A Christian perspective on Recovery
When someone is unwell, it would be natural to hope that they would receive treatment and begin a journey which will eventually lead to a place where they can achieve full recovery. But in the case of mental or emotional illness, the journey – and the destination – is not so simple. In fact, even the term ‘recovery’ is potentially complex and may mean different things to different people.
To an individual, recovery may consist of the return to where they were before they were ill. But it can be difficult to identify exactly when an illness began. This means they face the challenge of working out what aspects of their feelings, emotions, thoughts and behavior are due to illness, and what aspects could be considered as ‘normal’ or ‘well’.
Meanwhile, the church has faith in God’s power for full recovery. Their aim is that the individual is fully restored - to them recovery is complete when they are no longer limited or impacted by their illness in any way and are able to live ‘life to the full’.
In contrast to both of these positions, clinicians are increasingly proposing treatments and practices to patients that are aimed at teaching that person to manage their illness. In their context recovery is about living alongside the illness and diminishing or limiting the impact it has on them. This approach to recovery stems from experience and research which demonstrates that ‘full recovery’ is rare, meaning intervention is better focused on management. This way there is a better chance of intervention being effective and meaningful, rather than aiming at something the majority of patients will not achieve.
So what does all this mean if you are supporting someone who is working towards ‘recovery’ from emotional or mental illness? How should it influence care given by churches? And what should our concept of recovery be - as Christians and as people aiming to better understand mental and emotional ill health?
What might recovery look like?
The first challenge we must tackle is how to define what recovery is – when it starts and what it consists of. According to the Oxford Dictionary, recovery is the ‘return to normal state of health, mind or strength’. Returning to normal could mean returning to the physical and mental state of health a person was in prior to their illness. It would be expected that the person does not only appear to ‘be their old selves’ but also to feel it. However some people have always struggled with a degree of emotional ill health or difficulty - for them returning to normal might be about tackling patterns of thought and emotions which have been present for as long as they remember. It’s important to remember that ‘normal’ varies from person to person, and for many, recovery will involve finding a new ‘normal’ for them.
Typically, recovery would be described as a process, with both a start point and an end. However, defining when this process begins and ends is sometimes unclear, as people use different key events to define these markers. Recovery, to many, commences when a person accepts that they are unwell. This first step of acceptance often opens the door to a willingness to begin discussing or engaging in treatment. However, others may believe recovery does not begin until a person has achieved their first target or goal during their treatment programme, and they begin to see a positive change. In practice some people find recovery doesn’t have a clear start point and is more a case of a journey they are on; it can be unhelpful to try to fit everyone's experience into a prescribed pathway.
The end of recovery is another place which people often find hard to define or identify. For many there is no clear ‘finish line’ or moment they know they are recovered. Life is a journey and in some ways we’re all still on it. Some people find that recovery does become about managing their illness better rather than the absence of illness, and that their illness becomes a part of their life that they are happy to live with. To others, the day they feel better and are symptom free they would say they are recovered. Still others experience periods where they are symptom free, interspersed with periods of relapse. It is therefore important that we support people to develop their own understanding of what recovery might look like for them, and that we treat each person as an individual; recognising that every road to recovery is different.
Is there such a thing as ‘real’ recovery?
Clinically, the concept of 'true' or 'full' recovery would be defined by the absence of all symptoms, without periods of relapse, sustained for a significant period of time. However it is always difficult to clearly define such a concept because everyone's experience of ‘normal’ is so different.
As Christians we believe that those who trust in God and have faith in him will be able to recover and move past whatever it is they are struggling with, as seen in Matthew 21:22 ‘And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith’. However, in the bible too there is a variation in what recovery looks like. For some, recovery is the complete removal of illness from a person, as seen in Mark 5:34. However in other cases there is a degree of persistence of symptoms – for example Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ in 2 Corinthians 12, or Timothy’s struggles with his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23).
It is important also to recognise that for some, their ability to hold onto hope may stem from the Christian belief in a chance for full recovery. Many feel that being told the best they can hope for is to learn to live with and manage their symptoms, is a life sentence. The church may be the only place they can turn to where there is still a belief in freedom from their illness, and where faith in God may pull them through.
This becomes a particular challenge for people and situations where an illness becomes long term or they do not see this elusive ‘full’ recovery. As Romans 5:3-4 reminds us ‘more than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope’. We must help people manage the tension between their hope for full recovery and a daily reality, which may not see that happening – yet.
1. We should pray for ‘full’ recovery! It is important we recognise that clinicians and other professionals involved may not have this as their aim but we shouldn't be reluctant to hold big dreams for the people we support.
2. We should pray for God's supernatural role in full recovery and recognise that for some this supernatural healing may be the only way they will achieve it.
3. We must incorporate the variation in what recovery could be in our prayers for people - as well as praying for full recovery we must not neglect in prayer the individual issues they are facing, aspects of their struggle, or for finding a way through things they are currently finding difficult. We do not always need to be praying for full recovery. It’s great to pray that a person will get better, but have you ever stopped to think about what steps that person might have to take to do this? Giving the time and the thought to pray for the steps of a person’s journey is a powerful gesture. Pray that they make it to that appointment they have tomorrow. Pray that they have an easier afternoon today than they did yesterday. Pray that in the next hour they do one little thing to counteract the habits they have formed in their illness. All of these steps in the recovery journey count, and prayer for these steps, as well as the bigger picture, is so important.
4. We must recognize the importance of persistence in prayer - particularly if we are the only ones holding hope for ‘full recovery’. We must be prepared to continue believing in this and praying for it for the long term. When praying about healing from a broken leg, we may pray for healing, and for pain to decrease, but we do not expect that person to cut off their cast and start walking independently again straight away. Their physical recovery is a process, which requires them to have patience, and to build strength again. This same attitude needs to be applied to mental illness.
5. We must take care not to place responsibility for any absence of full recovery on the individual - for example saying they haven't 'claimed' their recovery or need to 'live it out' better. Instead we must partner with them and keep pushing forwards in our prayers with and for them (Luke 18:1-8), recognizing that full recovery may take a long time to achieve and that some people may never experience this.
Recovery is not an easy journey, but it is one that many people are facing ahead of them, or living out right now. As Christians, it is vital that we do what we can to provide support along this journey.