I don’t know exactly where we all get our ideas about people with mental illness or why we tend to simultaneously laugh at them and believe they’re all dangerous criminals. Why we think our jokes and stereotypes aren’t hurting anyone. I don’t know why we believe mental illness is so much rarer than it is, why we tend to deny our own mental and emotional struggles, or why some Christians have such a hard time accepting the presence of psychosis in a world they fully acknowledge is systemically and pervasively poisoned by sin and death.
I do know, though, that people with mental illness get a bad rap. And the people who love and care for those with mental illness often feel a shame they can’t explain and a terrible burden to keep secret what they most need to share. This doesn’t stop at the doors of the church.
I’ll be among the first to acknowledge that what an illness like schizophrenia does to a person is not pretty. It’s an ugly and heartbreaking reality, and my mother’s illness has presented the single greatest test to my personal faith. So I’m not trying to minimize the confusion and revulsion we can feel when dealing with people whose brains give them skewed pictures of reality. But like all suffering people, pretty or not, people with mental illness should find solace and acceptance in the church.
All of creation (including our own bodies) groans under the weight of the consequence of our sin. We are all twisted and foul in our natural, hopeless state. We may be uncomfortable and confused in looking at the manifestation of sin’s sickness in mental illness, but perhaps it helps to recognize that we are seeing reflections of ourselves in many ways.
People who suffer from mental illness see distorted images of reality, and of God himself. So do the rest of us: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Cor 13:12). Someday this hazy glass will be shattered and we will all see the truth–the truth about who we are, who God is, and what is real.
“Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are” (Rom 8:18-19). We will see each other as God sees us–and we will love what we see. We will know true joy, untainted by sorrow. Our thoughts and perceptions will no longer be distorted by pain, grief, selfishness, greed, depression, anxiety, psychosis, or pride. I can’t wait until we see him face to face, in a place where sickness has been banished. I can’t wait to worship alongside my mom and so many other daughters and sons of God who will have come through deep and acidic waters to see his face clearly.
We are all in this together, and we all have hope in the current redemptive work of Christ and the future and eternal fulfillment of his promise of life without the burden of sin. “For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever” (2 Cor 4:17-18).
Yet our hope is not only for the future. In his grace, God gives us glimpses of the glory to come. He makes old things new. He transforms dead souls into live wires. He cleans, polishes, and repairs what he finds in the garbage. He breaks through darkness and shines light into places we thought it could never reach. He changes people from the inside out, and he infuses our stumbling, bumbling, ridiculous efforts to serve him with effective, graceful revelations of himself that somehow cause ripples in the world around us. Our hope for the present is in Jesus and his work in and through us. Sometimes that work brings healing; sometimes it brings a new and deeper perspective on pain. Sometimes it knocks down prison walls that will never be rebuilt. Regardless, it always redeems.
At my eighth-grade graduation ceremony, I stood up and read Romans 8:28, describing the hope I had for the future: “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” I believed it then, but I believe it more deeply and with greater conviction now. And I actually understand a little of what it means. My conviction comes from seeing it happen in the decades since.
What’s remarkable about this life is not that we have pain, that we suffer, that life gets so ugly we can’t even look at it. The remarkable thing is that we have anything but suffering. That there is a large supply of goodness in this world. That despite our best efforts at self-destruction, grace still shines on us and the sun rises. That we are surrounded by beauty. That we know how to laugh. That we can laugh and cry at the same time. And–most remarkable–that our suffering and pain themselves become the media for some of God’s most beautiful work. It’s called redemption, and we overlook it every day. God always does this whether we appreciate it or not. And sometimes we actually do recognize it. We get to see it as it happens.
Let me tell you how we–my family, my friends, people I don’t know but admire greatly, and I–have seen it not only in spite of, but even through mental illness . . .
To read more, please see the stories I’ve told in Chapter 9 of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. If you want to read more about how God redeems mental illness and how we can all participate in that redemption, you can find the book here.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.