We tend to find our identity in labels. For example, the label “nerd” applies quite nicely to me. I like video games, obscure Star Wars quotes (“He’s no good to me dead!” – name the reference), and all the latest tech gadgets. The label “creative” also fits me pretty well. I love bringing new ideas to fruition and coming up with new ways to approach old problems. I’m also book junkie, a sports lover, and a coffee snob. I’ve got no problem with these labels. They represent part of who I am. And you probably have a number of labels plastered on your forehead as well. Gearhead, gamer, jock, outdoorsman, redneck, political junkie, etc. For the most part these labels are neutral.
But all of us have also adopted labels which are not so good. “My grandpa was an angry man, my dad was an angry man, and I’m an angry man.” Or, “I’ve always struggled with body image issues. It’s just who I am.” Or, “I’ve always wrestled with same sex attraction. It’s just a part of me.” Or, “My mom treated me like trash. My husband has treated me like trash. Therefore, I must be trash.” Or, “I’ve just always been a worrier. I can’t help who I am.”
We assume that what has been always will be. We willingly adopt the labels that come with the struggles: angry, anorexic, loser, trash, failure, addict.
When we believe the labels we more quickly give in to temptation. “I’ve always been a slave to porn. It’s just who I am. I might as well keep giving in to it.” Or, “I’ve always been impatient. I can’t help it. I’m always going to be this way so I might as well learn to live with it.”
But the solid, firm, Biblical reality is that we are not our labels.
In Galatians 2:20 Paul said:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
When Paul said he had been crucified with Christ he meant that his old, sinfully enslaved, wickedness-loving self had been killed. It was crucified with Christ and it died. When Paul’s old self died, all the labels that went along with his old self also died. Paul was a violent man, but the “violent” label was nailed to the cross. Paul was a self-righteous fool, but the “self-righteous” label was pinned to the cross as well.
For Paul there was only one label that mattered: Christ lives in me. That reality defined who he was. The old, “labeled” Paul had been crucified with Christ. The new Paul had only one label: “Christ In Me”.
The same is true for us. Our old self was crucified with Christ and now Christ himself lives in us. We are not ultimately defined by our struggles we are defined by our union with Jesus Christ. Our old self, with all its labels is dead and buried. Those old labels don’t apply to us anymore. We may still struggle with the same temptations, but those temptations no longer define our identity.
We are in Christ and Christ is in us. Period. That is our identity. All the old labels can go to Hell (I mean that literally).
There will be times when it feels like we will never change. Like we will always be angry, have an eating disorder, give in to lust, worry, or be greedy. But God’s reality must always trump our perceived reality. We will not always be the same. Why? Because Christ lives in us. When Christ lives in us the old labels no longer apply.
Every day we must live in light of who we truly are. When we are tempted to be angry we must remember, Anger belongs to the old me. When we are tempted to lust we must remember that lust belongs to our old self. When we are tempted to worry we must remember that our old, worrying self was crucified with Christ.
We are not our labels. We are Christ’s.
Worry is the act of imagining a future without God.
When you strip it down to its bones that’s what it really is. I worry when I imagine a future devoid of God. I worry when I project my current feelings and discouragements and struggles into the future. I worry when I take God’s love and faithfulness out of the equation. When I imagine a stark and bleak future, a screaming void in which my faithful and loving Father does not exist or act on my behalf. Underneath all the anxiety and fear and confusing emotions worry is actually a form of atheism. It’s acting as if God does not exist.
Psalm 18:46 provides three words which destroy worry and fuel faith: “The Lord lives…”
Don’t pass over those words too quickly. The. Lord. Lives.
My budget is flatlining and we are financially tanking and I don’t see hope for the future! But the Lord lives. The same Lord who owns everything and provides for ravens and sustains galaxies and calls us his children is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t provide for yourself but your budget is not too tight for God. The Lord lives.
My child is not doing well spiritually and I’ve tried everything and I don’t have any hope that anything will change! The Lord lives. The same Lord who has saved murderers and prostitutes and Pharisees and drug addicts and money addicts and pastors' kids is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t save your child, but your kid is not too hard for God. The Lord lives.
My marriage is on the rocks and we’ve tried counseling and we’ve read all the books and I don’t see things getting any better! The Lord lives. The same Lord who created a bride for himself out of rebellious, wicked, God-hating sinners is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t rescue your marriage, but your marriage is not too hard for God. The Lord lives.
