For so much of my life, I thought I was normal. In fact, if people weren’t like me, I used to think to myself, “Well, Beck, you’ve been lucky; you’ve grown up with excellent teaching, you’ve had all your ducks in a row from Day Dot.” I would tuck my theology under my arm and smile benignly, knowing that as time went by, all of us would gain similar insight and wisdom.
It was eye-opening to gradually come to realise that my life has not been normal, and I am not normal in consequence. (In fact, very few people are.) And it was complete shock to finally confront the fact that I had a mental illness.
Dial back a second. I’m not nuts. I just have giant holes in me. Holes named Anxiety, Doubt, Confusion, FOMO (fear of missing out).
I used to find it baffling that my children were not like me. They’re a little bit like their dad, and a traces of me show up now and then; but their drives and interests are their own. For a while, I was stumped. I was raising them on the values I was raised on; why had they not turned into carbon copies of me and my brothers? And then I realised: their life experiences, and the times they are living in, and the country we reside in … all of these things are different. They would have to live my exact life, with my soul, in my times, to turn out like myself. So when my daughter, at the end of a big fight, turned to me and said earnestly, “This is all in your head! You’re getting worse, Mum. You need to see someone!” it was time to acknowledge that Things Weren’t Going Well. And my life and upbringing, whatever their advantages, had not dealt me universal blessedness.
Hear me, now. I’m not blaming others. I had good parents and good churches and good pastors (for the most part). It could well be that when I say, “I was wrongly taught xyz,” that in fact I was taught correctly, and I filtered it through my very own xyz and that’s where it got distorted. God knows that the artistic temperament does tend toward the negative. And it could be that xyz was wildly fashionable back then, and taught vehemently, to the detriment of abc. And it could be that xyz really was a bunch of rubbish in the first place, but nobody knew better at the time. And it could be that they did. All of these things are possible; I just don’t want you to get the impression that I’m passing the buck.
All my life I have been conscious of inherent sin. Most churches teach that all people are born with a tendency toward sin, as part of the curse that came upon us in the Garden of Eden. The curse can be lifted by submitting yourself to Jesus Christ as your boss and rescuer; we call this becoming “born again”. What I couldn’t work out, though, was that if I was a new creation, having given my life to Christ, why did sinful thoughts still run through my head? Because they undoubtedly did – with disturbing regularity. And so, convinced I was missing some important step, I jumped through as many hoops as I could. What was I missing? Was it just a case of His DNA taking a lifetime to be unpacked in me? I shouted Scriptures at myself. I came forward for altar calls. I loathed myself. In the end I just resigned myself to not understanding why it worked for everyone else but me. I would just have to lean on the Blood and hope for the best.
The tendency in church life is to tackle EVERYTHING from the theological end. While this is good from the “letting God handle it” point of view, it can leave large gaps, not because God is inadequate but because the people teaching the approach are the ones with enormous gaps in their knowledge. All of us talk about what works for us, or what we’ve heard works for people we know or have read about, or what works in theory. These are not blanket cures, though, and they can be flavoured by a flood of well-meant misinformation. And there you have a person like me, who has mental issues but believes they are broken because their spiritual answers aren’t doing the trick. “You must be doing it wrong,” I told myself. “You idiot. Keep up!”
Rachel Denhollander said recently about poor church response to abuse, “[Biblical truths] are really used to mitigate and to minimize—almost as if the victim handles it ‘properly,’ if the victim just forgives, all of the feelings are going to go away. That’s not true and that’s not what Scripture teaches.”
I can attest to this, and to what she goes on to say about pursuing God’s justice as well as His mercy. It’s hard work to recover from spiritual abuse while you watch your abuser get a free ride and a love offering. You’re sitting there, week after week, praying blessing on your enemy, all the while feeling guilty that you see a brother in the Lord, a pastor, no less, as your enemy. When you don’t feel you have a voice, when it’s not safe to speak up, it’s a soul-destroying place to be in. And you know that when people look at you, they see someone scarred. Scarring is not beautiful, and opportunities go to the beautiful people. The best thing you can say about your battle scars is that you got them because you refused to sit on the sidelines. You got them because you showed up for the fight. Let no one disqualify you for them!
That was a rather long detour about the failure of “properly handling things” (which even Job, the most righteous man who ever lived, couldn’t do consistently), but what I’m trying to focus on here is the comparison between tackling things from a spiritual “God knows best” point of view, and a cognitive “What are we missing?” approach.
I got breakthrough in therapy. My psychologist (a pastor himself) took me through a process called cognitive defusion. At least, I hope he said “de-fusion” and not “diffusion”. We talked about the early maladaptive schema (when your brain as a small child creates a dysfunctional program for dealing with certain things). We identified three probablies and two maybes, so off my own bat, I mindmapped them all, since that works well for me for loosening up ideas and extrapolating them. He’d asked me to think about when each occurred and what each sounded like, what my self-talk said to me. What I wound up with was a giant sheet of paper covered in vitriol.
When I showed my psych the paper, we talked about some of the issues. He said that I had a lot of leniency toward people who’d hurt me, but almost none for myself. (“They behaved this way because they had xyz happen to them.” “They’re Muggles, they don’t know any better. But I should know better.” … etc) And then he told me a very interesting thing. “Thoughts just come to you,” he said. “You can’t control them coming in.”
