Mental and Emotional Health Miracles
Last weekend I saw a miracle. Thanks to the birth of newest member of our family in April, I've been taking some time out over the last few months & enjoying my maternity leave. Apart from being a time to spend with my new son, its given me a chance to become an observer again in our church. And it was in the normal rush of a Sunday morning, that I got the chance to witness a miracle. No paralysed man jumped to his feet, no blind eyes were opened, there were no trumpet sounds or hallelujah choruses. No one cried, or shook, or barked like a dog. But it was definitely a miracle. I was watching people arriving for a service and I saw … someone standing on our host team and handing out notice sheets.
Perhaps I should explain. The person I saw is someone I had the immense privilege of working with maybe 5 or more years ago, when they were clawing their way through a fierce and dark depression - one that several times nearly claimed their life. I remember well the huge strength it took them to climb out of that, and the many times we talked over a period of two or three years. I remember how hard it was for them to even get through the door for church. All this is such a contrast with what I saw that morning.
What it reminded me of is how different miracles often are when they happen in the field of mental health compared to that of physical health. Every time we offer prayers for healing in our church, as many people coming forward are struggling with emotional ill health as physical ill health. If you include those whose physical problems are linked to emotional issues, then well over half of people seeking healing are dealing with problems related to their emotions. We pray for healing, they return to their seats and get on with their lives. Someone said to me recently how disappointed they were that we don't see more miraculous healing for those with emotional problems. But do we? Are we just looking for the wrong kind of miracle? During my many hours of feeding, clearing up baby sick and trying to persuade a child less tired than me that he wants to go to sleep, I've been pondering the main differences between the miracles I have seen in emotional/mental health situations and those I have seen in physical illness.
Firstly, mental health miracles generally do not happen in an instant. When we pray for someone for healing, if we're honest, we're all hoping for something instant. When a call for healing prayers comes up at a service or conference everyone's eyes are drawn to the person on crutches, or in a wheelchair. We're all longing to see them hobble up for prayer … and then come leaping and running back down! This isn't the case in the miracle I saw that Sunday. That miracle has taken years to come to fruition. I've seen that person claw themselves gradually back from the brink, seen them fighting and working to achieve little breakthroughs, shared good moments and bad. In fact in my 15 years or so of supporting and praying for people fighting mental and emotional health problems I have only ever encountered one where that person felt there was an instantaneous healing. By that I mean a moment when as a result of prayer, in that moment God intervened supernaturally and all their feelings and emotions changed. In that case (and it was someone who had previously been suffering with an eating disorder) their feelings about themselves were transformed - and their behaviour (ie their eating) changed instantly as well. Their testimony was of never struggling with that, or any other, issue again from that moment. This is unusual though. What I have encountered many many times is people who tell of moments of very real and significant revelation which whilst they don’t bring total healing, do move them on a huge step in their recovery, or enable them to change the way they understand something. I believe these moments are amazing miracles in themselves. Anyone who has ever worked with someone who struggles with an intense hatred of themselves (often something related to painful and devastating experiences from their childhood) will know how hard it is to change beliefs which are so basic to the way someone approaches the world. These kinds of negative beliefs are often tremendously resistant to any kind of change or treatment. But I have seen God heal them in an instant. These miracles are not a one moment jump to complete recovery - but without them that recovery wouldn't be possible. So they are a vital part of that wider miracle - someone restored to full wholeness.
Why don't we see more 'instantaneous' healings from mental and emotional illness? My belief is that to do so would often rob people of their understanding and of their journey. We are so destination focused in our society - we want to get there as fast as possible, and we don't value the journey at all. And it's not just my recent budget airline experiences which make me say that! But for human beings the journey is essential. We are all on one - a journey of learning who we are, how the world works, what to do and what not to do. As children - as adults, whoever we are we are learning. If life has dealt you a rough hand and left you struggling with emotions or patterns of emotions which imprison you, the journey of moving out of those is as important as the destination of being free of them. None of us are without emotion (and we wouldn't want to be). What we need to do is understand our emotions better - understand the triggers, learn how to handle them better and how and why they can hit us so hard. To simply remove them in an instant would not help. My experience therefore is that miracles in emotional and mental health recovery tend to happen gradually, over a period of months or years. During that time God is present with someone constantly and consistently - so there's a journey in that relationship with God as well as a journey of discovering about yourself. In fact there is something powerful in that combination - at the same time as you learn more about yourself and why you think and feel the way you do, you learn about God and what He truly thinks of you.
