The Path Out of the Darkness"Through simple, persistent prayer was freedom from self-hatred and a renewed interest and joy in life."
I remember waking up one summer night with oppressive darkness squeezing my thoughts. It was after midnight and before dawn. I wrestled with things like self-loathing, shame and a lack of joy. In the months leading up to this night of fitful sleep, sin had crept into my thoughts and heart. I ignored the sin, increasingly finding myself out of alignment with my faith in the God of the Bible.
Embarrassed to be struggling with both sin and suicidal thoughts, I didn’t feel safe talking about my struggles. I knew in my heart that Jesus had authority over sin, shame and even the spirit of suicide, but I had become desperate for solutions. I began reading “Pigs in the Parlor: A Practical Guide for Deliverance” by Frank Hammond as a guidebook to activating my authority as a believer in the name of Jesus.
On that dark summer’s night, I read a chapter about praying yourself through an attack of dark thoughts. What I found through simple, persistent prayer was freedom from self-hatred and a renewed interest and joy in life. Once I was set free, I learned the following lessons to stay free:
Fire in Both the Physical and Spiritual
Our mental health is an intersection between the physical and the spiritual. We must do what we can in one without neglecting the other; otherwise, we leave ourselves vulnerable on the battlefield for our soul. Instead, we must be clever and study our enemy’s strategy, which includes weaknesses of our bodies, and the invisible impacts on our spiritual person.
Elijah wrestled through desolation in 1 Kings 19, begging God to take his life. In response, God provided nutritious food, restful sleep and time to physically heal. Only after meeting these physical needs did God attend to the spiritual needs of Elijah. It is important to take care of our physical bodies, which includes exercising to boost endorphins, choosing nutrition over salty or sugary snacks, taking supplements and/or medication if necessary, and getting adequate sleep.
The Weapons of Truth and Salvation
We must fight our spiritual and emotional battles through the weaponry of the Armor of God. I have found the belt of truth and the helmet of salvation particularly useful as a guide in prayer.
To buckle your belt of truth, take time to check the narrative you are telling yourself. It is easy to take a fact such as “I made a mistake,” and tell yourself a story that is not true. “I made a mistake” becomes “I made a mistake, and I’m a total failure and a fraud.” It is helpful to imagine the facts of any situation floating on top of the water. Be aware that the enemy of your soul is like a crocodile who takes hold of the truthful statement and drags it into the murky waters of blatant lies laced with dark thoughts.
Once a thought is on its way down with the crocodile, it is not easy to shift to a focus on God’s character, goodness and blessings. This is where our helmet of salvation gets refastened, as we take captive every thought and bring it under the authority of Christ. This is where we work out our salvation.
It is helpful to rehearse hope to yourself daily. Habits such as scripture journaling or memorization serve to boost your resilience when under spiritual or emotional duress. After just a few days focusing intentionally on the truths of scripture as part of a routine, you will develop a path out of the darkness.
Paul is clear in Ephesians 6 that believers are in danger of receiving spiritual wounds when engaged in the battlefield of daily life – why else would we need armor? However, we often forget that any good army has specialists in fixing the weaponry. We must not forget that the church should be a safe place for the walking wounded in our midst to ask for help.
There is No Shame in Shame
It is important to remember that mental illness itself is not always a result of personal sin. Sometimes the sin of another can traumatize so deeply that anxiety, depression or other complications develop. For others, mental illness is not caused by sin at all but is inherited in genetic coding as a consequence of living in a fallen world. Each of us has a body prone towards decay and disease; some of us experience those effects on the organ of the brain.
Recognizing that there is no shame in experiencing episodes of mental anguish or emotional challenge allows us to bring difficult emotions into the light. When something is held in secret, the darkness holds power. When shame is brought out of the shadows and into the light, we can recognize it and give it a name. When we examine feelings of shame in the light of Christ, we realize there is no sin that Jesus did not die to forgive.
Shame is as old as humankind. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, their response to God’s presence was to hide in shame. God invited them out of their shame by speaking the truth in love and telling them about Jesus who would someday be born to destroy the curse brought on by their actions.
Now, in 2020, we have the same response. When thoughts are racing and irrational, when the weight of sin and failure seems unbearable, we do not naturally run towards God. Often, we run away from God and other loved ones. We choose isolation. In those moments, it is good to remember Jesus destroyed the power of sin, and he is inviting you out of hiding and back into a restored friendship with him. That is the essence of the Good News about Jesus!
There is Power in One True Friend
Since my initial bout of dark thoughts, I have experienced many victories despite many trials, all leading toward renewed joy and vitality. It is now my privilege to serve and love those who struggle with mental health challenges. Loneliness and feelings of isolation are pervasive in both young people and adults; churched and unchurched; those with money and those with none.
Some say that the solution to the epidemic of mental health challenges and suicide is to have more mental health professionals available. We do need more people in this field, and I pray that many future mental health professionals will know by experience that Jesus Christ is Lord over depression, anxiety and all illness.
The truth is that real solutions are as simple as friendship, and all of us can play a part. It does not take a degree or a title to send an encouraging text message, card or phone call. As a pastor and friend, I am often surprised at how little effort it takes from me to make a positive impact on someone’s life. Often, encouragement comes down to being present and showing up.