Lessons Learned in the Dark: God’s Grace and Mental Illness

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As a lover of photography, I have spent countless hours learning about my camera and the dynamics of taking a beautiful photo. My favorite time of day for a photoshoot is during the last hour or two before sunset — often called the “golden hour” — with the beautiful, warm light of the setting sun and the long, deep shadows it casts. I love placing my subjects in front of the sunset and trying to capture a beautiful sun flare.

I’m sure you’ve seen beautiful, sunset photos. They are dramatic because of their dark shadows and the light that spills out around the subject. Our lives are like those beautiful, dramatic pictures. There would be less beauty and depth without the contrast of light and shadow. Instead of despairing about the darkness, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture of our lives. 

Times of Darkness 

It’s not uncommon to dislike darkness. When we can’t see, we become confused, and what may actually be harmless suddenly appears sinister. Our other senses go on high alert; the smallest noises and movements seem dangerous. Yet as soon as the lights come on, we see that we truly have nothing to fear.

Bouts of depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness can be like darkness. Some people have more “shadows” in their lives than others. In times of darkness, clarity and perspective are lost and situations and circumstances seem much worse than they are in reality. Confusion reigns and every emotion is on high alert for danger.

I have been in dark seasons that have felt interminable. I know the despair, fear, and confusion that comes. But I am finding that the dark times of my life are being “redeemed” and used for my ultimate good. God has used those times to teach me lessons that I may not have learned in any other way.

God redeems the dark times in our lives and uses them for our ultimate good.

While my story may not be exactly like yours, I have experienced dark seasons and care about what you are going through. I write this not as a naive, well-meaning bystander who is trying to “pull you out,” but as someone who has walked those dark places and come through to light. Here are some things God has helped me to learn in the dark.

I Am Not Alone in the Dark

As a young child, I hated the dark. More than once, I convinced my little sister to come with me when I needed to go into a dark room. Her presence helped me feel just a little bit safer.

One of the worst aspects of mental illness is the isolation it can bring. I remember when I first realized that my struggle with depression was more than just a mood swing. I was hesitant to call it what it really was because I was fearful that others would think I was crazy. Especially with my role as a pastor’s wife, I felt intense pressure to keep up the appearance that all was well in my life. Combined with my naturally reserved tendencies, this made me feel that no one else truly knew or understood. It was only when I found a “safe” person to talk to that I found out that there were many others who could relate to what I was experiencing. Knowing that I wasn’t the only one struggling did not make my depression go away, but it certainly helped me not to feel so alone.

More importantly, God will not leave us alone in the dark. One of my favorite ways to think of God is as Emmanuel — God with us. “He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:8). He has revealed his presence in the midst of my pain. God loves me, knows me, and walks with me through every moment of my life. That thought blesses me! I may not always see or even feel Him, but He is there.

The presence of “darkness” is not necessarily a bad thing. While it is difficult and painful, God will use it to bring beauty to my life, which is in turn a testimony to His grace. The dark shadows in my picture highlight the rich tones of the light in my life. They help me to appreciate the “bright” moments. 

My Perception May Not Match Reality 

What I am feeling right now may not actually reflect reality in my life. My feelings — completely real in the moment — are changeable and deceptive. They should not always be trusted. On any given day, many variables can cause my emotions to change. It could be as simple as getting insufficient sleep or eating poorly. It could be a physical condition that causes my brain and emotions to function improperly. Or it could be that I have any number of other things that fall under the category of “mental illness.” Whatever the cause, those feelings and emotions may or may not accurately portray reality.

Feelings are often based on the thoughts I entertain. The fact is, you really do have power over your thoughts. If you are experiencing serious depression right now, this statement may seem completely ludicrous. I understand completely. I know that there are times when you feel powerless against toxic, negative thoughts. But there is a time and a place where it is appropriate to tell your feelings that you are no longer going to allow them to be your “boss.”

I once believed that I was the helpless victim of a genetic predisposition toward depression — that this is who I am and this is the way I will always be. However, my thoughts and opinions are beginning to change based on what I have been learning regarding neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways and get rid of old, weakened ones. Until somewhat recently, scientists thought that by the time a person reached adulthood, their brain was basically set in its patterns of thinking. But that opinion is changing.

Scientists have recently begun discovering that our minds can be renewed. Romans 12:2 has been telling us this all along: “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The brain is constantly rewiring itself. Our thoughts and actions cause certain neurons to fire. Each time we repeat those actions or thoughts, neural connections are strengthened which in turn causes other pathways to become weaker. Our thoughts begin to shape or reshape how we perceive reality.

I do not mean to imply that you can easily “fix” your depression with a “don’t worry, be happy” mentality. That is too simple and trite an approach. I remember when someone close to me recommended that I read a book that seemed to dismiss the severity of my distress. The title alone made me feel completely invalidated. It confirmed to me that my friend had no real understanding of the depth of my darkness. I don’t want you to feel misunderstood. I am not suggesting that if you just muster up enough positivity, all will be well.

