Lily Strachan serves as a chaplain to Robert Menzies College at Macquarie University. She was a fellow with ADM in 2021 and is completing a book on living with bipolar and loving those who do. In this final article in a series on bipolar, Lily shares about living as a Christian with bipolar. Her early articles can be found here.
I had a sketchy Sunday School career, but somewhere along the way, I heard about heaven. I wanted in. Who wouldn’t want eternal perfection, peace, and joy? I was about twelve when I went to the source of all wisdom in my life and asked my mother how you get to heaven. She was precise: ‘You get to heaven if you are very, very good.’
Well, this was problematic.
I don’t think I was a particularly troublesome twelve-year-old. But I knew that I did not possess that amount of goodness. I lied when it suited me, I fought with my brothers, I was the usual amount of selfish. Perhaps there was another way?
I kept a look out, but from what I could see, most world religions also required high levels of goodness to reach paradise, nirvana, or enlightenment. The message was clear. Strive and you might get there. Maybe.
A few years later I trooped along to a Bible study with some church-going friends. I began to hear about Jesus, and I was intrigued. I became convinced that this man existed and that somehow, he might provide answers to my questions. But God felt distant and unapproachable. I set about praying, but it felt like beating my fists against a brick wall. I went to church and felt nothing.
One weekend I opened the Bible for myself and realised something new. I didn’t have to do anything to be right with God and go to heaven. Jesus had done it all for me. Jesus was very, very good, indeed, he was perfect, for me.
One weekend I opened the Bible for myself and realised something new. I didn’t have to do anything to be right with God and go to heaven. Jesus had done it all for me.
That weekend I wrote myself a note: ‘I think that perhaps I am embarking on a fabulous, exciting, and wonderful journey. I so much want to spend my life living for God.’
My hopes were high and my superlatives many. So, what happened in the intervening ten years – between this discovery of Jesus and my first taste of mania and psychosis? Did God fail to be good? Perhaps I had been brainwashed at an impressionable age, and it was the suffering of my twenties that was real life.
I understand the idea that God was inattentive at best and deliberately cruel at worst in presiding over my pain without lifting a finger to help. The optics are not good. Mania and psychosis are frightening breaks with reality. Depression looks like a bottomless pit that God did not signpost properly. Shouldn’t a good God have held me together?
I struggle with this too. I would not wish the pain of mental illness on anyone. But out of the blackness, up from the pit, God has brought goodness upon goodness. You might say, ‘that’s delusional, wishful thinking’, and question why God does not stop the descents and ascents in the first place. Scripture tells me, Jesus on the cross assures me, that there are greater things to be achieved this way.
As I speak with Christians who live with bipolar, whilst their experience of this illness varies, their testimonies are consistent in one important aspect. They each attribute their wellness and hope to both good medical care and to a growing trust in God’s love. Each of them, unprompted, gives thanks to the God who works for their good, even in and through the devastation and confusion of life with bipolar.
Don’t mishear me – medical assistance is crucial for treating bipolar disorder. When we are unwell, our bodies need medical help as much as we need spiritual nourishment. But as wonderful as medical help is – and as much as I value it – I need more than physical treatment alone.
I need to know that my life is purposeful and good.
I need to know that the ‘wasted’ years of breakdowns, hospitalisations, and despair, are not tragic features of what would have otherwise been a happy life.
I need to know that my life ends well.
Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can have hope that one day soon he will return, and God will wipe away our tears, and eliminate death, mourning, and pain. He will remove my bipolar disorder and all its repercussions. Depression will be replaced by joy. There will be no need for medications. Anxiety will give way to peace. Grief will no longer catch in my chest or cause me to doubt God’s love. Broken relationships will be made whole, and justice will reign. In Christ, our lives end well.
Descriptions of a perfect new creation sound good and grand, but urgent questions remain. How can we link our current experience in the wilderness to a long-ago resurrection and a distant eternity? You might hear someone say, ‘fix your hope on heaven’, and understandably respond, ‘I can’t wait that long’.
If God is good and life is hard, how then can we live?
We might speak lyrically of God’s boundless love and glorious salvation, but what about life on the ground? How can we put one foot in front of the other when everything feels bleak?
As we respect our embodiment by seeking medical and psychological help, I think we also do well to:
- Remember what is true,
- Lament what is not good,
- Rejoice in what is good, and
- Wait with hope.
Remember what is true
The world urges us to find our own truth, and to discover it within ourselves. But as someone once said, ‘feelings are a wonderful servant, and a terrible master’.
If you let your feelings boss you around and tell you what’s true, you give them more power than they deserve. Elevating your feelings to the level of the truth means that when you feel hopeless, you must conclude that everything is hopeless. When you feel like you are not a real Christian, you must not be a real Christian. If it feels like God does not love you, this must be fact.
