I have always loved the sermon on the mount. It speaks to my heart and I hope that it speaks to yours also. Well I say that I have always loved it, certainly I have loved it for as long as I can remember.
Earlier this evening, my mind took me back to my childhood. Not to any one specific moment in my childhood, but instead to when I would have been about 7 or 8 and to my early understandings of God.
I remembered a huge old King James Version family bible (which my family owned) and which was kept in the attic. The same attic which became my bedroom and thus which I became very good friends with.
It had golden edging to it’s pages. Pages which included the most wonderful full page colour-plate illustrations of such scenes as: Moses parting the red sea, David fighting Goliath, Samson fighting a lion, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, and of course of Christ Himself in such situations as the sermon on the Mount and at His trial. Additionally, it had wonderful carved wooden covers. I absolutely loved it and I absolutely adored reading it.
From that huge ‘tome’ biblical events – which otherwise were only ever flatly and lifelessly described to us in monotones during the local church minister’s sermon – came to life and enthralled and inspired me. And from that huge ‘tome’ grew my belief in God, and (it has to be said) my love of writing and of art.
And I used to imagine what it must have been like to have actually been there. And indeed – within the faith-fuelled desires of a small boy – I imagined myself actually being used by and actually serving God. Even though, it was obvious from my readings, that doing so often led to hardships, rejection, and ridicule in this life.
Of course back then (I am over 50 now) my faith was in God and I knew nothing of a faith in and through a personal relationship with Christ Jesus. That came much later. But when I came to Christ that same faith-fuelled desire – to be used by and to serve God even in the face of hardships, rejection and ridicule – existed. And I wonder how many of you, had/have similar desires?
Almost daily, or so it seems, my Facebook page, twitter feed and my email in box, are filled with reports of the hardships that Christians are facing as a result of having a faith which is contrary to someone else’s belief system or contrary to the ‘world’s’ view. And whilst the hardship, trials and harm that they are facing saddens me greatly I am able to find comfort in Christ’s words within the sermon on the mount as recorded in Matthew 5:11-12.
Of course, it has to be said, that when I was a child and indeed when I first became a Christian I was under the impression that such hardships, trials and harm – should they come to a believer – would come from the world and not the church itself. And that it would be as a result of their choice to Christ and not something they had little say in.
So what about those folk who face hardship, trials, and yes even indirect harm which is not specifically as a result of their choice to follow Christ but simply because they are ‘different’. Simply because they do not comfortably fit into other people’s – even other Christian’s – expectations?
As I said, I am over 50 now and I have been a Christian for a good many years and I have experienced mental illness for a good many years more. Probably all of my life and certainly for as long as I can remember. And I am extremely blessed to now attend a church which is, in the main, extremely loving and extremely accepting of me. Even with all my quirks and eccentricities, and even with my mental illnesses. But that has not always been the case and certainly it is not always the case for others like me.
Mental illness can bring a whole plethora of; challenges, discomforts and even distresses. Doing so not only in those who experience it first-hand but also those who witness it in others. And sadly one example where this is all too often the case, in respect of those who witness it in others, is in the church.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have, in my walk with the Lord, witnessed – within a number of different churches – many wonderful responses to mental illness and to those who, like me experience it. But sadly I have also witnessed or heard of some awful responses to mental health and those who experience it.
And I cannot begin to describe how much this saddens me.
I also have to tell you that unless you experience mental illness first hand it is very hard for you to truly understand the impact that it has on your faith, even without others creating further hardships for you.
Mental illnesses such as depression, BPD and schizophrenia can have such a devastating effect on someone’s life. Often corrupting and removing any belief that they can truly be fully accepted – let alone actually be fully loved. And the resultant thought processes – especially during severe episodes – can convince a sufferer that they are so very worthless and are even worthless and un-loveable to God. And trust me, in that mindset, you would be hard pressed to be left with the message in the image above.
And let’s be honest here. Haven’t many of us – even in the absence of any mental illness – at some point or other in time, questioned our worth or our place in Christ? Haven’t so many of us – again even in the absence of any mental illness – at some point or other needed the love, counsel and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ in order to help us re-evaluate and re-establish our place in Christ? Indeed, isn’t that one of the primary functions and benefits of being in a local family of believers?
All of which brings my thoughts, as lots of things seem to do, back to the words of Christ when asked what the greatest commandment was.
…‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment.
Jesus answered, (Matthew 22:37-38 NKJV).
Trust me, I really can see how someone’s love for Christ and for God, and also how their belief in Christ and in God would cause them to have difficulty accepting mental illness – especially in another believer. It can be so very difficult to reconcile our understanding of ‘an all powerful’ and a ‘perfect loving heavenly Father’ with one who doesn’t immediately remove such illnesses in His children. And so the response of many believers – it seems – is to question the illness or to avoid the whole thing. And in the process it is often those who suffer from such illnesses who are also avoided, even rejected, mistrusted, misunderstood.
But what of the rest of Christ’s answer to the question he was set?
And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
(Matthew 22:39-40 NKJV)
I have to tell you, and of this I am convinced. If we – as individual Christians and as Christian churches – fail to live out the second part of Christ’s answer – to live out and minister the second commandment – then in all honesty I cannot see how we are truly living out the first.
We as a Church must not only love God with all our heart and soul and mind, but we must also love others for Him. Especially those who struggle to see that love for themselves or who are struggling in life.
Consider the words of Matthew 25:37-40 (NKJV) which also record Christ’s words…
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
It is time (actually long past time) that we ‘the church’ – be that globally or locally – woke up to the responsibility and indeed the privilege that we have in how we respond to mental illness and those who experience it.
And it is time that we took a long, hard, look at how we treat those who don’t conform to our expectations or preconceived frames and ask ourselves the following two questions…
If we the church fail to show love and acceptance to; the poor and the sick and the needy, how then are we giving spreading the gospel of Christ and giving the message that they can find acceptance in heaven?
How therefore are we fulfilling either the first or the second commandments?