When I was 14, mental illness redefined my family and reshaped our understanding of the world. My mother had showed symptoms of schizophrenia since young adulthood, but no one had understood them as indications of illness. For about a year, they had been growing more disruptive. Then one day when no one came to pick me up after track practice, her illness became undeniable. She had been overwhelmed by the blurring distinction between reality and delusion, and she could no longer tell the difference.
She would learn to tell the difference again, thanks to hospitalization and to medication, which brought her home but left her feeling like a zombie. And her return was temporary–for the next 25 years, she would be in and out of hospitals, homeless shelters, jail, and prison. And the illness that put her there would claim more than one victim–it stole my father’s confidence, my family’s happiness, our sense of footing. In exchange it left grief and shame.
And when we went to church, we found no respite from the shame we needn’t have felt but which pressed down on us like a monster’s thumb. There were so many things we needed to hear and didn’t, not because our church meant to hurt us or because its people were cruel. Like so many, they didn’t know what to say or do, so they stayed silent. They didn’t want to embarrass us, so they mostly ignored our trouble.
Earlier this year, I released a book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. I wrote it to help Christians better understand families like mine–who are far more common than we felt when I was young. I wrote it to help the church fulfill its mission in relationship to people affected by mental illness. And it starts with simply talking about mental illness with a more informed perspective and in light of Christian truth.
If you are affected by mental illness–your own or that of someone you love–you know that when the church is silent on the subject, that silence can cause a variety of injuries. Perhaps among the cruelest is the implication that people with mental illness have no purpose in the church or God’s kingdom.
So here’s one thing I want everyone to know: God always has a purpose for everyone. Our world tends to marginalize people who suffer from mental illness, disabilities, and other conditions. Mental illness may alter the course of a person’s life, and managing it may come with limitations, but it doesn’t mean that person’s life is no good anymore. Psalm 139 is a beautiful reminder of our value to God, and his attention to the details of our lives. Verse 16 celebrates, ‘You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” God is not surprised by your suffering, and he wants to use you!
God also wants to redeem your suffering. Sometimes this means he’ll use that suffering to make you more like the person he wants you to be. Sometimes it means your suffering will become a way for you to show his love and grace to someone else. Maybe both. You may never realize how God uses what you have been through, but he will–especially as you welcome his work in you. Second Corinthians 4:7-11 tells us our suffering bodies (and your brain is a part of your body) are valuable to God’s work: “Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” Our bodies are fragile and unadorned, but for Christians they carry the presence of God’s Spirit in this world, “like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure.” Mental illness doesn’t change the fact that we are called to represent him in these bodies. And good news for those of us who want to see God’s power work through us: As Christ told the apostle Paul, “My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
So take heart and find hope in knowing mental illness does not make you marginal to God’s plans. He is in the business of redemption, and regardless of how people may see you, he sees you for who are and loves you more than you can imagine.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.