Mental health is always hard to talk about. People understandably do not want to mention their own emotional struggles. I recall a dear aunt of mine who told my mother back in the days of handwritten letters that lately she had “had the blues.” I saw the letter and somehow never forgot what my aunt said. She went through a lot in life with respect to family and health. It was understandable that she would say that sort of thing. I love the way she put it – that she “had the blues.”
She found a way to talk about it that my mother, her sister, would completely understand. All of us need, not only the kind of comfort zones and loving relationships that allow us to admit to those “down” times, but also the support of our faith when it comes to working through such experiences.
And sometimes emotional struggles go even further than mild depression. And the Apostle Paul was not afraid to talk about it.
I’ve often thought of II Corinthians as the “Book of Job” for the New Testament. In it, Paul speaks very frankly of his own sufferings, both emotional and physical. He speaks in a way that is, I think, almost shocking to people if they look closely at the language he uses and not just gloss over his words. I think sometimes when reading Scripture, we, by our own assumptions, build in a “stained-glass distance” that keeps us from the plain sense language of the text. But let’s look closely at II Corinthians.
II Corinthians begins in the opening prayer section by referring to the sufferings of Christ, and Paul for his part then refers to the afflictions which he himself has endured (1:4-6). Then, beyond introducing the theme of suffering, Paul plainly admits (1:8-10) that he has recently endured a burden that was so overwhelming that it swamped his strength and as a result he “despaired of life.” In fact, he had resigned himself internally to the fact that he was not going to survive the suffering he was enduring – that it would lead to his death. What kind of suffering is so harsh and apparently so unrelenting that you mentally and emotionally give up? Whatever it was, whether physical or mental, he had reached that point.
The truth is, the suffering that Paul refers to in II Corinthians is a mixture of both physical and mental/emotional suffering. We know from the catalogues of abuse that he presents in II Corinthians (see 6:3-10; 11:23-33) that both physical and emotional suffering have been his experience. Notice for example in 7:5-6 that he refers to having gone through “conflicts without, fears within.” He immediately goes on to refer to the God he worships as the one “who comforts the depressed.”
And then there is that rhetorical question in 11:28-29, where he refers to the daily pressure that is upon him of concern for all of his churches, and then asks plaintively, “who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” The psychological torment he felt because of his great love for others, and his willingness to identify with their pains, exposed him to genuine grief and internal suffering. What parent or close friend has never felt that kind of suffering?
Then there’s the famous reference to the “thorn in the flesh” in II Corinthians 12:7-10. There, he refers to a suffering that he endures through the agency of Satan, a suffering which the Lord declined to remove — even after Paul fervently begged Him for relief — and within which Paul had to learn contentment. At HBU, we are embarking upon an expanded curriculum for dealing with mental health issues. Just as Paul was transparent about the things that he suffered – remember in 1:8, he plainly says, “I do not want you to be unaware of the affliction which came to me” – so also in the same way, we will not shy away from talking about emotional, psychological and mental suffering. We would never dream of doing that with regard to physical suffering, so neither will we back away from using the full resources of a Christian worldview to address the very real sufferings of our world. In a culture where suicide is on the rise, we intend to use all the resources of faith, psychological insight (all truth is God‘s truth), and theological study grounded in Scripture to help those in need of healing. Our world is broken in every way – environmentally, physically, socially and emotionally. And we are not afraid at HBU – because the One whom we worship is the God of all things visible and invisible – to present ourselves as agents for His work of healing and redemption.
Dr. Robert B. Sloan