During my last visit home I cut a watermelon with a butter knife because my brother is bipolar. He pulled a knife once on my parents so we don’t keep them in the house anymore. He is stable now, but the reality of his illness will never fade. We will always cut our watermelons with butter knives.
My brother and family have not lacked Christian support since his disease manifested. My father is a pastor so we are literally surrounded by it. But the overwhelming response has been, “I’m praying for you.”
And if I were honest I would reply, “That isn’t good enough.”
Mental illness wiles Christians. It raises tense questions about science, medicine and faith. It demands communities of faith to consider how they incorporate the mentally ill into their life.
Ask one person about mental illness and demons and evil enter the conversation. Another will tout the miracle of medicine. Neither seem to approach a theological logic as to why God would let this happen to your baby brother (in my instance). There are no answers, no cure and no neatly wrapped up testimony. The suffering is hard and real and long.
Hard issues like mental illness live in the shadows of our pews. And like most hard issues, its truth is never black and white. There is no right and wrong. We cannot fit mental illness and injustice into polite Sunday morning sermons. Therefore, “I’m praying for you,” becomes the balm for situations we don’t know how to handle.
Prayer isn’t the problem. Prayer is a miraculous utterance because it is real. God really does listen. Of God, Karl Barth wrote: “He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action even upon his existence. That is what the word ‘answer’ means.”
God acts and God answers, but God does not always give the resolution we want. When reality becomes overwhelmingly complicated we tend to fall back on fortune-cookie theology. We advise one another to lean on Jesus, to trust God. Yet the words are not enough. Even if we know we should trust God the words ring hollow because we don’t know how to face something we cannot understand. Suffering paralyzes us, but in Matthew 25, Jesus warns us against inaction:
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
Often the church’s desire to act is not tepid; it's timid. But despite our good intentions when we shrink away from action we contribute to one of the fundamental challenges of mental illness: isolation. The mentally ill suffer alone in their head and the family is hedged in by shame and exhaustion. A community of faith must figure out how to overcome that isolation.
In their book, “Living Without Enemies,” Sam Wells and Marcia Owen argue that it is not enough to work for those in need. We cannot just offer prayers, money, and the occasional themed sermon. They suggest the most faithful action is to be with those who suffer. The gift of presence can undo isolation. In Matthew 25, Christ warns us against inaction in the face of suffering for the very reason that he is present with those who suffer.
My brother may not know if God loves him, but I look at him and see what it means to be brave. I see Christ’s courage on the cross when I see my brother fight against a manic depression that threatens to tow him under. “Being with” is an incarnational act with a quiet, subversive power. We may not feel like we are doing anything, but to the isolated it can be everything.