Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Jesus wept.

Jesus wept – what powerful words. Twice in the Bible we hear of Jesus weeping – once over his friend, Lazarus (John 11:35), and the second time as he approached Jerusalem (Luke 19: 41-44); whilst weeping Jesus says:

If you, even you, had only recognised this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

Of course, this episode involves Jesus’ pain over the events that he knew were going to transpire for Jerusalem; but we can also take these words personally. Jesus wept as much over the people of Jerusalem as he wept over the city. Through the three years of his ministry he had encountered so many who were broken in body and spirit. So too does Jesus weep over us; for how much can it also be said of us that each of us fails to recognise “the things that make for peace (and that) are now hidden from (our) eyes.”

Today is the start of Mental Health Week. Mental health issues are amongst the least understood in our community so let me give you some figures. In 2007 a National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that half of the respondents had had a mental disorder at some time in their life; while one in five had had a mental disorder lasting at least twelve months. The 12 month or more mental disorders reported came in three broad categories: Anxiety-related (14.4% of people); Affective Disorders such as depressive and bipolar conditions (6.2%) and Substance Abuse (5.1%).

These conditions may affect anyone in society – no-one is immune from some of them and all may be vulnerable to any of them. But some are at greater risk. 54% of people who had ever been homeless reported having had mental disorders exceeding 12 months; as did 41% of those who had ever been incarcerated. While the survey also highlighted the loneliness of many of those reporting such disorders. One in three had no family to rely on or confide in; and about one in four had no friends.

The impact of mental illness can be devastating, especially if untreated. But most tragically of all has been when wounded lives could stand the pain no more.

Last year 160,000 Australians died. Medical research is constantly extending life but, inevitably,  death comes to us all. In Australia today, the average age for such calling home is 84.4 years females and 80.3 for males.

Yet there is a group for whom the average age of death is only 44.5 years. This group could bear the pain of living no longer; there seemed no respite in their lives. In 2015, three thousand died of “intentional self-harm”.

A third of all those who die between the ages of 15 and 24 did so by suicide; with over a quarter of those who died between 25 and 34 doing so; and a sixth of those dying between 35 and 44. Most alarmingly, one in six children between the ages of 5 and 17 who died did so through ending their own life.

How broken is our world when so many with lives that might have lain before them fail to believe that there was any meaning or hope in those future lives.

It is into this vortex of sadness that we should each look as we consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:

Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these you did it to me.

And amongst those least would be the lonely and despairing, the mentally ill amongst us.

How do we know that Jesus would have included the mentally ill amongst those he identified in the Inasmuch sermon of Matthew 25:31-46? Consider Mark 5 where Jesus’ seeking for all was evidenced by his healing of a man who would ‘cry out and cut himself with stones’; for whom the treatment offered by the community was to chain him, hand and foot. Curing him, Jesus then instructed him to:

Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you. [v19]

This had been in response to an earnest request of the man. In verse 18 of that chapter we read:

The man who had been possessed begged to go with Jesus.

Even in today’s terms his reaction is understandable. How often do those who have suffered mental illness feel that those who know them may never let go of the stigma of what they once suffered? And so it was into that space that Jesus spoke. Telling him not only to go back to his family and community but, pertinently, to speak of the profound wholeness that God can give and, in his case, did.

In fact there are many Biblical references to people with depression and other mental health problems. Consider these:

  • Jonah – in the final chapter we read of his despair – “take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ [Parenthetically that chapter also refers to Jonah having anger-management issues].
  • Job – in 3:20-22 – “Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter soul, to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than hidden treasure, who are filled with gladness and rejoice when they reach the grave.’
  • Elijah – in 19:4 – “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life.”
  • Jeremiah – 15:17-18 – “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?”

There are also episodes in the Bible where observers might have assessed mental illness as being present. In Ezekiel 4-5 we read that Ezekiel heard a voice instructing him to lie on his left side for 390 days and then on his right side for 40. After that he was told to take a sword and cut off his hair, and to burn some, scatter some, throw other strands to the wind and, finally, to tuck some into his own garment. Ezekiel’s behaviour must have seemed strange to his contemporaries.

