Disbelief is a Privilege

I spent this past weekend on Catalina Island with some good friends for a much-needed retreat. Together we studied the book of James, deliberating its penetrating characterization of the rich versus the poor and its implications for how believers ought to live. During one session our study leader remarked that on a trip to Ghana some years ago, he learned that there are essentially “no atheists” in Ghana.

This is not surprising. Wealth fosters self-reliance and generates the fantasy that one does not need God. Because they have so little, the Ghanaian people must depend wholly on God to supply all their needs. Because Westerners possess so much, they find no practical use for God.

Disbelieving in God is a luxury, a privilege most people in the world do not have. We drive cars, live in houses, go to college, and work for promotions, all while professing that belief in God is irrational, replete with leaps in logic and improvable claims. Wealth permits us to attribute our disbelief to reason. But an honest examination of where we stand will reveal that many of us don’t really deny the reality of God, just his necessity.

I used to think that most nonbelievers could be won over with compelling scientific, philosophical, moral, and experiential evidence (all of which there is plenty). But it has become increasingly clear to me that most nonbelievers don’t care about the evidence. It’s not that they don’t believe in God, but that they simply don’t want to believe in God, so they don’t even try. For them, there is no urgency to believe. In fact, believing would kindle serious and unwanted problems, including a realization that God demands sacrifice – which they shirk – and hates wealth, power, and prestige – which they chase. I am reminded of an epigram by G.K. Chesterton: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

Mother Teresa once grieved that the spiritual poverty of the Western World is so great that she considered Westerners to be more poverty-stricken than those living in the slums of India. What if we were bold enough to see the rich (ourselves, probably) and the poor in this light? What would it mean for us if we believed Jesus when he said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25)? How differently would we see the poor if we believed James when he writes that “God [has] chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5)?

Would we prefer to be wealthy and self-sufficient but spiritually blind, or, through trial, develop the steadfastness that leads to perfection, completion, and the crown of life (James 1:2-4, 12)?

 

“Where is your God now?”: Demanding Reification of a Worldview of Suffering

I met Jane as she was being rolled on a gurney into the operating room of the hospital for the placement of a feeding tube through her stomach. Jane was not much older than me, but in the poorest condition of any patient I had ever seen. She was born with an acute form of cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that overtook her at birth and robbed her entirely of the ability to communicate, either by verbalization or by the movement of her limbs. Her body was severely crippled, and she had spent the entirety of her life bedridden. Recently, she had also acquired a complicated bacterial infection that threatened to kill her if she was not treated properly.

As I stood alternating my gaze between Jane and the clock on the wall, Dan, one of the main nurses aiding Jane’s procedure, abruptly blurted out a question with such shameless and jocular audacity that I was unable to muster any sort of meaningful reply.  “Where is your God now?” he asked. And as Jane lay there on her gurney—her gaunt, crippled body contorted in rebellion against her diseased brain—it appeared to all of us that Dan’s point was well-taken.

Dan was one of those older gentlemen whom young adults like me could still call “cool.” He had a somewhat cynical but cheerfully self-confident way of speaking that always made you feel like life was more humorous than terrifying. People like him always seemed to know so much about the horrors of this world that they learned to deal with undignified human suffering in the most dignified way they knew how: to accept it, and then to laugh at its absurdity. However, to challenge or attempt to resolve the mystery of the supernatural and His/Her/Its involvement in human suffering was a fruitless and exceedingly laborious task. Suffering simply is. Life is simply unfair. This is not necessarily a pessimistic worldview, but a realistic one bred from the harsh experiences of a full life in a bleeding and broken world.

As much as I respected Dan, though (and still do), I’ve never quite found it within myself to take his outlook of acceptance as a final answer. Some may say that once I live long enough, I’ll see that Dan’s humble resignation and his ability to laugh at the senselessness of human suffering constitute the most viable way to deal with the sheer unfairness of life. We the fortunate do what we can to help the unfortunate, and we leave the rest up to the Fates that dictate who gets to be well and who gets to be sick. To that end, Dan was doing his part—he was a damn good nurse, and he cared for patients in remarkable ways. That was his response to Jane’s suffering, and that was enough.

Like Dan, I realized after hearing his question that I had grown tired of intellectual skirmishes with friends about God’s culpability in cases of suffering as dehumanizing as Jane’s. I borrowed my “answers” straight from the philosophies of some of the world’s best theologians— yet, more often than not, they did little to convince my skeptical friends of the outrageous claim that God existed and cared deeply about people like Jane. To them, it didn’t matter how logically compelling my answers were, how well I could recite Dr. William Lane Craig’s moral argument [1] for the existence of God, or Dr. John Lennox’s heartfelt exposition [2] of the hope of God in the lives of hurting people. Rather, the poignant reality of unjustified evil was sufficient for them to assert that God just wasn’t their “thing,” no matter what anyone said. I felt that way about Dan. I saw many in the form of this nurse who dealt with life as it was handed to him, a man who avoided talk about even the possibility of God’s reality in a place as dismal as the operating room where Jane lay.

The commonality between Dan’s worldview and my own was that each helped us get through the heart-wrenching scene in front of us. For Dan, Jane’s condition was just the way things were—she got unlucky; God probably had nothing to do with it. But as much as I tried to believe this, I simply couldn’t. My view was that God didn’t want her to be that way. The questions I kept asking—i.e. Why would God not do something about it already?—were irrelevant to Dan.

