When we’re struggling with health issues, (our own or others), it’s natural to hope for instant and dramatic change. We see it on TV and we read about it in the papers – the coma patient who suddenly wakes up; the woman who throws away her crutches; the cancer sufferer who’s pronounced miraculously healed. These things happen: and praise God for them! But for every instant miracle, there are a hundred slow or partial recoveries. For every leap into the light, there are years of slow and painful steps. And though it might not seem that way, God is in the baby steps too.
Physical healing usually takes time. And most of us get this – partly because it’s something we can see and touch. When someone has a broken leg or a sprained ankle, we don’t ask, ‘aren’t you better yet?’ We don’t put it down to weakness on the part of the patient. Instead we sign the cast, buy (and eat) their grapes and reassure them that it takes bones time to heal.
When it comes to mental health however, we’re often less patient – even though many of the principles here also apply. Eating disorders for example, are classed as mental illnesses. They start in the brain – long before we can spot the physical consequences. And just as it can take years to develop one, so it can take years to recover – because recovery means changing your thinking, as well as just losing or gaining weight.
But it’s frustrating, watching someone struggle in their heads. Unlike other, more visible illnesses, depression can’t be touched. There’s no definite time-line; and progress can’t be monitored, like an X-ray or blood test. Those around the sufferer feel helpless; but that they need to come up with answers – and sometimes this comes out as anger or disapproval. Those suffering also feel distressed – as if there’s a spiritual or emotional key that will unlock all our problems, if we can only find it.
Faith is an important part of our response to suffering; but it’s not a guarantee of good mental or physical health. And recovery – whether physical or mental – takes time. God is working in the little steps as well as the big; and even though we might not have answers – we’re not called to. As we reach out to others, it’s the little things that make big difference. A cup of coffee with someone who hurts. A phone-call or a cooked meal. A card to say we’re thinking of you. And as we seek to keep going in the midst of suffering or pain, it’s the baby steps that add up to something great.