It’s not that our feelings are unimportant or invalid. They should be acknowledged and cared for. But they don’t always reflect the truth about God, about us, and about the world we live in.
It’s not that our feelings are unimportant or invalid. They should be acknowledged and cared for. But they don’t always reflect the truth about God, about us, and about the world we live in. For someone living with mental illness, feelings are also impacted by an illness that thrives on lies – lies such as ‘I need this person or that thing to be happy’, ‘this illness means I will never know love and hope’, or ‘my life is not worth living.’
So, where should we look for the truth?
Jesus says a lot of shocking things, one of them being this: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
Our feelings can lie to us, and the lives of others can too. But Jesus speaks truth to our despair, and life where there is no hope. He shows us that regardless of our feelings or circumstances – the ups and downs inevitable to life – some things are always true, and his is a love that never fails.
Lament what is not good
So long as the world lies broken around us, lament remains a vital part of life. Our world is beset by great injustice and pain. It does us no good to pretend otherwise. God welcomes our honest complaints, no matter how messy or dark they might be. It is legitimate to say, ‘Life is horrible, and I have absolutely no idea where you are, God.’
There may be days when you do not believe that God is good, or gracious, or holding onto you. There will be days when you might believe these truths, but they lie flat and lifeless, providing neither comfort nor joy.
On these days, ask others to lament with you, pray for you, and read God’s word with you. God gives us the church – his people – to be with us in our pain, to rejoice when we rejoice and mourn when we mourn.
Rejoice in what is good
It’s important to remember that feeling joy is not compulsory. You haven’t failed God or others if you don’t feel able to rejoice in him or his word. Depression is, by definition, a lack of joy. But in my low moods, there are still helpful things I can do.
When my heart feels lifeless, I try to ask God to show me something of his goodness, that I might one day soon sing his praise. As I try to thank God for his small mercies – the first coffee of the day, a message from a friend – the grander gifts often come to mind, and I find myself thanking God that he loves me and is at work for my good and his glory.
Being thankful to God grounds my gratitude in relationship with him. My thankfulness is not just found in what I am able to see or experience that day, but to a person who powerfully and providentially works through the dark days, as well as the sunny ones, to grow my joy.
Wait with hope
The Bible regularly connects hope with waiting, for example:
“For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him.” (Psalm 62:6)
“But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Saviour; my God will hear me.” (Micah 7:7)
When it comes to waiting on God, we are not alone and anxious, unsure of what is to come. No, in Christ, all of God’s myriad promises are assured. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 1:20,
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.”
Because God’s track record is flawless, we can wait with hope.
This doesn’t mean that the waiting is always easy. Kathryn Greene-McCreight is an American theologian who lives with bipolar. She notes that, “[w]aiting on the Lord when one is mentally ill takes extreme effort.”
I was 16 when I first grasped something of God’s love for me – when it felt like all the world was bright and delightful. When suffering came, the joy I felt in Jesus cracked and broke under the weight of what I’d lost. Perhaps not out loud, but under my breath, I angrily muttered, “God, you have failed me.” Psalm 69:3 puts it this way,“I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.”
I was 35 when I realised that although I claimed to trust that God is good, I had long ago stopped living as if this was true.
I was 35 when I realised that although I claimed to trust that God is good, I had long ago stopped living as if this was true. So, I did something that I cannot recommend highly enough. I stood on God’s jaw-dropping promises and I demanded answers.” I cried out: ‘Show me that you are good.’ As Psalm 69 says more poetically,
13 But I pray to you, Lord,
in the time of your favour;
in your great love, O God,
answer me with your sure salvation.
14 Rescue me from the mire,
do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me,
from the deep waters.
15 Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
or the depths swallow me up
or the pit close its mouth over me.
16 Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love;
in your great mercy turn to me.
God loves these desperate, honest cries. Sure enough, he began to show me that life in Christ is good – indeed that it is infinitely better than what I had in mind. Slowly but surely, God reshaped my vision of what a good life looks like, and do you know what? It surpassed all my hopes and dreams.
through what has been hard, I have come to realise more of what is truly good.
For my part, I can honestly say that I’m thankful for my illness. This isn’t because illness is good, in and of itself, but because through what has been hard, I have come to realise more of what is truly good. I have been forced to stop relying on myself for strength and success. I’ve been able to give my burdens to the one who is gentle and humble of heart. I have been equipped to care for others. And I have found all-surpassing joy, peace, and life in the one who lived and died and rose for me.
I can say with an assurance that I never used to have,
Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
And I find myself saying, sometimes with tears in my eyes,
For what you have done I will always praise you
in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name,
for your name is good.
Understanding Bipolar Series
 Revelation 21:1-8
 John 14:7
 John Swinton (2020) Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan), p86
 Romans 12:15
 Kathryn Greene-McCreight (2015) Darkness is my only companion: A Christian response to mental illness (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, Michigan), p65
 Psalm 62:1-2
 Psalm 52:9