Rather, when our feelings are telling us that everything is hopeless, we must choose to believe what we know is true and cling to it. The more we intentionally reinforce what is true, the weaker the negative thoughts and connections in our brains become, and the stronger our confidence founded on God’s truth becomes. This is called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. It leads directly into the next lesson I have learned.

Darkness Can Be Dispelled by the Light of God’s Word

As perspective and clarity are gained by flipping on a light in a dark room, so the light of God’s truth helps us to truly see our situation from his perspective. His Word is the truth and foundation we need to cling to when our feelings tell us that all is hopeless.

Dr. Caroline Leaf, a renowned researcher of the mind and author of Switch on Your Brain says, “research shows that 75-98% of mental, physical, and behavioral illness comes from one’s thought life.”

Our minds are a battlefield on which we must wage war against the thoughts that cause us to spiral into a pit of despair. Scripture reinforces this idea; with God’s help, we are capable of “casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:15). As Christians, we are called to change our ways of thinking to conform to the truth of God’s Word. If our thinking doesn’t line up, then we are the ones who must change.

Dr. David Jeremiah says, “A mind centered on the truth of God is the key to being sustained and not losing heart.” One of the promises from God’s Word is that He will give me “perfect peace” if I keep my mind “stayed” or focused on Him (Isaiah 26:3). I have found this to be true countless times, but I also know it’s easy to talk about and a lot harder to practice.

One of the things that helps me is to intentionally meditate on God’s Word. As I write down verses that resonate with me and journal my thoughts, I am transformed by the renewing of my mind. Sometimes the act of putting my thoughts on paper helps me to process and visually see what might otherwise go in one ear and out the other.

If our thinking doesn’t line up with the truth of God’s Word, then we are the ones who must change.

Another way to intentionally focus on the truth of God’s Word is to listen to hymns and other biblically-faithful songs of worship. Not only does music soothe my spirit, but the words are truths that are based on Scripture.

Darkness will not last forever. Some periods of darkness may be longer or more difficult than others, but they are only temporary. The sun will shine again. When you are in the middle of a dark season, it is easy to feel that it will never end. Remember you are only seeing part of the picture. Try to look for anything that might be considered a “bright spot” and cultivate gratefulness for even that smallest bit of light. Many people find that keeping a gratitude journal or simply writing down something they are grateful for each day helps them to see the good when everything else may seem dark.

The Road to Recovery Is a Process That Can Be Slow and Painful

There is no “one size fits all” approach because every person and situation is different. Personally, I have found that treatment is often required on multiple levels at the same time. Here are things that have helped me:

PRACTICE DAILY QUIETNESS AND REFLECTION 

Daily quietness and reflection includes prayer and Bible reading, but it goes beyond that. The Bible’s instructions are to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 4:8). As an introvert, I find that regular times of quiet and stillness are vital in helping me to gain clarity and know what thoughts I need to “take captive.”

CHANGES IN LIFESTYLE

Eliminating junk food and sugar, drinking more water, getting more sleep, and increasing physical activity are all things that have helped me to feel better— emotionally and mentally. Give yourself grace when it comes to making changes. It’s easy to have an “all or nothing” mindset, but that tends to be a setup for failure. Instead, concentrate on making changes one at a time. Aim for progress, not perfection.

COUNSELING AND THERAPY

Like taking medication, seeing a counselor or therapist often has a stigma attached that makes many people uncomfortable. However, counseling can be very beneficial, especially when combined with some of the other things I have mentioned. Focus on the Family has a database of Christian counselors. Contact them for a list of recommended counselors in your area.

MEDICATION AND NATURAL SUPPLEMENTS 

It’s not uncommon to feel hesitant or even ashamed to seek medical help. I do understand, but I want to encourage you to at least consider taking medication as part of your treatment plan. It doesn’t mean you are weak, crazy, or unspiritual. Our mental health is directly related to our physical health. For example, depression or anxiety can be brought on by an underlying physical condition that must be treated alongside the mental condition. We don’t think badly of people who take medication for other illnesses; this should be no different.

There are also many natural supplements that might help. But, most importantly, seek treatment under the care of a medical professional. Medication is not an overnight fix and may require some several adjustments, but once it starts working, you will begin feeling better.

Know and Accept Your Limitations — Be Gentle With Yourself

Remember that you are on a journey toward wholeness. In my experience, living with mental illness often feels like I take two steps forward and then one step back. Despite the growing that I have done, I still have difficult days. I’ve learned that it is a process  and there is no miracle cure. Give yourself grace.

When you are sick with the flu, you do not expect the same things from yourself as you do when you are healthy. There are certain things you do to take care of yourself during a time of sickness, and these speed your return to bodily health. In the same way, when you’re mentally and emotionally fighting a kind of illness, try to do the things that will “take care” of you and help you to get better. 

Remember, God desires to create a beautiful picture with your life. He has chosen to include the shadows, whether they are just for a season or an ongoing part of your life. Ask Him to bring depth and meaning through them. When we surrender even the darkest shadows of our lives to him, he is free to turn what we thought was ugly and meaningless into a stunning work of art.

Shari Stratton
Shari Stratton is a pastor's wife in Central Pennsylvania.