A poignant story recently published in the New York Times, describing a man’s selfless nursing of his wife through a season of mental illness, left hanging her piteous question, the one all such sufferers ask, that I myself asked countless times as I struggled to glean meaning from my own psychotic break, “Why would God do this to me?” Tullian Tchividjian says this about that profitless question, “The Why’s of suffering keep us shrouded in a seemingly bottomless void of abstraction where God is reduced to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes measure on the same scale as ours.”
Since there really are no satisfying answers to these questions on this side of eternity, I soon ceased with the self-pitying, “Why?” and learned to ask the more helpful question “How?” for wisdom and strength for the daily battle against the depression and anxiety that remained like detritus from a storm, after my own short season of post-partum psychosis. And I learned to love the “Who”, the One who dwelt with me in the suffering, with even greater devotion.
I learned to call anxiety “My Tether to my Lord” because every time the enemy of my soul tried to batter me about with it, the struggle against it only served to wrap me around my Savior with even greater intensity. It drove me to Him with great ferocity, because I learned if I could only run to Him quickly instead of seeking to escape the gnawing turmoil within, the scary feelings would ebb, and I would be safe. I learned that often I was anxious or depressed because I had believed a lie, or a relationship was broken, or I felt abandoned. I learned to wait on the Holy Spirit to enlarge my heart — to show me the way out of these terrible feelings, and enable me to make things right — to give me the courage to humble myself before another, or the will to acknowledge what was true, and line my thoughts up with how God viewed things.
And in this simple way I was healed: truth by truth. But because it was simple does not mean it was easy. I felt like I was in a kind of intense rehabilitative physical therapy for my soul– every tangled thought was painfully stretched out for examination in the light, and put back in proper alignment with the word of God.
Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” And in answer to His prayer I applied His Word to replace every lie, and so I was healed. There are no other ways to repair a mind. Secular Psychology calls this process cognitive therapy. Christianity calls it “renewing the mind.” Any other way out of soul-pain is only a band-aid. And those therapies without God’s cure for souls merely mask symptoms.
Like Happy Pills that take the edge off psychic pain, but can dull a keen attention most needed, and sap from our meager rations the energy most required for active aggression against our mind’s defections from the truth. This study indicates that the meds commonly prescribed for anxiety actually increase anxiety with long term use, and hinder Cognitive Behavior Therapies. Psychotropic drugs can enable a truce that should never be made with lying thoughts, and allow the psychic wounds of ‘stinking thinking’ to fester into a terrible spiritual gangrene. Pain has a reason for being, as Lewis observed, rousing us from “our sins and stupidities… pain insists upon being attended to.”
I was shaken to wakefulness at last, when in His sovereign will He allowed me to suffer a psychotic break. I thank God for this ‘severe mercy’ –it woke me to do urgent battle against my sin instead of devising ways to escape it. The struggle to repair my broken mind made me a disciple of Jesus instead of a double-minded person looking to every wind of false doctrine and wave of a magic wand in hopes to make all the suffering go away quick. It made me love the Word of God with even greater passion. It made me compassionate towards others who suffer, and gave me a comfort that gives hope to others. This weakness became my greatest strength because I had to constantly depend on Jesus.
One who also knows this kind of intense dependence, Joni Eareckson Tada, wouldn’t trade her wheelchair for some temporary health and peace, because the wheelchair was the means God used form her character, as she shares in her book, “A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Pain, Suffering and God’s Sovereignty” She says, “So here I sit, glad that I have not been healed on the outside, but glad that I have been healed on the inside, freed from my own self-centered wants and wishes.”
That is a hard thing to understand, and the hardest of all is to live this kind of suffering out daily — but our God moves in a mysterious way doesn’t he? William Cowper, the writer of that immortal hymn, sufferer of great depressions and mental breakdowns, spoke more wise words: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense/But trust Him for His grace.”
And though Cowper himself never had a ‘happily ever after’ end to his life–and how I wish he could have pressed in to his own wonderful true words!–yet it was his faith in spite of the bleakness of his life that provides the hope and comfort so absent in more happy-clappy stories, like blogposts that list “10 Keys to Victorious Living “.
Through my struggles, I have come to know more intimately the God who strides the storms of every life, and though I know none of His Hard Sayings will be made perfectly plain on this side of the dark glass we gaze through, I thank God! I have been freed at last from a blind unbelief that ‘scanned His works in vain’.
And unlike the author of the NY Times essay, who concludes his piece with this wistful sigh of nostalgia, as he longs for the intensity of relationship he and his wife shared as they fought her mental illness, “I think that is what I miss…A time when only two things mattered to us: life and love”, I do not miss any of my own bitter struggle, but I am thankful for those hard days. They taught me what matters most: clinging desperately to Jesus for life, and drinking deeply of His unfailing love.
Here is a lovely acoustic version of Cowper’s hymn, “Light Shining Out of Darkness” performed in English by a woman who ministers among the Germans. The phrase highlighted on the video translates to,”Behind a frowning providence/He hides a smiling face.” Yes, what a mystery, His severe mercies can be — His smile is sometimes hidden, but when you resist fear, and draw near to Him in the place of suffering you will find His gracious Father-heart for you. Don’t miss it by settling for mere survival. Press into the Savior.