A sermon given on May 20, 2018
Special note: This post deals with my own mental health problems. I have been in therapy for 4-5 months now. There is still much to work through, and we're only getting started at finding the root of some of my own difficulties. So the story and reflections below are my thoughts so far. They may change slightly or wildly. It is entirely possible that in a few months or years I won't agree with much of what I've written here.
What I can say with great assurance is that mental health problems are real and should not be diminished, and that getting help is incredibly important. I wish I'd done it sooner.
About a year and a half ago, I had a conversation. This conversation did not end very well. It was the kind of conversation that you dread having, and afterward, you're exhausted, because you've been through the emotional ringer.
A strange thing happened after this conversation: I could not move my body for an hour and a half.
My arms, my legs, my head--none of them would move.
I continued to sit at the table where I had the conversation.
My hands lay flat in the same places on the table.
My eyes remained fixated on one spot on the table.
My mind was working, but my body would not move. I remember trying to will myself to lift my arms and to stand up from the table. However, my body stayed still. It was a complete bodily shutdown, and it seemingly came out of nowhere. I could not make my arms or legs move.
This continued to happen on a semi-regular basis. I would have a conversation with someone, it would get a little heated, and afterward my body would shut down from anywhere between 20 and 90 minutes. I also began hyperventilating at various times for no apparent reason. My sleep began to suffer as well.
Looking back, I probably should have told somebody. However, it wasn't hurting me physically, it didn't happen every day, and it seemed like something that would work itself out.
If something doesn't seem life-threatening, I rarely do anything about it.
So for around a year, I would have semi-regular full-body shutdowns.
I'm a pastor. I sit with people and help them work through their problems. I have had numerous people share with me their mental health difficulties, and I have recommended counseling for a number of people. I connect people with counselors. I can tell when someone would benefit from a counselor.
But last year I needed help, and I had no idea.
I didn't think I had any kind of mental health problems. My best guess for why my body was shutting down was that I was overworked.
However, when I tried to slow my life down, nothing changed.
So I decided to power through the pain. I figured that either
1. this would eventually stop happening, or
2. I would have to learn to live with this forever.
Either way, I couldn't let it affect my work and my life as a husband and dad. I continued to help people with their problems, while failing to work through my own. I continued to connect people with mental health professionals when needed, while failing to find the professionals that I needed.
I stuffed the hurt away so that I could help people with their hurt. But when you stuff the hurt, the hurt is still there.
One day, my wife noticed that I hadn't moved for about an hour. She asked what was going on, and I told her, "This happens sometimes. It's nothing." She pried, and I told her about the bodily shutdowns, the hyperventilating, the lack of sleep, etc. We talked for a while, and then called a therapist.
My wife saw what I couldn't see: something was wrong, and I needed help.
I sat down for my first session, and tried my best to explain what was going on. It was difficult. How do you explain, "Sometimes my body shuts down for upwards of 90 minutes for no apparent reason?" But I told her everything, and then I said, "It makes no sense, right? Does this sound like anything rational at all?"
"Sounds like anxiety."
"Really?" I said. "Anxiety makes a person shut down entirely?"
I've kept going to therapy regularly since that first meeting, and it's been really, really good. We're starting to get to more of the root of why I have anxiety, and what kinds of triggers cause me things like shutdowns, panic attacks, and lack of sleep.
Shortly after I started going to therapy, I began telling some people that I was in therapy for anxiety, and sharing some of the symptoms from which I've suffered. Almost immediately, however, I stopped telling people.
The reason being (and I didn't expect this in the slightest), some of my Christian friends heard me try to describe my panic attacks and responded with "I think you might have a demon."
That's right. "I think you have a demon." (Or a variation, like "something demonic is going on inside of you")
It's important to state at this point that I love these friends, and know that their response came from a desire to help, but hearing them say "I think you have a demon" did nothing but anger me. Talking about my own mental health is incredibly awkward as it is, and their response seemed to minimize what I'd been experiencing.
"I think you have a demon" is not what I was looking for.
I was angry after hearing a few "demon" responses, and brought this anger to my therapist. She responded, "We all have our demons."
I said, "No, you don't understand. People think I have a literal demon living inside of me."
She said, "We all have our demons."
"No, you're not hearing me. In the church world, 'demon' doesn't simply mean something you struggle against. It's a real, actual, living, evil force. And people think that something like that is the cause of my troubles. They think I have a real, actual, living, evil demon inside of me."
"We all have our demons."
