A God’s-eye-view on mental health

I’m not going to sugar-coat the situation.

I am diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Although I only sought medical attention early this year, I have suffered with these conditions for many years now.

Now, I realise that having these conditions does not imbue me with a blanket-ability to discuss every case of mental health – because I only suffer from two, I am not a professional and depression and anxiety vary from person to person.

Nevertheless, like some of you I have experienced panic attacks, insomnia, rough dreams, constant fear and depressive and suicidal thoughts. From this – albeit narrow – experience of mental health, I really want to be of some help and encouragement to fellow members of the Mental Health Illness Community.

Mental health, with all its complexities, is insufficiently dealt with in society, and – particularly in the academic sphere – there is a gross misunderstanding of the very concept of health issues which surpass the shoulders.

The very fact that an unprofessional such as myself feels the need to ‘plug a gap’ in the narrative, as it were, reflects this, I think. One of the reasons for this is how ‘illogical’ mental health issues appear. For those who have not suffered similar things, it can be difficult to understand the complicated – sometimes abstract – intricacies of mental illness.

To be frank, this is, on the whole, not the fault of the person who cannot understand; I know many genuinely kind, lovely people who really want to understand, but simply can’t. To a certain extent it’s our duty to try and educate as far as we can, but after that point, understanding that some others can’t understand can be helpful.

That being said, I want to encourage some of you who are suffering much at this time. And no, this is not a “you should be joyful, you’re a Christian” kind of lecture, nor an “everything’s going to be fine” chant with no substance – I’ve had both of those preached at me (in a literal as well as metaphorical sense) and know that both can be harmful and discouraging.

Of course, both of these things are true! The apostle Paul exhorts all Christians to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4v4), as well as propounding the fantastic truth that ‘all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose’ (Romans 8v8).

But if you’re anything like me, you’ve had these verses quoted at you enough to make you feel a little despondent as to the church’s knowledge of the Bible!

Ultimately, the most important thing is searching the scriptures yourself and seeing the nuances of God’s message for the sufferers of mental illness, which I cannot fully offer in the comparatively short block of text as this article.

Nevertheless, I want to – try to – cover a little about how God’s word has spoken to me in my dark moments. I want to structure a few helpful truths by answering these questions:

  1. Who is God?

‘God is love’ (1 John 4v8).

He is the Creator, who knows the stars by name and sits above the circle of the earth, reigning and ruling, keeping the universe together in his perfect knowledge and wisdom: ‘For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him’ (Colossians 1v16).

He looks after creation meticulously, with a care that only a God of love is capable of and would desire to exert.

‘the very hairs of your head are all numbered’

What’s more he loves humans particularly. Setting Adam and Eve as the crowns of his creation, God set them over all creatures and plants. Jesus states that the God who plans the life-time of a sparrow cares even more for humankind: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10v29-31).

By calling himself the good shepherd and vinedresser, Jesus wants us to understand that the care of a shepherd who has raised his sheep and protected them since birth, and the constant digging, seeding, watering, pruning and reaping of a vinedresser are still not equal to his love for us. He is not just a shepherd, but a ‘good’ shepherd.

God is powerful.

he rules over the entirety of living existence, both celestial and earthly. His voice is the voice of many waters, he is like a fire in his holiness – nothing but holiness can survive in his presence. He has the power to dictate what does and does not happen, and has planned all for the good of his people.

God is understanding.

Throughout the Bible he is described as a father who cares for his children, holding them in his ‘everlasting arms’.

‘You[…]put my tears in Your bottle’

Moreover, Christ in his earthly suffering went through human existence, and hence ‘we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (Hebrews 4v15). One of my favourite verses is: ‘You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book’ (Psalm 56v8)?

We have a God who has the omnipotence to create our universe and sustain it, but also the care and consideration to take an invested interest in the individual. He both understands us and has the power over our mental health. We are in safe hands; he knows the plans he has for us (Jeremiah 29v11), and even if it seems difficult at the moment, even before we existed he knew exactly what he had in store for us: ‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (Ephesians 2).

2. What has God done for us?

The Lord has created each person individually. He doesn’t passively survey a production-line of human babies, but cares for every human being as worthy of his attention:‘For You formed my inward parts; you covered me in my mother’s  womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvellous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them’ (Psalm 139v13-16).

‘In Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.’

Recently my sister-in-law birthed a wonderful little baby boy, Alistair. Birth is a miracle, each baby is individual, and having this reality quite literally ‘brought to life’ before my eyes has been amazing.

But apart from literal ‘shaping’, God shapes us spiritually as his people. He is sanctifying – continuing to perfect – us as we grow in him as a potter does his clay (Jeremiah 18). He uses difficulties to humble us and make us view more clearly and accept his plan for us. God cares, and he cares for individuals.

Ultimately, however, God’s greatest gift to humankind has been the sending of his son to the world to live a life free from sin, then go to the cross and suffer and die for sins which he had not committed so that we can be right with God.

