The Thorn and the Joy of Mental Illness

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. It’s easy to see how mental illness could be compared to a “thorn.” But in what universe could illnesses such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Clinical Depression, or Bipolar ever be considered cause for joy?

I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me.

A few nights ago, I went to a church service in which the preacher gave a sincere, heartfelt message about evangelism. With tears in his eyes, he delivered his narrative about the experiences he had of leading young people to Christ. The climax of the story was the fact that these young people then went out and brought others to Christ. It was a beautiful testimony.

But as with pretty much every sermon I ever hear, there was a point in his message which tripped me up just a little.

He talked about how important it was, as Christians, to “give an account of the joy that is in you.”  We are called to shine our light to others so that they might want to follow the same path. Christians stand out from the crowd because of their joy. They are always happy, no matter what. And other people are supposed to see that happiness and ask you why it’s there, thus facilitating true evangelism and hopefully a conversion experience or two.

I’m sure for most Christians this method works very well. But for me personally, it’s problematic.

And why is that?

I have struggled with chronic and debilitating anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. These illnesses were not triggered by any specific trauma. They are simply the result of a brain that does not contain the right chemicals or hormones to produce the feeling of happiness. 

As a result, I have never been able to present myself as an inspirational harbinger of joy. Life has always felt indescribably scary and hopeless to me. And even now, when my life seems to be going well for the most part, I still wrestle with that omnipresent fear and hopelessness.

Mental illness is not simply excessive crazed emotion and fragility, as most people seem to think. In fact, I don’t even like to call it mental illness, because that seems to imply that it isn’t real. It’s really a physical illness of the brain, no different from a congenital heart defect or poor eyesight. It is a disorder which can be treated and managed, but never really cured.

Just as a blind person can’t see, a depressed or anxious person cannot feel happiness or peace. It’s simply not within her physical capacity, any more than a person without arms or legs could turn a cartwheel.

I learned, very painfully and from a very young age, that happiness was not within my physical capacity. 

And yet in spite of that…there has been happiness.

There was happiness when I heard God’s voice clearly in the midst of the turbulent chaos of my tortured brain, bringing an instant and supernatural peace that silenced all the voices of despair.

There was happiness when God reached out and affirmed I was worth saving at the moment when I was praying for death.

And there was happiness when I learned how strong I had become through pulling myself out of deadly despair over and over again, with God’s help. And because I had done that, I was really strong enough to do anything at all…and thus, I have done many difficult and challenging things.

And because of these moments, I’m able to smile and laugh, and really mean it. And I’m able to reach out to others with genuine warmth.

“Always be ready with a logical defense to account for the joy that is you,” it says in I Peter. And I guess that is my account, my logical defense to explain why I’m able to experience joy even though it’s a physical impossibility for me.

I do not believe that God causes illness or disability. But I believe that He uses it. Because it was through my “mental illness” that I truly learned how powerful God is, and what humans are capable of with his help. And this is nothing short of a miracle.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul famously makes reference to a “thorn in his side.” While we don’t know exactly what he was referring to, he seems to be talking about some kind of persistent weakness, pain, temptation or disability. Rather than debilitating him in his work, this persistent weakness allowed Paul to learn first-hand about God’s “power made perfect in weakness.”

In my life, mental illness has been exactly that. It has been “God’s power made perfect in weakness.” And that is a pretty awesome thing to experience. 

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