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God’s Weakness

A sudden descent. It really was. January 2017 forever changed my life.

If you’re someone who has struggled with mental illness, perhaps you will benefit from my experience. If you’re someone who’s fortunate enough to never have travelled that path, I hope my story will shed light on the experience of friends and family members who have. I’ve struggled for months now wrestling with the idea of sharing this personal experience.

Stick with me for a bit as I share about what occurred last January. On December 31 of 2016, I unknowingly tore part of the disc in my back between L4 & L5. The pain that accompanied that injury grew in great intensity over the next few days. On January 8, 2017, my back went into extreme spasms and my wife Meredith had to call 911. I would find myself laid up in a hospital bed for the next five days as the medical team worked to make an accurate diagnosis of what was happening in my back. While in the hospital, I was kept under much of the time with muscle relaxers and dose after dose of valium. But this was only the culmination event. Go back a few months. I had been hospitalized for a few days in November for diverticulitis. The week after I got out of the hospital, my wife Meredith who was 7 months pregnant had a bleeding scare where she was hospitalized as well. She ended up having a placenta previa, therefore, the bleeding began again at the end of November and they had to take our baby girl Harper at 34 weeks. On two occasions, I had been on edge about my wife’s health. One week after Harper was born, we found out that she had a moderate-sized hole in her heart. God did indeed heal her in just a month’s time, but the stress on our family was a bit overwhelming. After leaving the hospital, a few days passed and then I had a nervous breakdown. I know that’s probably not the technical term for what happened, but it certainly conveys something of the strange and debilitating effects of what occurred.

It all started with my inability to read. While being unable to really walk or tie my shoes for about a month, I did nothing much more than lay flat on my back for a few weeks. I was attempting to read my bible about three days after I left the hospital, and I was unable to do so. Not only could I not focus, but I literally was unable to read the words on the page. Fear paralyzed me.

I remember walking into the room where my wife (who was such a trooper and had just had a c-section the month before and was taking care of a preemie and two other children) was working at the time on her online clothing boutique to give her my diagnosis. My eyes were wide.

“We need to talk,” I said, “I think something has happened with my brain.”

In my mind’s eye, the future was all too clear. My poor young wife would have to push me around in a wheelchair by day and hoist me into bed every night. She’d have to work doubly hard to support us both. I would have to stop pastoring as I wouldn’t be able to read ever again or get out of this mental haze.

The next day I experienced another round of diverticulitis. I now knew I would have to check back into the hospital for a few days of strong antibiotic treatment, as I had just spent four days in the hospital back in November for my first-ever round of diverticulitis. The anxiety was literally crippling. After two more nights of not sleeping more than one hour, my wife convinced me to go back to the doctor.

I went. Sure enough, I had diverticulitis again. I was going to have to go a few weeks without eating solid food. The strong antibiotics regimen began again. But I also expressed to my doctor something I had never experienced before.

By this point, I was convinced that I had a degenerative neurological disease of some kind. People tried to talk sense into me, told me not to jump to conclusions, but I wasn’t convinced. I don’t know how many times I had to tell people, “I’m very logical!”

The truth was, there was more than just physical symptoms. I was experiencing something that’s tough to describe, even for a word-nerd like me. I felt inexplicably sad. A hopelessness flooded my soul. I could no longer see the future. I had a constant, grinding anxiety that made concentration impossible. Forget reading or writing. I couldn’t even watch TV. I had to be reminded to shave and shower.

For a couple weeks, I’d wake up in the middle of the night overcome by a suffocating feeling that I was dying. Sometimes I’d hobble my way to the bathtub in the middle of the night. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing classic panic attacks. My serotonin levels were completely depleted.

Of course I was absolutely convinced all of these symptoms were caused by the strong narcotic medicines the hospital staff had given me when I was in the hospital for my back injury. Could I really be going through withdrawals having been on the meds for only a week? To say I had an aversion to taking more medication was an understatement. Those medications were for weak-minded people, not sane, strong, well-adjusted people like me! I had been a pastor for more than 10 years. I had never dealt with mental weakness.

But this was different. My world had been turned upside-down. The turning point came after my doctor challenged me with an analogy:

“If you were diabetic, would you refuse to take insulin?”

I repeated my mantra about my problems not being psychological, but she pushed back.

“Just try medication for 6 months and see if it makes a difference.”

I did and it did. To my surprise, about 13 days in I felt my muscles begin to relax and my mental haze lifted. I began to see that there was a tomorrow. For the first time in a month, I began to feel like Craig Mosgrove. Where I had previously spent most of my days crying, I caught myself laughing a time or two. It is true. Your brain is an organ. It can be ill. Fast forward. After six months, I came off the antidepressant, and I felt great. The depression and anxiety were literally gone.

