I have been talking with a long-term friend of mine in recent weeks. He’s a believer, who has had a harder-than-average road to walk. That, combined with some bad Christian teaching and an inherent susceptibility, has finally created a perfect storm of mental ill health.
The thing that surprised me when talking to him recently is that as he begins the process of recovering from a depressive/anxiety breakdown, he has had to avoid his Christian friends and family. The reason? They care. And in their care, they inevitably call on him to trust God, to look to God, to place himself in God’s hands or the like. They can’t avoid exhorting him to stir up his faith, however “softly, softly” they venture it.
The problem? His world is little more than darkness without any reasonable possibility of improvement. He is overwhelmed with burdens that seem silly to anyone not him, but to him, they are the fixed compass of his universe. He is barely standing up under the weight of just being himself.
But add an exhortation to do something to that load—especially one like “trust God”—and you have far more than a single straw to break the camel’s back. You have essentially made brick from that straw and hurled it onto the load. You have given him one more thing—and it’s a critical thing at that—to whip himself with as he judges himself to not be trusting God.
When someone is really downcast, exhortations are a waste of time. There’s nothing in the tank, there’s no willpower to exert, there’s no courage to screw up so that they can just ‘get over it’. What looks to you like defeatism is, in fact, simply weakness. All that the person has is currently being used just to keep breathing.
Exhortations make the problem worse. The person can’t do it, but already think they should. So your exhortation adds to the litany of failures that is usually part of the ‘self-talk’ of someone who is overcome by anxiety or depression.
Exhortations hide the solution. The very act of trying to get them to do what is good for them (i.e. strengthen their faith) obscures the very thing that could strengthen their faith. In a case like this (and this isn’t true for all situations), exhortations do nothing more than throw people back on themselves and their own resources. Usually that’s not fatal; a person looks in, realizes they can stir up their faith and then looks out to God’s gracious glory shining in the face of his Son. It is a semi-Pelagian (or Arminian) way of going about things, but God’s grace is sufficient to cover it. But when a person is weak, there are no resources there to call on. So they never turn outward to God; they get stuck at the ‘look for faith inside myself to stir up’ part.
Up to a point, people can simply shake themselves out of a funk or mood just by force of will. Or, if it’s got a stronger grip on them than that, they can soldier on within it by force of will—grit their teeth and bear it. But there comes a point where willpower—even faith-inspired willpower—can’t move the mountain. Despite what Disney wants you to believe, you can’t always do it if you just believe you can. Sometimes Mohammed really does have to go to the mountain.
That’s the ‘don’t’ part. The ‘do’ part is more encouraging, and comes in two parts.
Do: carry others’ burdens
Firstly, the church is made up of ‘strong’ people and ‘weak’ people—not in faith, maturity, desire to serve or anything of that nature. Some people have ‘got it together’ at this point in time, and others are ‘doing it tough’. Some people are coping with all their responsibilities, and still have room left over to take on more: they volunteer for things, they lead Bible studies, they look for people to help, they lead churches and the like. They are strong.
Others are weak. Their burdens are more or less equal to their capacity . There’s nothing ‘left over’ to serve others with. Many of them even have burdens a bit greater than they can carry. They are a net ‘hole’ to the church’s ministry, needing ministry done to them, but not being able to contribute anything back.
So here’s the thing: the weak aren’t a problem—a drag on all the strong who could get some real ministry done if they didn’t have needy people gumming up the works. The strong exist for the weak. They do not exist for themselves, nor do they exist just to hook up with and hang out with all the other strong potential leaders out there. We are to carry one another’s burdens. It is not all we are to do, but it definitely is something we are to do. The strong are called to do more than just sit with the sufferers, but sitting with them is part of the job description. That means that the strong take on the burdens of the weak, not the burdens of other strong people who can take up their burdens in return. The wealthy throw parties for the destitute, not for other well-heeled neighbours who can host slumber parties for their kids in return. The strong serve the weak; the weak are, in that sense, worthy of greater honour than the strong. That’s a feature of the body of Christ; it’s not a bug.
So if you’re strong and you’re faced with someone weak, your job is to bend down, get down where they are, and lift some of the burden and carry it for a bit. It isn’t to say, “Cheer up mate! Things aren’t as bad as you think. Be strong and trust God.” That is the perennially instinctive thing to say, and it is so because it is cheap.
