Mental Health

Finding Joy Amidst Mental Illness

God is Our Greatest Encourager | Libero Magazine 2
The word joy is often used interchangeably with happiness, a concept known to wax and wane in our lives. This can seem overwhelming to those of us struggling with mental illness.

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Editor's Note: We are a non-religious magazine. However, we acknowledge that spirituality is an important part for some. Our Faith column is a place for anyone to discuss how faith positively affects their mental health and how to improve the conversation around mental health within faith communities.

The word joy is often used interchangeably with happiness, a concept known to wax and wane in our lives. However, the Bible tells us we should “rejoice always” (Philippians, 4:4, NLT).

This can seem overwhelming to those of us struggling with mental illness.

How can we be joyful when the lies in our heads are screaming? How do we hold on to joy in the dark, stretching days of depression? Could it be that, unlike happiness, which is arguably more of a brief emotional response to outside stimuli, joy is so often not an emotion but a decision?

Joy can be completely independent of circumstances.

It is a mindset, an understanding and a gift. It is not an emotion, but a position we can stand in; an assurance God grows within us.

When the Holy Spirit first comes upon the disciples in Acts, they experience the joy of His presence: “and the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts, 13:52, NLT). The people are completely filled with this sense of joy, yet the only thing changed in their difficult situation was that they had met with the palpable presence of God.

Happiness is more quickly experienced, but also far more easily lost. It is fleeting; present while in a good situation but easily dissolved by bad news or disappointment. It fades over time as the event producing it becomes more distant. Joy, however, can be anchored by truth and faith, enduring through all situations.

Interestingly, joy can coexist with times of unhappiness.

If we have dissatisfaction with our current situations (due to chemicals in our brain, patterns of addiction, past trauma or just generally difficult seasons), we can still be joyful because we live in hope and know God is near.

Jesus Himself knew the importance of us living in this joy: “Remain in my love…I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John, 15: 10b-11, NLT) There are no exceptions within this statement Jesus makes, and no disclaimers to suggest those who struggle with depression or other mental health problems are exempt from experiencing this joy.

However, it is our responsibility to make a decision to choose joy daily.

Choosing joy doesn’t mean that we ignore or block out negative emotions.

It simply means we experience and process those difficult feelings with an underlying knowledge that we continue to have this hope.

In Galatians, Chapter 5, Paul lists the “fruit of the spirit,” attributes which are gifted to us by God when we allow the Holy Spirit to start to move within us: “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…” (Galatians, 5:22-23, NLT).

These “fruit” begin as seeds (simply the potential for characteristics) and grow when we pray for more of them or ask God to develop them in particular ways.  Joy is therefore promised to us by spiritual means, despite and because of all we go through. This is a huge encouragement to us as believers.

God doesn’t expect us to be able to create this joy for ourselves. It is a gift from Him. All we need to do is to be open and willing to grow this gift; to be humble enough to pray for more of it and trust God will provide.

It can be so easy to get bogged down in the present, painful, and earthly burden of our daily battles of recovery. It can seem impossible to scrape through a day, let alone feel joy within it.

Despite how much we might stumble and trip, however, God can continue to grow the joy we contain.

He is greater than our fears and emotions, and will never be limited by them. When it is difficult to be open to this, we can look at and be joyful in the hope of glory, knowing, come what may, we have the hope of eternal life.

We hold on to the truth we are merely strangers on this Earth, temporary visitors. Heaven is our home. And that home is a place of unending joy and complete contentment. There will be no illness, physical or mental, in heaven. The assurance of this incredible eternal life, when we know it as a heart truth, gives us an overwhelming reason to seek joy.

We are chosen, loved and secure in the knowledge God desires, at all times, to pour His joy into us, without pressure or judgement. Today, I pray for help for all of us to position ourselves to receive this joy and experience all it really means.

“We’re depending on God; he’s everything we need. What’s more, our hearts brim with joy since we’ve taken for our own his holy name. Love us, God, with all you’ve got — that’s what we’re depending on” (Psalm, 33: 20-22, MSG).

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Anna is a UK-based medical student who loves Jesus, strong tea, clear cold sunny weather, tiny humans (especially under 5s), football and singing harmonies at every opportunity. She has been recovering from anorexia, depression, anxiety and self-injury since 2011 and is passionate about the freedom that recovery can bring.

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