Suffering and Comfort With Mental Illness

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Scripture: 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Theme: God brings comfort to those who suffer from mental illness and their community
Goal: To encourage the congregation to bring comfort to those who suffer from mental illness
Need: About 20% of the population will suffer from some sort of mental illness in their lifetime.

Congregation of the Lord Jesus,
(Start with a pair of crutches) If you see me standing with the help of these crutches, you have immediate empathy for me. You might wonder what happened to me and hope that I will get better. Mental illness does not come with those kinds of external cues to help us feel empathy. When I was a kid, I always wondered why my Dad wore his sunglasses to the Cub Scout father and son dinner. It wasn’t a picnic on a bright sunny day. It was in a church basement. No body else was wearing sunglasses. I was embarrassed. Now I realize that for my Dad those sunglasses were like crutches. They were a visible sign of illness.
 
As I have gotten older, I have come to understand how much pain my father was experiencing, and has experienced in his life, and, that he really wanted to be a good father, otherwise he wouldn’t have been at that dinner. But his mental illness got in the way. This past week the theme of CRC Disability Concerns has been mental illness. So that is our focus this morning.

 

1. The Trouble in the Text: Paul is suffering distress in the midst of his ministry for Christ

I am glad that Disability Concerns has decided to focus on mental illness; it is just as prevalent as physical illness, but we have been able to ignore it for many years. About 20% of the population experiences some kind of mental illness in their lifetime — from anorexia to depression to dementia, it is something that takes many forms and can strike at different times of our lives. To bring it home a little more, of the 100,000 households in the CRC, 20,000 have someone living in them struggling with a mental illness. Of those, 6000 will have someone with a chronic long term mental illness. With 15 people sitting in a church pew, 3 will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime. It is something we that we can’t ignore or sweep under the rug any longer. Let’s turn now to our text. I chose this text because Paul is experiencing distress, some kind of inward pressure because of outward circumstances. Those circumstances are his ministry and the pressures of being an apostle, preaching the gospel of Jesus in a hostile world. The Greek word for trouble that Paul uses in this passage, thlipsis, means to be in distress, to carry a mental and emotional burden. Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that he was suffering for the cause of Christ; that he was sharing in Christ’s suffering – but that God was also giving him comfort in his suffering. 

That is why Paul begins with words of praise to God. In ancient times letter writers always gave thanks in this part of the letter, usually for the recipients of the letter. But in this case Paul is using a more Jewish method of giving thanks to God. Paul gives praise to God, who has become for him the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul praises God because he is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. Then Paul expands on that reflection of who God is. He says that God comforts us in all our troubles with the comfort that we ourselves have received from God. Why did Paul need comfort? 

He needed comfort because the sufferings of Christ were flowing over into his life. Christ lived and preached and healed and despite all the good he did, he was put to death by evil men. He suffered. This broken world, filled with evil and sin, was not good to Christ. He was rejected. Paul identified very much with Christ’s sufferings because he was an ambassador of Christ. His ministry also brought pain, and rejection, and opposition. This is why he was in mental and emotional distress. Paul was writing to Corinthian Christians living in a hostile world. The world of the Corinthians was alienated from God, filled with pagan worship, a decadent culture and in opposition to Christ.

As Christians today we continue to live in a world filled with pain and struggle. That is why we have to deal with both physical illness and mental illness. This world is not as it was meant to be, with God’s people living in shalom, peace with God and one another. It wasn’t in Corinth then and it is still is not yet redeemed as God intends. There is still much suffering.

Paul’s point is that as Christians we suffer together. We are united in Christ both in our redemption through his blood as well as our sufferings. We are a community of suffering. If one of us suffers, we all suffer. If one of us is comforted, we are all comforted.

That is an important truth for how we approach mental illness. 

2. The Trouble Today: Many of God’s people are in distress

Mental illness is a very isolating thing. It tends to separate us from others and the community. That is because there has always been a lot of stigma and shame associated with mental illness. It also takes a lot of energy to be around people and if you are suffering from depression or anxiety, that can be very difficult. Just when we really need this community of suffering, there is a tendency to withdraw and become isolated.
 
Some people call physical illnesses "casserole illnesses". When someone is struck down in an accident or gets a serious diagnosis, we send cards, make visits, bring meals. But when someone is hit with Bipolar Disorder or Alzheimers, we don’t know how to react. And it is often more complicated than a physical illness. Psychiatric hospitals often have limited visiting hours and other restrictions. Flower vases can become weapons and so flowers aren’t always accepted. Depressed people don’t always feel like receiving visitors.
 