My spiritual life is dry, and I’ve tried a thousand different things to get it kickstarted, but nothing seems to work, and honestly, I don’t think things are going to get any better. The Lord lives. The same Lord who caused you to become spiritually alive is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t breathe fresh life into your heart, but your heart is not too dry for God.
Your circumstances may be bleak. You may not see a light at the end of the tunnel. You may not see any silver lining. But circumstances and tunnels and silver linings are not the basis of our hope, God is.
Don’t be a functional atheist today. The Lord lives. Let’s live in light of that reality.
Church can be a tough place for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or any other mental disorder. Not because church members don’t care about those who struggle with mental illness, but because most church members don’t really know how to care for those struggle. Those who struggle can feel lonely, hopeless, and ashamed.
I don’t say this in a critical way. Trust me, I get it: mental stuff is really hard to understand. Depression doesn’t make sense if you’ve never experienced it. Chronic physical anxiety almost sounds like worry, even though the two are drastically different. Bipolar doesn’t fit into any sort of neat category. It’s really hard to know how to effectively care for a brother or sister who is mired in the darkness. It’s not as simple as dealing with a headache or the flu, where there is a clear cause and a clear cure.
We’re called to bear one another’s burdens, even if we don’t totally understand those burdens. We’re called to lift one another up, to strengthen one another, and to shower the love of Christ on each other. Church should be the safest place for those who struggle with mental illness. It should be a place of refuge amidst the constant misery. Don’t you agree?
So how can we make the church a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness? Here are a few suggestions.
ACKNOWLEDGE THAT MENTAL ILLNESS IS A REAL THING
In some churches, there’s this weird taboo surrounding mental illness. Nobody ever talks about it or acknowledges that it’s real. If a guy is sunk into depression, we say he’s, “Going through a rough patch,” or, “Having a tough time,” or we don’t say anything at all. If someone has cancer, we pray that God will heal her. If someone has back surgery, we make meals for him. But when it comes to mental illness, we don’t know what to say or do. Everyone knows something is wrong, but nobody actually talks about it.
If we’re going to really serve those who struggle, we need to readily acknowledge that mental disorders are real, and that they can really mess a person up. We need to come to terms with the reality that our outer selves, including our brains, are “wasting away” (2 Corinthians 4:16). We need to affirm that all of creation, including our bodies and brains, have been “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20). Mental illness is a result of the fall. We are totally depraved, which means that the totality of our being, including our minds, have been broken.
When we acknowledge that mental illness is a real category of suffering, it allows those who are suffering to open up to others. It also allows other Christians to pray for and serve those who are suffering. The Bible has so many words of encouragement for those who are suffering, but we won’t be able to encourage others unless we first recognize that they really are suffering. As one who has dealt with chronic physical anxiety for years, I can assure you, mental illness is real suffering.
TALK ABOUT BOTH THE PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL SIDES OF MENTAL ILLNESS
Here’s where things get a bit complex. As humans, we are body and soul together. The body and soul are intertwined, always interacting with, affecting, and even compromising one another. When talking about mental illness, we need to talk about the physical aspects just as much as the spiritual aspects. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, this is how we talk about every other form of sickness. When a woman has cancer, she will be incredibly tempted to worry, and we, in turn, should come alongside her in comfort, prayer, and counsel. But we don’t stop there. We also tell her to get the appropriate treatment for the cancer. We don’t simply say, “You need to pray more!” That would be ludicrous.
To say that the brain is somehow immune from the effects of sin is both unbiblical and counter to everything we know about brain chemistry. When a woman is depressed, there are real, physical symptoms. She may feel incredibly hopeless. She may feel overwhelmingly sad for no apparent reason. She may not even have the strength to get out of bed. You can’t tell her to have more faith, read her Bible more, pray more, or snap out of it, just like you can’t tell a cancer patient to snap out of it. True, biblical care looks like coming alongside of her and praying for her, encouraging her, AND helping her find the appropriate medical treatment.
This is an area that requires biblical, Proverbs-like wisdom. Obviously not all discouragement is depression, not all worry is obsessive compulsive disorder, and not all strange thoughts are schizophrenia. But mental illness is real, and it has a physical side to it. Telling a mentally ill person to just stop only makes things that much worse for them. Rather, we need to help shoulder their burden as much as possible, even though we don’t totally understand the burden.
