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My Mental Health & Scripture: Beholding Christ with an Unfriendly Mind

an image of a big swaying tree and a portion of the article content about mental health and the Bible to the right of it

As I look back on my life as a Christian who experiences mental illness, I think of passages from these two psalms:

One thing have I asked of the Lord;
one thing I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple. (Ps 27:4 BCP1979)1

But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
forever and ever. (Ps 52:8)

I think about how, over the last five years, the gospel has made me a tree, a big swaying tree with a mental illness. A big swaying tree in the land of sin, death, and the devil—this place of pride and lies, trouble and loss, chaos and disaster. A big swaying tree in the harsh environment of this affliction.

My mental illness is a fierce wind no one can see. My mind is often not my friend, even as I try to be its friend and tend to its vulnerabilities. It pushes, it claws, it bombards. And it bullies. My own invisible wind tunnel. I think of how the gospel makes us trees, even in our affliction.

Even with a brain that is not kind, I am this tree in the house of God. The gospel can make a tree out of absolutely nothing, out of faith that wasn’t even there until it planted it. Out of the trust he plants and deepens by his gospel, God makes trees in harsh environments.

Experiencing Scripture in the midst of my mental illness

In the last five years, my views of Scripture have had to change. The realities of the harsh environment of a mental illness have forced me to approach Scripture differently. Or better, Scripture has had to become something else to me.

Scripture was, for many years, important information I acquired, knowledge I wanted to master, and full of things I should know. And in some ways, that’s still the case. But that’s no longer what Scripture mostly is for me now.

The words of Scripture are stained glass by which I behold the light of Christ. The light of his gospel, living and active through the invisible Spirit, breaks through the stain glass of the words themselves. The mess of Scripture—the beauty and awkwardness of the language and translation; the rhythm, cadence, and rants; the selection of certain words over others; the lilt and tenor of it all—is part of that stained glass through which the light pours in. The light of the gospel, Christ’s own radiance, pours in through the stained glass of the written word, and I am changed as I behold it.

The words of Scripture are stained glass by which I behold the light of Christ.

Light pours onto this big swaying tree blown back and forth by an unkind mind. The mind knocks me round. But the light pours in, and I grow by it anyway. I am changed by beholding, changed by who I behold in the harsh environment of this mental illness.

It seems like that is what I do now when I read Scripture. I know I’m not done learning, that there is plenty more to know. But learning doesn’t seem to be the point anymore. Rather, I stare at the stained glass of the written word to be changed by the fierce light of the gospel pouring in through it. On this little tree planted in this harsh environment.

And this is not without precedent in Scripture. In 2 Corinthians, we are told that the gospel is glory and light, and that we, “beholding the glory of the Lord,” are being changed into his image “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). Likewise, 1 John promises that we will be changed, “because we will see him as he is” (3:2). Even now, the one who hopes in him purifies himself (3:3).

The light pours in through the stained glass of the written Word (the Word pours in through the word). It deepens my trust in him, shepherds my attention toward him, so that I withstand the lies of my own mind and gently begin to give myself to the day at hand and the people I love.

Beholding Scripture when mental illness gets in the way

Perhaps most importantly, beholding does not require me to be ready to pay attention. My mental illness often makes me so that I cannot pay attention. My attention is the very thing that has been scattered by the fierce winds of this affliction.

And yet the fierce wind does not affect this light. The light pours in regardless, because Scripture is not what I first imagined it to be. It is not information I must master. I can never approach Scripture with my full attention. But it is not my job to gather the scraps of attention together in a little pile so that I can.

The Scriptures work more graciously than that. The Holy Spirit works with the words of Scripture to deepen our trust in Christ and gradually directs our attention toward him. Spirit’s task is to call to remembrance Christ’s own words to us. He is more patient with us than we are with ourselves. And that is what the Holy Spirit has given me by this word, a fierce patience with myself as he gradually points my attention toward Christ himself.

Holy Spirit works with the words of Scripture to deepen our trust in Christ and gradually directs our attention toward him.

But strangely, the Holy Spirit does not do his work independently. In Acts, the Holy Spirit falls on those who heard the preached word (Acts 2:37–41). He works through the stained glass of the written and spoken Word. He is received as we hear the preached Word by faith. He continues to work that way. The Spirit guards the good deposit, the sound words entrusted to us (2 Tim 1:14), so that what we heard in the beginning abides in us (1 John 2:24).