Of course another important thing about mental health miracles is that they are not black and white. Think again of the classic physical healing miracle - someone is unwell or disabled, receives prayer - and then is totally well and able again. If we pray for someone in pain, we don't really want to hear that they feel 'a bit better.' We want the pain gone! When Jesus healed the blind man who at first reported that he could see people walking around who looked 'a bit like trees' he didn't call it a day - he carried on until the man was totally healed! (see Mark 8:23-25). So why don't we strive for that 'once and for all' complete healing in one easy step where mental health is concerned? Perhaps because where matters of our emotions are concerned, there is no such thing. If you recover from depression, does that mean you will never feel sad again? Does that mean that you will never hit hard times again? Can someone ever be totally anxiety free - and would it be a good thing if they were? Or looking at it from another side, if someone is 'healed' from depression but then does hit a spell later in life where again they struggle with those black thoughts, does that mean their healing was false? Of course not. Life is not about being either 'well' or 'unwell' where our emotions are concerned. We can all hit moments of darkness or sail into storms in life. Mental and emotional health miracles are about a step forwards - a leap often - when a change in our perspective, understanding, thoughts etc means we are better protected from the impact of such things in the future - or from the echoes and ripples they create from our past. They do not erase certain emotions or experiences, but they transform our own perception of them, and the meaning we take from them.
One final thing comes to mind. Generally when we think of miracles, they are all about God doing something amazing. We come to God totally helpless and through a moment of prayer, healing occurs without our doing anything more than coming forward in the first place. Occasionally though, there are actions or decisions required of the people being healed. So, in John 9 Jesus asks a man born blind to go and wash in a pool - and only after he does this is his sight restored. Luke 17 tells of no less than ten men Jesus healed from leprosy - but only when they obeyed his command to go and present themselves to the priests. Mental and emotional health miracles are perhaps the strongest examples of this partnership between God doing something amazing - and our working alongside Him. We have to be in control of our own thinking and experiences. There is almost always therefore this process of gradual change - or learning new patterns of thinking, letting go of painful experiences, allowing new revelations and things God has taught us to change the way we see the world. When I think of this person from our congregation, I know that a lot of the work in their own miracle has come from them. When I see them I praise God because of what He has done, but I am also immensely proud of them for what they have done. Neither they or God could have done it on their own, but they proved an amazing partnership. Sometimes as therapists we get to play a role too - but for us it is all about supporting and nurturing that partnership and helping an individual play their own part in their recovery.
So, when I looked at this member of my church that day, I did see a miracle. I saw someone who was so imprisoned by their depression that it nearly took their life. I remembered the someone who used to hide in quiet rooms and dart out only as the service started, such was their terror of talking to other people - and saw that person now confidently interacting with visitors to our church. I remembered the weeks when they couldn't bear to leave the house and we communicated and prayed almost entirely through text messages, and saw them now a reliable, valued and vital member of various church teams. I watched and something deep in my soul sang out in worship to the God who has saved them, and will continue to stick with them on this often difficult journey called life. And it was an immense privilege to share their experience.
What does all this mean for those of us who work in churches and support those facing emotional and mental health issues? Seeking healing for those people is often about much more than 'just' praying. Of course we absolutely must offer prayer to people and we must pray for their healing. We must make sure that prayer is accessible and not too daunting and foster those moments of courage that are required for someone to set forwards and take a risk on God. But more than that, we need to help people start out on a journey with God. We must help people learn how to connect with God even in the fog of their painful emotions - to practice that habit of returning to God regularly and allowing him to accompany them on their journey, however long it takes. We must pray for breakthrough, but help people understand why they may not be healed 'in an instant.' We must combine a hunger for their healing with patience because it will probably take time. We must help them to hold the tension of longing for recovery with the reality of their day to day suffering which will take time to diminish, and we must help them find God even in their darkest moments We must never ever condemn people who do not seem to have been healed but must hold on to hope for them, and trust that God can be doing something even when it looks like no one is doing anything. And most of all we must help people to see God and see the miracles because sometimes when they happen they can be easily missed.