Mental illness is not a sin

Mental illness is not a sin.

It’s a struggle, a really hard and difficult struggle.

When I first began writing this piece, I kept coming back to John 9:1-3, a passage I have heard throughout this past year.

“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’”

I’ve had generalized anxiety for over 13 years and have struggled with seasons of depression. My mental illness is an everyday fact.

However, the hardest part for me hasn’t been the anxiety attacks or ruminating thoughts. It’s been the conversations with other Christians when I struggle to truly explain what it is like to walk in my shoes.

I’ve had many people tell me to pray my way out of it.

I have lost count of the number of times, even since I’ve started college, where I have sobbed on the bathroom floor and asked God to take away my mental illness. 

Pleading with God, I’ve cried out, “God, please help me. Please help me. Please take this away from me. Please heal my mind. I can’t do this anymore. I am so tired. I want to be normal. Please forgive me. Please forgive me, please. I want to live. God, I want to live, but I don’t know what else to do. Remove this thorn from me. Take this from me, please God. Why won’t you take this from me?”

I receive no answer to my cries for help, but my faith remains. It’s shaken, but it’s still here. I have nothing else left to sustain me.

I’ve been to counseling. I go to church every week and pray with every breath that I take. I haven’t been healed and have accepted that I most likely never will be.

I’ve also had people tell me Bible verses and expect for a smile to appear on my face. (“Be anxious for nothing” tends to be a favorite.)

I have a whole list of my own: 2 Corinthians 2:9, Job 3, Psalm 42:11, Psalm 22. If nothing else, these conditions have taught me the power of lamentation in Scripture, not merely the motivational verses that are on greeting cards or spoken in prayers.

And I know it’s a hard distinction to make because both sin and mental illness are these complex, intangible things. I’ve heard some people describe mental illness as a broken bone. That isn’t sinful, right? Well, that analogy only carries you so far. For those with chronic mental illnesses, that brokenness never quite goes away.

It’s even harder when sin does get thrown in the mix, such as when I make snappy and hurtful comments in the midst of an extremely anxious day, when I pour out my hurt on others rather than turning to God first, when I let the lies in my head influence how I treat other people.

However, mental illness is not a sin in and of itself. Just like other sicknesses, it comes from the fallen condition of this world.

Yes, one can treat it like other illnesses through things like counseling and medication, but for many, it is more than a season. It is a lifelong battle of not being able to trust yourself, of looking in the mirror and forcing yourself to see someone who does matter, not because of a self-image that ebbs and flows, but because God has you alive for a reason.

I will be honest. This is not how I would prefer for God to reveal his works through me. Like Paul, it is a painful thorn in my side. It has cost me sleep, grades, close friendships, opportunities and the ability to honestly and truly love myself.

But at the same time, I have discovered the wonderful paradox of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Christ’s power is made perfect in my weakness. Because I cannot rely on myself, I rely on Him. Because I cannot trust my own thoughts, I trust Him. I hold tight to the Suffering Messiah who knows pain beyond words and promises His presence will never leave me.

My mental illness, in its own strange way, has become one of the biggest blessings in my life. I am able to identify with those who are also walking through this journey so that they do not feel alone. Because I feel things deeply, I am able to identify with the deep hurts of others.

I would give anything to have a normal brain. But the whole world would not be worth enough for the strengthened relationship that I have with God because of my mental illness.

Through the struggle and the suffering, the One who paid it all is faithful.