36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane. He said to the disciples, “Stay here while I go and pray over there.” 37 When he took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, he began to feel sad and anxious. 38 Then he said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me.”
14 Also, let’s hold on to the confession since we have a great high priest who passed through the heavens, who is Jesus, God’s Son; 15 because we don’t have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses but instead one who was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin.
16 Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.
When you are hurting, it’s easy to think “no one understands how I feel.” We often extend that thought to God. How could the all-powerful ruler of the universe have any clue how powerless, how helpless, how hopeless you feel? But Jesus, as he faced the cross, experienced the depths of human darkness and helplessness fully, probably more fully (cf. Luke 22:44) than any of us. He does understand—he lived the experience himself.
Lord Jesus, in my dark moments, help me remember you agonizing alone in the darkness of the garden. As my heart links to yours, remind me that I am never alone in the darkness. Amen.
* N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16–28. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 161.
** William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series: The Letter to the Hebrews (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976, p. 44.
I normally open these posts up with a little story and a clever challenge to draw us all closer to God, but this one is going to be a bit different. Mental illness is a very personal topic for me, so I’m going to be very open and honest about my experience with it, which had a big impact on shaping my faith earlier in life.
I have a serious mental illness: bipolar disorder. It’s made my life extremely difficult and continues to do so even today, at 38 years old. But my hardest years were college. It was that perfect storm of my mental illness manifesting fully, not having the support I’d had for years, and piling stress on top of all of that to make everything worse. In my manic phases, I would hurt people’s feelings and hurt my relationships; in my depressive phases, I didn’t have the energy for many of the things in my life and I frequently wanted to die. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this, but I’m hoping it will help someone to hear it: I did act on these feelings a few times, and I have the scars to prove it. I didn’t get diagnosed until right before my last semester of college, at age 21, so I had four years of this with no explanation.
When I first got diagnosed, it was a whirlwind of emotions, ranging from relief that I finally had an explanation to frustration that I would be dealing with this for the rest of my life. I was a firm believer and had been for my entire life, so my prayer life quickly became consumed with my mental illness. I begged God to take it away, to miraculously heal me. I begged God to make me stable so I could live the same way as everyone else, who seemed to deal with life so easily. Despite my fervent prayers, faith, and desperation, God did not heal me of this. It remains my thorn in the flesh, a constant reminder that, in this world, I am broken.
Talking to people about my mental illness, particularly my depression, was a frustrating exercise. Often, before I even finished speaking, people would start listing out the things that made them feel better when they were feeling a little down. When I reiterated that, while those are good things, my problems were bigger and required a bigger solution (in my case, medication), people would double down on their efforts to convince me that this was an easy problem to solve, that it was all in my head, that I had to just choose to be stronger than the illness. Some people would even become frustrated with me and tell me that I didn’t even want to be better, that I was choosing to be miserable and they were wasting their time trying to help me.
When you listen to enough of those lies about a chronic mental illness, or any other sort of pain (like grief), you can start to believe them. I found myself wondering whether my pain and depression was my fault, like I simply hadn’t tried hard enough to not be depressed. I found myself wondering if I deserved all the pain I was going through.
I did have my friends who were very supportive, and they were a real life-saver for me at that time. They were friends who either understood my pain, or didn’t understand but trusted me to understand my own pain—but either way, they were friends who didn’t jump in to offer easy solutions for complex problems, and then complain when my problems didn’t meet their limited understanding. They were friends who would just sit with me until I felt better, who would allow me to be hurt and not judge me for it. That was an important thing for me to realize: I have permission to be hurt and broken. That’s really uncomfortable for a lot of people to deal with, which is why expressions of pain often turn into exercises in changing the topic. But the friends who were able to help me the most were the ones who understood that not every problem can be solved in a 10-minute conversation, with a small checklist of things to do.
Anyway, the reason I bring all of this up is that, just like I learned that my friends who cared and understood had a vastly different approach than my friends who were just trying to avoid feeling uncomfortable, I realized that God also had a different approach than I initially realized. I was wanting God to act like that first group of friends, to just give me one or two things I could change to be better, to make an easy problem out of a life-altering one. But God wasn’t that kind of friend. God was the kind of friend who would come sit with me and tell me He understands, and stay with me as long as I needed. In short, God understands pain. He’s not uncomfortable with it, He doesn’t try to change the topic when it comes up—He allows us to deal with it for as long as it takes, and He won’t leave our side while it’s happening. As I realized in dealing with my two types of friends, the kind of friend God was to me in my moments of pain was exactly the kind of friend I needed.
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