Nearly every worldview is able (to some degree) to propel us through life’s most harrowing tragedies. When Dan and I contemplated the unfairness of Jane’s condition, for instance, both Dan’s worldview and mine were adequate to get us through that moment of discomfort, each in its own way. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we have become a pluralistic society, where every worldview is deemed respectable and sometimes even “true” for those who maintain them. Truth is becoming less a singular reality and more a matter of personal taste. Dan’s truth works for him, and mine works for me—so be it. Dan and I may well have been joined at Jane’s bedside by a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Muslim, a humanist, an atheist—and we all would have found a way to cope with the scene before us.

However, worldviews must not be evaluated solely based on how well they explain the problem of human suffering, or even how effectively they assuage our feelings of anger, sadness, or guilt when we are confronted with circumstances as dehumanizing as Jane’s. Worldviews do not exist merely for the intellectual or emotional benefit of those who believe them; they cannot be just a private matter.

Rather, worldviews do—and indeed must—dictate the way that we act and respond to the suffering of others. We are dishonest with ourselves if we attempt to confine the consequences of our worldviews within our own minds and prevent them from spilling out into our actions towards people in need.  For Dan and I, what mattered most was not how our worldviews allowed us to grit our teeth and bear the tragedies of life such as Jane’s suffering (any plausible worldview does that much), but whether we were willing to reify what we believed—about life, hope, grace, injustice, evil, suffering—after we exited the doors of that operating room, never to see Jane again.

Materialists might assert that Jane’s life had no purpose, that she was less valuable than those who are healthy enough to actually be able to do something. But I believe that when they are utterly honest with themselves, materialists cannot avoid the logical conclusions of their worldview: that it would be better, pragmatically, for us to stop spending time, energy, and resources to sustain the life of a braindead individual who cannot contribute to human society. Jane’s life is but a mishap in the otherwise forward-moving process that Nature has initiated to promote the development of the human species.

But worldviews collapse when they force people to live inconsistently with what they believe to be true. The view that life is objectively purposeless collides violently with the sharp pangs we feel when we see people like Jane and do whatever we can to try to make them well. The view that the value of human life should be judged based on merit contradicts the rare forms of unconditional love we show to those who can never earn it. The view that each person’s worldview is “true” in its own way conflicts fundamentally with the zeal with which we hold that genocide is wrong or human equality is right.

My most distressing thought upon leaving Jane that day was precisely that I had been living inconsistently with my own worldview. I believed that God created Jane and that He loved her, and that I was to go out and love the outcasts like her whom God cherished as His own. But my busy life at the time reflected little compassion for others, and, consequently, forced me to question how much I actually believed about God and his concern for suffering people all around me.

Jane reminded me that one of the greatest forms of self-deceit is to profess a worldview which we ourselves fail to live. The imprint that Jane left on my heart will remain with me for a long time. Although she wasn’t able to utter a single word to me during the half hour I stayed with her in the operating room, in her silence she somehow let me know that my life should reflect the hope I had in the God who loved her more dearly than I could ever imagine.

The reality of undignified suffering will continue to stir me, as I believe it should for anyone who is brave enough to believe that there is a God who unequivocally hates evil. Even dogmatic naturalists often admit that undignified human suffering is fundamentally wrong [3]. But for those of us in particular who see beyond the constraints of materialism and peer audaciously into the realm of God’s reality, we have an additional responsibility that we cannot pretend does not exist. This responsibility is to live consistently with our belief that God hates evil and requires us to give all of ourselves to the pursuit of justice and healing in our world. As believers, we deceive ourselves when we profess God’s love without performing it.

For the rest of us, we must be courageous enough to place our worldviews on trial and ask whether our lives genuinely reflect our most deeply held beliefs, particularly regarding issues as pressing as human suffering. If not, perhaps it is time we stop deceiving ourselves. Perhaps a new worldview is in order.

While this story is based on actual occurrences, the names have been changed.


[1] For an abbreviated version of Dr. Craig’s moral argument, see the section entitled “3. The Moral Argument Based upon Moral Values and Duties” at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-new-athiesm-and-five-arguments-for-god

[2] For Dr. Lennox ‘s full speech at the Veritas Forum, see http://johnlennox.org/jresources/the-loud-absence

[3] Granted, dogmatic naturalists who do follow the logical conclusions of their worldview will admit that undignified human suffering is not objectively wrong because moral absolutes do not exist. I do not know many who remain logically consistent in this respect.

“Even if He Does Not”

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the book of Daniel tells of three young Hebrew men who loved the Lord but found themselves threatened with death by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Because Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the idol set up by King Nebuchadnezzar, they were to be thrown into a fiery furnace that was heated seven times hotter than usual. The furnace was so hot that it killed the king’s servants who merely approached the fire. Yet the three men were untouched even after being thrown into the furnace, and the king is baffled when he looks into the furnace and sees four men inside, instead of three. The fourth, he says, appeared like a “son of the gods;” Jesus, perhaps. The King is so shocked at what has happened that he worships the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and appoints them to positions of authority in his kingdom.

Though I am amazed by the conclusion to this story, I am particularly moved by the initial response of the three Hebrew men when they are threatened with death. They say to King Nebuchadnezzar, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18).

These three men believed, with utmost faith, that God would save them from an impossible situation. Remarkably, they believed with all their heart that God was trustworthy even if he did not save them from death. They were so full of faith that they were willing to be killed before abandoning their trust in God.

