It’s a statistic often quoted in the UK: In any given year, one in four of us will experience some kind of mental health struggle. We have an epidemic on our hands. Already mental illness is the most common cause of work absence in Britain and, globally, it constitutes the largest single source of world economic burden ($2.5 trillion per year). If you aren’t struggling with mental illness, someone close to you is.
How should we respond in the church? Here’s one suggestion: apologetics. Not “destroy your opponent in debate” apologetics, but apologetics of the true 1 Peter 3:15 kind. In the midst of struggle and despair, we’re to share “reasons for the hope that is in us.”
This approach helps those who are suffering, and it also makes for effective evangelism. If I speak at an event titled “Answering Thorny Questions,” people come looking for a fight. If we do an evening titled “Hope in the Darkness,” people come for help, and in Jesus there’s abundant and unparalleled help.
At these events I sometimes show a five-minute video featuring Stephen Fry, an actor and comedian with bipolar disorder. He’s an atheist, but I find his analysis of mental illness profoundly illuminating. His solutions, however, are lacking, so we turn to the Bible in search of better ones.
Fact of Our Feelings
Fry likens our psychological state to the weather. If it’s pouring rain, there’s no point in denying reality or shaking your fist at the heavens. The rain is falling. You’re getting wet. That’s a fact. When it comes to a depressive state, the feelings are real and need to be acknowledged.
The Scriptures affirm the reality of terrible feelings. One-third of Psalms can be categorized as psalms of lament. Psalm 88—the one that ends “darkness is my closest friend”—includes lines like this: “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death” (v. 3).
Charles Spurgeon, a man who suffered long bouts of depression, comments powerfully on this psalm. In response to those who say mental illness isn’t as serious as physical illness, he says:
The mind can descend far lower than the body. For [the mind] there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.
Writing years before Freud and the birth of modern psychotherapy, Spurgeon accepts the fact of our feelings with clarity and profound empathy:
How low the spirits of good and brave men will sometimes sink. Under the influence of certain disorders everything will wear a somber aspect, and the heart will dive into the profoundest deeps of misery. It is all very well for those who are in robust health and full of spirits to blame those whose lives are sicklied over with the pale cast of melancholy, but the evil is as real as a gaping wound, and all the more hard to bear because it lies so much in the region of the soul that to the inexperienced it appears to be a mere matter of fancy and diseased imagination. Reader, never ridicule the [depressed]; their pain is real. Though much of the evil lies in the imagination, it is not imaginary.
This is the first thing Scripture offers us—a true account of our feelings. God understands us at our lowest point. But there’s more.
Fry recommends talking about your mental illness with others. Something happens in the interplay of two people sharing the journey. Such an interchange might occur in a professional context, but it can also happen in friendship.
The Bible’s most sustained portrait of friendship in suffering is the book of Job. Unfortunately Job’s counselors show us the photo-negative of true friendship. Driven by their essentially karmic belief that all misfortune is earned, Job’s “comforters” simply don’t have a category for unjust suffering. They want to bless him, but their theology compels them to blame him. In the end Job’s “friends” are tormentors (Job 19:2).
In this video psychologist Brené Brown describes the kind of miserable comfort we often give our friends in need. We advise from on high, we “silver-line” their problems, and our “comforts” begin with those two cruel words: “At least . . .” None of this helps. But there’s another two-word phrase that does bring healing: “Me too.” Here is true friendship: climbing down into the pit and sharing the burden. This is the friendship Job experiences from his Lord. From the depths of his suffering Job cries out:
Even now my witness is in heaven;
my advocate is on high.
My intercessor is my friend
as my eyes pour out tears to God;
on behalf of a man he pleads with God
as one pleads for a friend. (Job 16:19–21)
Here are four descriptors of a good comforter:
- a witness who sees us when we’re stricken;
- an advocate who defends us when we’re abandoned;
- an intercessor who prays for us when our prayers have run dry;
- a friend who hopes for us when we no longer have hope for ourselves.
The Son of God is all of this to the believer. He has taken up our psalms of lament and prayed each one of them. In Gethsemane he voices Psalm 88: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38). On the cross he bellows Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Jesus hasn’t remained in heaven to call out, “At least . . .” He has descended to our depths to say, “Me too.”
What a friend we have in Jesus! More than this, in Jesus we also have a future.
Stephen Fry is adamant that we need hope. You have to acknowledge the rain, but it’s vital to believe “the sun will come out tomorrow.” Fry’s trouble is he has no real reason to hope. He acknowledges none of these reasons for hope has “a particular logical purpose or a convincing reason to exist, but they somehow keep one going.”
This is where we see Fry’s lack of remedies most starkly. In an atheistic worldview, we’re biological survival machines clinging to an insignificant rock hurtling through a meaningless universe toward eternal extinction. What hope can there be? “You might as well live,” he quips. You might as well not if Fry is correct about the universe.
The Christian, on the other hand, has something incredibly precious in the face of suffering: true comfort, not founded on wishful thinking but grounded in the nature of reality. Jesus is risen, and he will take us through the valley of the shadow of death and into feasting joy. We dare to hope, not in spite of the world’s tragic demise, but because of its certain glory. What Jesus did with his own suffering, he will do with our suffering: transform it.
At the end of the Gospels we see Christ risen from the dead. He’s the future—a foretaste of cosmic harmony. And what’s the future like? Joyous reunions, long country walks with friends, deep conversations into the night, fishing with friends, barbecues on the beach, feasting and family and face-to-face communion with the Lord who has loved us to hell and back. This is the future. It’s coming. It’s more certain than sunrise, and therefore we can have hope.
If all things end in the valley of the shadow, perhaps the “well adjusted” are those who resign themselves to the gloom. But if Christ is risen, there is mountaintop joy, a future worth living for, healing, and peace. Again, it all comes back to Jesus. He’s the one who understands our feelings; he’s our truest friend; and he’s the one who secures our glorious future. In him we have reasons for hope—reasons to share with a needy world.
Editors’ note: Watch an example of a “Hope in the Darkness” evangelistic seminar here.