There are a lot of deeply touched folk in the Bible. People are seeing visions, people are hearing voices, people are being driven mad, and people are cured of madness.
What I never saw was a terrified hero. Sure, there are people who feel awe in the presence of God. That’s probably healthy. But for the most part, fear is an obstacle to be overcome by faith – Moses and Jonah and Jesus and Judith all had to overcome their fear to do what needed to be done. I never identified with that struggle because none of these people were fearful by nature. Not like me, at least.
Faith, I had been taught, is diametrically opposed to fear. If you’re faithful enough, the logic goes, you won’t be afraid. The scripture backs it up. Matthew 6:34 drops this wisdom on the faithful: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” I’m not sure anyone has ever stopped worrying because someone told them to stop worrying. I don’t know. Maybe the 1st-century Judaean audience was less stressed out than we are – though I doubt it, given the dubious comforts of Roman occupation.
Another oft-quoted verse comes from Psalm 27:1 – “The LORD is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?”
Um, how about everything? I shall be afraid of everything because that’s who I am.
Psalm 34:4 goes even further: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been seeking my whole life. If I had to describe my faith in a single word…well, it would be “prickly.” But, if they gave me a second word, I’d say “seeking.” I have been seeking and searching and trying to hear the still, small voice in the darkness and for the life of me, I have not been delivered from my fears. In therapy, I’ve learned to accept my fears. I have clinical anxiety. I will likely always struggle with intrusive thoughts, high levels of stress, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. From a purely secular standpoint, I have come to accept that this is the chemical makeup of my brain and that I can’t simply wish it away. It’s science! I can use chemistry and therapy and exercise and diet to manage my symptoms and to live a full life – but it’s not so easy to reconcile this progress to my faith journey. Sometimes, it honestly feels that if you can’t “give it all up to God,” then you’re not doing a very good job at being a Christian – and if you have a mental illness, you can’t simply give up your problems, your symptoms and your triggers.
How do you grow in faith if you’re unable to shake your fear? In fact, how can you be a person of faith if your brain’s default setting is stuck somewhere between “Mild Unease” and “DEFCON 1”? How do you navigate the eternal if your perspective is shaped by mental illness? What is the relationship between the state of your mind and the state of your soul?
There’s this pervasive mindset that to be a good Christian means being happy all the time about God. I wouldn’t describe my faith as an unequivocally happy experience – I’ve never been able to raise my hands during a hymn. I can’t get into Christian rock. I’m uneasy with the phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus” and I’ve never felt remotely touched during an altar call. There isn’t anything wrong with any of those things – they just don’t feel authentic for me because I can’t give it all up to God and that’s embarrassing. I’ve prayed until I was blue in the face to feel more like a “Happy Christian,” somebody who was “too blessed to be stressed.” God didn’t come and fix my brain. God didn’t come and take my stress away. God didn’t stop me from scratching my skin raw or checking my temperature twelve times a day. God didn’t give me a shield against my fears. That’s made me angry at times – false advertising, Mr. Psalms Writer – and it’s certainly driven me away from Church communities where I felt like a wet blanket for being something other than constantly ecstatic.
That’s not to say that I haven’t found a faith community, albeit a rather informal one; it simply took longer to find the right fit and was a painful process. In fact, we had to make one, but that’s a story for another time and place. And that’s not to say that I don’t have faith, or that I have never sensed the presence of Divinity in the stillness. It has happened, purely and powerfully, but it hasn’t cured my mental illness. When I wake up in the morning, I’m still a Christian with a mental illness. You can’t pray depression away, or anxiety or bipolar disorder or OCD or BPD or any mental illness. What your brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer mental illness need is not your admonition to pray more, but your love and your respect. We want to have uncomfortable discussions about what faith looks like to us and we need your willingness to be uncomfortable. We need your support and we need your understanding. I will never have a fearless, unshakeable faith and that’s okay. The faith I have – prickly though it may be – is none the weaker for the brain it’s attached to.