We are now almost one week away from Christmas–one of the most emotionally-stirring holidays in our culture. And it should be! The miracle of the incarnate God in the form of a baby should never cease to amaze us. But the emotional nature of this holiday can become exponentially difficult for those battling mental illness. It’s hard to sing about tidings of comfort and joy when you’re not experiencing either. It’s hard being greeted by “Merry Christmas,” instead of “How are you?” I know because I’ve been there, and by the grace of God, I am not facing depression this holiday season. But because I have experienced depression in the past, I want to explain some aspects for those who have not struggled with it. And for anyone reading this, I want to explain the difference Jesus makes in battling mental illness.
I want to start off by saying that I’m not writing this because I want pity. I am actually one of the lucky ones: I know the exact cause of my depression (chronic pain), have not struggled with anxiety, and have had seasons of relief, which I am currently in. Additionally, not everyone with depression has these symptoms. I am simply writing from my own experience with the hope that anyone reading this will be able to empathize more with those facing mental illness.
1.) Feelings of hopelessness
The mind fighting off mental illness is constantly lying to itself; the “sick brain” (as my psychology teacher called it) thinks that the problems it faces today will never go away. As a result, the hope of getting better sometimes gets overshadowed by the problems directly in front of us. When we feel like we’ll suffer forever, we should remember that the exact opposite is true: “So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Lie: The problems of today are eternal.
Truth: Our hope in Jesus is eternal.
2.) Loss of control
Nothing scares me more than having my own mind turn against me. In the past, when my mind was filled with thoughts that were uncharacteristic of me, I felt like I had no control. I think that a universal desire for individuals is to feel some amount of control in their own lives. Even as spirit-filled believers, we are called to self-control, meaning we maintain control over our sinful desires. But ultimately, God does not expect us to have all circumstances of our lives under our own control; instead, He wants the whole of our lives to be under His control. When I’m trying to fight the battles within my own mind, I have to remember that “the battle is the Lord’s” (1 Samuel 17:47).
Lie: You’re too weak to have control of your mind.
Truth: God is stronger, more experienced, and more trustworthy.
3.) Loss of interest
I’m not an expert on mental illness, but I think that loss of interest is unique to depression. For me, this was the most frustrating part. It was more than just apathy; I couldn’t remember what I enjoyed about life. I couldn’t fully enjoy spending time with people because–as harsh as it sounds–I wasn’t interested in celebrating with them or hearing about their own problems. I couldn’t turn to music, because I forgot what it was like to enjoy music. I felt dissociated from everything that I thought defined me. But I was more focused on losses than gains. Jesus said in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Lie: Everything you thought you loved doesn’t matter.
Truth: The life that Jesus has to offer you matters.
4.) Sense of guilt
Living in guilt is different than acting on conviction; living in guilt means feeling like a burden for talking about your problems, which then results in shutting people out of your life. Isolation then forces you to listen to your own mind, which tells you that you should feel guilty. It’s an endless cycle, further enforced by my guilt-prone personality. Sometimes we can make the mistake of thinking that our difficult circumstances are punishment for our sins. As sinners saved by grace, we might face consequences of our sins, but Jesus took all the necessary punishment for our sins. To think we are experiencing punishment for our sins is to doubt grace. “Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus…For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 8:1, 38-39).
Lie: You don’t deserve to be happy.
Truth: You don’t deserve grace, but take it anyways. It’s already paid for.
So what about Christmas?
“For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”
Jesus came as the antidote to the symptoms of mental illness. As our Wonderful Counselor, He reminds us that we are not without hope. As our Mighty God, He fights our battles and brings our lives under His control. As our Eternal Father, He gives us a new identity–not based on our interests, but based on our relationship as His children. And as our Prince of Peace, He removes our guilt and replaces it with the peace of being forgiven. Also, as our Immanuel, He stepped down from the glories of Heaven to be “with us” in our suffering.
This Christmas, let’s remember to pray for and care for those battling mental illness, whether that’s lending a helping hand or simply a compassionate ear. Let’s also remember that only through Jesus are we able to experience joy, peace, and hope.