Yet, despite these challenges, it is at times like this when we need to be a community. If there was ever a community that should be facing head on the challenge of mental illness, it is the church. What other safe place is there for people to find encouragement, support and compassion for their hurts, both physical and mental. We are a community that can bring understanding and acceptance to a difficult situation. But the challenge is to put judgment aside and try to understand what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone with depression, or schizophrenia, or anorexia.
 
The last thing a person suffering with a mental illness wants to hear is encouragement to “just get over it” or “why don’t you snap out of it.” We wouldn’t say that to someone with diabetes. Yet the brain is an organ just like the pancreas, sometimes it doesn’t work as well as it should. Just as we have a wide range of physical health and fitness, so we have a wide range of mental health and fitness. It is a biological problem that is going to have spiritual implications, because we use our brain to think and believe. That is why a supportive community is so important.[1]
 
Cindy Holtrop, a CRC chaplain, writes about her experience with depression:
“Throughout my life, I have experienced bouts of depression. I have said, “Darkness is my closest friend.” (A reference to Psalm 88). The most recent depression lasted three years and took one year for me to recover. I felt abandoned by God, isolated, without hope, and without a sense of the future. I wondered if I would ever get well. I wondered if I would ever preach again. I slowly did recover and I am deeply grateful. But the reality is that because of my brain chemistry, I may experience times of depression in the future.”
 
Holtrop encourages us to do three things for those who are suffering from a mental illness. Those three things are listen, accept and pray.
 
First, listen. Let people who are suffering in this way tell their story. Most of us haven’t walked in their shoes, and even if we have experienced mental illness, we haven’t had their experience. Listen with “elephant ears” to what they have to say.
 
Second, accept them where they are at. We shouldn’t heap more judgment on them. They are already feeling terrible about things and struggling to stay in touch with God. Many people in the grip of mental illness feel abandoned by God. Darkness is their closest friend. That is why acceptance by others, love and encouragement can go a long way. A person with a mental illness is not the illness. They have many gifts and strengths. We have many paintings in our home that my Dad did when his hand was not too shaky from taking Lithium. He was an artist and a person with bipolar. If you have a thought that stigmatizes someone, catch yourself. They are precious in God’s sight.
 
Third, pray for those who are suffering. Sometimes when we can’t pray, it helps to have other people praying for us. A card, an encouraging note, a phone call, a prayer, all can be used by God to bring comfort to someone who is struggling. The psalms can be especially helpful. Psalm 30 gives voice to deep despair but also trust in God. When someone is struggling to believe, sometimes the community around them has to believe for them. Sometimes we have to carry them along in faith, until the darkness lifts and the fear subsides.
 
Many chronically mentally ill people lose contact with friends and family over time. When an illness does not heal, people get tired. They get worn out. They lose their friends. That is when the Christian community has to practice endurance and perseverance. That is when we do the hard work of being the church and being the community of Christ. Psychiatric illnesses are complex and not easy to treat. There is a lot that we still do not understand. You can’t diagnose a mental illness with a blood test or a MRI. They are not easy to cope with because there are no quick solutions. Treatments and recovery only come over time, with trial and error and much perseverance.
 
3. The Good News in the Text: God brings comfort to Paul and the Corinthians

Coming back to our text, God, as Paul points out to us in our passage for this morning, is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. The word for comfort is also the word for encouragement and consolation. When Israel was in exile and suffering, God spoke to his people through the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
 
Israel looked forward to the coming of the Messiah who would bring comfort to Israel and relief from her oppressive enemies. That is why Simeon, in Luke 2:25, was waiting for the consolation of Israel or the comfort of Israel. He was waiting for the Messiah who would bring that comfort.
 
So for Paul, the Messiah who would bring comfort had come. Jesus came, but not with the immediate victory that the Jewish people expected. He first had to suffer and die. But out of his sufferings would come comfort for God’s people who also suffer. Just as we suffer as a community, so we are also comforted by God as a community. Just as Paul suffered for the Corinthians, so they are comforted through the comfort that Paul had experienced.
 
Paul says, in verse 6, that the comfort that God gave him produces patient endurance and that patient endurance arises out of hope. Our hope is that through the suffering of Jesus we experience salvation. Through his distress we are comforted in knowing that we are a saved people.
 
