by Tara Norton –
I wonder – what did Jesus have to say about mental health? How does God our Father address it throughout scripture? The concept of ‘mental health’ as we understand it is a modern one, so we can’t expect Jesus to be expressing it using the same kind of vocab as we do. For example, whilst it doesn’t specifically say that Peter suffered from an anxiety disorder, it is clear from Scripture that fear overwhelmed him at times. In the Western world we have divided mental and spiritual well- being as separate areas of concern. If we stop thinking of spirituality and mental health as different things, and if we look behind the vocab that the Bible uses, might we find that God, actually, addressed it many times throughout Scripture?
I really connect to the story of Jonah, and how he must have felt, but the biggest part of this story, that stands out for me, is Jonah’s anger towards God. Let’s look at the man himself:-
Despite the emotional and physical rollercoaster that Jonah experienced – right from the beginning, God had a plan for Jonah’s life. We know this because Jeremiah 29:11 says, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” He knew Jonah’s character! He knew how Jonah would react and He knew exactly what journey He had to take Jonah on! Perhaps, too many times, we question why God’s leading us in a direction we don’t want to go? Not seeing beyond our own circumstances and trusting that God has a plan for our life too? Jonah was a man who experienced severe swings in emotion and his mental well-being, one minute riding high in God’s favour, the next in the depth of depression, anxiety, self-pity and even having suicidal thoughts I believe that, in Ch 1, we see signs that Jonah was anxious.
I believe this because God had asked Jonah to go and tell the Ninevites to repent but he didn’t want God to forgive the people of Nineveh because it was the capital of Assyria, the biggest
enemy of Israel, God’s chosen people! Did this contribute to his decision to run? I believe it did. Was he anxious about where God wanted to place him? I feel his actions were a result of what was happening in his head. Jonah believed and was convinced that the Ninevites didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness! So what was Jonah’s response? He ran! – ran away from God! and not just ran! but ran in the most over the top way possible! He goes to the coast and doesn’t only buy a ticket on a boat, he charters the whole boat!, and its crew, to sail to the other side of the known world! We can’t run from mental illness. One in 5 suffer from a diagnosable, but not always diagnosed, mental illness at some point in their lives. You, or someone you know, will probably be struggling with mental health issues right now.
I wonder, how often do we do/not do something because of what’s happening in our head? We, like Jonah, would sometimes rather go our own way than go God’s way, we’d rather run away when that way doesn’t look too appealing, or safe.
Jonah was at war with his emotions. As we see in Ch 2 when Jonah’s in the belly of the big fish, despite what Jonah was going through -overwhelmed by the stench; the darkness, the loneliness, little oxygen and, in his own words, “locked out of life and imprisoned by death”, when Jonah prays to God in the belly of the big fish, he says, “when I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the Lord”. What a lesson for us to learn! How often do we praise God when our circumstances are overwhelming us? Lets have a quick look at the reality of what Jonah was going through at that moment in time. We see children’s story books portraying a similar image to this one, as though Jonah and the big fish are Bessie mates and as though they’ve had a whale of a time! But, in reality, can you even begin to imagine what Jonah must have been going through; physically and emotionally?
But, despite all this, Jonah doesn’t express his anger to God, he actually prays and thanks him! Saying, “for how can I thank you enough for all you have done! I will surely fulfil my promises” I really admire Jonah because, despite his frustration and anger, he still showed his true loyalty to God, and God gave him a second chance. I remember when I experienced severe anxiety attacks, I felt my whole body rise in anger towards God – literally screaming out, “WHY are You allowing this to happen to me if you love me so much – why do I feel so unloved by You?” I wish, at that moment in time, I’d had Jonah’s strength to focus my eyes and my heart in the right place! Looking back, I now see God’s plan for me but, in that moment, I felt abandoned and angry because of it.