The Trinity was willing to disrupt their perfect heavenly communion so that Christ could die for the sins of unworthy humans. He took on our sins and bore the wrath of God – what we would have experienced in hell – in our stead. He died so that we do not have to experience that same second spiritual death and suffering.

Now Christ has returned into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for his people as the one mediator between God and humankind, and preparing a special place for his people: ‘In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also’ (John 14).

‘God[…]will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able’

We now live in anticipation of his second coming, where we shall see him face to face, and praise him forever. Here he guides and guards us, not allowing any difficulty or trial to overcome us: ‘No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it’ (1 Corinthians 10v13).

And we have, at the end of the day, so to speak, nothing to fear: ‘For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind’ (2 Timothy 1v7).

This may seem very difficult to align with mental illness. Often it feels that all is not well – we feel very profoundly abandoned, unworthy and many other things.

But these things are not of God.

God does not tempt anybody. All he is doing is allowing Satan to twist illness in order to tempt us, but God only allows Satan this ‘wiggle room’ so that we will grow as Christians and understand him and our purpose in this world to a much greater extent.

Never forget that ‘nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8v39).

God is good and takes no sadistic pleasure in allowing Satan to make us suffer. He only does this for our benefit, because he knows that we will be spiritually healthier through this suffering.

3. Who are we as a result?

At this point it’s probably fairly obvious.

We are the blood-bought children of God, we are the ones he has worked hard to create and who he loves individually and infinitely. We are wonderful, because a wonderful Creator has created us. We have an amazing future ahead of us, because he is preparing heaven for us. Right. Now.

We are here on this earth in order to bring glory to him, and so that we can grow into greater reflections of him. Only through suffering can we understand (and even then in a greatly reduced sense) what Christ has gone through for us.

And given the fact that the comprehension of the latter is what makes heaven so amazing, we have to go through suffering.

We are not purposeless, whatever the devil – or models on adverts, or our grades, or we ourselves – might say.

We are special, because God has declared us so, both verbally and in action.

We are loved. For God has loved us.

Pray, Pray, Pray!

The word of God says to ‘pray continually’. Our Father in Heaven loves to hear us talk to Him. Our lives should be one long prayer to God, a running conversation with Him. What is sweeter than communion with the Lord of Hosts through our Lord Jesus Christ? What is more amazing than talking directly to our Creator, the one who holds the stars in the palm of His hands, in the awesome power of the Holy Spirit?

Prayer is essentially speaking to God. We address ourselves to God the Father in the name of God the Son through the power of God the Spirit. But in a sense, prayer is more than kneeling and saying a few words, because everything we do speaks to God, and actions speak louder than words…

One bloke once said, there are three things a Christian should do: the first is to pray; the second is to pray; and, you might have guessed it, the third is to pray! Prayer is one of the greatest gifts God has given us, yet one, I fear, is sadly neglected by many believers in our day and age. The poet William Cowper said, ‘Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees.’

Do we pray?

When was the last time you knelt before the King of Kings? When was the last time you sought the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength? When was the last time you poured out your heart to the Most High? When was the last time you lifted up your hands and your heart to our God in heaven? When was the last time you cried out unceasingly with tears in your eyes until the Lord looked down?

I’m not just talking about saying ‘thanks’ for your lunch, an ‘arrow-prayer’ because you can’t find your keys, or a long old shopping-list you rattle-off every now and then. It’s living like Epaphras, who ‘was always wrestling in prayer for the brethren [in Colosse],’ and having the attitude of Jacob, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me!’
We complain we live in days of small things, we say, ‘God does not seem to be working in my life, or in the church anymore’. Well — why is that? Because we don’t pray! ‘We don’t have because we don’t ask’. We don’t pray ‘continually’ or ‘without ceasing’, we breeze in and out of the Almighty’s presence like we would a train station, we hardly get inside before we’re off again in a hurry, ‘getting on with our lives’. If we want to be serious about revival; then we need to be serious about prayer.  A man once said, ‘God’s works of grace are always traced to a humble saint upon their knees’. Pray in power and in faith! God pleases to use our prayers; but at present, what is there to use?

Is this true of you? How sad is this, brothers and sisters! I feel it myself so bad. I don’t pray as I ought, I don’t seek the Lord as I ought. My prayer-life is far too poor.

We simply do not pray enough. It’s all about our heart in these matters. We should never leave the Lord’s presence, whether we’re directly speaking to God or in-directly speaking to Him with our lives. J.C. Ryle says the harder it is to pray, often the better it is for your soul. However feeble our prayers and our hearts, God will listen — that is His amazing promise. Wherever we are… whether we’re in the house of God with his people; in the belly of a big fish at a total loose-end; wasting away in the darkest dungeon of gloom and despair; atop the scary whirling heights of a particular trial; lost in the wilderness of life; or in bed with the flu (last four examples — Psalm 107). If we cry out to the Lord, He will save us, and ‘if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us’ and He will ‘draw near to us, as we draw near to Him’.