It is the same kind of love that says “Be warm and well fed, and, by the way, God loves you” when faced with a homeless person. It costs nothing, but just tries to fix the problem quickly in order to remove its challenge to love that person in their concrete situation. It is like the person who intervenes in a supermarket to give the upset child that lolly they’ve just been denied. That person doesn’t care about the child’s welfare; they just want to stop feeling bad because the kid’s upset. The person who really loves the child did something costly and told them ‘no’ when an easier path was clearly open. In biblical terms, such cheap ‘love’ is ‘hate’ that has simply learned to ape its betters. It is faith that is dead, but dead before rigor mortis sets in.
Carrying the burden will look different for different people, but usually it means letting the weak person talk frankly about their life at the moment—listening rather than offering solutions, allowing them to suck some of your emotional energy away, and giving them some of your excess, even if it puts you in the red for a bit.
Do: be a priest to those in need
The other part is far more important, and so much bigger. It is taking hold of the priesthood of all believers and being a priest to that person in their need. Often when we explain the priesthood of all believers, it is discussed in purely negative and individualistic terms. We say that it means that we have no need of someone standing between us and God. Christ is the one true mediator, and each of us can be our own priest and approach God’s throne and deal with him directly. This is all true and all foundational.
But wait, there’s more, and these steak knives are worth having. The priesthood of all believers means that I am your priest and that you are mine at the same time. I can be an instrument of the grace of God to you, and you can be one for me. I can pray for you and you can pray for me.
There are times when I can stand before God on your behalf when your faith fails you and you need someone to do for you what you cannot do for yourself, but what you so desperately need to have done. Like the four friends of the paralytic, we can carry the crippled, rip open the roof and present our friend right in the presence of the throne of grace (Mark 2:1-12). And like in that account, it might not always be entirely clear whose faith was the instrument for the grace of God to operate.
What does such faith operating on behalf of someone else look like? It is faith that is active, doing what that person would do if they could do it, and doing it in such a way that it overflows and feeds them.
So rather than encouraging them to pray, you pray for them, and as best as possible, try and express their feelings and perspective to God, and hand the problem to God. Do that with them present. Acknowledge and give dignity to their downcast experience by articulating it in prayer. By doing that, you implicitly show that it is not the final word.
So rather than calling on them to trust God, give them a reason to trust God. Just talk about how great and good God is; how his mercies are ever renewed; how we don’t have to muster up faith to get access to his grace; how he holds us up even as we trip and fall; how the Father who gave up his eternally loved Son for us when he and us were at each other’s throats is a Father who is really there for us now that we are his children. Just talk about God to them—as though that is life itself. And don’t finish by saying, “So buck up and trust him, okay?”; finish by saying, “He’s on your side; he’s going to carry you through this, however bad it gets”. Sometimes it’s okay to just declare the promises of God and not ask for any response in the short-term. Re-read Ephesians 1 if you find that hard to imagine—and look for every place where Paul explicitly calls on his readers to respond to the great sustained declaration of the sheer blessedness of God that flows from his pen. If it’s good enough for Paul, we can do it too.
We cannot genuinely promise people that things are going to get better; God offers no such guarantees. We can’t even tell them that it’s not as bad as they think it is; they might see it better than we can. God will not always protect us from everything that harms or even kills us; nor will he always strengthen us so that we bound through life from one victory to the next, overcoming the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with even more outrageous success. Sometimes the only victory he offers us is that given to Job—that no matter how low we are brought, we are given the grace to not absolutely and utterly deny our Lord, but in weakness, trust him though he slay us.
Those of us ‘strong’ who are given the great task of strengthening hands that grow faint cannot offer people what God does not underwrite. He will not always stand between them and harm or death. But he will be there for them in it, and will carry them through it. Their life may seem like death, but even death has been forced to bow the knee to the Prince of Life who will carry his own brothers and sisters through the dark gate that he trod, who will hold them as his and their Father completes the great job of putting everything under Christ’s feet, and who will then raise them up and present them to that same Father who loved them in the eternal ages before they ever existed.
Sometimes people need to be told, “Trust God!”; sometimes people need to hear “God can be trusted!” The downcast are in the latter camp. Serve them by sensitively exalting the God of life in the face of death.