Objective realities and subjective experiences are different things. They are supposed to match. In a fallen world, they often do not. John Andrew Bryant’s A Quiet Mind to Suffer With tells his story of wrestling with mental illness and coming to rest in Christ as the place of his relief, all within that tension when subjective experience differed painfully from objective reality.
This book is a highly personalized account of a believer trying to ground himself in his identity in Christ while his mind told him a thousand things that were not true and which he did not want to imagine. Intense OCD afflicted Bryant, so much so that for a brief time he ended up in the psych ward. Sharing his battle with OCD ended (for now) his path toward pastoral ministry, as the bishop of his diocese found Bryant’s experiences disturbing enough to pause his ordination track. His various relationships provided both a great help and the opportunity for his OCD impulses to be challenged.
Bryant’s story confronts readers with how, in the fallen world, our brains can malfunction—so much as to present us with thoughts, images, and impulses that disturb even ourselves who think them. We are not always in control of our thoughts. Sometimes we have conditions by which our thoughts are imposed upon us.
In his story, Bryant recounts how he learned that Christ must be his source of peace as he learned to live with mental illness. As he realized that his head would fill with disturbing and terrifying thoughts, he longed to be able to fix himself. But the more he worried and the more he tried to assert his own ability to overcome his mental condition, the more he realized he was subject to thoughts that did not match reality and were not what he wanted to think. He had to learn not to outthink his own thoughts, but to stand in conscious need of mercy from Christ.
Bryant has told his story as he wants it to be heard. I will not recount it here but will leave readers to take up the book for yourselves to see how he explains what happened to him and how he learned to cope with it. Bryant’s story is not a precise theological treatise; it does not parse out in a clinical way how each of the doctrines he implements should be explained. Through it, however, he does look at how someone wrestling to know Christ amid serious crisis processed coming to experience grace when circumstances seemed their worst.
I want to point readers to some reasons why they should read this book and how it might profit them. First, we need to learn more about how to come alongside our brothers and sisters wrestling with issues of mental well-being. Pastors, you should read this book so that you can more clearly see, through a first-person perspective, what mental illness can be like for a believer wanting to be faithful to Christ. The world in which we live likely entails that we will all increasingly be shepherding people with various forms of mental wellness challenges. We can easily write off everything about mental illness as a need to repent (e.g., some forms of nouthetic counseling), or we can dismiss the spiritual components altogether as if medical treatment is the only necessity. Neither extreme is the right way forward.
Bryant captures this tension as he recounts the moments he opened up about his mental illness to the authorities of his diocese and when they paused his track toward ordination:
If someone was to ask me again how I got this way, how things got this bad, how it took so long to recover, I would say there were of course some bad chemicals in the brain, bad circumstances. But over and above this, I had come to believe things that were not true. And the world always changes around what we think is true. It always changes around what we understand. (p. 168)
There is a notable combination here. On the one hand, the acknowledgement is essential, that our bodies can malfunction and cross physical wires, causing severe results such as to feel, think, and process in ways that we should not. If pastors write off the medical component in real mental illness, they have embraced a Gnostic premise that our bodies do not matter, or the Pelagian idea that the fall did not truly corrupt our physical makeup. On the other hand, believing things that are not true is something we should combat. We should repent when we realize that we have believed lies. Bryant brings both sides together, knowing that we are spiritual and physical beings who must reckon with our full composition in every challenge we face.
That lesson is important for our world. Pastors need to realize how truly complicated pastoring cases of mental illness can be. Church members also need clarity about how we ought to live alongside brothers and sisters with this sort of struggle. The line can be very thin, faint, and hard to discern, when we try to measure what aspects of a person’s mental state cannot be helped and which aspects need shepherding unto change. Grace is necessary in both. We need grace to accept our brothers and sisters when aspects of their mental makeup mean they cannot change certain hard aspects of their character. We also need grace to come carefully alongside them to help them repent and grow in areas that can and should change.
Second, Bryant’s story will help us all learn more about what it means to sit before Christ in need of mercy. We need to learn his lesson that we cannot change ourselves. We can give ourselves to Christ and trust him for our wellbeing. He will love us even when we feel wildly unloved and unlovable.
The point that our feelings can falsely lead us to think things are not ok comes home outside mere application to OCD. Those who know me well will know that I often wrestle with worry. I can get trapped easily in an anxious spiral. Christ has been kind to me such that this happens far less than it used to. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for friends, many of them former teachers, who let me call them to share concerns, which even I realize are probably blown out of proportion as I start to articulate them to someone else.
Therein we see the value of learning Bryant’s lesson with him. The isolation of embracing lies and sin can kill us. When we plug our subjective experience back into the objective world, it can help defuse our sense of troubles. When we plug our subjective experience back into the objective reality of belonging to Christ, we realize even more that we are alright, even when everything in our mind or body might unduly scream at us that we are not alright. “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Ps 4:8)
© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
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