GIVE LESS ADVICE AND MORE LOVE
The reality is that if you haven’t experienced mental illness it’s really hard to understand it. I don’t say this in a critical, martyr like way—it’s just the way it is. I don’t get migraines, which means I don’t really understand what it’s like to have regular migraines. The same principle holds true if you haven’t dealt with a mental disorder. This means that unless you’re a trained physician, one of the best ways to serve those who are struggling is to give them less advice and more love. My friend Adam once said to me, “I don’t know what it’s like to have anxiety, but I believe you. When you say you’re having a bad day with anxiety, I just trust that you are.” Those words were really meaningful to me. When I would tell Adam I was having a bad day, he wouldn’t try to fix me somehow. He would pray for me, which is what I needed most.
Those who are struggling with a mental disorder need to be constantly reminded that God loves them and is for them. They need to be reminded that even though they can’t see it or feel it, God is near, he is taking care of them, and he’ll get them through the darkness. They don’t need to be told to try harder, pray harder, believe harder, or work harder. They need to be gently reminded again and again that the Good Shepherd is carrying them, even though they feel totally lost. They need to be encouraged that their awful feelings are not an accurate picture of reality.
I want the church to be a safe place for messy people, including those, like me, who struggle with some form of mental illness. Is it easy to serve someone with a mental disorder? Of course not! But Jesus gravitated toward those who didn’t haven’t it all together, and he wants us to follow his lead. Let’s move toward the mess.
Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.
What would it look like to be crazy radical for Jesus in 2013? I’m talking pedal to the metal, all in, no holds barred, “is something wrong with you?” crazy. No more being lukewarm, no more spiritual fits and starts. It’s time to dive in head first. Do you need to take a missions trip to Vietnam? Do you need to adopt a child from a foreign country? Do you need to do a thirty-day fast? Do you need to give away half of your income? Well, maybe. All those things are good, and maybe God has called you to do one of those big things.
But for most of us, being sold out crazy for Jesus will look very…ordinary. At least to the casual observer. Most of the crazy things we do for the Lord will be noticed by exactly no one – except the Lord.
So, you wanna go crazy this year? Here’s what you should do…
Spend time with someone who can’t repay in you in any way, either financially or socially. “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)
Look for any and every opportunity to serve, rather than to be served, even if it only means giving someone a glass of cold water. ”But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)
Fight against your sin with a crazy, almost disturbing intensity. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)
Show the world that you are a Christian by consistently loving, serving, and blessing those around you. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Commit yourself to regularly gathering with God’s people, giving special attention to how you can encourage them and stir them toward love and good works. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Earnestly love your fellow believers, being eager to extend mercy and grace toward them. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Most of the time, being crazy for Jesus means doing the hard, right, boring thing, which no one but God will see. It means being patient with your children, giving sacrificially, setting up chairs at your church, making a meal for a new mom, and putting together a spreadsheet for your church finance team. It often means doing what needs to be done rather than what you want to do. These are not glamorous jobs. Nobody wants to read your blog post: “Hey check out all these sweet chairs I set up!”
I fear that in our celebrity pastor, post it to Facebook culture, we think about being sold out for Jesus only in terms of big things that catch people’s attention. The reality is, being a servant and slave of Christ usually means serving in obscurity. Being radical for Jesus means doing hard, yet ordinary things, like confessing sin, changing the channel when something inappropriate appears, serving your butt off in church, and reaching out to the “uncool.” Our spiritual lives are not the result of one or two “big” acts for God. They are the sum of ten thousand small choices – choices to either follow the Lord or follow our sinful desires.
This year let’s be crazy for Jesus. Crazy ordinary. Who’s with me?
Stephen Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, PA, where his main duties include leading worship, preaching, and working with youth. He also has written a number of worship songs that have been included on Sovereign Grace Music albums. Stephen is the author of the book Game Day For the Glory of God: A Guide For Athletes, Fans, and Wannabes, published by Crossway Books in September 2008, and The Greener Grass Conspiracy: Finding Contentment on Your Side of the Fence, published by Crossway Books in April 2011. When not shining his dad’s shoes, you can find Stephen drinking coffee or playing video games.
Find out more when you visit his blog, The Blazing Center.