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Posts Tagged ‘authentic relationships’

I know this isn’t an original topic, but since I’m having struggles in this area like never before, I figured I might as well put it “out there.” You never know who God might reach if you’re willing to let Him use all of you, even the parts you don’t particularly want exposed.

As Christians, we have this treasure in jars of clay. I know that when I was born again, the old Sandy was crucified with Christ, and she no longer lives. The “new me”, spiritually redeemed and free, is still housed in a cracked pot. Of late that has become glaringly obvious.

The past few months have been an agony of deep despair, hopelessness, mental confusion and emotional pain. I’ve always tended towards the melancholy – it’s just my personality – but this has been different. My sense of worth and value has crashed down around me. Most of my days have been spent alone, looking forward to sleep, dreading the morning. I have thought about suicide repeatedly. I could see no other way out of what has felt like a bottomless pit of pain and despair.

I’m not writing this to elicit pity – I’m truly not. Actually, this morning was the first time in months that I’ve woken up feeling somewhat hopeful. It was such a relief, and I thank God for it. But the past months have challenged my own assumptions and prejudices about what mental illness is – and what mental health is.

Assuming I’m fairly average in this area, I would venture to say that there’s still quite a bit of stigma surrounding mental illness. That’s surprising considering the record numbers of people who are apparently being treated for depression, bipolar disorder, and so on. I think there’s often an extra dimension to the stigma in Christian circles.

There was a time when I vowed I would never take antidepressants, because I was a woman of faith, familiar with the scripture from Isaiah 53 – “by His stripes we are healed.” I’ve heard people at church voice this attitude recently. One woman told me about how she was depressed and her doctor prescribed Paxil, but she refused to take it – and God healed her. On the one hand, I think it’s awesome when God heals someone of their illness, mental or otherwise. On the other, there can be a subtle pride underlying this attitude. It’s not so much an expression of faith in God, as it’s faith in our faith in God.

I’ve come to realize that mental illness and mental health are not so much polar opposites as they are gradations on a continuum. None of us can claim that our thoughts are completely healthy. But most of us are able to tell the difference between thoughts that are rational and can/should be acted upon, and those that aren’t. So, here are some of the things I’ve gleaned from my experience so far:

  • Thinking that killing oneself is a reasonable, viable (no pun intended) solution is a good sign that your mental state is not healthy, and you need help. I needed help, badly. Thankfully help is available, and I have had the support needed to access it.
  • Mental health and isolation are never found together, at least not for long. It’s a conundrum, because the worse I felt about myself, the more I wanted to be alone. This is typical in depression.
  • It’s probably a good idea not to disparage psychiatric drugs or counselling in Christian circles, because chances are, someone within earshot is availing themselves of one or both.
  • Similarly, don’t think that because you’ve had a few rough patches, you understand what clinical depression is. I really didn’t understand until recently. As well-meaning as your suggestions might be, telling a depressed person to pray & read the scriptures more can just add to their sense of shame, failure and aloneness.

Next time, I’ll explore how the church can help people who struggle with mental illness. Hint: Churches who are “real” from the top down foster mental, emotional and spiritual health.

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istock_000003621683xsmallThe journey we’re on in life isn’t meant to be walked alone. From the earliest chapters of the Bible we learn that God made us to be in relationships. After creating a multitude of animals and the first human being, He said, “It’s not good for the man to be alone; I’ll make him a helper, a companion.” (Genesis 2:18, The Message) He created Eve to meet the need in Adam’s heart and life for companionship – a need that no animal could meet.

We usually think of the above passage of scripture as referring only to marriage, but it contains a principle with broader implications. Part of how we bear God’s image is in this need for connection and companionship. We know God is intensely relational, partly because He has existed as the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – from before the beginning of time. But perhaps more significantly, we know it because of the enormous price He paid to repair our fractured relationship with Him. He longed to restore fellowship with His lost image-bearers so intensely that He came, willingly, and died for us on a cross. This is what Jesus means when He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NIV)

Once we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we become journey-mates with Him and with all other Christians, regardless of ethnicity, skin colour, language or background. The wonderful thing about journeying with Jesus is the way He’s able to take any life, any person with a willing heart, and turn that life into something worthwhile and God-honouring. He doesn’t pick and choose His journey-mates, opting to walk only with a select few: He will take anyone who is willing to “walk the walk” with Him. This is the same attitude we should have towards each other. What will the journey with Jesus be like? Read what He says:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28, The Message)

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I’ll be the first to admit that relationships are hard, and I’m not very good at them. I wish sometimes that I wasn’t so sensitive, so easily hurt – so prone to withdrawing when I do get hurt. Yet I haven’t given up, because I know that God is in his very essence relational – and we are created in his image. It’s not good for us to be alone. But how can we connect with others meaningfully and not experience pain? The simple answer is, we can’t. This is where I stumble repeatedly. I hate pain. But I know that the most fruitful seasons of my life have been the times when I’ve gone through gut wrenching pain and grief. Somehow God uses the sorrow to refine me, to draw me closer to him. The other choice I have is to become embittered by circumstances and angry at God. I’ve found that this approach doesn’t work very well in the long run. I will forgive those who hurt me, even if it kills me, which it will. That’s okay. There’s a lot more at stake here than my hurt feelings. I can love people even if I don’t agree with them.

What matters more to Jesus? “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart”. I haven’t stopped longing for authentic relationships, but I’ve grown weary of hoping to find them within the context of “The Church” (church, the institution, not the body of Christ, the ekklesia that Jesus intended us to be). Of late I’ve noticed that my friendships with non-Christians are more authentic than the ones I have at church. What is it about “church” that creates an atmosphere of fear, pretending and hiding? I feel sorry for people in positions of leadership. Even if they want to be real, it is enormously risky for them to step out and admit their own frailties, in order to foster a culture of authenticity – but I wish more would! Who cares about money and church attendance when the deeper things of God are at stake? Many will stay with the status quo because it’s less complicated, safer. Maybe if my pay cheque depended on keeping “the pharisees” of the congregation happy I would compromise, too. I sincerely hope not.

I have a dream. Imagine extracting “church” from its usual context, and moving it to something more organic. Not a place we “go”, but a way of “being”. I love the idea, for example, of inviting a bunch of people over for brunch on a Saturday or Sunday morning. We could enjoy a meal together, talk about Jesus, read the bible, sing some songs – allowing everyone present to function in their natural and spiritual gifts, and as such, being a real expression of the body of Christ. A family setting, a natural place for relationships to occur, for ministry to occur, for discipleship and mentoring to occur. I know I’m not alone in having this dream. The Spirit of God is moving in the hearts of so many people to restore His Body to the living organism He intended it to be.

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