Christians who try to help a friend with mental illness need to remember how Job’s friends treated him and learn from that story. In his introduction to the book of Job in The Message, Eugene Peterson wrote, “The moment we find ourselves in trouble of any kind sick in the hospital, bereaved by a friend’s death, dismissed from a job or relationship, depressed or bewildered people start showing up telling us exactly what is wrong with us and what we must do to get better.” More often than not, these people use the Word of God frequently and loosely. They are full of spiritual diagnosis and prescription. But then we begin to wonder, ‘Why is it that for all their apparent compassion we feel worse instead of better after they’ve said their piece?’
Job’s friends were judgmental, trying to find ways of blaming Job for his afflictions. One friend said, ‘Oh that Job might be tested to the utmost for answering like a wicked man! To his sin he adds rebellion; scornfully he claps his hands among us and multiplies his words against God.’ (Job 34:36-37) Here is how God responded to this friend: ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’ (Job 42:7) Job had been honest with God. Perhaps his friends would have been more helpful by entering with him in his suffering and helping him look for God.
Can you love a friend with depression or other major mental illness, realizing he has a disorder of the brain that is not his fault? Can you show compassion without suggesting easy answers? Can you encourage without trying to advise or fix? Can you listen without making light of a pain that runs deep?
That’s the non-judgmental way. That’s the caring way. Mostly what we who live with mental illness need is for someone to care enough to listen and have empathy. Isn’t that all Job wanted and needed?
What are some practical things you can do to help?
There are many. They’re similar to what you would do to help physically ill people.
You might bring them a casserole. You might give them a call once in a while, telling them you’re thinking of them and praying for them. You would ask them how their day is going. We who live with mental illness need the same things. We might need a ride to the doctor or help shopping for groceries. A reminder of scripture that might have helped you yourself during trials could help. Going for a walk with us would be therapeutic. A hug now and then could do wonders. At times I feel ashamed for things I’ve done or how I’ve reacted to situations. Then it’s hard to live with myself. Then I need Christ’s unconditional love, shown to me through my friends. It’s then that I need to be reminded that God forgives. I need to be reminded that everyone is broken in some way, even when they don’t have a mental disorder.
This is Christ-like giving at its best. This kind of care gives me comfort. And when, through my friends, I receive God’s comfort in this way, I am able to comfort others who suffer as I do. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
My prayer is that others who live with mental illnesses will receive the kind of care I’ve received from my Christian friends. My prayer is that Christians will learn more about mental health issues and how to support those who suffer emotionally. There are many of us and we need you.
Marja Bergen is the founder of Living Room (http://www.livingroomsupport.org) , a Christian peer support ministry for people with mood disorders. She is the author of Riding the Roller Coaster (Northstone 1999) and A Firm Place to Stand: Finding Meaning in a Life with Bipolar Disorder (Word Alive 2008). Her blog is at http://marjabergen.blogspot.com.