Me (wanting to knock the pictures off her desk at this point): "No, these are church people. They see demons in scripture, and they see my mental issues, and they think these problems are caused by a demon."
"I know. But you need to remember that we all have demons."
"I get that we all have demons."
"Right. And you need to realize that. You fixate on your anxiety. And yes, that is a part of you. But it's not everything about you. Your anxiety is only one part of you. And you're not strange or different because of it. We all have demons. But this is only one part of you, and it does not define who you are."
There's a story in the book of Mark about a guy who has such a severe mental illness that he constantly cries out, rips his clothes, and cuts himself. He is repeatedly bound up in chains by his hands and feet. He broke through the chains, and the people chained him up again. The people feared this man. Jesus approached the man and commanded his impure spirit to come. The man shouted, begging not to be tortured. Jesus sent the impure spirits into a herd of pigs that was close by. The pigs immediately dove from a cliff to their deaths.
The author writes that after being healed, the man was "clothed and in his right mind." The man who had torn his clothes and cut himself is now fully clothed and mentally well.
The people around him should be thrilled. This is a man who lived a life of agony, the likes of which we could certainly not understand. This is a man who scared the people so much that they chained him up. They should be joyous that he is now well.
But they're not happy.
They're concerned about their pigs.
I look at this story, and see a man who was considered to be less than human. His demon/mental illness/impure spirit was what defined him, to the point that the people repeatedly bound him in chains.
But a big key to this story lies in the fact that he ends up "clothed and in his right mind." He is a person, and his personhood is restored to him by Jesus. While the crowd may have defined him by the most painful part of him, he was more than just his impure spirit. He had a demon. His demon controlled him for a significant amount of time. But his demon did not define who he was.
Jesus tells him to go back to his people; to show them what God did for him. The people thus far have not responded to him in kindness. They chained him up when he was unwell, and when he was made well, they were angry and afraid because their pigs were destroyed. The man has to assume that the people will continue to treat him poorly. Still, he went. And the story ends with the note that "all the people were amazed" at his story.
When the man goes back to his people, he does not share a story of how he overcame his own weakness. We hear a lot of those stories in our world today. "I was born with no legs, but I learned how to overcome my disability and make it in this world." This is not one of those stories. This man could not overcome on his own.
Nor does the man share a story of how his friends helped him overcome. Quite the opposite: they chained him up! And when he finally was free of his pain and suffering, they were angry about what his own freedom cost them! When he was made well, their pigs--their belongings--were destroyed.
No, this man shares the story of how God healed him. God's power shined in his weakness.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes,
"in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weakness. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
We do not know what this 'thorn in the flesh' was, but it's clear that it was something consistent and painful; an issue that was difficult enough for him that he pleaded for God to take it away (I relate). But Paul was also reminded that he's strong in his weakness, because God's power shines in human weakness.
Paul remembered that God's strength is made perfect in his weakness.
The man with the impure spirit was healed when God's power shined in his weakness.
I had coffee with a fellow pastor shortly after the counseling appointment in which my therapist reminded me that "we all have our demons." I told this pastor about the people who thought I had a demon and how angry that made me, and I mentioned how my therapist gave me a new way of looking at their comments. He listened for a while, and then said, "She's right. We do have our demons, but our demons don't define us."
He paused for a bit, and then said, "You know the others were right too, right?"
I looked at him for a second and then said, "The ones who said I had a demon?"
This is a guy who has been a pastor for a long time, and I normally appreciate his advice, but I was about ready to break his glasses in half.
He continued, "If you believe in spiritual forces, and if you believe that there is a force of evil in the world, then you should also realize that Satan will leverage any weakness or hurt that he can. So if you're able to hold every part of your life together, but anxiety is causing you consistent and severe difficulties, then it makes sense that Satan would leverage that."
Did Satan leverage the hurt of the man with the impure spirit? Was his weakness made worse by Satan? Did Satan leverage the hard hearts of the people who chained him up? Did Satan leverage their attachment toward their belongings, making their belongings (the pigs) more important to them than the mentally ill man among them?
Paul obviously saw his 'thorn in the flesh' as something used by Satan.
My anxiety is real. It's there. It's a part of me. Would Satan leverage that for his own ends?
What I do know for sure, is that our weaknesses are a part of us, but do not define us.
We all have our demons, but they are just a part of us. They do not define us.
And our weaknesses are not the end of the story.
In our weaknesses we are strong.
For God's power shines in our weakness.
God's power shined when he healed the man with an impure spirit.
God's power shined in Paul's weakness.
In our weaknesses we are strong, for God's power shines in our weakness.