Written by Elizabeth Mak, Art by Christy Tang
Today I met a pastor and his wife whose whole family has struggled with mental illness for generations. The pastor’s extended family has a history with serious cases such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; he himself experienced depressive episodes in the past. The pastor’s wife shared that she struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and that mental illness was prevalent in her own family. Even more, the couple’s own daughter admitted to cutting herself at the age of 16 and had to undergo hospitalization. Such a story is not easy for anyone to hear, let alone actually live through. Yet what struck me about this family was how transparent they were about their weaknesses and the strength they found in the grace of God.
The pastor’s story reminded me of Job in that they had experienced one mental illness after another in their family, one trial after another, and it seemed quite overwhelming. Job himself was a man of deep suffering. He lost all his children, livestock, and means of living through natural disaster. His wife left him because of his faithfulness to God. And to top it all off, Job was stricken with sores from head to toe. When things looked like they couldn’t get worse, they doâ€”his friends are miserable comforters. They accuse him of sinning against God and attribute his unfortunate circumstances to unrepented sin in his life. Like Job, this pastor’s church family didn’t do much to comfort and embrace them. Though some initial support was shown during his daughter’s struggle, there remained a stigma surrounding their family, as if they had sinned and needed to be avoided.
Did not Jesus say that, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick” (Matthew 9:12)? Similar to Job’s friends, when things go poorly in our lives, Christians sometimes judge and shun instead of showing grace and support. Though sin could be a cause of suffering, our response should not be to judge the person but to “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). How can one of our brothers or sisters find hope to go on with life if they’re treated as nothing more than a sinner who needs to clean themselves up if they want to be loved? Instead, those who sin or are in despair need to be restored gently by those who are spiritual (Galatians 6:1).
Looking for hope in a life like Job’s is not easy. Job discovered that it was not in his family, his possessions, his health or even in his friends where hope could be found because circumstances and people came and went. When Job lost all these things, he began to despair of life itself, even doubting the reality of a hopeful existence. It is not until Job’s personal encounter with God, by which he says, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5), that Job finally realized that God knows what He’s doing whether He chooses to give us much or nothing. It is a concept too lofty for him to understand. Though God never explicitly answers Jobâ€™s questions of why he is suffering, He assures Job that His wisdom is beyond Job’s understanding and that Job needs to trust Godâ€™s justice even when it doesn’t make sense. After all, “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24-25). Job learns to hope in Godâ€™s goodness even when he cannot see it, to endure suffering even if it looks like there is no end in sight.
In the midst of difficult times today, we must go on. True hope is not fueled by seeing or already having what we hope for, but enduring even when things don’t seem to make sense. In those times especially, we learn to trust God, “who in all things…works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Until Christ returns, we have to live in a broken world full of broken people. Life will be hard. But as far as it is called today, let us put our confidence in Him who does not change and is sure to return in glory. Let us also live our lives encouraging others to have that same hope in Him.