Have you ever been told that your depression or back pain was an indicator of unconfessed sin or a weak prayer life? Let’s talk about that.
A couple years ago, a friend confronted me with the idea that my chronic stomach pain might mean I’d accepted and internalized a lie. After all, we’d prayed over my body multiple times, yet the pain persisted. At least in this situation, she equated perpetual physical pain with a lack of spiritual surrender. This conversation broke my heart because it revealed just how little some Christians respect the complexities of the human body and the courage it takes to fight for your health.
This is not to say I’ve never believed in a lie. But you know what the doctors said when I finally got in for an endoscopy?
Celiac. You have Celiac disease.
As odd as it sounds, this was cause for celebration because it meant the pain was no longer “all in my head.” We had proof now. Of course, the gastroenterologist later altered the diagnosis to a basic gluten intolerance, and today I must avoid lots of foods or else there’s a Civil War in my digestive system.
The truth of our pain
But here’s the thing—not all affliction is a direct symptom of spiritual brokenness. (In fact, I would argue that very little is.) It’s just pain, the result of living in a broken world.
It’s true that a lot of our pain stems from the state of our minds and hearts. We are not robots, but human beings made from flesh and blood and sympathetic nervous systems. Anger causes muscle spasms. Stress causes headaches. Anxiety causes nausea. That’s even more common for people like myself with melancholy temperaments, who think, feel, and worry deeply. But as much as these physical symptoms might result from our emotional, mental, and spiritual states (or visa versa), it’s vital to recognize one key fact:
They are still physical and should be treated as such.
If you’ve got a killer migraine, I’m not going to question the state of your relationship with God. I’m going to offer you an Aleve and an ice pack (and maybe a dark room).
Wholeness as a journey
Recently, I read a book called Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. In it, there’s a chapter called “Writing the Wounded Body” that opened my eyes to God’s heart for our journey toward wholeness. The author describes her visit to Ethiopia, where those who are chronically sick work with clerics who view their body’s ailments as a “therapeutic journey or quest” to draw meaning from, rather than a puzzle to be solved. In Ethiopia, those who are sick answer questions “about how and when I became afflicted, about why I think I became ill, about my present condition, about my life before my illness, about my relationships with others, about my feelings and thoughts—anything that could unravel the mystery.” This approach offers a sense of agency and meaning.
I believe this perspective is what we are missing in Western medical culture. Since Jesus was raised in Eastern culture, perhaps this cultural disconnect is why we sometimes have a hard time interpreting Scripture. At the end of the day, our story of God’s nearness is the single most powerful thing we can offer ourselves and the world. We may never be fully healed of our bipolar disorder or depression or fibromyalgia on this earth, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still on a journey toward wholeness, as Jesus walks with us through our pain.
And if there is some spiritual correlation to our pain, God will be faithful to point that out through his Holy Spirit.
The power of half-truths.
Speaking of lies, during my darkest times of depression, this is the lie that yelled the loudest:
God, you really have abandoned me in my most desperate moment of need.
Why this? Because lies are always half-truths. Otherwise, the enemy wouldn’t stand a chance at wooing us. What I really wanted most in my darkest moment was to have someone who loved me sitting on the couch next to me, holding me close, until the weight slipped off my shoulders. What I got instead was an empty room, echoing with my cries for help.
What can possibly help me?
“I think what is most needed to hear at times of desperation is you are not alone,” said Erin Ambrose, LMFT and Associate Professor of Psychology. “People don’t really need to be cheered up or advised, but instead need simply to have companionship. So, the words ‘you are not alone’ need to be partnered with the action of time and fellowship.”
My challenge to those of you who know someone who’s suffering is to take Ambrose’s advice and physically sit with them. Don’t just tell them they’re not alone or that it will be alright.
To be honest, there is very little that can probably help you in the crux of your pain. Sometimes, you have to ride out the waves. But there are things that can help soon afterward. Physical touch (hugs, massage), being read a story, having tea with a close friend, going on a walk, listening to beautiful music, even humor.
The call to obedience.
If there is anyone in the church who claims they haven’t experienced even a hint of the bi-polar emotions King David so eloquently expresses, I would encourage them to examine their hearts. Because, studying Scripture, it’s clear there are two things that characterize the life of an engaged Christian: persecution and endurance. If we’re living a life of obedience to God, there will certainly be times when we encounter euphoric joy, as well as injustice that riles our soul, brokenness that wrenches us with sorrow, or loneliness that tempts us to despair.
So, yes, it’s okay to love Jesus and still not feel well. Never think of yourself as less than because you’ve struggled with mental instability your whole life or chronic fatigue or fill-in-the-blank.
Thank God, he is with us, whether we see him sitting next to us on the couch or not.
And you are not alone.
. . .
Bailey Gillespie is a writing instructor at William Jessup University and a freelance academic editor. She lives near Sacramento, California and loves connecting with people over health, creativity, and faith. Recently, her writing has appeared on The Rabbit Room, The Deeply, Co., and Simple and Soul. Read more at baileygillespie.com or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Goodreads.