These three men show me what real faith looks like. It is a faith that accepts whatever God has in store for us and that trusts him no matter what happens (including, and especially during, those times God doesn’t do what we want or expect him to do). It is a faith that knows that God can and does use every situation for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Spiritualizing Mental Illness: The Peril of Reductionist Thinking in the Church

On October 1, 2015, a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, killing eight students and an assistant professor. Following the incident, President Obama mourned that our sincerest sympathies cannot change the reality that “our thoughts and prayers are not enough” when it comes to preventing such massacres in the future. He continued, regarding the perpetrator, “Anybody who does this [shooting] has a sickness in their minds, regardless of what they think their motivations may be [1].”

The President’s verbiage, though intended to galvanize the country’s legislature into enacting stricter gun control laws, amplified the controversial questions surrounding the treatment of mental illness in the United States. The “sickness” that may have motivated this man to murder innocent people not only underlines the criticality of more effective legislative protective measures, but also reinforces the need to care for people like him in a way that seeks to prevent the explosive behaviors we see so routinely on the news.

Serving as a backdrop to this act of violence, the designation of the gunman as having a “sickness” draws attention to the ease with which people can quickly associate the mentally ill with antisocial and malicious behavior. This particular stigmatization of mental illness often lends itself to a myopic diagnosis of what causes gun violence, which in turn perpetuates the stigma in a destructive cycle.

The more harmful effects of this stigma are, however, repudiated when considering that mental illness does not ipso facto place a person at a greater risk for committing violence. Indeed, the means of successfully addressing the issue of mass shootings is complex and goes beyond simply improving mental healthcare, though that is critically important. The authors of a 2015 study investigating the factors at play in U.S. mass shootings maintained that we must “[recognize] that gun crimes, mental illnesses, social networks, and gun access issues are complexly interrelated, and not reducible to simple cause and effect [2].” What Roseburg, Charleston, Newtown, Columbine, and countless others demonstrate is not the ill-advised assumption that mental illness causes gun violence. Rather, events like these reiterate a concept so plain it seems to go without saying: Gun violence is complex. 

But a concept so easily acknowledged is not always easily practiced. Without even recognizing it, one can automatically dismiss another mass shooting as the consequence of a deranged psychology (“He killed ten people because he’s crazy”), when in reality a multitude of cognitive, social, political, and other factors may have contributed to the occurrence of the event. On the other hand, one who is religiously inclined might attribute the cause to sin (“We live in a fallen world where acts like these are to be expected”) or free will (“He killed because he chose to rebel against God”). Regardless of (non)religious underpinnings, the tendency to reduce gun violence to “nothing more than or y” is widespread.

Such reductionist thinking is particularly dangerous when it transcends the issue of gun violence and encroaches upon the overlapping terrain of mental illness (or, to use a more palatable and all-encompassing term, mental unwellness) itself. In fact, the Church’s perpetuation of a reductionist view of mental unwellness has hurtful and far-reaching consequences for those who struggle in this area, since many people perceive and trust the Church to be a place of healing. In the aftermath of any national moral disaster, new wounds are created and old ones are reopened, and questions of the Ultimate once again find themselves at the forefront of our collective consciousness. Almost instinctively, when secular society struggles to offer answers or comfort in the wake of such tragedies, people turn to the Church. (For instance, during the week of Roseburg, a candlelight vigil was held in the city park and multiple community churches were opened to the public for prayer and pastoral counseling.)

The Church should be commended for continually being available in instances such as these. But it must also be careful in what it actually offers to those who are suffering. All too frequently, the Church’s noble intentions are compromised by its propensity to over-spiritualize mental unwellness, thereby minimizing both its origin and its treatment.

As an example, some influential churches still hold that certain conditions such as anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia are a result of demonic possession. The Christian has, intentionally or unknowingly, allowed the devil a foothold in her life, which now manifests in psychological disturbances. She is told that her panic attacks may be the result of “generational sin,” or “soul ties with an unbeliever,” or past participation in occult activities. She undergoes deliverance prayers and exorcisms in an attempt to resolve the underlying “sin” issue that is supposedly causing the mental health issue. In many cases, however, the Christian continues to suffer even after she has seen very “gifted” deliverance pastors. The Christian can then be led to wonder whether she has a demon that cannot be exorcised, whether the deliverance “failed,” or whether there is any hope left for healing if deliverance and healing prayer didn’t “work,” thereby leading to a greater sense of helplessness.

The mentally unwell Christian is also repeatedly told to “have more faith,” as if she had not already believed with as much faith as she can. Though well-meaning, those who tell their suffering peers to just “pray harder” that God will heal them often imply that the sufferer is not faithful enough. Yet it is not uncommon for chronic mental unwellness to befall the most faithful of believers. A 2013 study found that more American pastors suffer from anxiety and depression than the general population [3]. It is a little known fact that even Mother Teresa, considered by many to be a paragon of virtue, suffered in silence from a dark depression for much of her life.

These examples, among many, shed light on the idea that perhaps mental unwellness cannot be overcome by simply believing or trying harder. Many mentally unwell but faithful Christians have done the most they can to seek healing in spiritual contexts. The journalist Philip Yancey, who has written extensively on prayer and suffering, reflects, “I have a file drawer filled with letters from earnest Christians who pray… who seek anointing with oil and follow every biblical admonition, and yet who find no relief from their suffering, no reward from their faith [4].” Scripture often portrays healing in Jesus’ time as a matter of faith (Mark 5:34, Mark 10:52), but one cannot deny the experiential reality, at least today, that healing is not always just a faith issue. Many times the mentally unwell Christian, like Job, offers as much faith as she can muster, and repeated admonitions from peers are no longer edifying.

