(Tempera)Mental Health

–Daniel S. Ferguson

What I’m about to say makes no sense to many people, but it makes perfect sense to others:

Church can be the absolute worst place to suffer from a mental health disorder.

In my case, it’s Bipolar 1. Whether swinging up or down, not a week goes by that I don’t have suicidal thoughts. Even plans. I’ve carved up my own body because of it. I’ve never gone so far as an honest attempt, but damn I’ve come close.

In my experience, church is the very worst place to suffer from this.

You would think that church would be ideal: what better place to overcome the harrow of death than where people gather to worship the Christ who defeated it?

But church can be the absolute worst when it comes to mental health issues. When I’m in an emotional tailspin for reasons I can’t even directly identify, when I can’t get images of self-mutilation and death out of my head, church often isn’t for me. I’d rather be anywhere else. I already don’t want to be around people, much less happy people.

Much less people who enforce happiness. And make no mistake, that’s what church often does.

The Bible talks about joy in the Lord a lot. It’s a particularly important concept in the early church. We’ve been set free from the guilt and shame of sin, so we’re supposed to walk joyfully in that liberty. As much as Christian pastors say that joy isn’t an emotion, it’s still socially enforced that way in many cases. A sad person becomes a sort of social target. Our emotional state is often treated like a problem to be fixed.

It’s not that my Bipolar isn’t a problem. It is. But it’s not one that church can seemingly fix. It’s not like I can just “focus on the joy of the Lord” and suddenly be cured, set free of my emotional prison forever. Salvation is of the soul, not the body, and my condition is a bodily condition, just like cancer or a broken leg.

Or is it? I’m hearing some churches come around somewhat on mental health issues and treating it like the disease it is. That’s good, for the most part, but it’s also difficult to live with that reality. If my infirmity is truly only of my body, then why does it feel like it’s part of my mind? It clearly affects the way I think, and if I have a soul, it’s in my mind. Isn’t that the part of me that will carry on forever?

And if so, when I get to Heaven, I will theoretically be cured of my Bipolar just as I would be cured of pneumonia, right? But then I run into a problem. My condition is so wrapped into my mind that the two are, at least to me, inseparable. If I am cured of my Bipolar suddenly, am I still me? When I get to Heaven, free of my disease, will I even recognize myself? Bipolar is a deeply influential part of who I am; how can God say He wants me forever but doesn’t want my Bipolar, too? This disease feels like part of my soul.

So when churches sing about joy, I inwardly rage. I know I have to sing–it’s not socially permitted to remain stoically silent. I have to at least mouth the words. Otherwise I become a target for more social enforcement of joy.

I understand that all social groups enforce happiness. Nobody wants to be in a sad group for any length of time. But really Christians are the worst about this because happiness and joy are built directly into the ethos of the religion. We’re ordered to “rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).

But I don’t feel like rejoicing. Half the time, I feel like dying. The other half, I feel like raging. And it’s not because I’m unsaved or unaware of the glories of that salvation. It’s because I have a disease that specifically inhibits joy.

You can talk all you want about how joy isn’t an emotion but rather a state of mind. But that’s crap and you know it. It’s a distinction without a difference.

I’ve known way too many people who have left the church for good because they didn’t feel like they could express the difficulties of their mental health condition honestly there.

There’s only one reason I haven’t left with them: the Bible shows how God wants to experience our full emotional range with us.

It’s Jewish poetry that’s saved me. A fair number of the Psalms are angry to God about something, or even furious directly at God Himself. Others are unapologetically sad. The book of Job nakedly questions God’s goodness. If the Bible can do this, so can I.

Whenever I don’t think God wants me, I remind myself that He saw it fit not only to listen to His children’s anger, sadness, and grief, but also to publish those emotions into His Bible. I take refuge in Christ’s despair before His death, knowing that if He was free to talk to God openly about how He felt, then so am I.

And that’s what I often wish church allowed for. Sometimes I’ve found that; most times I haven’t. But I want a church where our commands to rejoice aren’t willful ignorances of our pain and suffering but rather full embraces of them. I want a church where my Bipolar isn’t treated with platitudes and feeble attempts at reminding me to count my blessings, but rather with true, co-suffering empathy.

I’ll remind you that the word compassion comes from com- meaning “with” and passion meaning “suffering.” True compassion means suffering with someone. That’s what Jesus does, and that’s what church should do.

I know that’s a hard ask. I really do. Suffering with someone is as painful as it sounds. But so many people need it. They can’t follow our Jesus without our willingness to suffer with them. The only reason I’ve stayed in the church is that I found those people in the church.

Thank God for them.

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