By: Lieryn Barnett
The apostle Paul speaks of a thorn in his side that he pleaded with God three times to remove (2 Cor. 12:7–10). Biblical scholars aren’t sure exactly what Paul’s thorn was, but I can tell you mine: bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed as an adolescent and have pleaded with God more than thrice to remove this from me.
It took me longer than Paul to hear God telling me that his grace is sufficient.
Mental illness can still be a highly stigmatized topic in the church. For those who do not have such struggles, suicidal ideations and the extreme despair that come with clinical depression can be difficult to understand. Although many Christians know the trial of occasional anxiety or depressed feelings, people with a diagnosed mental illness face unique challenges.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.” Mental illness is not a new phenomenon.
And the same biblical truths that have encouraged Christians for centuries can encourage those who suffer with mental illness today. Though we may continue to struggle daily in the “bottomless pit” of the mind, we can cling to four encouragements.
1. You Are Not Alone
God’s people have suffered—mentally, emotionally, and physically—since the fall. Even Christ himself cried out in despair on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), echoing a psalm of lament (Ps. 22:1). When we suffer, we are not alone.
What’s more, mental illness is probably more common than you know. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 American adults lives with a mental illness. The World Health Organization says 1 in 4 people worldwide will experience mental-health issues.
You are almost certainly not the only one in your congregation dealing with issues arising from mental illness. Speaking openly about your mental-health issues will allow others to share their own struggles and will enable you to care for one another.
2. It’s Not Your Fault
Though mental illness is a result of the fall, my affliction—like that of the man born blind (John 9:3)—isn’t punishment for my sins or the sins of my parents. Mental illness may not be my fault, but it can be my opportunity to speak truth about Christ’s love to others.
Of course, sin can exacerbate mental illness, or stir up depression or anxiety. Sin spreads the infection of the darkness, which is why it’s so important to have people point you to Christ. If we repent and turn our focus to Christ, we can allow the light—however dim it may appear—to seep in. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8) is a promise for good days and for dark ones, too.
3. God Sees You and Is with You
We have a personal Savior who experiences emotions. As you suffer the effects of mental illness, you can remember the nearness of Christ. He weeps with you, as he wept with Lazarus’s family (John 11:35). He knew the resurrecting work he was about to do, but he sobbed with anger anyway. Likewise, he knows how he is going to work in and through your life, and he is with you in the midst of it.
By grace, he sent the Holy Spirit, our comforter and counselor, to be with you, to help you. The Holy Spirit intercedes for you (Rom. 8:27). He cries out for you when you can’t form words, but only sounds of despair (Rom. 8:26).
Remain steadfast, therefore, for there is great hope: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). We are all broken in our own ways, but Christ makes us whole. He lights up the darkest corners of my heart and mind (2 Cor. 4:6). He pulls me out of the deepest pit (Job 33:28; Ps. 40:2; 103:4; Lam. 3:55). And if he sees fit, he will use me to reach others (2 Cor. 4:7–10).
4. God’s Word Speaks to You
The Bible isn’t afraid to talk about mental and emotional anguish. Look at Job or the psalms of lament, which compose the largest category of psalms. These are songs of people crying out to God in despair:
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted” (Ps. 25:16).“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation” (Ps. 42:5).“For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol” (Ps. 88:3).
Yet even most psalms of lament end positively, reminding their hearers of God’s faithfulness. Like God’s people throughout history, we often forget everything he has already done for us and the promises he continues to fulfill.
Keep these truths somewhere you can be reminded of them often. Share them with a close friend, family member, or accountability partner who can remind you when you forget or when you don’t have the energy or willpower to remind yourself. God’s Word speaks to you on even the hardest days.
My thorn may never leave my side, but I can rejoice in the greatness and sovereignty of my mighty God. This illness continues to remind me that God’s grace is sufficient for me. I pray that God would make known his strength in my weakness.