Mental Illness and the Church outside the Church: A Personal Journey (long article)


Although I do believe it is important to attend Church (Heb 10:25), I also believe that there are a great number of people who have not been in a church building, certainly not on a Sunday, for maybe a very long period of time, yet are deeply spiritual people and have a profound faith in Jesus Christ. Flawed people, as are those who attend Church, but still people with faith.

I have a confession to make. I suffered a breakdown many years ago. Before this I had been very active in the Church. I’ve been a Christian for roughly twenty-five years and was, in all likelihood, heading towards entering the Church ministry in some capacity. I preached regularly in various denominations. My background is Brethren, Evangelical Church of Scotland and Baptist, although I’ve preached in other denominations as well (there’s a book in there somewhere!). I’ve studied for theological degrees (I have two), helped at youth groups and elderly homes and attended prayer meetings (sometimes because I wanted to, sometimes because I felt it was what I should be doing, whether I wanted to or not). Then, just after I had finished my second degree, I suffered a breakdown and the whole course of my life changed, although in truth, it was my own understanding of the future course of my life that changed, not necessarily my future as God saw it. I believe God saw this coming. I didn’t but I’m glad He did. Well, He’s God, He sees everything.

It was several years before I went back inside a church building and then it was when it was quiet and I could sit by myself and just ‘be’. As a result of my meltdown, I could not be in a group of people and still function and I certainly couldn’t sing hymns as my mind could not cope with the emotional impact they brought. In a way I couldn’t understand, breakdown seemed to open up the valves of emotional tides from deep inside me, sweeping through and over me like endlessly flowing waves over rocks, and I could neither control nor contain them. I had no choice but to let them wash over me.

Yet, although I did not attend church and was not among Christian people other than my own family (sometimes in the same house but apart from them, at times, any human contact was beyond my abilities), I held onto and maintained my faith in God, or should I say, He held onto me. That sums it all up, He held onto me. Once upon a time I was a ‘supervising adult’ with a group of church people taking teenagers ice skating. Watching from the side, I noticed a man on the rink with his son (I assumed they were father and son). The little boy, couldn’t have been more than five or six, was all over the place, clearly not used to the ice. This new experience would have been too much for him on his own. He was twisting and turning and sprawling and clearly his feet wanted to go in one direction but the skates in another and the skates won, every time. He looked totally out of control, out of his depth, kept falling, collapsing.

Learning whilst being held
Learning whilst being held

But there was one thing that kept him going when otherwise he’d have been a lost cause. His father was holding onto his little hand and never let go. No matter how many falls (and his father let him fall but still held him), no matter how many twists and turns, no matter how many scrapes and some of the most bizarre ‘moves’ I’ve ever seen on an ice rink, the father never let go. I also noticed that the father’s hand was over his son’s hand, so that his grip was true and strong and unbreakable, but it wasn’t so tight that the boy’s hand couldn’t twist and turn and change shape and direction, but all within the firm hold of his father’s hand. Eventually, that little boy started to become a bit more stable, still erratic, still falling and sliding in unnatural directions, but you could see a little stability, a little progress, and where there had previously been only frustration and grimaces and a resigned hopelessness on that boy’s face, now, with his father’s hand guiding and holding him, there was a smile on his face, there was hope, there was a little belief creeping in (I know from experience, it’s a wonderful thing when a little belief begins to creep in, just a little belief can illuminate a whole world of possibility). This skating that had produced only failure and pain and scrapes and a total lack of co-ordination, could actually become do-able, become fun. I have always remembered that day. I always thought it would be a good sermon illustration but as I haven’t preached in a church for an age, I might as well tell you about it here!

Back to the article. It’s true to say that my faith in God, whilst not being anywhere near a church building, is what kept me going. Of course God manifested Himself to me during that time in various forms; the love of family, the family dog, music, nature, my own thoughts (although I learned to discern and separate the good thoughts from the bad). I could not physically open my beloved Bible for a long time as my mind had seemed to shut down from being able to be exposed to such ‘direct’ revelation from God. Yet God spoke to me still in such an infinitely caring and subtle way. That was one big lesson throughout the depression years, God speaks in such subtle and infinitely gentle ways…and it takes a sensitively tuned ear to hear. But He gives that too 🙂

It is true to say that I have never had such an experience of God than I had when I suffered my breakdown. I truly believe that, in ways I will probably never understand this side of heaven, God ‘took me out of Church’ in order to show me more of Himself and transform me into a person I may not have become had I not had the breakdown and remained in Church. I know that’s controversial to say that but, rightly or wrongly, it’s what I honestly believe.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the Church (although the very word ‘Church’ is such a hugely emotive and controversial subject these days that it requires explanation in its own right but that is not my purpose here, suffice to say that the Church has been guilty of appalling behaviour and in many cases has still to accept this, and yet it also does wonderful work, much of it unpublicised) and I believe God directs us to attend when healthy and able and to function in worship as a group of believers in Christ. But for that time in my life and through many mental battles to come, I believe God transformed me into the person He wanted me to be. Not that I’m the finished version of me, anything but (I’ll only arrive at that version of ‘me’ when I’m with Christ in heaven. Nonetheless, that period in my life was like being on God’s anvil, the potter reshaping the clay, being ‘purified’ by fire (spiritually speaking).

