The comments sections on popular Facebook articles are surely modern-day Gehennas. For instance, in a recent article posted by RELEVANT about a pastor with depression, one shining beacon of humanity insisted that people with depression were listening to doctors instead of listening to Jesus and would be cured if only they would repent and believe the “truth”. This made me realise, again, how little Christianity does in general to address mental illness within its congregations and to support those people suffering from it; indeed, you are far more likely to come across Mr Looney Tunes over there and his opinion than anything else.
I can’t change that, but I can try to light a candle on a hilltop and hope that on some dark night of the soul someone will come across it and find Jesus holding it. To that end I will be starting “Sanity Sundays”, which I hope will be little footnotes of common sense in the vast tome of Internet Christianity. I don’t pretend to be qualified for this, but depression is an ongoing struggle for me, so know that what I post I will be putting out there as much for myself as for anyone else.
To kick us off, I want to share with you something I came across in Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. He’s talking about how we need to reclaim the reality that we are the Beloved of God, how we can’t hope to find peace in this life without making this reality our own. I’m going to quote a number of paragraphs because this message is so fundamentally important to beginning a path of reconciliation to ourselves and to God, a step I think is necessary to take if we hope to find the strength to seek out treatment and support.
But neurosis is often the psychic manifestation of a much deeper human darkness: the darkness of not feeling truly welcome in human existence. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved”. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.
[…] I never claimed it as my core truth. I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. […] But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. […] This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.
Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.”
To “enflesh” this reality in our lives, we first of all have to realise that we have been taken, or chosen. Nouwen continues,
As long as we allow our parents, siblings, teachers, friends and lovers to determine whether we are chosen or not, we are caught in the net of a suffocating world that accepts or rejects us according to its own agenda of effectivity and control. Often this reclaiming is an arduous task, a lifelong work because the world persists in its efforts to pull us into the darkness of self-doubt, low self-esteem, self-rejection and depression. And this is because it is as insecure, fearful, self-deprecating people that we can most easily be used and manipulated by the powers surrounding us. The great spiritual battle begins–and never ends–with the reclaiming of our chosenness.
He then gives a few guidelines for remembering that we are chosen, and it’s on one of these that I want to focus and that I hope will stay with you. In fact, jot it down and stick it up on a wall or a mirror. Nouwen talks about how we must continue to unmask the world for what it truly is, and realise how it manipulates us. When things get bad, we “have to dare to say” to ourselves:
“These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.”
In Ephesians Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 NRSV). Our “chosenness” isn’t the result of an effort of our will, of our sanctification, of the depth of our belief or trust in God – it isn’t rooted in us, but in God. It is therefore as unchanging and unchangeable as God is. Those who have struggled with something like depression will know how malleable your feelings become. But we must hold on to the truth that God does not change, not in his holiness or in his power or in his love and mercy, and certainly never in how he feels about us: “For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves” (1 John 3:18-20 MSG).