Mental and Spiritual Health in a Time Such as This
August 26, 2020
Coming back from some time away this summer, it’s become increasingly obvious to me that many people—the world over, no doubt—are wrestling with mental health issues in this time, as well as spiritual health. The reasons for this are obvious but perhaps worth briefly listing. Prolonged isolation. Unending uncertainty. Increased political tensions. And then, on top of this, and to my mind most significant: lack of church community in the form to which we have been accustomed. It is not surprising that people are struggling with mental and spiritual health challenges. But what are we to do about it?
Before I give my advice, I think it is pertinent—and probably inevitably necessary—that I make it plain that I myself am not immune to mental or spiritual health challenges. Who is? No real flesh and blood human that I have ever met. That said, it is also worth mentioning that for various reasons that go beyond the confines of this article, I have had many an opportunity to beat back that demon despair, to fight against what Winston Churchill called his “black dog” of depression, the ongoing struggles that Charles Spurgeon described in his writing on his own frequent bouts with sadness, not to mention the well-worn stories of Martin Luther in this regard. If you are reading this and are tempted to think, “Yes, but he doesn’t know what I’m going through,” you are right. Only God can really know what we are going through. Only he knows our hearts. But if you think that I have not suffered, then, well, you are mistaken.
So, what are we do about mental and spiritual health challenges? I was interviewed about this on a radio show just last week. And, frankly, it’s much easier to give good advice than actually put it into practice. Easy to say, not so easy to do. It begins with basic anthropology. We are not just spirits; we are embodied. We are influenced by our environment, by our physical fitness or otherwise, and by the circumstances in which we are placed. So much of Christian advice about mental and spiritual health is unrealistic because it falls short of a full-orbed biblical anthropology. We are influenced by our genetic makeup and by what happened to us in our childhood. We have emotions and we have bodies—bodies that sometimes battle against us in terms of mental and spiritual health.
So it begins there, but then I think we have to acknowledge what we are seeing. I see many people who are angry. They are angry about this, that, or the other. But fundamentally they are angry. They are angry that their comforts have been taken away. They are angry that they are not doing what they want to be doing. They take to social media and vent. They get angry with their school principals, the mayors of their cities, political leaders, or religious leaders. They are angry for all sorts of surface reasons, but beneath it all is a deep searing, rolling Atlantic wave of anger. We have to acknowledge that. Why are we angry? What are these pressures revealing about our need to be in control? What are these circumstances showing about our idols? Have we become so used to affluence that affliction surprises us?
I remember one time, when I was living in a developing country, standing on a platform with a good friend waiting for a train. The train, as inevitable at that time in that country, was late, and we were waiting as patiently as we could for this train to finally arrive. We had been there standing for a couple of hours along with dozens of other people milling around chatting to each other, just waiting. I turned to my friend and said to him, “You know, back in London where I’m from, if a train is five minutes late, people become really angry.” This caught my friend by surprise. There was a deep silence while he thought about this—to him, an extraordinary perspective. He looked at me and said, “This is because they have never had to wait a day for a train.” I thought he made a good point.
That perspective doesn’t make the trials go away! Or minimize your pain! I’ve seen memes and blog posts that basically say, “Thousands of people are starving, and you are complaining you lost your job get over it.” I believe that kind of approach is a mistake. It’s like someone saying to you, after you’ve just survived a car crash with permanent injuries, “Cheer up! There was a plane crash today. It could be worse.” That’s neither compassionate nor sensitive, nor particularly helpful. You are still in the middle of your car crash, after all!
No, the right approach is rather different. Habakkuk, a book we studied at College Church recently, has the right approach. He comes to God with his complaints. He has questions about justice. God points Habakkuk to God’s own sovereign and real justice and how the righteous shall live by faith. And then, at the end of the book, Habakkuk gets it. He puts it like this:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)
What Habakkuk is saying is that if everything is taken away from him—his sustenance, all the things that make life not just pleasant but possible—he still rejoices. How? Because his joy is in the one thing, the one person, that can never be taken away from him: the Lord.
This is what Paul and Silas discovered when they were in jail singing praise to God (Acts 16). Their life was under threat. But they had put their hope in the one thing, the one person, that could never be taken away from them.
This is what the great Athanasius discovered when he stood contra mundum (against the world) to defend the church against the heresy of Arianism. Everyone turned against him. He had nothing. But he had everything! No one could take that away from him. No one could take God away from him. He was untouchable by life’s vicious arrows.
It’s what Paul meant when he said he had discovered the secret of contentment. It comes from God, not from circumstances. And when your circumstances are good, they can hide where you are really putting your trust. When your circumstances are bad, they reveal in what (or in whom) you place your hope.
All much easier said than done. But it can be done! I was talking with someone recently who told me about his own suffering with perhaps the biggest smile I have ever seen. And the reason? He had discovered this truth. He’d loved God before. He’d been a Christian before. But he’d cared more about what God did for him than about God himself. God and God alone. That’s where the joy is—and that’s the only thing that lasts.
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