Thanks so much to Sharon, for this wonderful advent meditation for those suffering from mental illness.
I suffer from depression, a symptom of my schizoaffective disorder, and, if I’m honest, I find these few weeks leading up to Christmas difficult. As I write, I am sitting in my kitchen. It’s mid-morning, but it’s dark, with heavy cloud pressing down upon the house. The low pressure makes me feel claustrophobic, and part of me just wants to go back to bed.
Maybe you have depression too, or associated mental health issues, and you’re feeling much the same. Maybe the thought of Christmas – with all its glitz and fairy lights and noise and feasting – is overwhelming. Maybe you feel alone – physically alone because you’ve found yourself withdrawing from social events, or mentally alone, because you feel that nobody ‘gets it’. I’ve been there.
But in these early days of Advent a portion of scripture has been turning over in my head and I wonder if you would join me, just for a few minutes, in meditating a little upon it. You might like to light a candle or put on some soft background music; you might just prefer silence.
The passage was written by the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, who lived around 700 years before Jesus was born (the first Christmas). In Chapter 9, he predicted the birth of a new ruler who would be enthroned forever (v7). Let’s read some of his words together, starting with verse 2:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
Do you ever feel like you walk in darkness? Or that your life is overshadowed by thoughts of death? I do. Isaiah predicted that something miraculous would one day happen to flood a dark world with light. If you have a candle, think about it for a second. Its flickering flame is tiny, but even if you turn off all the lamps in your room, its light will penetrate every corner. Light trumps darkness every time. What was this great event that Isaiah spoke of? Let’s read on…
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (v6)
Yes, even 700 years before that first Christmas, Isaiah was living in ‘advent’ – in anticipation of the birth of a baby who would change the world. And what a list of names he gave him! Let’s ponder each of them for a moment.
Wonderful Counsellor. Jesus is not fallible as our earthly counsellors and mental health professionals are; he is ‘wonderful’, perfect, and always accessible through prayer.
Mighty God. This tiny child whose lowly birth we celebrate at Christmas has the power to defeat any force working against us. We can look to him for healing because he is strong and he is everywhere.
Everlasting Father. The Christ-child and the Father God are one. We are his children, heirs to his promise (Romans 8:17) – a promise of hope and a future beyond our current pain.
Prince of Peace. How often have you yearned for your troubled mind to be at peace? Isaiah also prophesied that Jesus would “keep in perfect peace” those whose steadfast minds would trust in him (Isaiah 26:3). Perfect peace – in Hebrew, ‘shalom-shalom’ – a state of complete wellbeing and wholeness. Breathe in that truth with me. Then whisper a prayer to the Prince of Peace, knowing that only he can settle our angst-ridden minds.
Now consider verse 7:
“Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing it and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
We are living in the ‘now and not yet’ of God’s kingdom. From the moment that we gave our lives to Christ we have dwelt in this kingdom which Isaiah foresaw. Even now, Jesus our King is enthroned at the right hand of God and he upholds his followers with justice and righteousness.
But Isaiah was also predicting a time yet to come, when the great arc of biblical history will be complete at the second coming of our Lord – not as a baby but this time with the sound of trumpets. From that point on ‘there will be a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1) – a perfect kingdom for a perfect King. John, who wrote the book of Revelation, described his vision of it:
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no weeping or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’”. (Revelation 21:3-4)
In liturgical tradition, the first two Sundays in advent are dedicated to the anticipation of this second coming of Christ. (The second two Sundays are for looking back to the first coming.) I think that, more than most, we who struggle with mental illness look to that coming with great expectation. We long for a time when every tear will be wiped from our tired eyes and we will no longer weep, mourn or cry, or suffer what can seem like interminable pain.
Take a second to think about this kingdom yet to come when mental illness will be no more.
Then bring your focus back to the present, and back to Isaiah 9. This Wonderful Counsellor, this mighty Prince of Peace lives today. In all of the challenging moments which may be ahead for us this Christmas – anxiety-provoking family gatherings, noisy parties, expectations that we will be ‘merry and bright’ when we feel anything but – we can look to a light or a candle and be reminded of the One whom it’s really all about.
Jesus, ‘the Light of the World’ (John 8:12), has come and is yet to come.
Pray for a moment to our Everlasting Father. Ask him for the grace not just to survive Christmas, but to rejoice in its true meaning. The Father, who gives ‘good gifts to those who ask him’ (Matthew 7:11), can bring you peace and hope this Advent season.
I don’t know about you, but, for me, these few minutes taken to think about God’s promises to us have lightened my load just a little. My kitchen may still be dreary, but I have a sense of Jesus’s presence which penetrates my cloak of depression. My candle burns no more and yet there is a tiny light inside me which depression cannot extinguish.
Living with mental illness is all about taking small steps. I hope and pray that these small steps you have taken through Isaiah’s words today will bless and encourage you too.
Don’t forget, Sharon’s book, “Wrestling with my thoughts” (A doctor writes about her own mental health struggles), will be coming out in January, published by IVP. It comes highly recommended!