This is not to say, however, that mental unwellness lacks a spiritual component; in fact, dealing with mental unwellness can be an extraordinarily spiritual endeavor, and religiosity and faith-building practices such as prayer and meditation can empower the sufferer towards recovery or at least a better ability to cope with her challenges [5].  It is rather the notion propagated by the Church that mental unwellness is always solely or predominately a spiritual issue that jeopardizes its knowledge and treatment of what in reality is often a complex and multifaceted problem. To treat any form of serious psychological condition as owing to a singular habit, upbringing, gene, or chemical imbalance would be readily dismissed by the medical community, which is increasingly validating the multidisciplinary biopsychosocial model of understanding human conditions (which states that the interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors determines human functioning within the context of illness). Similarly, to reduce mental unwellness to a singular spiritual defect such as lack of faith, a lazy prayer life, or any other among a host of other potential problems is to not take seriously the complexity of the sufferer’s situation.

When the Church pinpoints mental unwellness as spiritual unwellness, it can only see spiritual solutions. If mental unwellness is merely a permutation of sin or demon possession, then the solution lies in increased spiritual practices – faith, prayer, evocation of Scripture, exorcisms, or deliverance. But when healing continues to eludes the sufferer, what then? Has God abandoned her? Or is it simply God’s way of saying “not now”? “I have a plan for you”? “Your mental illness is part of my plan”? Such assumptions are both insensitive and unjustifiable.

Even so, the Church always has a safety net in the event that spiritual solutions backfire. It can continue to maintain that the problem is still spiritual in nature, but simply revise its position by adding that because of God’s infinite wisdom, we cannot understand why the sufferer continues to struggle or how her mental illness fits into God’s redemptive plan for humanity. The most we can do is continue to trust in God’s purpose and timing.

Although this may be a satisfactory intellectual solution for some (particularly for those who are not suffering), it often provides scant emotional comfort for one who is experiencing unbearable pain. When spiritual efforts do not resolve the issue, the Church no longer has anything to offer the sufferer apart from trite platitudes, albeit with good intentions. This is the danger of reductionist thinking. A Church that makes those who need help feel even more helpless is compromising its legitimacy as a place of hope and healing, a place where God can be experienced and received. A Church that fails to understand or properly care for one who is mentally unwell is a Church that communicates to the world that there are other, better avenues for help and healing. (Could it be that many who are angry with God first become disillusioned with the Church’s spiritual formulations?)

What, then, can the Church do? A simple step forward is for it to be humble enough to admit, borrowing the words of the President, when its “thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Though well-meaning, the Church must also be willing to acknowledge when its nearsightedness is preventing it from considering how one might be healed apart from traditional “Church” methodologies. Fortunately, the understanding that we cannot assume the existence of a spiritual panacea provides a much needed piece of the puzzle. By accepting this idea, Christians can begin to view the suffering of their peers in a less grossly simplistic manner and, consequently, develop the sophistication and tenderness required to help the troubled who turn to the Church for mental or emotional support.

The Church is an indispensable resource for people suffering with mental unwellness, and my intention here is not to discredit its role in this arena. Quite the opposite. It is precisely because the Church is such a powerful resource that I urge its members to steward its responsibility in a better way. Even today, the Church often continues to over-spiritualize mental unwellness to the detriment of those who suffer. Instead of turning mental unwellness into an exclusively spiritual matter, the Church should seek to establish and encourage spiritual treatment strategies (prayer/meditation, worship, Scripture, small group communities) but also be open to “secular” ones – cognitive-behavioral or other types of counseling, mindfulness, and medication, if needed.

In being willing to explore “secular” treatment modalities while offering the spiritual guidance that it is best equipped to do, the Church can begin to foster an even more dynamic and effective approach to the treatment of mental unwellness. Perhaps such integration would even enable the Church to work with the broader community to promote a progressive way of understanding people not exclusively within a biopsychosocial or spiritual framework, but within a biopsychosocio-spiritual one. The faith of many religions and philosophies posit that we are, by our most intrinsic nature, spiritual beings. But while we inhabit this world of brick and mortar in which our minds are, for better or worse, encapsulated within the neuronal networks of our brains, we must recognize that healing is only true if it heals the person in his or her entirety. While we possess these bodies, we are in fact biopsychosocio-spiritual beings, and this is the view that should guide the Church’s crucial role in the care of its most vulnerable.


[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/01/statement-president-shootings-umpqua-community-college-roseburg-oregon

[2] Authored by Drs. Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish in the American Journal of Public Health, entitled “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318286/

[3] Authored by Proeschold-Bell et al. in the Journal of Primary Prevention, entitled “Using Effort-Reward Imbalance Theory to Understand High Rates of Depression and Anxiety Among Clergy”: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10935-013-0321-4

[4] Yancey, Philip, “Reaching for the Invisible God”, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000, pg. 51.

[5] Dew et al. reviewed 115 published articles examining relationships between religion/spirituality and certain mental conditions and discovered that “ninety-two percent of articles reviewed found at least one significant relationship between religiousness and better mental health”. Their review can be found in Child Psychiatry & Human Development: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18219572

Emotional Difficulty and Mindfulness: A Personal Journey Towards Managing my Chaotic Thought Life

Recovering from an anxiety or depression disorder can be the most arduous experience of a person’s life. The unwelcome thoughts are enough trouble themselves, but the mental self-chastisement that we pile on to our already fatigued minds multiplies the burden until it truly feels unbearable. I intentionally use the term self-chastisement because most of the suffering we experience – even from anxiety or depression – is self-generated, whether we realize it or not. Most often we become so absorbed in our thoughts and feelings that we have taken on a new identity – the sick person, the sufferer – and not telling ourselves how badly or hopeless we feel about our situation seems to us to betray the identity we believe we have become.

