Gentleness and Stigma

sparrow (1)To acknowledge ourselves as having a mental illness can make us vulnerable. If you read the website of Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign, you can read about others who have experienced discrimination because of their mental illness, who have been told that they are “faking it” and that they have a flaw in their character, those who have been told that they are too dangerous or difficult to deal with, who have lost friends and lovers and family because they have been mentally ill. It happens, too, in the Christian community, though the terms are more “spiritualised” – thus people are told that they lack faith, hence they are ill; that if they weren’t so sinful God would heal them; that they are lesser, not as good, not really acceptable in the church because they have a mental illness. So, too, are some told that they are possessed by demons, and encouraged to seek exorcism rather than medical treatment.

I personally have not experienced such treatment in real life, although I have had keyboard warriors accuse me of all those things in the past. I can only imagine how painful it must be to have those who should be your brothers and sisters in Christ, people who should be close and caring and above all better than the world around them, turn around and condemn you for being ill. I also feel for those in leadership who may feel unable to be open about suffering mentally, and who may be rejected or murmured against if they do.

I think all of us, Christian or no, experience the worry that anything we do which is unusual, or which someone disagrees with, may be ignored on the basis that we have a mental illness, and therefore “obviously” our judgement is unsound.

The Time to Change campaign is a laudable one – based on the idea that if we all “come out” as having a variety of mental illnesses, that we can get rid of stigma about it. I agree with it – and certainly I think that Christianity would change if all of us who suffer from depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, personality disorders and the like would talk about it, that other Christians, who are “normal” or who think they are the only one to feel that way would have their views about mental illness changed. I say this would be a good idea, even while I am yet to have the courage to be open about my illness in my own church.

I would like to see a world where mental illness is acknowledged by a church, by the church, where Christians can feel able to say that they are ill and face only love and gentleness. That is really what I wanted this post to be about, but I got a little sidetracked, gentleness. The Bible tells us that Jesus was and is gentle –

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

This, to me, is one of the most wonderful promises of the Bible, that, when life seems to hard, so difficult, Jesus offers us rest, and promises us his gentleness. If there is one thing depression has taught me, it is to have an understanding of my own sin, and the sin of the world around me – the illness throws all the bad things into sharp relief, so hearing Jesus say that he will give us rest from the pain both of illness and of all the awful things in the world, that he is gentle, is wonderful. Though, I think it is important to remember that gentleness in the Bible is not some sort of spineless letting everyone walk all over you – but part of the topsy-turvy world that the Bible shows us. The world where the first come last, and the weak are more used by God than the strong, the world where Jesus’ non-resistance, even to death, meant that death died and he won.

It doesn’t make sense, really. But then, why do I expect the things of God to make sense to me, who is not exactly near God! I do know that that promise can be revolutionary – I, I with the illness that indeed makes me weak, this illness which has caused so much of my life to happen in ways I neither expected or wanted, I can be strong. That all of us who suffer in our minds are strong, are loved, are useful and wanted. Even when we feel like the most broken people on earth, when we cannot think of why anyone would want to employ us in a McJob let alone employ us in the service of the Almighty – God wants us. We have a lot to give, because God works in a world where opposites happen, he is a God of surprises! If I hadn’t been through the fire of illness (and may well do so in the future) then I would not be writing words of (I hope!) comfort on this blog, so I am thankful for that.

One thing I try to remember is that every day is another step along the journey of my life (a bit hackneyed, I know, sorry!) One day, I will look back at it all, and illness and everything else will make sense, because hindsight is a wonderful thing.

I am wandering a bit in this post, but I just wanted to go over a few general things: Christ is gentle, other people might not be gentle with us but our Lord is, and always will be. Not a spineless gentleness, but one which is controlled, a decision to have compassion on all of us, justice tempered by mercy, but thirsting for justice nonetheless. It isn’t just that we suffer at all, let alone the double suffering of illness and stigma, but justice will prevail. Perhaps you and I will be the ones to help break the stigma, perhaps neither of us are yet ready, but we can certainly practise gentleness to others, practise compassion on others, even if they do things we don’t agree with, don’t approve of or are scared of. We can have the compassion on others that we have had extended to ourselves. I don’t mean allowing evil to happen, but forgiving others, and giving those who are just a bit weird, or we just aren’t that keen on, the benefit of the doubt, a kindness and a compassion on those who are different, because the more of us there are who are welcoming to the different ones – the more we will find that we, who with illness are different, will also be welcomed.

 May the Lord of all peace and gentleness give you rest, and peace, this night.

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Comments

    • I hadn’t, actually – though I had heard that she had done an interview! I’ve read it now – wonderful that she is speaking up about depression and the church. I’ve just got to get to the point where I feel comfortable “coming out” about it – would prefer to do it while I am well, than do it because I am not, so…anyway, I need to speak to my vicar about it before I mention it to anyone else. Actually, the local baptists know about it because they know about this blog, but I haven’t told my own church members, just in case!

      • Powerful piece isn’t it … and yes, always better to do such things when feeling more ‘with it’ … (although sometimes in the dark times, is when you reach out). I’ve found every time I’ve talked about my struggles whilst in a position of ‘leadership’ it seems to help so many others – however hard it can be sometimes to share it … but also allows you to be more ‘yourself’ – good days and bad! Prayers!!

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