Why is God So Close and Yet So Far? The Bipolar Experience

The following is an excerpt from my book, On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context. You can read more about other mental health disorders such as Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Attention-Deficit Disorder in the book as well. I will be presenting this material at the next Freedom Workshop in Lynn on March 25, 2017. If you are in the Boston area, you can register for any of my workshops here. Can’t wait to see you there!

bipolar-disorder1

Case Example:

Pete was totally on fire for God. He loved going to church, studying the Bible, and listening to Christian music. Sometimes he prayed for hours, even sometimes praying all the way through the night. When Pete walked down the street, he said a hearty “Hello!” to each passerby and frequently told strangers about his faith in Jesus. Pete was involved in five different ministries in his church and seemed to have endless energy for serving others.

Some people in the church admired Pete’s enthusiasm and relentless spirit. It seemed that Pete was on a constant spiritual mountaintop, and some envied Pete’s spiritual life. “He must be so spiritually strong,” they thought. From a distance, Pete seemed like a super-Christian.

In Pete’s heart, he truly believed that he was closer to God than most other Christians. He regularly thought of himself as having an inside-line to God. Pete found connections in everything—seeing God in things others did not seem to notice. Often when Pete read the Bible, he found meaning in the words that others did not seem to understand. When he shared his observations at church, some others suggested he might not be accurate in his understanding of the Bible’s meaning. Pete did not see how they could think his ideas were wrong. After all, he spent hours in prayer every day. He doubted that the others did so as faithfully.

Pete’s pastor had some concerns about Pete’s behavior. Despite the fact that he freely and frequently shared his faith, Pete sometimes did not show much depth in the application of the Bible to his own life. He could out-preach any street preacher, but Pete’s pastor knew that he struggled with sleeping around and that his financial life was a mess. He appreciated Pete’s willingness and energy, but something didn’t seem quite right.

After a few months, Pete stopped coming to church. Many in the church reached out to him, but he didn’t seem to be returning any of their calls. After a while, most people in the church kind of moved on and didn’t really think much about Pete. His pastor decided to stop by Pete’s apartment one day, and was quite surprised to see Pete looking disheveled and depressed. “Are you okay?” the pastor asked, bewildered. This was not the Pete he had known for the last year.

Pete shared with his pastor that he had not been doing well. “I can’t even pray anymore, I feel like God doesn’t answer me. He’s just gone. I felt so close to God before, like He was filling me up and I could hear Him speaking to me. Now I hear absolutely nothing. I’m not sure I even believe in God now.” Pete’s pastor encouraged him to trust that God had not changed, and continue to pray even if he felt God wasn’t listening. But when he went home that night, Pete’s pastor wondered, “How could Pete have been on such a spiritual mountaintop and yet sink into a valley so quickly?”

Counselor’s Response:

As we have already discussed in chapter 4, feelings are not an accurate measure of faith. All of us have periods of time when we feel very close to God—mountaintop moments or spiritual highs. And we all have dark points as well, when God seems distant and it is a struggle to keep the faith. If our feelings were a good gauge of spiritual reality, then God would come and go in unpredictable patterns. Yet we know from the Bible that God is faithful and unchanging. He is there when we feel Him and there when we do not.

Some Christians face an extreme version of these ups and downs, and theirs is a real and physical struggle with Bipolar Disorder. Pete, described earlier, was in a manic phase when he started going to his church. His endless energy seemed like a good thing, and it even made him seem like a “superior” Christian. After all, he was praying all the time, preaching the Gospel, and serving others tirelessly. Despite these outward actions, Pete’s inward spiritual life did not seem to line up. His pastor had noticed that he seemed spiritually strong and spiritually weak all at the same time. Those in the church who did not know Pete admired him and assumed that he was very spiritually mature.

The problem with using feelings to assess one’s spiritual maturity is that feelings change. What goes up must come down—true for gravity and true for mania. These spiritual and emotional highs cannot last, and a crash of depression often creates a startling shift in one’s relationship with God.

The end of a manic episode is a difficult loss in and of itself. Being extremely creative, energetic, and passionate is a fun ride. But when this high has also been associated with extreme closeness to God, the crash and the loss are devastating. There is a loss of one’s self and a second loss of one’s spiritual understanding.

So what does it mean to be a Christian with Bipolar Disorder? How can you find stability in your spiritual life when your feelings are so up and down? Because your feelings are not a good gauge of reality, spiritual or otherwise, you need systems in your life that help keep you grounded. These stabilizing forces can help keep you on track both in mania and in depression. The hardest part is forcing yourself to keep these systems in place at your highest high or your lowest low. When you are on a high, you will be convinced you do not need grounding. When you are in a low valley, you will wonder why you should even bother to try.

The first grounding system you need is feedback from others. Finding a safe counselor, mentor, pastor, or friend who can reflect back what they are seeing in your behavior and attitudes is critical to your self-awareness. In Romans 12:3 the Bible tells us to think of ourselves with “sober judgment,” but when you have Bipolar Disorder this is nearly impossible to do by yourself. Choosing to place the opinions of safe supports over your own view of reality can help ground you.

Another way to keep yourself grounded is to focus on truth. Feelings change, truth stays the same. To remind yourself of this, every day regardless of your mood take a moment at the start of your day and drop your Bible onto the floor (the printed copy is not sacred—just the words inside!). As you do this, remind yourself that gravity is one example of a truth that stays the same no matter how you feel. Then pick your Bible up and read it, using a study guide or devotional to focus your thinking on truth rather than on looking for your own connections.

One final strategy for keeping yourself grounded is to develop routines of obedience to God. His desires for your life do not change with your moods. What is it that you can do to follow God on both your lowest day and your highest one? What consistency or common thread can your life hold that ties all of your spiritual life together? Choose a theme for the year that can remain constant no matter how you feel. What does God want to do in your life this year? In each day, keep this larger goal in mind as you develop routines that keep your life in line with God’s work in your life.

In this struggle, it is critical to get professional help, often including medication, to regulate mood symptoms. Manic episodes can seem fun, but they can sometimes be dangerous. For those with Bipolar Disorder, taking medication is an intentional commitment to make. When you are manic, you may feel as though medication dulls your senses or changes your personality. When you are depressed, you may not care about your life enough to reach out for help. For some who do take medication for a while, it is easy to decide to stop taking them when you feel better for a while. Developing consistency and discipline in treatment can be a good starting point for putting such habits into practice in other areas of life.