But in spite of whatever we are facing and no matter how much it disrupts our lives, we have control of how we perceive our individual thoughts and feelings. The natural tendency for a person is to recoil in the face of unwelcome sensations; understandably, we don’t like feeling poorly. But usually our perception of our discomfort doesn’t end there. We don’t simply not prefer living with it. We take it a step further, catastrophizing how badly we feel, how much it has ruined our lives, why we aren’t getting better and if we will ever get better. And the more we do this, the more automatic this way of thinking becomes, until we have habituated ourselves to thinking (and feeling) more poorly than we need.

I began to see a Functional Medicine doctor in April 2016 when I had run out of options for recovering from a physical ailment that had baffled many medical professionals. I was running low on hope, but since I had not yet tried Functional Medicine, I decided to give it a shot before resigning to the idea that I may have to learn to live with my condition for the foreseeable future. In my first few sessions with my doctor it was clear to both of us that the suffering I experienced from my condition was not entirely (or even mostly) caused by the physical symptoms themselves. I had taken the unpleasant feelings in my body and transformed them into a monster that determined every ounce of my wellbeing, surrendering to my condition a power it didn’t possess or deserve. My doctor and I knew that there was a deeper mental and spiritual healing that I needed, in addition to the nutritional approaches that she would soon recommend.

As I worked with my doctor for the next few months, I was impressed by how much better I began to feel by addressing the various nutritional and gut-related imbalances that I did not know I had. But my most troublesome symptoms remained with me, and this compounded my catastrophic thinking (“Why isn’t this working?” “Does my doctor really know what’s going on with me?” “I’ll never get better!”). My impatience with the progress I was making led to continual self-doubt and worry. I did everything I could to make sure I was being the best patient I could be. In fact, I went beyond my doctor’s protocol and began reading books on Functional Medicine, obsessing about everything that went into (and came out of) my body, and self-monitoring any and every change I was feeling in my mind and body. When things weren’t going as quickly or smoothly as I had planned, I began to despair. I stressed myself out, all the time. Hypochondriac, worrywart, pessimist. These were all me.

Stress-related ailments are now a widely recognized medical phenomenon. While some conditions may be ignited by stress, many are exacerbated by it. It is now no wonder to me why I continued to feel so poorly even as I made the nutritional adjustments my doctor recommended. Through my catastrophic thinking I was continuing to stoke the flames of my internal turmoil, creating a tremendous amount of stress that doubtless fueled the intensity and recalcitrance of my symptoms.

While all this may seem self-evident, I was so engrossed in my ailment that it took me nearly two years of struggling before I realized that I was actually in control of how much power my thoughts had over me. They overruled me only insofar as I allowed them to do so. And that’s exactly what I had done. Though my body was gradually recovering, the process was stunted by my disastrous thought life. In fact, I riled so much against my condition that I often felt like I was regressing in my recovery.

So when I was near the end of my rope, about to accept that I would never overcome my ailment, I began to practice mindfulness.

What started out as a simple (but not easy) formal practice of sitting in quiet meditation for twenty minutes a day transformed after many months into the informal practice of being mindful of my thoughts during all times of the day, no matter where I was, what I was doing, or what I was feeling in my body. By learning to sit with my symptoms and the thoughts that aggravated them, I began to unmask the ferocious monster that I had perceived them to be.

Mindfulness taught me how to observe what was going on in my mind and body without over-reacting or latching on to them. It trained me to let go of situations I could not control and observe the vicissitudes of life with a conscious and appreciative awareness of my relation to them. It revealed to me my obsessive-compulsive tendencies and my perfectionism and provided a means of healing from those even as I was recovering from the physical manifestations of my condition.

This simple act of casting awareness on how we typically react to how we feel is highly therapeutic in itself. It takes us out of auto-pilot and provides a space where we can make deliberate and well-informed decisions on how we will respond to the trials we experience in our lives, including – but not limited to – a physical or mental health condition.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our responses lies our growth and our freedom.” Mindfulness allows us to take a step back and observe our lived experience of the present moment, however it is, with a nonjudgmental awareness that presents us with a space to make conscientious decisions that will determine our degree of suffering. In this space we can choose either to react with anger and despair towards the sensations we are experiencing and the thoughts that accompany them, or observe them with a neutral curiosity that unravels their malevolent appearance.

Through mindfulness practice I began to see my thoughts for what they were – simply thoughts. This process taught me how to work with my symptoms – and my thoughts – instead of desperately against them. On a practical level, this helped me to diminish my stress and relieve the tension that had for so long perpetuated my suffering and the symptoms that I had initially believed were responsible for it.

Mindfulness changed my relationship to my condition, and in doing so transformed my view of myself and my suffering. After years of fighting with my condition, mindfulness provided the way to peace. I began to see my condition as an ally, helping me to become a more integrated, authentic, and joyful human being, rather than as a scourge purposed to torture me relentlessly. Mindfulness is now so much more to me than a tool used to cope with stress or difficulty, though it does this fantastically. It is a way of being in the world, one that enlivens my relationship with myself, with others, and with God, in whom I place my faith.

When chronic anxiety or depression significantly impairs the quality of our lives, we need an anchor that keeps us grounded in the face of overwhelming emotion, a rudder that steers us away from the catastrophic thinking, and a sail that propels us towards peace. I found my way through mindfulness, and if you are suffering, I believe you can too.