Paul says, ‘always keep on praying for all the saints’. Peter says, ‘Cast all your cares upon Him, for he cares for you’. Jude says, ‘Beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life’. What was the secret to success for these peoples’ lives, lived for the Lord, and so many Christians throughout history? Prayer. Simple prayer.

Jesus, Himself, spent many whole nights in prayer. And if He, God incarnate, needed to pray, how much more do we?

It does feel, in our days, that the devil seems to be winning — he has so stifled Christians prayer-lives, so they are as practically non-existent. We need to get back to the days of old, when men like John Welch developed serious knee problems from praying too much on their knees (he prayed all night — every night)! Or when Martin Luther had so much to do one day that it would take at least ‘three hours’ with the Lord! That should be our way of life!

So come on Christian soldiers, before you arise, fall down on your knees before your Heavenly Father, who loves to have His little children come to Him. Pray and then go on praying into your day and ‘live a life worthy of your calling’.

One of my favourite hymns as a youngster was ‘Will Your Anchor Hold in the Storms of Life?’, two lines of which say:

And the cables passed from His heart to mine,
Can defy the blast, through strength divine.

That’s powerful imagery. Our hearts connected to God’s heart with Christ. With Christ we can tackle anything. Was Christ’s work completed on the cross? No! Far from it; He now stands at the right hand of God, there making intercession for all His saints.

Hebrews 4:16 reads:

“Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

What to pray?

There’s an acrostic, which is less than perfect, but besides being easy to remember can give us an idea of prayer and the order of it…

  • P – Praise! How should we get started in prayer? – ‘Enter into His gates with thanksgiving. And enter His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.’ This should be our over-running theme throughout our prayer-life and our kick-starter. Find something to praise Him for, it isn’t hard!
  • R – Repent! We’re sinners who can only come to God in prayer through Jesus Christ, our Righteousness. Remember God is completely holy; nothing impure can even get close. We come with repentant hearts to Him, recognising our sin and our need of Him.
  • A – Ask! With ‘praise and thanksgiving we present out petitions to the Lord.’ We should uphold each other and the whole world in prayer.
  • Y – Yield! We’re told to pray according to His sovereign will. Therefore we leave it all in His hands.

Pray the Bible, particularly the Psalms. There’s a psalm for every occasion, when we need His strength (27), when we are seeking His forgiveness (51), when we are struggling to come to terms with the wickedness in the world (73), whatever, wherever we are, pray the word and seek His will. And then ‘wait on the Lord’ and watch the results! As well as being reverent, we need to be bold in prayer.

Lamentations is another great book for prayer; harrowing and sober, but essentially a call to prayer; well worth prayerfully studying. There are tons of illustrations of prayers in the Bible, not least the Lord’s template for prayer.

We should pray for the faith to ‘move mountains’. Then go and live that prayer! Matthew Henry said, ‘Thanksgiving is good; thanksliving is so much better’, we ‘live according to his purpose, pray according to his will’.

Where to pray?

Pray ‘in your closet’ — just you and the Lord, no distractions; phone off, Bible open, heart ready. Take time. Don’t be short in prayer! Go for a ‘walk and talk’ with the Lord, His creation can be so inspiring. Worry about nothing, pray about everything.

Pray with the Lord’s people. It’s always so important and always so encouraging — coming to the Lord together and bringing praise, big requests, little worries, the lot, to His throne of Grace. C.H. Spurgeon declared that the prayer meeting is the ‘engine-room’ of ‘His Majesty’s Ship Church’. It is the most important meeting of the week! And some churches don’t even have one! The prayer meeting is more important than a Cabinet meeting in Ten Downing Street. Get over that one!

Prayer-partners/buddies, and meeting with one or two believers every now and then, is another great way of coming to the Lord. ‘Iron sharpens iron’, and I don’t know about you, but I can be so stirred by simply joining with a brother or sister in prayer. There’s absolutely nothing like it.

Family prayer-times are so important too. If you’re blessed with a God-fearing family, make the most of it!

Go forth and pray!

Now, go and pray in the Spirit, He is our guide and counsellor, He lays on our heart matters for prayer, He ‘intercedes with groans that words cannot express,’ He draws us so much nearer to God, He strengthens us, builds us up, helps us experience the amazing love of God, and glorifies God (‘man’s chief end’). And let’s persevere in prayer (Lamentations 5:19-22), especially as we kick-off this new year!

More holiness give me,
More sweetness within,
More patience in suff’ring,
More sorrow for sin,
More faith in my Saviour,
More sense of His care,
More joy in His service,
More freedom in prayer.

Come, my Saviour, and help me,
Comfort, strengthen and keep me;
Thou each moment wilt save me,
Thou art saving me now.

More gratitude give me,
More trust in the Lord,
More zeal for His glory,
More hope in His Word,
More tears for His sorrows,
More pain at His grief,
More meekness in trial,
More praise for relief.

More victory give me,
More strength to o’ercome,
More freedom from earth-stains,
More quest for the throne,
More fit for the kingdom,
More useful I’d be,
More blessed and holy,
More, Saviour, like Thee

(Philip Paul Bliss)