by Danielle Estelle Ramsay
Human beings are born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. –Job 3:7
In the book of Job, a man God considered righteous has everything taken from him for no discernible reason. Job’s family, possessions, health and even his relationships with his friends are damaged through his loss. Perhaps worst of all, he is forced to defend himself in the face of his tremendous loss.
The experience of those with serious mental illness is often quite like this. Mental illness can lead to similar losses. Chronic depression can lead to job loss. Manic episodes can cause sudden financial crises. Social phobia sometimes fractures relationships. The mentally ill too often are blamed for their symptoms. Like Job, they have their health and livelihoods taken away only to be berated by those closest to them. Heather Vacek explains the experience of Christians with mental illness in her book “Madness” through the account of a Presbyterian elder whose wife was repeatedly hospitalized for mental illness. She describes the “nervous glance” of parishioners, the lack of prayer for mental illness from the pulpit and even the awkward questions of his minister.
The impulse to pin mental illness on social factors belies an admirable optimism about healing, but also sets grounds to blame the mentally ill for their conditions. Social factors are things that can, with effort, be eradicated or altered to lead to more stable lifestyles. Those with chronic conditions have been misunderstood as putting forth too little effort to rid themselves of their conditions. In the church, this has appeared in simplistic instructions from ministers and congregants alike. Bildad, in Job 8, instructs Job to repent. “If you will seek God and make supplication to Shaddai, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you, and restore to you your rightful place.” Christians have been known to give instructions to the mentally ill that they should pray for healing rather than seek medical attention or participate in worship rather than seek psychotherapy.
Of course, this is not a universal experience for the mentally ill. Job’s friends tore their clothes when they saw his great suffering and sat with him in silence for an entire week. The three friends never denied the enormity of Job’s suffering and, for a while, they were content to sit in solidarity with him.
Throughout the book, Job insists upon his right to use his experience as a paradigm for understanding the world, his identity and God. Job also continues to declare God’s power, justice and right-eousness. Job does not deny God’s ordering hand; he simply calls for a corresponding explanation of his suffering.
When God responds, God uses the language of creation to describe in overwhelming terms how present God actually is in the pain that takes place in this world. “I broke forth my regulations for the boundaries of the earth, and I said, ‘You may come as far as here, but no further’” (Job 38:10-11). The language used in the divine speeches is violent, highlighting how painful existing in this world can be. The creation language gives a dimension of suffering to even the most beautiful part of this world. What God’s response to Job does for understanding the book is twofold. First, it affirms that the physical world is in fact, as Job has claimed, grounds for understanding. Second, it places Job’s experience within the larger schema of God’s world.
That is not to say that Job’s suffering has been invalidated. On the contrary, it is of utmost importance, both to Job and God. Similarly, the suffering of the mentally ill should never be diminished or ignored. For the mentally ill who know Jesus Christ, even such suffering is redeemed. Through the lens of Job’s story, validated suffering becomes a framework with which to look at our world and our relationships.
At the end of the story, Job acknowledges that he spoke of something “too difficult” to know. This is the answer that the friends initially proposed, but failed to follow through to resolution. Mental illness is a unique kind of suffering, one without a definitive sense of cause and effect. This does not mean that we cannot reflect on the suffering caused by mental illness; it only means that we will likely never arrive at an adequate answer to it or for it.
The enigmatic nature of the last four chapters of the book of Job serves an important place in understanding the suffering of the mentally ill. These chapters do not provide an easy answer, but they affirm the promise of God’s presence. Job insists upon God’s appearance, and Job is answered. Just as Christ walked among us, to suffer with us and for us, so God appeared to Job to answer the call for solidarity.
That is to be the response of the church: to welcome in those who suffer needlessly, who come to the church broken without explanation. It is the duty of the church to see the image of God in each person, healthy and sick alike. The church should act as the friends did before they began to speak: to mourn with those who mourn, to provide help (both physical and emotional) in times of inexplicable turmoil. In so doing, the church becomes a tangible affirmation of God’s presence. For the mentally ill, God makes Godself present in a variety of ways, and we, as the church, are blessed to be one of them. The sufferers of mental illness do not need spiritualized reprimands disguised as advice to repent or pray. Instead, they need the freedom to use their suffering to understand the world, relationships and God. And, they need the church to walk alongside them, bearing the burden of suffering when it is too much to bear on one’s own.
DANIELLE ESTELLE RAMSAY is a senior Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). She and her husband, Barry, look forward to moving to their home in the Pacific Northwest upon her graduation from PTS.