Healing

When a person is anxious or depressed, she typically does what her brain has been evolutionarily conditioned to do when it experiences discomfort; she interprets the sensations as being (really, really) bad, and then recoils against them. We need not lament the fact that our brains are programmed to behave this way, since this evolutionary instinct alerts us that something is wrong and that we must take corrective action to avoid the possibility of disaster. It serves us well in cases of acute dysfunction and in fact allows us to survive on a material planet that impinges on our senses at every moment.

But in a day and age when we generally do not have to be vigilant against animal predators as our Neanderthal ancestors were, the fight-or-flight response can end up doing us more harm than good. It is counterproductive, for instance, when it fires during an exam, or when we are asking someone out on a date, or when we are about to deliver a speech. And if it fires too frequently, it can accelerate into a full-blown disorder, at which point it begins to fire even when there is no obvious threat that we need to be alerted of.

If we have not learned how to respond calmly to the physiological changes that occur when we experience an anxious or depressive episode, we perpetuate the negative impact they have on our mental wellbeing. In the absence of an effective strategy to manage these sensations, the brain will react as it has always reacted before – with aversion leading to suffering. Often the difference between how the brain reacts to chronic anxiety or depression and an acute bout of it simply rests in the length of time that it continues to generate repugnant feelings about the symptoms. This is why having chronic anxiety or depression can be so exhausting; as long as the discomfort persists, the brain continues to react (unless and until we learn to work skillfully with it).

Understanding that our brains will naturally generate such an aversive reaction to our symptoms is absolutely essential because it brings us to the crux of how to start on the path to healing from anxiety or depression. When I truly understood this, I demystified what was going on in my brain during anxious or depressive spells. Over time, these feelings no longer troubled me; I could ride them out, and even examine them with an air of curiosity as they lingered.

But for the longest time I thought that the way to heal was to try and make myself not have anxious or depressed feelings – to simply will these sensations and symptoms to go away. I thought that having the feelings themselves was the problem, when in reality the problem is how I failed to respond to them in the correct way when they occurred.

Though counterintuitive, anxiety and depression lose their stranglehold over us when we can get anxious or depressed and just let it be. “But how will that make it go away?” we ask. Therein lies the entire problem – as long as we rile against our feelings, wishing and pleading that they would leave, we will continue to be anxious and depressed. It is such behavior – such helpless urgency – that generates the problem itself.

My worst mistake was becoming too emotionally invested in my feelings. Instead of passively accepting them, I riled against them all the time. It was so hard for me to change my behavior because all my life I could will myself to overcome anything just by trying harder. Recovering from anxiety and depression doesn’t work that way. In fact, recovery entails the exact opposite – passive acceptance.

Passive acceptance does not mean defeatism. It simply means coming to terms with the fact that your symptoms are here for the time being, and it is okay if you need to be with them for now.

For many months I practiced passive acceptance without knowing what exactly I was doing or whether it was helping. All I knew was that I no longer wanted my life to revolve around thinking about how bad my symptoms were and how much I wanted to get rid of them. That had done absolutely nothing for me except erode the quality of my life.

So instead of focusing my efforts on making my symptoms go away, I read books I enjoyed. I prayed. I meditated (a lot). I listened to teachings from leaders I respected. I explored nature. I exercised and ate well. I pursued my passions and developed new interests. I learned to love myself. I got involved in community. I tried to care for others. I forced myself to see the potential and the good in every situation, something that my symptoms continually gave me the opportunity to do. I stopped asking my symptoms for permission to do things I wanted to do. I allowed my symptoms to keep me humble and focused on life’s pleasures both big and small.

I did none of these things perfectly, but I did them relentlessly. I was determined to reclaim my life, since my symptoms had stolen so much of it for so long.

Only in hindsight can I now see what I was striving to accomplish in deciding to live my life without obsessing about curing my symptoms any longer. I was striving to embody my new definition of healing, which I can now identify as the following: Healing is an ongoing process of sanctifying our minds as we work with our anxiety and depression in a skillful, productive, hopeful, and redemptive way. This process unfolds within us a humble and enduring contentment with our lives that leads to peace.

For me, this was a revelatory way of thinking about my recovery. Instead of trying to force my anxiety and depression away, I learned to work with them and even allowed them to illuminate my life in surprising ways. Things began to change for the better when I truly began to see my symptoms not as a malicious threat to my health and happiness, but as an ally ushering me into a more fulfilling life – if only I had the courage to accept them as such.

Eventually this way of thinking began to calm my mind and vitalize my soul. And the symptoms I so vociferously condemned actually provided me the opportunity to receive these gifts.

My anxiety and depression humbled me. They exposed the destructive behaviors and distorted thought processes that I had previously allowed to dominate my life. They showed me what it felt like to be at the mercy of something out of my control, even though, ironically, the depths of fear, isolation, and despair they brought me were the very things that empowered me to take control of my life.

My anxiety and depression taught me how to subdue the power of a wily brain that for so long robbed me of my dignity. Without them, I would have continued on a path of mediocrity, boredom, selfishness, and mental, emotional, and spiritual immaturity. They allowed me to embrace life in a way that those who are exempt from having to face persistent discomfort cannot.

My anxiety and depression did not save my life. Instead, they gave me a new one, far better than the one I had before.

Anxiety and depression have the power either to destroy us or to heal us. Whichever they do depends on what we choose to do with and believe about them. We allow them to destroy us when we kick and scream for them to go away, but we allow them to heal us when we learn to use them to our advantage and for our benefit.