Now, I knew this was true about feelings, though I’m still pretty good at beating myself up for feeling the “wrong” things, just as I’m an absolute expert at beating myself up for thinking the “wrong” things. But I’ve been taught all my life that “as a person thinks in their heart, so they are” and that a good Christian should be “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ”. Add to that a keen awareness of having sin in me. So I’ve been going through my whole life, believing that (a) I have darkness in me – which is true enough, if not the whole truth; (b) I am my thoughts, lots of which are bad; and (c) it’s my job to gate them and eradicate them. And then I’ll have a right to feel okay about myself. Someday. When all my thoughts are pure. And I won’t have to stand ashamed before God, needing yet another wash.
Well … it turns out, that process is really, really bad for me. (So now I have solved a mental issue but created a theological one!) I’ve been taught to deal with negative thoughts by reciting Scripture at them (this from the church) or by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones (this from pop culture). My psych says that’s pretty much like a person busting for the toilet chanting “Don’t think of water, don’t think of water.” All it does is prime the negative thought. He said the key is not to wage war against the thoughts, but to give less attention to them.
Mirabile, this is actually working for me. My brain can shout nasty things at me all day (“You horrible degenerate! That’s not godly! You’re a big fat fake!”), but I’m no longer obligated to listen. The insults are well-worn ruts in the road, of course, so the wheels keep on tending to go down there, though as time goes by the accidents are getting less frequent. Much more quickly, I’m able to shake myself and go, “Wait, I don’t have to pay attention to this.” It’s like a Get Out Of Jail Free card. I can walk away from all that self-flagellation and not, well, feel like I’m wagging. It’s awesome. Not my circus – it’s just my wetware glitching, always was – so not my monkeys. I feel lighter than air. I can’t believe I lived so long under condemnation I knew I wasn’t supposed to have!
So, where does that leave the Bible verses? Can I reconcile the truth of God’s Word with the truth of my experience?
Let’s have a look at the big one, 2 Corinthians 4:5b. “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
This verse does seem to imply that every passing thought ought to be swiped into a butterfly net, pounded with a rock until it conforms, and then put neatly on the correct shelf with a solid “Hmph!” No doubt this verse was thrown at us a lot in our formative years because “everybody knows teens think about nothing but sex all day long.” But just look at the damage it’s done in my life, without its context. It had me running exhausted day and night, trying to marshal all the random stuff that the brain just generates naturally because that’s what it does!
But guys! Guys! The context! Look! Look how it scans if you start at verse 4!
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
THIS IS A PASSAGE ABOUT HOW TO DO SPIRITUAL WARFARE. Not a verse about how to discipline your way into God’s good graces. Let the random crap fly – you’re not responsible for it! The brain generates it for free, and there’s not a thing you can do about it! But if you are engaged in a season where you are trying to use spiritual weapons to intentionally bring down a stronghold – THEN it’s time to pound lies with the Rock of Ages! These negative thoughts are the thoughts we have to take captive. Half of them are not even yours. This is the language of war: the thoughts that keep us under enemy siege – those are going to be our prisoners of war. They go under lock and key, and we turn our back on them (literally “repent” – to turn around and go the other way). THIS is the time to shout verses at your problems, because the Word of God and prayer are our two offensive weapons. This is the ONLY time you shout at yourself – and you do it because you’re on your side! And you shout encouragement, you don’t berate yourself! Cheer yourself on! Pray in the Spirit, because He knows what needs to be said!
Note, a stronghold in this context is linked to arguments, pretensions, and blockages that keep us from the knowledge of God. That could be all one thing, or four separate things. But if you remember that God is love, then the knowledge of God would be, in large part, a deep understanding of His love, as well as His righteousness and His values. So anything that argues that God couldn’t really love you, that parades around as a “smarter thought” than the simplicity of God’s love for you, that tells you you’ll never have a grasp on Him or His love – those are stronghold lies that need to be captured and annihilated. Knock ’em down, they’re the enemy.
Note also – the beating up of these pretensions is not something God expects us to do with our own mental resources. He specifically says that they are defeated with spiritual weapons, not natural. That means that the supply of such weaponry is up to Him. He’s given us the Bible and prayer for this very reason. You’re not expected to use aversion therapy or behavioural modification or any other earthly weapon. You’re supposed to listen to the Spirit and strike when and what He tells you to strike.
Back to the difficult verses. Maybe, just maybe, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7) DOESN’T mean “you are your bad thoughts”. Maybe it just means “your style of thinking will shape you” – which in my case was evidently true, because years of upbraiding myself had definitely shaped me into someone defensive and insecure. But even further, consider this: it’s a quote from the King James, lifted completely out of context as well, with the result that the phrase doesn’t even come up in other translations! (It was never about mental hygiene. The passage is about how to behave prudently at a party where your host’s eyes are going “Ch-ching! Ch-ching!” every time you lift your fork. Possibly because he’ll be doing the same thing at your party. And this bad translation chained me to condemnation for decades.)
Maybe the Bible was never, ever meant to be read to ourselves in a stern, accusing voice. Maybe it’s been kindly all along. I’m learning to speak kindly to myself – to speak, in fact, the way Jesus speaks to me. He never snaps, “You idiot, I’m so frustrated with you, haven’t you got this right YET?” Instead He puts an arm around my shoulder, smiles beside my cheek and says gently, “I reckon we could try that again and do it better.”
I thought that underneath everything was my inherent sin. I was wrong. Underneath are the everlasting arms. I thought everything began and ended in my shame. But it begins and ends in the love of the Father. It begins and ends in the love of the Father!