STORIES OF MENTAL ILLNESS IN THE BIBLE
The Bible has a lot to say about depression and mental illness. Elijah seemed to battle symptoms of bipolar disorder. King Saul was apparently struggling with major depressive disorder. Nebuchadnezzar glorified God as the giver of all good things after what looked like a seven-year bout with schizophrenia. Paul wavered somewhere between suicidality and circumstantial depression. The footprints of mental illness can be found throughout the characters in the Bible. So what? Why does this matter? I know why it matters to me.
I’m someone who struggles with clinical depression and anxiety and to top it off, I have PTSD episodes. I’ve had more than one pastor tell me God can’t use someone like me because I’m too broken. I’ve been surrounded by a Christian culture that says it is a sin to be depressed.
I’m writing this to all the rest of you who have heard the same thing, which is far too many of you. And I’m writing this to examine the truth Scripture tells us about health so that pastors and other Christian leaders can stop saying these harmful and biblically untrue statements.
No calling from God is dependent upon a person’s health. Mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, PTSD, are not a sin but a health condition. Nobody needs to have their lives together for God to use them. We are each uniquely crafted to do specific things only we can do, based on who we are, what’s happened to us, and how our minds and emotions work. God knows the innermost workings of our bodies, our minds, our souls, and our spirits, and created good works for us to do because of the way we work.
Perhaps the key passage to understanding calling from God and the intimacy of it is EPHESIANS 2:8-10 NLT —
“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”
Many are familiar with the first half of this passage. We have been saved by grace through faith as a gift of God, and it’s nothing we can take any credit for. However, there is a connection that’s missed when we stop reading at verse 9, and verse 10 is perhaps one of the most important verses in all of Scripture.
PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS ARE GOD’S MASTERPIECE TOO
We are each of us the very pinnacle of God’s creativity. Especially for those of us struggling with mental illness, a masterpiece isn’t a word we’d use to describe ourselves. We believe we are the painting that was abandoned because it turned out wrong. We believe we are the sculpture the artist walked away from because he couldn’t fix it and make it presentable to the public. But that’s not what God says. He says we are a masterpiece.
I love this translation because it captures so perfectly the nuance of the Greek phrase. Other translations say “God’s handiwork,” but they miss something. We can read “handiwork” and think, “Sure, God created me. But he’s not very proud of me.”
Nobody says such things about the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel. A masterpiece is the greatest thing that’s ever been crafted by a master craftsman, and in his heart, the artist knows it as he is finishing it. There is a sense of pride and ownership that comes with being a masterpiece.
And that’s what we are, each one of us—we are God’s masterpiece. What an amazing, freeing, transcendent, powerful thought.
Dwell on this before we move on. It’s worth a few moments of time.
OVERCOMING MENTAL ILLNESS WITH BIBLICAL TRUTH
Another stumbling block for many Christians in the mental illness community is the idea that we’re not worth much because of our baggage. I think of my friend Rhiannon who was abused as a toddler. She lived in shame for over thirty years of her life because of her abuse. In her heart of hearts, she didn’t believe God was able to use someone like her, even though she had given her life to Christ years ago, because of the shame of that moment, which was never her fault.
She eventually found freedom, in large part because she realized her past didn’t disqualify her from being used by God, and that she’d been created anew in Christ Jesus.
The same is true for everyone, whether they are battling anxiety or depression today. We are made anew in Christ, and there is an opportunity to speak life and healing words when the focus is on this aspect of freedom found in Christ. Instead of shame, there is a lightening of the load that has been carried many times for years.
WE CAN DO THE GOOD WORKS
Even though we are made anew in Christ, we all still bear the scars, instincts, and memories of the things we have battled. This is true whether the wounds are from decades ago or self-harm last week. This is true whether the wounds were inflicted upon you through no fault of your own, and it’s true whether you’re a pastor or a schizophrenic. We know the brokenness is part of who we are, and we know it may never completely disappear in this lifetime.
So does God.
God knows the intricacies of our hearts. He knows the moments we shrink back from, and why we maintain the fears we carry in our hearts. And yet, he created good works specifically for us, and he did so a long time ago. “How is this even possible?” we might ask ourselves. How could God look at our scars and decide there is anything worth redeeming or using?
This is something I deal with personally on a regular basis. I have what is called psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES). That’s a lot of fancy words to say that my body has seizures without any abnormal neurological activity. I have these seizures as many as thirteen times a day, and it’s completely overwhelmed my daily life. It’s hard to know in the midst of these seizures what God might be doing because it sort of seems like a mess. But, even with my PNES seizures, I can trace the contours of the work of God.
One of my best friends Shannon has epileptic seizures, and this impacts her socially in very specific ways. A decision she has to make with every acquaintance she has is when or if she tells them about her seizures because it will change the way she is viewed. We are able to connect on this level because of my PNES seizures, and we can have detailed conversations about her epilepsy that she can’t have with anyone else in her life. I am able to be a blessing to Shannon because of my mental illness.
Here is the radical truth: God knows the specific ways we are wired will appeal to specific people in ways nobody else can. It is precisely because of the way our scars impact us that we are the perfect people to accomplish those good works. Christian leaders can share stories like the one with Shannon I shared above to demonstrate that God doesn’t disqualify anyone because of their mental state. This is a freeing and empowering thought, one that many need to hear from a spiritual authority.
God didn’t disqualify Elijah because he appears to have been bipolar; on the contrary, God used Elijah’s likely bipolar tendencies. Let’s revisit the showdown with the prophets of Baal again. If Elijah hadn’t acted manic in this moment, it would have lost some of the pizzazz. The people of Israel needed something dramatic and charismatic and amazing to capture their attention, because they had turned away from God. Elijah’s manic episode was the perfect antidote for their idolatry. A melancholic or chill prophet wouldn’t have done the trick here. God needed a bit of radical for this job, and he found it in Elijah.
The same could be true for you. God might need a little bit of radical. Actually, I’m sure he does, and I’m sure you’re just the person for the gig. This is true regardless of who you are, what your past looks like, and what your present holds. Don’t think for a moment that there is no way God could use someone like you. Not only has he saved you from your sins and made you anew in Christ, He chose many moons ago the perfect works for you and only you to do.
Over the last five years, because of my PNES seizures, God has taught me a lot about humility. There’s nothing like freezing and falling to the ground in the middle of a sentence to teach a person humility, let me tell me you. This humility and embarrassment have fundamentally altered the way I relate to people. I’ve learned to connect with people from a place of empathy, which is something I’ve never had before. I’m a better lover of others because of this humility and the empathy it’s birthed in my life. And some of my perfect works have required humility and empathy.
The trick is to find your perfect works. This comes with a bit of bad news though. There’s no magic solution to this quest. Trust me, I wish you could read five Scripture verses, spin around three times, do the hokey-pokey, and know the good works God has for you or for someone else. Instead, I would suggest this simple thing—live your life in submission to God, and regularly ask him for chances to demonstrate his goodness. The life flowing from such a place will be exactly the life God imagined for you, and precisely the good works he intended for you to accomplish.