enough, not worthy of benefits, or time off work, or reduced duties. They see the outside face – and for many of us, we are so used to putting on a good face that people cannot see our pain. Part of the reason (only part) that I self harm is about making it obvious – to me if no one else – that I really am ill. If I cut myself, then I know that I am not lazy, I am ill, and I can take myself seriously. If you self harm, you almost certainly know this verse:
How will you know I am hurting, If you cannot see my pain? To wear it on my body, Tells what words cannot explain.
People misunderstand, and they dislike the picture they have built up in their minds of me – and few seem to bother to try to understand me and my illness. My face, my façade, may make me more comfortable for others to be around, but it hides the real me. It is one of the things I struggle with at church, not because I am ill at the moment, but because we all have our church faces on, we all make polite conversation, being so-so careful not to offend. It feels like we do not have a genuine conversation with each other, we don’t properly connect. A tea party, rather than colleagues working on the front lines of faith and life. I have better and deeper conversations in the pub, to be honest, because there people are not so polite, not so careful with one another.
When I am with God there can be no polite face. No polite conversation. No church face. There is simply no point in pretending I am anything other than I am, and he knows me better than I know myself. That can be frightening – because I cannot say “I’m a nice person really,” “I am respectable,” “I am protected from your judgement.” I am vulnerable before God, and I cannot pretend.
You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. (Psalm 139:1-5)
All this, of course, sounds like I am frightened of God – and for me there needs to be a balance between Jesus as my friend, and God as the sovereign creator, the judge, our King. I know that he loves me – but I also need to remember that he does know the bad things I have done. Essentially, that I need to repent before him (and he will forgive me) rather than assuming that he never sees what I have done. I need to be honest, and vulnerable, to admit that I am in need of him, rather than trying to make out that I am do things on my own. He will not – cannot – misjudge me, but I am guilty of putting on my respectable face before him, when there is neither point nor need.
There is, in the end, nothing between me and God – except Jesus. In the Old Testament the people of Israel approached God via the High Priest – and we have a perfect High Priest, he who made the most perfect sacrifice for our sins. While I want to respect God as my King, I also need to balance that with the fact that I approach God via Jesus, he who loves me absolutely, and whose friend I am.
I cannot pretend to be anything other than who I am before God – and part of my life is learning to accept that which I cannot change about myself, while admitting my faults before him. It is hard to put down the mask which I wear in real life, but there is no point in holding it before me. He knows me fully, and he loves me anyway. That is something to live by.
- Keeping Up Appearances (believersbrain.com)