Many people with profound mental illness get frustrated because they struggle to pay attention to long Bible studies and sermons. They see this as a failure. Their mind is unkind, the day is brutal, and they don’t feel like they can bring to Scripture the focus and intention it deserves. So they understandably lose heart. Their thoughts are crawling over them—a consuming swarm. They can’t even think.

And yet the purpose, the strength, of Scripture is the way the Holy Spirit uses it to deepen our trust slowly in Christ and guide our attention gradually toward him. The Holy Spirit wants to put Christ on display through the words of Scripture. He wants to reveal. And the job of any good revelation is to deepen our trust and steward our attention; the job of any good light is gently to make us trees—even in the harsh environment of a mental illness.

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Rehearsing rather than merely learning Scripture

To behold a beautiful thing is to allow ourselves to be gradually pulled into its beauty. To sit on a porch and observe a beautiful view is to become gradually more quiet. To hear a song we already know is gradually to discover its beauty again and sing along.

As the light of the gospel pours in through the stained glass window of the words themselves, it rescues and deepens our trust. And what has our trust then gradually shepherds our attention.

This is where things get practical for me. A major part of devotional life simply is not about learning new things. For the mentally ill this is especially true. Good doctrine and sound theology are critical. We need to be catechized. We need to know what we need to know, but only for the purpose of properly framing the simple promises of Scripture that do not change: the basic announcement of who Christ is and what Christ has done. Who is he? Our Lord and Savior. What has he done? Died and risen.

And what matters most for this mentally ill person, especially in my times of great trial, is not needing to go beyond the simple promises and basic announcements of Scripture. To simply guard the good deposit by the Holy Spirit:

A Lord and Savior.

Who died and rose again.

And has given us his death and resurrection.

And with it—as a sign of it—the forgiveness of sins and gift of the Holy Spirit.

Rooted in Scripture through repetition

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died, he died to sin, once for all. But the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:8–11)

I recite verses like these every day. I repeat them slowly and sit with them. The hum and cadence, the selection of certain words over others.

They don’t teach me anything new. I learn nothing new. But simply hearing them again, I develop a deeper trust in what I already knew. Light pours on this big swaying tree, and my roots deepen in this harsh environment.

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder. (2 Pet 1:12–13; cf. 2 Pet 3:4)

For the mentally ill, daily simple liturgies of confession of sin, words of Scripture, and times of prayer are often more helpful than a two-hour Bible study. To repeat what we already know simply means spending more time basking in the light of an unchanging gospel. We cannot go wrong repeating the gospel. It is a basic announcement that has not changed and will not change.

But what has not changed will change us. The gospel—a death and resurrection that cannot change—will continue to change us.

This light, the unchanging light of what cannot change, deepens our faith and makes us trees. Even in the harsh environment of a mental illness.

Books about mental health, including John Andrew Bryant’s book

A Quiet Mind to Suffer With: Mental Illness, Trauma, and the Death of Christ

A Quiet Mind to Suffer With: Mental Illness, Trauma, and the Death of Christ

Regular price: $13.99

Add to cart
Finding Hope in a Dark Place: Facing Loneliness, Depression, and Anxiety with the Power of Grace

Finding Hope in a Dark Place: Facing Loneliness, Depression, and Anxiety with the Power of Grace

Regular price: $11.99

Add to cart
God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World

God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World

Regular price: $21.99

Add to cart
Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit

Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit

Regular price: $16.99

Add to cart
How Can We Help Victims of Trauma and Abuse? (Questions for Restless Minds)

How Can We Help Victims of Trauma and Abuse? (Questions for Restless Minds)

Regular price: $6.99

Add to cart
A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness

A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness

Regular price: $39.99

Add to cart

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  1. Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical quotations come from the ESV.
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Written by
John Andrew Bryant

John Andrew Bryant is a writer, speaker, and chaplain in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His book, A Quiet Mind to Suffer With, won several awards, including a 2024 Christianity Today Book Award in the Christian Living/Spiritual Formation category.

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Written by John Andrew Bryant