Finding Jesus in the Storm
In an extract from the introduction, John Swinton introduces his book Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges
A few years ago, I attended a lecture on the positive relationships between religion and mental health given by an eminent professor of psychiatry.
He opened his lecture with an intriguing, if somewhat disconcerting, statement: “I only have fifteen minutes to see a patient, and I spend the whole of that time looking at the computer screen trying to work out the patient’s blood levels and checking the efficiency of the patient’s meds.”
The rest of the lecture was excellent, but I couldn’t get past that opening statement. As a former mental health nurse, I understand the pressures of a busy, understaffed, and often underfunded health-care system. Nevertheless, that the psychiatrist decided to spend all of the paltry fifteen minutes of each patient’s visit looking at a computer screen is telling.
A person’s biological functioning is certainly important. If one assumes that mental health experiences can be primarily or even fully understood and explained in biological terms, then scrutinizing a person’s blood levels for chemical imbalances and checking the impact of medication on blood cell count make sense. However, human beings are not simply a conglomerate of chemical interactions. Humans are persons, living beings who have histories, feelings, experiences, and hopes, and who desire to live well. Living well is not determined by the functioning of our biological processes apart from our individual social, interpersonal, and spiritual experiences.
Similarly, understanding the biological dimensions of mental health experiences may turn out to be helpful, but it is unlikely to solve problems that emerge from poverty, loneliness, war trauma, and abuse. It is also unlikely to tell us much about what it means to live with and to experience these things scientists describe as “symptoms.” If you don’t know what these symptoms actually mean for an individual, it is difficult to know what you are trying to control and what a “good outcome” might look like.
If you have only fifteen minutes with a patient, you don’t need rich, thick experiential descriptions. Thin ones will do just fine. Time is an issue, but the problem of time reflects deeper issues.
The purpose of this book is to provide readers with rich, deep, and thick descriptions of the spiritual experiences of Christians living with mental health challenges. It assumes that in order to understand people’s mental health experiences, we need to find time to listen carefully and cannot be bound by assumptions, even those of powerful explanatory frameworks like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).
This book is about how Christians living with severe mental health challenges—depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder—experience their faith lives and strive to live life in all its fullness in the presence of sometimes deeply troubling experiences. The book is not about “severe mental illness” understood as a clinical category. Rather, it is about the experiences of unique and valuable disciples of Jesus who seek to live well with unconventional mental health experiences—experiences that some choose to describe as “severe mental illness” but that can also be described in other important ways.
In John 10:10, Jesus makes an intensely powerful statement: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Life in all its fullness is certainly not life without suffering, pain, or disappointment. That much is clear as we reflect on Jesus’s own life. Nor is it a life without joy, hope, and resurrection life in the Spirit. The quest for life in all its fullness is not the basis for a theology of glory—one that minimizes pain and looks past suffering.
Rather, it is the foundation for a practical theology of the cross that takes seriously the freedom and release that we have gained through the death and resurrection of Jesus at the same time that it recognizes that cadences of the cross still guide the rhythm and the tempo of the day-to-day life of the world. Life in all its fullness is life with God—a God who accompanies us on a complex journey within which we live in the startling light of the resurrection but remain intensely aware that Jesus’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” still resonates throughout creation.
Life in all its fullness is not life without tears but life with the one who dries our tears and moves us onward to fresh pastures. Such fullness of life is what I mean when I suggest that this book is about the ways in which Christians with severe mental health challenges can live well and live faithfully even in the most disconcerting storms. Mental health challenges are difficult experiences, but they needn’t prevent us from living well, living faithfully, and loving Jesus.
My book does not attempt to explain mental health challenges. It does not address causes directly, although I do clarify the problem of naming causation from both a scientific and a theological point of view. Instead, it intends to help all of us understand the experience of severe mental health challenges in general, and the role of Christian spirituality in particular, in ways that can bring about insight, compassion, empathy, and enduring faithful relationships.
Its focus is on listening carefully to the ways people describe their spiritual experiences and trying to make theological and practical sense of lives that have been touched by difficult, troubling, but sometimes also profoundly revelatory challenges. The book is therefore not about curing mental health challenges.
It is about healing, understood as the facilitation of understandings and circumstances in which people can live well with Jesus even when the prospect of cure is beyond our current horizons.