September 4, 2020

‘Even Though the Thorn Remains, Still My Heart Will Praise You’: Mental Health and the Comfort of Christ

Mental health is a minefield. Sometimes, because of its complexities, we shy away from discussing or thinking about it.

Christians and Mental Health

If we’re honest, it is sometimes assumed within Christian circles that mental health issues have a direct link to weak faith, a lack of prayer, and maybe ‘not pulling the old boot straps up enough’. If only it were so simple! Mental health is as real as a broken bone. The mind can become fractured, requiring the same compassion and care as a physical ailment. In fact, it often requires more discernment due to its hidden nature.

The solemn reality is that mental health issues claim lives, and Christians are unfortunately not exempt from that. That said, one thing we can be sure of is the fact that our Lord cares deeply about every aspect of our lives, including mental health struggles.

Whilst we recognise that the mind is an amazingly complex and unfathomable thing, people often seem to focus on why we behave the way we do. Therapy, medication, and even electric-shock treatment are all used to try and “fix” the fallen brain.

Mental Health and Me

A diagnosis of mental health issues (PTSD, for me) can be very confusing—even crushing—especially with all of the stigmas involved. For me, it can narrow the way I see myself and also the way I see my sin. Being labelled can over-simplify my identity by neatly tying things up in a medical bow which I can easily use as an excuse for sin.

And whilst some of my experience I can’t change—God can if He is willing, counselling may help, or, in certain cases of chemical imbalance, medication is needed—I can strive to seek out what it means to trust Jesus in all the confusion and uncertainty. The Bible (no surprises here) provides real clarity concerning our fallen condition and enters into our human experience as we toil with mental health issues.

In Psalm 42, the psalmist vulnerably asks the heavy questions that we’re sometimes too scared to speak. He’s dealing with oppression from outside circumstances. Verse 3 says enemies are taunting him, “Where is your God?” And verse 10 recognises that the effects are as painful as a physical blow—“as with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, where is your God?”

To his adversaries, it looks as though God must have abandoned him because he is suffering so much mental anguish. Maybe they think he’s being punished, he’s in sin, or just not praying enough.

In verses 5 and 11, the psalmist describes himself as “cast down” and “in turmoil”. In verse 3, he’s so discouraged that he’s literally eating tears all day and night. Verse 7 says it’s like he’s drowning in a sea of anguish and emotions.

Learning from the Psalms

What can we learn from this psalm?

Well, it’s relatable. Living with a mental illness can feel relentless—like you’re drowning in a sea of overwhelming emotions. The psalmist acknowledges his mental struggle is very real. He doesn’t keep quiet in a prayer meeting hoping it will just go away. He doesn’t paint a smile on and hope for better days. He blurts out the thoughts kicking about his head, giving suffering a voice. Most importantly, he starts speaking to his own soul. He preaches the truth against the tide of his struggles.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?

(Ps. 42:5)

Where a common tendency in these times is to stay away from God or act as if we could hide the problem from Him, the psalmist does neither.

His counsel to his soul comes next:

Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.

(Ps. 42:11)

This shows us that heavy mental anguish can exist alongside hope. In other words, a heart can be heavy-laden while praising and trusting God. This greatly encourages and humbles me, because this is my experience—one of dealing with all the brokenness and daily battles but still entrusting it to the author of life, singing and giving thanks to Jesus for my salvation. Amy Carmichael writes about the purpose of suffering’s scars in this poem/hymn:

No wound? No scar? Yet, as the Master shall the servant be. And pierced are the feet that follow Me. But thine are whole. Can he have followed far who has no wound nor scar?

Hast Thou No Scar?–Amy Carmichael

Your scars may be many, mentally and/or physically, but God in His wisdom sees fit to shine brightly through the testimony of how He alone helps you bear up and continue to walk by faith under them.

Speak Truth Louder than Lies

On days where we feel defeated, we can test our emotions against the truth and promises of God’s Word, which brings relief and refreshment to a weary and worn out soul. This is one of the most important things to teach a believer battling with mental health—to replace lies with truth. That their life is hidden in Christ. That, as a child of God, they are safe for all eternity through all that Christ Jesus has done.

God sometimes chooses to bring growth through suffering, that you may look to Him and trust Him more. If you have ever been brought to a place where only Jesus can reach you, you then can understand what it means to be hidden in the cleft of the rock and to truly trust in Him alone as a refuge in times of trouble. At these times, His word is something to cling to above all else.

This hymn beautifully sums up being stripped back to total dependence on God:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Saviour, or I die.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.

Offer Practical Help

Maybe you have a friend or family member who suffers from mental health, and you wonder what you can do for them. Here are some practical things that can go a long way in serving those with mental health issues.

I know there are days I need others speaking truth to me. There are days when I might feel like shutting down. On those days I need a text, a verse, a prayer, or maybe something practical (at least offered if not accepted).

Someone could need help getting medical assistance, and maybe God has placed you in their lives to lovingly speak into that so that they can get the help they need. Could you commit to attend appointments with people who might just need reassurance in a scary situation?

What the Wounded Need

A vulnerable, wounded sheep takes off to hide, alone. There, it is sitting prey for the enemy to surround and pick off. Are we fighting for and guarding our wounded sheep from attack when they can’t even stand? Do we hem them in and lead them back to the Good Shepherd?

We must remind them of the gospel, and tell them that even though the thorn remains, still we have reason to praise God. We pray and strive that God would bring healing but, ultimately, we know we will have troubles in this world. Praise God that Jesus has eternally overcome them. One day you too might need that pastoral care.

Charles Spurgeon, who some days could just about muster the strength to get up and preach his sermon, then lie back down because of depression, said:

“I would go to the deeps a hundred times to cheer a downcast spirit. It is good for me to have been afflicted, that I might know how to speak a word in season to one that is weary.”

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