Paul was accused of being the “weak” apostle by the false prophets in Corinth, the so called “super apostles” who preached an early version of the health and wealth gospel. They were suspicious of Paul because he suffered so much. Why didn’t Paul have more faith and a more powerful ministry?
 
But Paul wanted the Corinthians to know clearly that there is power in weakness. God works through our brokenness. Our weakness is an opportunity for God’s power to be displayed and his grace to be displayed in our lives. And his grace is all sufficient for us – even when we are in darkness.
 
Even when darkness is our closest friend, even when we can’t sense God’s presence, God is still present and Jesus is working to bring redemption and comfort to our lives.
 
4. The Good News Today: God brings comfort to his people in the midst of distress

Angie Salomons experienced a deep depression and wrote about it in the Banner (May 2009). She writes:
“Depression is a brutal illness. Imagine forsaking all you hold dear. I walked away from my husband, my children, my home, the activities surrounding it, the love intertwined in it, the security I felt within. It felt foreign. I knew no way to return.”
 
After spending time in a psychiatric hospital and recovering, she writes again:
“I now know God was present in the dark. God taught me to see beyond the brokenness. I have great respect for the addict who has been sober for a week – I now understand how difficult that is. I now know that everyone carries his or her own stories, all of which deserve to be heard. I am grateful to my church community for their many prayers; I believe they held me up. And I know now God forgives. ‘All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ God holds the broken ones in the palm of his hands. There is no better place to be.”
 
We can find healing, but it is a difficult road. It is not a road we need to walk alone. God has called us to be a community of compassion because he is the Father of compassion, and he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 
When Jesus encountered hurting people, he had compassion. Jesus had compassion on the people because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt.9:36). He also healed the sick and taught the people on the mountainside. When he say that they had been with him for three days and had nothing to eat, he had compassion (Matt. 15:32). When Jesus met two blind men outside Jericho, he had compassion on them and healed their sight (Matt. 20:34).[2]
 
As followers of Jesus we are called to have compassion on those who suffer with a mental illness. We are called to comfort each other with the comfort that we have received from God.
 
One woman, writing in the Banner after she was hospitalized for bipolar disorder asks these timely questions.
“So what are your views of me and others like me? Do we have room in your heart and church? Is there a place for us to use our gifts and talents? How will you treat me and all of us with mental illness? I hope you receive us with love and compassion, as Jesus would.”
 
I know that we are currently in a process of bringing mental illness out of the darkness and into the light. We are in an process of understanding mental illness in new ways. This seems to be happening all over. In October 2010, Mclean’s Magazine had a section on mental health. Something is changing in our society and in our churches.
 
I also know that it will still be a long road to a better understanding and acceptance of people with mental illness. But it is good that we have begun to talk about it more openly and to face it together as a church community. As society becomes more open talking about these issues, we need to be in the forefront of this discussion and to become active servants to those with mental health issues.
 
God calls us to be a community of suffering and comfort. He calls us to listen to those with mental illness, to accept them as they are, and to pray for them. God is doing good things in our midst.
 
For that we also praise God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.
 
Amen

[1] The Banner May 2009, Tony Meyer, Light for a Dark Path.
[2] References from Tony Meyer, Banner May 2009.

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 I have a confession to make. I stopped reading midway through Point #3. I couldn't take anymore.  Man alive, are we still there? I remember reading stuff like this back in the late 1980s!  This text, although it is meant to show support to people with mental illnesses is actually depressing because it makes us feel as though the CRC is spinning its wheels in butter and getting nowhere as a denomination. Now, thank God, some congregations have moved on from this Psychiatry 101 discourse, and the one I attend is one of these.  Maybe it's not irrelevant that one of our pastor's adoptive daughters also has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and her son has an ASD--for Autism Spectrum Disorder. And that former members of our congregations have had bouts of depression or paranoid psychosis.  Still, I no longer feel the need to appeal for acceptance or recognition as a gifted human being.  That IS established by now, and my contribution is sought after.  Mind you, I have been in recovery since 2005.

Sigh! Please, as a denomination, do catch on to the 21st century and stop dragging your feet.

 

 

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Michelle, I praise God that you know what it is to belong and serve well within your congregation, but congregations are not the same. Pastors have to tailor their messages to their own congregations. I know Greg. He's a wonderful, sensitive person who has a great deal of empathy about mental illnesses. I fully expect that he wrote this and preached it for a congregation that was in a different place than your own. We're all on a journey.