Chronic Love (Loving those with Mental Health Issues)
We’re all guilty of not loving everyone like Jesus loves. We’ve got down loving those easy and convenient people, but distance ourselves from those who are a hassle or exhausting. Yet, we are commanded to love them. Jesus did not say love only your small group, love only your friends and those easy to love. Don’t tax collectors love other tax collectors?
When Jesus said to love others as I’ve loved you He meant love others with an unrelenting, unending, unconditional love. John 13:1 says that Jesus loved them until the end. So how do we love those who are hard to love, who may suffer from chronic mental illness? We love them with a chronic love. I say chronic love because that’s how Jesus loves us—Chronically, unending, unrelenting, and unconditionally.
I hope all of us will see a little clearer how we can love with a chronic love through the story of the Good Samaritan. From this story I’m going to give us three things we can do to better show chronic love to those inconvenient and difficult to love. The common understanding of 'neighbor’ of the day for a Jew was a fellow Jew.
In the story a Jew gets beaten within an inch of his life. First, a priest notices and distances himself. Then a Levite sees the man and distances himself also. Then an unlikely character enters the story - a Samaritan. Samaritans were not Jews and not considered neighbours by the Jews, though they lived next door, to the north. They had mixed blood of Jews and Gentiles, which is why the Jews hated them. It says "when he (the Samaritan) saw him, he felt compassion”. There is a huge difference in noticing something wrong and seeing a person hurting. I know, for me, often I don’t want to see people hurting because I’m scared of the inconvenience. Our first question, sadly, can be “what’s this going to cost me in terms of time, commitment, money?”.
1. Open our Eyes
Don’t just know mental illness is out there but see them. We need to open our eyes because these people are all around us; at work, home, and church not fearing the inconvenience our compassion will place upon us.
2. Extend(ed) Compassion and Care
In the next two verses (v34-35) we see the Samaritan is not only unafraid of the inconvenience, but feels compassion. He takes care of the sufferer’s immediate needs, bandaging and pouring oil on his wounds to disinfect them. But he doesn’t just extend care, he extended his care; by taking him to an inn and staying all night with him. The next day he extended his care further by giving two denarii (two days wages) to the inn keeper to continue caring for the sufferer. He extended his time, his finances, and his life. He says in v35 “when I return”; He’s coming back, he’s not leaving this person. He is committed.
You cannot feed people hope of finally belonging, then love them only when is it convenient. Many with mental illness deal with severe abandonment issues from childhood. If they feel the one person they trusted has abandoned them, that might be all it takes to push them over the edge.
There is a chapter in Bob Goff’s book, Everybody Always, called “Skydiving." At the end of the chapter he retells the story of the skydiving instructor telling everyone if their shoot and back up shoot doesn’t open they have 45 second until they hit the ground. You don’t die on the first hit. On the first hit every bone breaks and then you bounce up. When you come down, on the second hit, you die, because every broken bone then punctures your organs. Goff says this: “If we want to be like Jesus, here’s our simple and courageous job: Catch people on the bounce.”
Don’t tell people you are there for them unless you are ready to practice chronic love and endure the pain of carrying one another’s burdens, no matter how annoying, inconvenient, or costly. Don’t tell people you’ve got their back no matter what, but when they don’t get their act together as you think they should, or they don’t take their meds, get sober, you then wash your hands of them. That’s not chronic love.
3. Enlist Help
The third and probably the biggest thing we can do to show chronic love is again found in v35 where we see that the Samaritan didn’t do it all on his own; he enlisted the help of the inn keeper.
This all may be a little overwhelming so far, that’s why you must enlist the help of your church family to help love the suffer. The best and most qualified place for us all to start showing chronic love to those who chronically suffer from mental illness is to love the families.
· Families with a mother, father, or child suffering mental illness always feels shame, meaning they never feel like they belong so they isolate and hide from you. Get those families over for a dinner. Get them in small groups, bible studies, life groups, grow groups, whatever you call them.
· They may turn you down because of another way in which they suffer, which is anxiety. Families isolate, not only because they don’t feel they belong as a result of shame, but because they’re a nervous wreck that their loved one might have an episode, show up drunk or high, or say something or do something inappropriately if they do try to belong. Their anxiety is a fear they might prove to everyone they don’t really belong. Let them know you understand the situation and they don’t need to worry. Whatever happens and they all will be loved no matter what. Our church met us with this chronic love a little over a year ago and it made a huge impact on my wife's progress.
· Families feel unstable, because they’re drained emotionally, physically, and financially. The mentally ill for the family often feels like an emotional black hole.
· Families are confused. Don’t stop offering your help because they don’t take you up on it. Most likely they don’t know how they need help. Be strong in grace and relentless in your love. Be relentless in your help.
