I have been a missionary for 25 years, and I suffer with periodic bouts of depression. I’ve been on medication on and off (mostly on) for about 30 years now.
People have had a range of reactions to my admission of mental illness. At one end of the spectrum, some have said, ‘You must have sinned’, even ‘You must be sinning now in this specific way.’ On the other hand, others have said, ‘I’m so glad you shared that; it enabled me to ask for help too.’
I do all the right things. I exercise—running about three times a week for about 30 minutes. I pray and read the Bible regularly and take a Sabbath: going out to a park, to see friends or just taking it easy. I have a hobby, modular origami, and I don’t work late into the night.
I look out for any warning signs that I’m sliding ‘downhill’ again. For me, stomach pains are a key signal; a couple of days of those and I need to examine my thinking and my doing.
When I take too much on myself, I get into trouble. I can begin to think that people’s salvation is solely dependent on my witness. I may start to believe that God could not possibly use someone as weak and sinful as me to extend his kingdom. I might wonder if my mistakes or failures are final; they can’t really be redeemed or restored. It is then that dark thoughts, tears, and despair set in.
So, what do I do when the warning signals flash? I remind myself of two truths.
I remember that I am God’s beloved. It seems likely that the apostle John is ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ in the gospel of John. This disciple knows he is loved by Jesus. As Brennan Manning says, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion.” Before I am a missionary, before I do anything; I am God’s beloved.
The other truth that I call to mind is—I am not the Master, I’m just a servant. I don’t direct operations. Results are not the measure of who I am or what I do. I am simply called to be faithful in what the Master commands (1 Corinthians 4:2). Being a servant of God tells me that I am useful to God, but it is his work and not mine.
I know a number of missionaries who have struggled and still struggle with mental health issues. Perhaps you know some too. The truths that help me may help them too. Whatever you do, please don’t give up helping and encouraging the missionaries you know.
By Peter, an OMF missionary