Up There AND Down Here?

Where is our God in times of hurt and suffering - and in mental illness? Is he 'up there' and clothed in power - but seeming out of touch as we can't join Him there? Or is he 'down here' and in the mix - but not seeming to make much of a difference as we all swim against the tide? Do I call him 'he' or 'He'? Easter can tell us a lot.

Up there...

In the Old Testament, Elijah teased the prophets of Baal that their god had 'gone to sleep' (1 Kings 18v27). Today, we say that sometimes Christians can be so heavenly bound that they are no earthly use! In our daily struggle along the 'narrow way' - exemplified by the season of Lent - we remember the times when God is NOT here. We remember the 'dry bones' of Ezekiel, we walk the procession of Palm Sunday, we share in the 'passion' (the suffering) of Jesus as he felt God's burden in the Garden of Gethsemane. Most of all, we recall the words of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday - 'Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?' (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) in Mark 15v34.

In depression and many forms of mental illness, it can seem as though God is 'up there' only. We believe in healing, but it does not seem to be coming. We believe in life after death, but sometimes wish it life would come before death too. We can experience moments of 'transcendence' in worship - but it can be a struggle to hold onto those feelings after the 'event'.

Down here...

The other side of the coin is the times when God has seemed to strip himself of power and overly identify with humanity. Why did God come as a baby who was so helpless? Why did he not speak more loudly, call more to himself, 'answer' more prayers? Why did he not choose 'better' disciples? Why is he taking so long to come again?! On Good Friday again, we heard the criminal crucified behind him say '"He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself!"' (Mark 15v30).

When we are mentally ill, there is a lot to draw on in the person of Jesus - he certainly coined a phrase or two. We can learn many pastoral lessons from the 'immanence' [the immediacy] of Jesus - the way he became flesh, became fully man. He knows our struggles and temptations. We know he loved his mother and wanted her to be cared for, We know he cried when his frend Lazarus had died. He is an example in so many ways... - but is he no more than a historical version of Ghandi or Mother Theresa? Inspiring, even awe-inspiring, but is he any more? And if he is, why do we not feel it?


The truth is that both perspectives are true and both have their unique points to bring, their relevant pastoral reflections. To take one then the other, to identify with the one that seems to resonate most, is to miss the point and fall into the trap of Either/Or. True Christianity means insisting on both, and holding both in mind. God is both up there in power and down here in the mix. He can both save us from our suffering and identify with us in it. These views are not conflicting.

They cannot be conflicting - for right at the centre of the Christian story is the 33 years or so that Jesus spent on earth. This 'incarnation', unique among the great faiths of the world, means that we have to deal simultaneously with a God who is both up there and down here. One who is both distant anad present, powerful and seemingly powerless, transcendent and immanent.

Yet the two views also do seem to conflict. We pray to God because we believe he has the power to make a difference, then wonder where he has gone. We long to be with Him [it is better for me to die...] but know our place is here with family [it is better for you...] (see Phillipians 1v23-24).

Mind AND Soul

One thing we often say at Mind and Soul is that the word AND is as important as the word mind and the word soul. We need to learn from Jesus and hold onto both at the same time. This is in part of course because the Christian faith requires us to do this; but it also allows us to manage the tensions as we seek to recover from mental illness.
  • We can ask for healing because we know he is Lord over all, but also see a doctor for a tablet to change our brain chemistry.
  • We can ask for immediate healing, but also understand that this may take time - perhaps until heaven.
  • We can see the local church as both a broken collection of people with faults who can hurt us, but also a loving community of people who can heal in the very act of choosing to meet.
  • We can worship God both in the joys and the sorrows. Emotions are not the same things as a heart that follows God.
To be sure, there will be times when we want to focus more on one than the other. However, as with so many other things in life, I find that the person of Jesus keeps me straight and helps me navigate these tensions. Jesus knows me, and I can know him - and Him. As it says in another tension in Psalm 24v14; 'The Lord is a friend to those who fear him'.

An example from psychosis

A psychotic episode is biological - an overactivity of dopamine in the frontal lobes of the brain. It is also spiritual - as many people report a time of intense connection with something 'up there'. We do not need to say some of these experiences are spiritual and 'more valid'; nor do we need to say that some are just illness and the experiences are 'less valid'. BOTH can be true at the same time.
  • Just because a person might have been ill does not mean God has not spoken to them. Joan of Arc is a good example - she almost certainly had temporal lobe epilepsy with complex seizures, but you cannot deny God used her.
  • Conversely, people with intense spiritual experiences may still benefit medication to help them live out other parts of their life. I know some patients who have learnt this - they can can be more 'spiritual' and more helpful to themselves and others now they are more stable.
The way to find the balance here is not to be dualistic - saying that this person's experience was illness and that person's is God. Things rarely divide so neatly. Even as a Consultant Psychiatrist, I cannot look that deep into people's brains! What I can do is give my opinion as to whether this looks like a known mental illnesses like schizophrenia and whether or not I think medication might help them lead a productive life. Alongside this medical input, a religious perspective is also needed - for example a local priest or a good friend - who will be able to suggest that maybe things have gone beyond the norms of what most people experience, or whether this might truly be the voice of God.

We need to be 'natrully supernatural' - having an experience of God which is not wierd and freaky but is a natural extension of being born again. We also need to be 'supernaturaly natural', allowing our faith to influence and steer our lives and to live with the benefit of this world-view. Together and in tension, both mind and soul can flourish.

The ups and downs of Easter

updown2At this time of year especially, it is good to remember the journey of Jesus. He shows that the transcendent and the immanent are tied together. He shows that ups and downs are part of life - but also that it all ends with everything coming together. Transcendence and Immanence will not be terms we need to struggle with in heaven! Here is a directional Bible Overview:
  • He was 'up' from before the beginning of the world as fully-God.
  • Then he was 'down' as fully-man.
  • He was then fully killed - even going 'down-below'.
  • He was then raised 'up' to meet again with his disciples.
  • He then ascended 'up' even further to be seated at the right hand of God
  • He then sent his Spirit 'down' to us to keep this tension going.
  • One day a new heaven and earth will come 'down' but the experience of this healing will be more like an 'up'!
What is your expeience of Easter? How can you hold these two persepctives together?
If you want to look into the whole up and down thing a bit more and don't mind something towards the heavier end of the spectrum, this new book contains a chapter by Professor Chris Cook [an addictions psychiatrist and anglican priest] called - 'Transcendence, Immanence and Mental Health'.

Rob Waller, 31/03/2018
More Articles
comments powered by Disqus