Earlier I mentioned that the crux of obtaining this healing rests on the knowledge that our reptilian brains naturally react to discomfort with a ferocious aversion. Unless we become fully aware of and understand the way in which our brains cause us to suffer, we will not know how to overcome its tricks and begin the healing process.

We must understand that healing comes gradually to us as we train our brains to respond to our symptoms rather than react to them. I have heretofore described the brain as a reactive organ, not a responsive one, because that is what it naturally is.

reaction is visceral, instinctual, and often overwhelming, while a response is measured, skillful, and composed. When the primitive brain feels discomfort, it senses danger, and the urgency of the perceived danger triggers an automatic reaction intended to grab the attention of the host to take action.

From an evolutionary standpoint, then, the series of events from stimulus (an anxious or depressive thought/feeling) to perception and then to interpretation of the stimulus must occur rapidly – so rapidly, in fact, that we are not even aware of the fact that such a chain exists, because when faced with danger the brain cannot afford to waste any time. The point along this chain at which reacting and responding to our discomfort diverge is right between perception and interpretation. When the brain perceives the discomfort, it simply becomes aware or conscious of it. It merely understands what is happening (e.g. “this is an anxious or depressive thought/feeling”), without attaching an emotional charge to this understanding.

The moment the brain perceives the discomfort is the moment that we either react or respond to it. Left untrained, the brain will react each and every time, because it is evolutionarily conditioned to do so in order to try to protect us from danger. And whenever we react to our discomfort with toxic thoughts, we generate onerous emotions which then serve as another deleterious stimulus on top of the original stimulus. These emotions are often more intense than the initial stimulus itself, so we can easily fall into the trap of reacting negatively to the emotions, thus perpetuating a cycle of suffering.

But we can train ourselves instead to respond to discomfort. We can teach our brain to recognize the small but decisive space that exists between perception and interpretation, and in that space decide to respond in a way that facilitates our healing by making good use of the discomfort. Viktor Frankl puts it well: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

While this sounds easy, it is anything but. We are essentially combating an evolutionary program that has developed through selective modification over millions of years. But we are able to do this, since evolution has also given us a neuroplastic brain – that is, a brain whose neuronal networks, including the ones that determine whether and how we react or respond to discomfort, are physically malleable. This is great news for us who struggle with anxiet or depression, because the quality of our lives very well depends on our ability to leverage our willpower to rewire our brain’s experience of discomfort. I believe that the human will is the most potent force in the universe, and when it is properly channeled (e.g. through mindfulness or cognitive-behavioral changes), can shape the brain in astounding ways.

The type of healing I have described comes from recognizing and understanding what the brain is naturally inclined to do in the face of discomfort, and then training it to respond rather than react to it. Over time, with a lot of practice, determination, patience, guidance, and support, we become adept at working with our anxiety or depression in a skillful, wise, and tender way. We train ourselves to become no longer threatened by our discomfort, and even to be comfortable with it. We de-fang our symptoms, so to say. And once we take away their power over us, we assume power over them.

The process by which this all occurs is the road to healing. Rewiring the brain to overcome discomfort takes more than just brute effort. Repeating endlessly to yourself not to be upset at your symptoms will likely not solve the problem. The brain needs to be taught why it should not be upset, and become convinced on the deepest level that the discomfort really is okay – that life with anxiety or depression is a life worth living, just as it is.

This requires a willingness to refine or even replace any personality traits, learned habits and tendencies, worldviews, and other underlying factors that do not assist in positively shaping the brain to overcome its aversive attitudes – be it increased anxiety, anger, or depression – to the uncomfortable symptoms. Chronic suffering as a result of anxiety or depression often prompts an entire overhaul of our mental, emotional, and spiritual paradigms in order for us to overcome our suffering and thrive in our present bodies. But as we do this work, we grow and experience the fullness of life in ways we would have otherwise missed without the impetus of our trial.

As a result, the one who has suffered so long from anxiety or depression no longer has to suffer.

This is freedom. This is healing.

A Different Way

During the first two years of my struggle with anxiety I had only one goal in mind: to cure myself. I was frenetically obsessed with getting better. Every day I frequented online forums reading about the experiences of people whose symptoms resembled mine (even in the slightest), and I rushed to try anything that they purported worked for them. But nothing I tried worked. And I “tried everything,” as those of us with anxiety or depression will often say.

The reason I kept looking for answers was simple: I could not accept that I, of all people, could suffer this way. I was young and had my entire life ahead of me, so I could not afford to let the symptoms hold me back from living the fullest life possible. The symptoms had already upended so much of my life. And I thought that as long as they persisted, they would only continue to rob me of things I wanted to pursue. (I later came to understand that it was my perception of the symptoms, rather than the symptoms themselves, that ultimately limited me.)

During this time I kept reciting to myself how unfair it was that I had to have this condition. How it would ruin the rest of my life if I did not find a way to resolve it. I was stuck in a Catch-22: I thought my anxiety symptoms were terrible, so I needed to get rid of them, but the more I tried to get rid of them, the more frustrated and fearful I became when they did not go away, and this frustration and fear only reinforced the notion that my condition was ruining my life and jeopardizing my future and therefore had to go.

I kept myself stuck in this cycle for two years. I kicked, screamed, panicked, complained, worried, and thrashed about looking for answers, all of which only exacerbated the symptoms and diminished the quality of my life (which, of course, led me to kick, scream, panic, etc. some more). I was trapped in a psychological prison that I could not escape.