The God I believe in now is still that of God incarnate in Jesus Christ and raised from the dead (however illogical and fantastical that might sound to some readers…I’m not living out the pages of a fantasy book aka J K Rowling, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams or Terry Pratchett, though I like these writers, I am living in the reality of life as I believe it is). But the God I believe in now is a far cry from the one I thought I knew during the earlier days of my Christian life.  Sometimes I belief the God I knew in my early Christian life was badly filtered through the well meaning but flawed lens of some Christians who led the Church and decided what kind of God should be presented to ‘the flock’. I don’t blame them. They, however inadequately, were inevitably products of the traditions they were brought up in, exposed to. It was what it was and God’s providence was evident even then, although seen with greater clarity only in retrospect. Every generation makes its own mistakes; every generation has a tendency to think it has ‘the monopoly on truth’. The monopoly on truth has only ever resided in Jesus Christ and while Christians seek to express and live that truth, they can only do it through finite and faulty understanding. I believe so many have got the core message of salvation through Jesus right, but sadly much of the ‘peripheral’ but important bits partly messed up.

Although I still have my personal battles and my depression is a struggle to varying degrees, I am, and its something I’ve considered deeply over time, a happier person in myself now than I was pre-breakdown. I am stronger, I have a confidence born in the fires of faith’s valleys, and I am happier with my faith although it is both simpler and more complex than it was in my younger days. It is certainly more liberating, or has the potential to be. It is a wonderful thing to experience intellectual liberation through theological insight and a ‘Spirit-led’ imagination.

Taken Out of Service for a Season
Taken Out of Service for a Season

I saw a bus going past some time ago that said on its front “Not In Service”. I thought it a good analogy of what God sometimes does with His people. He sometimes ‘takes them out’ or gives them ‘time out’, through whatever means, to give them rest and shape and transform them. He sometimes gives them the status “Not In Service” for a time. It’s worth thinking on. Ever seen a bus at the side of the road, broken down, the passengers waiting for a substitute bus to carry on their journey? Nobody knew the bus would break down. Nobody expected the mechanics which kept the bus going to suddenly break. Nobody expected to be standing on the side of the road waiting for another bus to be despatched. Sometimes I think I was a bit like that bus! It broke down without warning, although God saw it coming because He saw its inner mechanics, its flaws, how it responded to the elements, the wear and tear inflicted on it through time and service, He knew what it could and couldn’t cope with. The bus had to leave people disappointed, inconvenienced, and there was nothing it could do because its ability to carry them had failed. It had to wait for a recovery vehicle to tow it away, to take it to the bus depot, to sit in the station in a corner, away from the working buses and await repair. It might take a week or month, in human terms it could take years, it just had to sit and wait until its time came again.

When I had my breakdown I felt I let people down, I left people hanging, I disappointed people and caused big inconvenience. I’m not proud of it, I’m genuinely sorry for it. But we can’t predict how God will work, when God will ‘break in’, how long we will be “Not In Service”. All I know is that, like that bus, I had to be towed away, my responsibilities unexpectedly left at the side of the road to be picked up by another; I had to be taken to a place of care and it was a long time before I was ready for service again. By that time much of the landscape had changed, there were new roads, I had been redesigned, there were new people, new passengers. God had changed and readied me, even if I didn’t always feel ready.

God took me out, through breakdown, and it was an extremely painful experience. Was it worth it? Well, I’d rather not have had the actual process but I am grateful for the result.

One day I shall write an article about the God I know now compared to the God I knew then. Sometimes, in church, our God can become too regimented, too compartmentalised, too corrupted and frankly, too human, far far far too human. Although He can also be experienced as truly liberating in church, for many people that is the exception to the rule.

The 'revealed in extremis' Jesus
The ‘revealed in extremis’ Jesus

Philip Yancey has written a book called The Jesus I Never Knew. That is the Jesus I met when my breakdown forced me outside the walls of the Church but never outside of the care of God. In that journey I also discovered the Church outside the Church. The many people who, for whatever reason, do not attend Church but retain their faith and worship and serve their Saviour. That discovery helped alleviate some of the guilt I initially felt for not attending church even though I was simply too ill to go. When your whole life has revolved around the Church, when you have attended morning and evening and midweek, when you consider it a sacred duty to meet together with God’s people on a Sunday, to be unable to do so, even though you are incapacitated, can lead to huge feelings of guilt and it took me a considerable time to hear and understand God saying to me, “It’s alright, I understand, it’s alright.”

I discovered there are many people who, for whatever reason, do not attend church. These are spiritual people, people who love God and seek to follow Christ, people who pray and study the Bible and try to live in a way pleasing to God. These are people who once attended church but, for various reasons, stopped. Maybe one day they will return and maybe not. Maybe they became too ill to attend, maybe they became disillusioned, maybe they had a bad experience of church and Christians and left the Church, maybe they were lonely in a church full of people, maybe they felt like outsiders in the community of God’s people, maybe something happened, or didn’t happen, which left them feeling disappointed with God and with Christians. There can be a whole host of reasons.

The intriguing thing is that outside of the normal Christian community, that which meets in an actual church building, there is another community. The community of the Church outside the Church. People who, for whatever reason, don’t attend a church, certainly not on anything like a regular basis or not at all, but still seek to know and serve God. This community may know one another, may communicate, may come together in their own way, or they may not even know of the others existence but may nonetheless know others are ‘out there’.

As I said at the start, where possible, I believe in the institution of the Church. I believe that, whenever possible, it is important to attend Church, even an imperfect Church, for that is the only Church that truly exists in this world. But I also believe there is another Church, part of the universal Church, namely, the Church outside the Church.

Thanks for reading 🙂


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