Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High. (Psalm 107:10-11, NRSV)
Part of the stigma of mental illness is the lingering impression some still carry that we bring it on ourselves. Psalms such as this one can contribute to this impression. “Prisoners in misery” are prisoners of their own making because “they had rebelled against the words of God.” It’s hard to escape the conclusion that somebody with depression or bipolar disorder is (at least according to this passage) being punished by God.
But I don’t believe this is the Gospel truth. Notice the initial word “some.” I take this to mean that not all who sit in darkness and gloom are there out of their own choosing. It is true that we can make things worse for ourselves. If I do not eat right or exercise or get enough sleep, I know I’m headed for trouble. If I rebel against the healthy and holy ways God has given me to live, I will no doubt pay for it. Even though God is merciful, God is also just and respects the integrity of our free will. There are consequences for our behavior.
I have not created my mental illness, but I can certainly aggravate it. God’s desire is not to punish us by making our lives miserable, but to guide us into a Way that leads to life – abundant and eternal. When we offer ourselves – body, mind, and soul – over to the care of the Lord and do those things called for in God’s Word, we are better able to maintain a healthy, holy balance that promotes positive mental health.
This is good news for us to receive, yet we need to exercise caution not to inflict it as an undesired “prescription” on others. There are many people with mental illnesses who have, for various reasons, either abandoned faith in God or, have felt repelled from it, prompted by negative experiences within the church (or with individual Christians). The Christian church does not exactly have a stellar history of responding with Christ’s love toward people with mental illnesses.
It will take time and a commitment to build relationships one-on-one in order to reverse this trend, but I know it is possible. I’ve seen this welcoming reversal happen in my own life and in the lives of others. In one church I served, there was a new resident in our community who struggled nearly his whole life with schizophrenia. His counselor brought him to me and asked if the people of our church might befriend him, involve him in activities he might enjoy, and encourage him to be socially engaged.
It took a while. Steve* was not only painfully shy, but he often muttered harsh words to himself, verbalizing his thoughts and then feeling guilty when he realized he was doing it. Over time, though, Steve came out of his shell. He became a regular at our daily morning prayer. Some people in church hired him to do odd jobs. He got part-time work delivering newspapers. We discovered he was quite an impassioned speaker when given the chance, and he became a regular Scripture reader in worship. Most importantly, he built friendships that helped him grow in faith and love. The last I heard, he continues to function well and is a vital member of the church.
I’m convinced the best way to break out of the prison of misery caused by mental illness is through building faith relationships. People with bipolar don’t need an overabundance of mental health professionals, but they do need plenty of faithful friends.
*not his real name