I suffered so much during this time. I repeatedly promised myself that I would learn to “live with” my anxiety and then reneged on my promise when I could not tolerate the symptoms anymore. This cycle further reinforced the seemingly inescapable prison of my situation. I could not live with my anxiety, and I could not live with my acceptance of my anxiety either. No matter what, it seemed like there was only one way out: to get rid of it. But it just would not leave. And I continued to suffer.

The decisive turning point came after two years of agony. I took a long, hard look at how little progress I had made in my recovery since my condition first surfaced. I realized that I had wasted so much time, energy, and money trying to get better, and all of this produced absolutely nothing except more fear, worry, anger, and despair. Though I did not want to admit it, I knew I only had two options moving forward:

Option 1: Continue to complain about how my anxiety was ruining me and try to figure out how to make it go away (in which case I would only continue to suffer as I had for the previous two years), or

Option 2: Learn to let go.

The process of elimination was simple but not easy. I knew I did not want to suffer any longer. I could not afford to. What I had done for the past two years did nothing to help me recover, and, in fact, directly contributed to the intensity of my suffering. I had my entire life ahead of me, and I needed to find a way to live again. Sure, life would not be the same if I continued to have anxious feelings, but I knew I had to move on one way or another. My mother used to say to me whenever I had a depressive episode and could not bring myself to do anything except ruminate about how awful my symptoms were: “Life still needs to be lived.”

I came to understand what she meant. As long as I was still breathing, I still had a life I needed to live – if not ideally, then at least to the best of my ability. I disliked the hand I had been dealt, but I had to learn to work with it. I had no other choice. This eventually became a monumental lesson for me in coming to accept the unfairness of life and to overcome the self-imposed suffering of “just-right thinking.” It helped that my family continued to reassure me, despite my unwavering profession that my condition was worse than anyone else’s, that many others who had been dealt poor hands in life also had to learn to make the most out of their situations.

Of course, Option 2 was not preferable. I did not want to “make peace” with my anxiety; I wanted it to go away, right away. But it was the only alternative I had to the intolerable Option 1. So I had to work with it.

I therefore chose Option 2 with the utmost reluctance, like a child forced to eat raw broccoli over ice cream. I had small hopes for where Option 2 would take me; in fact, I believed that mediocrity was the highest realization of my life’s potential as long as I had my condition. But even if that were the case, I reasoned, it was still better than the dead-end anguish I might experience for the rest of my life had I chosen to stick with Option 1. I was sick of flailing around like a fish out of water looking for an external cure that continually eluded me. Einstein once remarked, “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Engaging in Option 1 was my form of insanity.

Astoundingly, my willingness to do something different in order to achieve something different reversed the trajectory of my suffering. In deciding to choose out of continued suffering, I did not know what exactly I was choosing into, only that it was something different.

Frankly, different was the only thing that I could count on at that point, so I went with it, praying it would take me somewhere better. It was only after months and months of persistently sticking with Option 2 that I came to experience a healing deeper than I could have imagined, one which led to peace.

My decision to choose something different was not the final solution to my problem, but it propped open a door that I had kept shut for two years – a door to new possibilities, even peace. For those of us who remain trapped in a constant battle with anxiety or depression, we must decide whether we want to continue to suffer, or to overcome our suffering by taking control of our health and wellbeing. We may not know how exactly we might accomplish the latter, particularly if our condition is severe, but the first step is deciding that we want to do it. The rest will come.

Beautiful Things

Gungor’s song “Beautiful Things” begins:

All this pain / I wonder if I’ll ever find my way / I wonder if my life could really change at all / All this earth / Could all that is lost ever be found? / Could a garden come up from this ground at all?

Suffering – especially of a nature that is severe, unrelenting, personal, and seemingly senseless – casts doubt on the character and existence of a God whom Christians claim is good, loving, and merciful. Surely, though, when a protracted divine silence is all one hears in response to his pleas for relief, this doubt can creep towards the edge of apostasy. I nearly lost my balance at this edge, after two years of suffering from an anxiety condition that left me wondering whether God was really who we claimed him to be. I had turned to prayer, Scripture, healing, and spiritual counsel for nearly two years and received… nothing, it seemed. In fact, the Church – which, despite its best intentions, remained ignorant and unhelpful – further alienated me from a God whom I tried desperately to trust in spite of the mounting evidence that appeared to weigh against his favor.

But as I teetered on that edge, considering whether I would leave him for good, I felt the cry of my heart which was unwilling to forfeit – at least completely – the hope of a sovereign God. He is, I know, the only way that suffering can ultimately be redemptive. If there is no God, my pain really is senseless; if there is no God, any instance of suffering or injustice in the world is senseless. That which dehumanizes is not made right, now or ever, and there is no relief that something good one will day come out of even a lifetime of toil.

Fortunately, there is an alternate perspective. Philip Yancey proudly admits that a Christian begins with the conclusion that God is good and will restore creation to its original design, shaping all of history to proceed toward that end. If life doesn’t seem to accord with that notion, we must then explore the possibility that there may be a reason which makes sense only in hindsight, when God in his unchanging goodness makes all things known to us in the end (1 Corinthians 13:12).

That’s why the song doesn’t end the way it begins. From doubt and despond, “Beautiful Things” transitions into hope and joy:

All around / Hope is springing up from this old ground / Out of chaos life is being found in You / You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of the dust / You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of us.

Dust is devoid of potential. How can anything come up from a ground of dust, let alone a garden?

But when no possibility in this world appears to exist, there is always the possibility of a sovereign God who is able to make beautiful things out of any desperate situation.

This is the hope that I have; it is what keeps me staring at the dust today, eagerly anticipating a future in which a garden covers it all.