I’ll never forget the All Night Prayer meeting that I attended in the middle of all that chaos. I would spend days crying out to the Lord for Him to deliver me from the mental fog. I was consistently dizzy, and I lost 19 pounds in about 15 days. It was during this night that God began to really teach me about what I call “weak wisdom.”

For years of my life I had heard pastors tell other individuals struggling with mental illness, “You need to get delivered!” Part of me wanted to give a hearty amen to that assessment. Who wouldn’t want to be delivered from depression and anxiety? But I always knew there was a misunderstanding implicit in their statement. Even in my case, many people would believe my condition was purely spiritual (maybe even demonic) and that simply by praying, or mustering up enough faith, I could be free of the problem. We must all acknowledge that the issue is more complicated. Spiritual? Sure, but it’s also blend of other factors – psychological, emotional, physical, and environmental.

It is very unhelpful to simply urge friends struggling with mental issues to be more fervent in prayer and Bible-reading. Don’t get me wrong: prayer and Scripture are a tremendous source of comfort in the valley (especially the Psalms), but when you’re really low, it’s hard to even muster the energy or concentration to engage deeply in spiritual disciplines. You can’t pray yourself out of the problem. No, when you’re in the thick of the battle, you need others to pray for you. That’s the beauty of the Body of Christ. When you’re too weak to raise your head, others come alongside you to hold you up. Which brings me to the lesson….

Let’s face it. Weak isn’t a trait any of us wish to be associated with, and yet the apostle Paul describes no less than God having weakness! Paul says that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:25).” How could God be weak? We are certainly in a new ballpark here.

We can all admit that we admire strength and importance. We admire self-sufficiency, autonomy, and the self-made person. This is surely the American way. This weakness of God, as Paul calls it, is not something we admire or want to imitate in our lives. Maybe this has been part of our resistance at times to the mystery of God. I would describe human strength as self-sufficiency. God’s weakness is something altogether different though. God’s weakness could be described as inter-being. Inter-being is a different way of standing in the world than the self-made person stands. Human strength admires holding on. There is obviously something positive about this; it’s not all wrong. But the irony is, God is much more about letting go, which looks, let’s admit it, first of all like weakness to us, not like strength.

Human strength admires autonomy. God’s mystery rests in mutuality. God is community. God is Three in One. We like control. God, it seems, loves vulnerability. Each of the Persons of God share with One Another. In fact, if Jesus is the image of God, then God is much better described as Richard Rohr puts it “Absolute Vulnerability Between Three” rather than “Almighty One.” God began to make so clear to me in this struggle that human strength wants to promote, project, and protect a clear sense of self-identity and autonomy and not inter-being or interface. Often times, we admire needing no one; apparently, the Trinity admires needing.

Evident to me as I’ve been struggling with whether or not to share with you my own battle with depression, we as humans are practiced at hiding and self-protecting, not at showing all our cards. God seems to be into total disclosure. Human strength is defined in asserting boundaries. God, it seems, is in the business of dissolving boundaries.

Here is my challenge to us all. Did you ever imagine that what we call “vulnerability” might just be the key to ongoing growth? In my experience, healthy vulnerable people use every occasion to expand, change and grow. Yet it is a risky position to live undefended, in a sense of openness to others – because it would mean others could sometimes actually wound you. But it is only if we choose to take this risk do we also allow the exact opposite to be true: the other person might also gift you, free you, and even love you. But it is a risk every time. Every time.

This, my friends, seems to be the work of the Holy Spirit: to keep you growing is to keep you vulnerable to life and love itself. I know this is what God did in me through this challenge. We can note that the major metaphors for the Spirit in Scripture are always dynamic and never stationary: elusive wind, descending dove, falling fire, flowing water. Spirit-led people never stop growing and changing and recognizing the new moment of opportunity.

God is attracted to weakness. He can’t resist those who humbly and honestly how desperately they need Him and others. Our weakness, in fact, makes room for His power. And your most effective ministry will come out of your deepest hurts.

By the way, the one thing that the ego hates and fears more than anything else is change. But God is committed to us changing. God puts us in community for a reason. We are not to battle through life alone. May you be encouraged to reach out to others today in a search for wholeness. We are never “there” yet. We are always just in the river. And you and I can’t push the river, nor can we stop it. All we can do is recognize it, enjoy it, and ever more fully allow it to carry us. God is so faithful.