I lay flat on my hospital bed, weeping inwardly even as my tears dried up. I had just consented to my third course of electro-convulsive therapy in less than two years. How had it come to this again? Why was my depression so persistent? Why did I remain in the grip of paranoia?
I lamented my vulnerabilities, my schizoaffective disorder, the very fact that severe mental illness exists.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines lament as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow”. Yet for the Christian, lament is this and much more. Lament is a prayer language given to us by God, of which the Bible bursts with examples – over one third of the Psalms, the book of Lamentations, Jesus’s last lament as he prepared to die, to name a few – teaching us that we can express our grief or sorrow as we bring it before him in trust.
Mark Vroegop, Pastor and author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament1, identifies four elements to the prayer of lament2:
First of all, the person who is in pain turns to God. The Psalm of lament which I have prayed so many times that it gave rise to the title of my book, Wrestling With My Thoughts, is Psalm 13. Vroegop takes this Psalm as his example too. Written by King David, it begins with the words, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (v1) Rather than running from God in his grief and mourning alone, David chooses instead to bring it to God.
Secondly, he or she brings a complaint. David prayed, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (v2) According to Vroegop, ‘More than a simple rehearsing of our anger, biblical lament humbly and honestly identifies the pain, questions, and frustrations raging in our souls’2.
Third, lament involves boldly asking for help. As David put it, “Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him’, and my foes will rejoice when I fall.” (v3-4) When we lament, we bring our pain before God in hope that he will hear and answer.
Finally, the person who laments chooses to trust. David’s prayer ends with the words, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” (v5-6) When we lament, we do not hold on to our sorrow forever; instead, laying out our grievances before God leads us to renew our faith.
Today, we Christians whose lives have been blighted by mental illness need this language of lament, for if we merely express our sorrows, we may feel relief at having ‘vented’, but we will lose out on the possibility of fresh hope as we chart our paths through this broken world.
My story is one of severe mental illness – depression, mania, and psychosis. It is often a sad story, and yet in my book I identify certain truths about God amidst it all: I am held, He is good, and He gives me strength. It seems paradoxical, yet the pain and the hope exist in tension. As Vroegop puts it, ‘When I’m stuck between my tears and what I believe, lament is the language I need’3.
If I was to write my own lament for my severe mental illness, it might look something like this:
“How long, Lord? Will you leave me forever in this cycle of relapse and partial remission? I look to you, the creator of brains and minds and neurotransmitters, even as it seems as though I am at the mercy of mood swings and dopamine imbalances. This illness is so pervasive. It eats up my joys and stops me from living a full life. Yet you are the one who has promised me life in all its fulness (John 10:10).
“How long must I wrestle with my paranoid thoughts, and fight morning by morning to rise above the pain and sheer exhaustion of depression? Must I always live with headaches and anxieties and the sense that I am only ever a day or two away from needing hospitalisation? How long will you allow me to stumble from crisis to crisis, struggling to find any kind of peace?
“Look at me, Lord. I am but a pitiful creature, my life marred by the mental illness which stole my dream of working as a doctor and rendered me vulnerable, stigmatised, and lonely. Give me a new identity, Lord my God. Bring beauty out of my brokenness, that those who might pity me will instead see your hand at work in my life. Pour out your healing balm upon my head and stabilise my moods, that my doctors may marvel at the change in me and praise you.
“Life is still so hard for me, Lord, and yet I choose to trust you. I know that you do not like mental illness any more than I do – that it is part of the groaning of creation which you will one day restore to wholeness. Thank you that you are beginning to use my experience to speak into the lives of others. You do indeed ‘work for the good of those who love you, who have been called according to your purpose’ (Romans 8:28). Your love never fails, and it is by your grace that I get through each day.
Lament is a prayer language which allows us to bare our souls before God without shame and with no holding back. When we feel like we are drowning in our sorrows, it helps to keep us buoyant. As we turn to God, bring our complaints, ask for his help, and choose to trust, we can find peace even as we suffer mental ill health.
Are you struggling with mental illness? How could you use this structure to write your own lament? It doesn’t have to be more than a few lines, and it might just change your perspective.
Sharon Hastings is a medical doctor and writer whose clinical career was cut short by severe mental illness. She is passionate about increasing understanding and hope around mental health issues while reducing misinformation and stigma – particularly within the church community. A lover of music, the sea and books, she lives with her husband, Rob, and their two golden retrievers in the seaside town of Newcastle, Northern Ireland.
Sharon’s book, Wrestling with my Thoughts, published by IVP, is available to to buy now: https://tinyurl.com/Wrestling-with-my-Thoughts