And in 1 Samuel, Eli strongly suspects Hannah of alcohol abuse as she acts in what is observed by others to be a deranged way, but it would lead to the profound and inspirational Song of Hannah [1 Samuel 2:1-10] that would be prologue to the Song of Mary in Luke’s Gospel [1:46-55].

Most significant of all, however, in terms of Biblical references to the humanness of mental suffering are the psalms. Many of the 150 psalms are joyous and triumphant, but equally as many are laments. Some psalms speak of God’s people and their circumstances, but others are intensely personal. We read such things as:

No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow. [6:5-7]

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? [13:1-2]

My tears have been my food day and night … my soul is downcast within me. [42]

Or that blackest and bleakest of all, psalm 88:

For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. [verses 3-7]

Have you noticed anything particularly special about these Biblical references to people in depression or mental anguish?

Those hurt, wounded people were not simply healed by God, they were chosen by him to be messengers of hope for all humanity – in their own time and all the ages since. We may spend portions of our lives in dark valleys, when everything seems to overwhelm us, but in responding to our cries, God not only offers healing, he offers calling.

No lesser lights than John Wesley and Martin Luther did precisely that in their own times. John Wesley, returning from his failed evangelistic mission to America, fell into deep depression. He would later give a sermon on ‘Nervous Disorders’; where his words were not drawn from mere observation, but from his lived experience. Martin Luther had his own ‘dark nights of the soul’. Historian David Steinmetz has written that Luther experienced heart palpitations, crying spells and profuse sweating.

How many of us or others of whom we know would have felt as if both Wesley’s words and those of Luther were reflecting our own personal experiences?

Consider also the case of Charles Spurgeon, the noted C19 evangelist who battled depression all his life. Concerning what his own experiences gave him in helping others, he related this experience:

One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, ‘My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?’ and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand upright, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, ‘I never before, in my life, heard any many speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you pointed me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.’ By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. [An All Round Ministry, pp221-2]

God does not promise we will be free of storms in life. He does promise that his love will enfold us through all times – easy or difficult. Consider the second verse of Psalm 61:

I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower …

There was a couple known to my parents encountered serious problems including job loss. They had fallen into despair, spending hour after hour in a dark place ‘til even sleep eluded them. Help came when they both started to read psalms to each other. It was then that the veil of blackness lifted from them.

I had a parallel experience that, though it had to do with physical endurance, can equally as well be applied to times of mental stress. In 2013, Laclan Clyne and myself went on the Kokoda Trail. Even after months of training, it was still a daunting experience. Lachlan encouraged me along the rigors of the 96km trek; but a particularly wonderful encouragement was his suggestion that I should say the Lord’s Prayer whenever I encountered a particularly arduous stretch of the Trail. Even though they required full mental focus, I forced myself to say and savour each line of the Prayer. It worked; indeed such was the experience, that I have continued the practice of doing so with each line of that amazing prayer every time I encounter particularly difficult situations- both physical and mental.

How should we, as Christians, encounter mental health issues?

Many of you will know the Scream by Edvard Munch. It depicts a distressed person stands, hands clasped on either side of the face. The chaos of the brush strokes, the simplification of facial features all highlight the agony of the distressed person. But there are two other interesting features in the painting – two people are standing in the background – their postures indicating complete indifference to the anguish displaying itself in the foreground – are those two people us?

And then the overall setting. To me the vivid colours represent the dawn. For who has not found the struggles of anxiety worst during the darkness of the pre-dawn? It is all so reminiscent of Jacob’s pre-dawn struggle:

So Jacob was left alone and an angel wrestled with him till daybreak. [Genesis 32:24]

To me Munch’s painting poses the question: will no-one come up to the distressed person and gently turn the person around to look towards the brilliance of God’s dawn unfolding?

The season of the year when we will acclaim ‘Joy to the World’ celebrating the birth of Jesus is also that season when the loneliness of so many is made to feel more dreadful. For while so many others enjoy heightened levels of fellowship, the lonely are made to feel even more alone. Statistics show that suicide rates go up in the season of goodwill. How much more important it is for those who experience the joy of Christ’s birth to reach out to those alone and despairing.

If we did, Jesus would weep … weep for joy.