· Families are often exhausted because many times there is a role reversal. Children taking care of mom or dad. Or, dad taking care of a wife as well as the children all alone. Families are just beat. Find ways to give them a break so they can practice their own self-care.
You and your church have the opportunity to, through your chronic love, be the very vessel God uses to radically alter their lives into looking more like Jesus. Love them with the same chronic love that Jesus loves you. Be relentless in your compassion and grace. Don’t do it alone, do it as a church. Don’t fear the inconvenience your compassion will place upon you. Embrace it like Jesus did for you at the cross.
The Good Samaritan story ends with Jesus asking his own question to the expert in the Law in v36: "Which of these three (the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan) do you think proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell into the robber’s hands?”
The expert answers, “The one who showed mercy toward him.”
Just like Jesus took the command to love neighbour as yourself and gave a fresh take on it to love others as He has loved, He takes the expert's question, “who is my neighbour?" and turns it into “Who are you being a neighbour to?”
Are you letting the fear of inconvenience distance you from letting compassion lead you into chronic love for those hurting?
I know it is hard to love a person with a mental illness. So I’m going to give us some tips that will help you and hopefully your church family better show chronic love to the person for the long-haul, as well as help you maintain your own safety and sanity.
Set boundaries with the person. A boundary really is just a line in the sand that is not an ultimatum, but a guideline as to how the relationship will work, reminding them they are loved, safe, and belong. You will have to determine and communicate your own boundaries but here are some examples.
When a person gets out of line, agitated, or manipulative, simply remind them you love them, you are here for them, but you will not tolerate their behavior. So when they are ready to either get back on track with recovery, meds, or just treating you respectfully, you will be there waiting for them. Until then you will check in on them to see their progress. And you are rooting for them.
A boundary may be you will not answer phone calls after a certain hour of the evening or night. You may tell the person you will not engage them if they are belligerent, intoxicated, or attention-seeking. Then you hug them and check in on them later. The purpose of boundaries is to clearly create communicate how the relationship will work in light of the illness.
Be Strong in Grace
Loving chronically is not possible without being strong in grace. A person with a mental illness will at some point attempt to manipulate you, lie to you, betray you, offend you, or hurt you emotionally. Many with disorders do what’s called “splitting.” They will be your best friend one day and the next they won’t even acknowledge your presence in the same room. After a couple days they’re your best friend again. It comes across childish, but being strong in grace will help you understand it’s a defense mechanism that protects that person when they’re scared you are going to ditch them or distance yourself from them. They essentially end the relationship before you can end it and hurt them. Be strong in grace and reinforce your chronic love which will dissipate their fear of abandonment and eventually their splitting. The old saying is, “You can’t lie down with dogs and not come up with fleas.” In the same way, you can’t love hurting people and not get hurt in some way. Expect it and be ready to be strong in grace to forgive. 2 Timothy 2:1 “Be strong in the grace which is in Christ Jesus."
Educate yourself on the specific illness your friend is suffering. In my case, when I found out my wife suffered from BPD I read everything I could which did two things: (1) It gave me compassion where I used to just feel confused, hurt, or annoyed. (2) That compassion led me to better love her by knowing the deeper cause of what was driving her behavior. In turn this brought a lot of peace to the relationship because I knew how to talk to her and what things may trigger her.
You don’t have to understand, believe, or accept their reality as they communicate it to you, but if you want to demonstrate chronic love then you must listen and let them know they are heard. Don’t tell them they are being crazy, irrational, over-the-top, or childish. They may be all these things, but don’t tell them—just listen. Hopefully, they are or will meet with a professional counselor or therapist who will help them safely navigate the rational and irrational. Your job is not to fix, but to love.
Jesus, the same One who didn’t distance Himself by passing by the cross out of fear of inconvenience, embraced it by stepping out of all the conveniences of heaven to endure our sin, our annoyingly, selfish, childish, manipulative sin. And we couldn’t be more grateful. Don’t fear the inconvenience your compassion will place upon you to demonstrate chronic love, embrace it like Jesus.
Eric Austin holds his Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas, USA. After almost seven years as a pastor he stepped out of vocational ministry to support his wife in her recovery of Borderline Disorder (BPD). Eric was born and has lived his life with an extremely rare bone disease, a disease which has profoundly impacted his personal views on suffering. In recent years, as a result of walking alongside his wife’s own suffering, he has learned the emotional and psychological pain that often comes from living with a loved one having a personality disorder. Eric is passionate about teaching the Bible and seeing the grace of God radically alter people into looking more like Jesus through the suffering that has drastically altered their lives. He is the host of The Altered Podcast a podcast in which he attempts to do just this. Eric lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA with his wife Heidi and three children.