Once Jonah saw beyond what God was putting him through and he followed God’s command and went to Nineveh to preach, they immediately repented! It says in the bible that Nineveh is that big that it would take 3 days to walk around it. In the first day of Jonah preaching, people repented and word got to the King who commanded that all people to repent. God, true to His word, forgave them. If a whole town responded to my sermon and repented – I’d be absolutely over the moon!!! but – this change of plan made Jonah very angry! Jonah wanted God to confine His love and mercy to Israel. Far from being delighted that his message provoked such a fantastic response, all he felt was fury! Sometimes, our mental state, whether its anger; bitterness; fear etc. stops us seeing, or acknowledging, the bigger, long term picture. Jonah had extreme highs and extreme lows on his journey; times of praise and prayer; God’s plan worked out and yet – Jonah, for the first of 3 times, was in a suicidal state! I believe, at the beginning of Jonah’s journey, it was about him being stubborn – don’t forget God wanted him to go to the place that persecuted Jonah’s people. But, throughout all that Jonah endured, let’s remember he was a real person with real emotions! By this time Jonah must have really been emotionally drained.
Jonah’s anger took over his clear thinking and, driven by this anger, he sat on the East side of the city under a leafy shelter, waiting to see if anything would happen to the city. Can you imagine – just sat waiting to see a whole city come under the wrath of God! The anger must have been intense.
But, despite Jonah’s emotions, and the anger which consumed him, when his leafy shelter withered away, God still showed grace by providing a vine to grow quickly and shade Jonah’s head. This made him comfortable and, for the moment, grateful. But God was teaching Jonah a valuable lesson – and sent a worm to eat through the plant so it withered and died, leaving Jonah scorched from the sun and, for the second time, pleading to die! In his moments of anguish – he really felt that God was unjust. I can also relate to this, my anger for God came from a place of desperation, things weren’t going the way I wanted it to and I couldn’t understand why, the anger the frustration was overwhelming and I took out on God, who didn’t deserve that anger.
God challenged Jonah’s anger and, for a third time Jonah pleaded for death. But God explained His plan of grace, kindness and forgiveness towards both Jonah, for being disobedient, and the Ninevites for their utter ignorance for God and His laws.
So – what does God teach us through this story? I think there’s lots to take from the story of Jonah but believe He’s saying, “its OK to not feel ok!”.
God defused Jonah’s anger – with grace and kindness and guided him to still fulfil his purpose. Through all Jonah said and felt, God continually showed His love and grace – and He will do that for us too! I’m sure, during these last 12 months, there have been times when we too have felt overwhelmed by our emotions. I’m sure we’ve acted, or not acted, as we know we should because of how we’ve felt. Very often, when anxiety grips us, our thinking can be distorted; we don’t always keep our eyes focussed on God and we don’t always praise Him as He deserves. But that’s absolutely OK! because God knows who we are, how we feel, why we suffer and how we cope and you know what, He loves us no less, His Love for us overflows – always.
The story of Jonah reflects the rollercoaster of how our lives can be at times. Perhaps you feel as though you’re on that rollercoaster right now? I’d really like to encourage you to re-focus on God, as Jonah did – to thank Him, as Jonah did, and to praise Him. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “…give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” It’s not always easy and, sometimes, a challenge we find difficult to take on – but God knows that too! God knew how Jonah was feeling every step of the way, and yet He still showed Him nothing but
grace and kindness.
I think it’s important to remember, Jonah wasn’t thanking God for the bad things that happened but thanking Him for getting him through them. Sometimes, when bad things happen to us, it’s easy to blame God. The enemy loves it if he can make people believe that God’s failed them, or deserted them and uses different areas in our lives to destroy our faith, and trust, in God
As I mentioned earlier, at times I really did feel abandoned by God, my mom wanted to pray with me, and share encouraging scripture with me when I was in the deepest darkest anxiety attack
and I didn’t want to know, I was too angry at God. But in reality II had good things that God was doing, He did show me He was there still loving me when I read my bible, went to church but, I
was just too angry to see them, I was too bitter to realise that the enemy was using me and targeting the sever anxiety disorder I already suffered with. But the most interesting times were
when I was at peace with God because right there in that moment God was showing me He hadn’t abandoned me and its only now after all this time that I see that. When I was happy in God’s presence I had a few go to verses to remind me, one that really spoke out to the abandonment that I felt was from Psalm 56:8 “you have counted all my sorrows, you have collected all my tears in your bottle and recorded them in your book” this reminded me that even though God felt far away my tears weren’t forgotten, my cries weren’t ignored. Every one of them mattered, every cry was important to God.
Through all this, the most amazing thing is, and definitely the most important thing, despite all what Jonah did, and said, and thought, God still used Jonah to fulfil His purpose. Despite all that we do and say and feel – God will never abandon us or disown us – Actually He will always forgive us, guide us and love us through His grace and kindness! Amen