Belief vs. Faith

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

and do not rely on your own insight.

[…] Do not be wise in your own eyes (Proverbs 3:5-7, NRSV)

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a severe and difficult depressive episode, with some paranoid delusion thrown in for good measure. These episodes in my life, when I am thrown into a mental state impossible to deal with, are the times when I most need God, yet feel most abandoned by the love, care and guidance of the Almighty. I know, on an intellectual level, that God hasn’t upped sticks and left me to struggle alone. Being a good little Anglican, I can draw on scripture, reason, tradition and experience to come to the sure conclusion that God is most certainly not partial to abandoning or neglecting anyone, especially not in their times of greatest need. This conclusion is all well and good, but right now it simply doesn’t feel true. I believe in an all-loving God who guides and cares for me, but what use is that belief when my life is broken and fragmented, when God feels absent, when I have no faith in what I believe?

The words ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ are often used interchangeably, but there is a vast gap between believing something to be true and having faith in its ability to effect a difference in the world.  It’s often assumed that, if not synonymous, the two at least go hand in hand, inevitably following on from one another, but it seems like faith tends to follow rather reluctantly behind belief, if indeed it deigns to follow at all. I felt almost defeated when I first came to believe in God, a reaction not dissimilar to that described by CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy:

In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. […] The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?

Far from being a solution to all the world’s ills, belief in God can bring with it any number of negative responses. We can easily believe in God while still trusting ourselves a great deal more than we trust that belief – one only has to look to Satan to see a model of perfect belief entirely unsupported by faith. For us, our inability to place faith in our belief is rarely quite so willful, but a fundamental tenet of Christianity is the inevitable doubt that comes from a frequent disconnect between what one believes to be true and what one feels worthy of placing faith in.

Belief comes from our will to assent to something we have carefully considered and found to be true beyond reasonable doubt. Belief is nice and neat, and our desire to often cast off faith in the unknowable in favour of concrete and sound fact betrays one of the downsides of living in a post-enlightenment society where empiricism is exalted to almost fetishistic levels. The Proverbs quote at the beginning of this post is often rolled out as incontrovertible proof that Christianity is a religion of anti-intellectualism, of encouragement in acceptance without question – this isn’t helped by the fact that the word ‘insight’, a word relating much more to wisdom, to capital T Truth, than to clinical facts, is historically translated as ‘understanding’. The passage, however, categorically does not encourage us to eschew education or intellectual enquiry, both of which are necessary and invaluable; on the contrary, it asks us simply to accept that these things can only offer us so much.

Faith requires that we put to one side our confidence in being able to calculate what is fact and what is fiction. It instead asking us to put our trust in something which we may not be able to see or feel – something which we may believe, but into which we have no insight. It asks this of us even when we feel shaken, ruined, and in a dark place where utter nihilism looks increasingly appealing. It’s times like this when we most need to put any theoretical and carefully sculpted belief on the back burner, to stop trying to work our life events into a narrative which supports our intricately structured theology, and surrender ourselves to the mystery of faith. God asks us to trust that, even if we don’t feel it, the Holy Spirit is working in our lives. By accepting this, we build up our relationship with God and increase our love and care towards the entirety of His creation. It is the love which flows from faith, not the arrogance of belief, which will lead us to the living Kingdom of God.

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On Prayer

One of the worst things about depression is the absolute apathy that can come with it. It’s not all doom, gloom and misery; most of the time it’s simply a numbness.

I’ve been very frustrated with myself for not managing to write much recently. It’s a double cruelty that depressive episodes not only burden one with such emotional lethargy, but they also take away the ability to engage with any kind of outlet which might alleviate the difficulty. I find it hard to write because I find it so, so hard to care in moments like this. I even find it hard to pray because I just cannot formulate the words, or even the general sentiments, in my mind.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contains a lovely little description of prayer. The children are told that Aslan knows full well what they need, and will give it to them in due course, but he likes to be asked all the same. I know that my ability to pray doesn’t stop God from knowing my mind, or knowing what I need, and I know that God understands and is compassionate when I find myself unable to pray, but I’d desperately like to be able to ask. Instead, I find that these acutely apathetic episodes stop me from being able to.

In times like this, I’m hugely grateful for the Lord’s Prayer. At a Mass I recently attended, the priest talked about the difficulties of prayer, and of the difficulty we all at least occasionally face when we try to sit down and talk to God. In these times, the priest said, when we can’t work out what to say, or can’t focus our minds, or can’t even work out what exactly it is we need to pray for, God has given us a beautiful and simple prayer which can be used over and over without becoming stale:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from evil.

Amen.

“Click.”

Trigger warning: this post contains open discussion and description of suicide, self harm, and eating disorders.

I haven’t posted on here for a couple of weeks because I’ve unfortunately been really struggling with my mental health. Depression is something I’ve struggled with for several years, and doctors are increasingly convinced that I may suffer not just from depressive episodes, but from a rapid-cycling form of bipolar disorder. I’ve alluded to my mental health in a previous post, and I’m generally fairly open about it with my friends, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written – or said – the whole story.

I want to first clarify something that a lot of people are, sadly, not quite aware of. By ‘depression’, I don’t mean simply that sadness and lowness of mood that everyone feels every so often. That’s a perfectly normal part of the human spectrum of emotions. Depression is a clinical illness, and we are realising more and more that it has a strong physiological basis. Studies are even being done into the efficacy of MRI scans to detect depression: they work 80% of the time. I find it very useful to view the problems I have with mental health as very solid and tangible diseases. Some people prefer not to, but for me, recognising the illnesses as chemical imbalances which are affecting the functioning of my body and brain helps me to separate them from my sense of self, to make a disconnect between my brain, which is a functioning organ that can go wrong, and my mind, which contains something essential about me and my character. A lot of therapy is based around the acceptance of mental illnesses as a part of ‘you’, and while I do accept this to some extent, I want to think that there is still a distinction between the way my illnesses make me act and my actual, true ‘self’.

Secondly, depressive episodes are not necessarily linked to traumatic or upsetting events or circumstances. There is no specific reason that I started cutting myself when I was 12, and have done it on at least a semi-regular basis ever since. In Hangover Square, an excellent book by Patrick Hamilton, the protagonist has some form of mental illness, most probably schizophrenia. The description in the book of the way his episodes manifest is probably the closest I can get to an explanation of what it feels like to have a mood disorder. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the book to hand, but from memory: there is no explanation, and no triggering cause, for Hamilton’s protagonist. The text represents the switch from ‘normal’ to a world described as distant, foggy and colourless with just a single word: ‘click’. That’s it. The brain goes ‘click’, and the world is altered. Some people experience their swings between different moods as a far more gradual process, but for me it certainly isn’t. I can be perfectly fine and happy one moment, and the next, for no apparent reason, ‘click’. This is the nature of depression and several other mental illnesses.

As for my personal experience, I’ll try to lay it out as simply as I can. On my good days, I’m incredibly talkative and outgoing. I love the world, I love people, and love being around them. I have my off days, when I can’t really be bothered to do anything, or I’ve had some bad news or argued with someone and decide to mope and binge on Netflix, but for the most part I’m pretty much fine. I have ‘bad days’ perhaps 25% of the time, and on these days, I literally cannot bear to leave the house. I feel physically sick at the thought of another human being looking at me, because I absolutely despise myself. I feel too exhausted to pull myself out of bed and get dressed. Even if I did have the energy, I fail to see any reason to engage with the world. I can’t imagine a worse human being than me. I feel entirely alienated from the entirety of the human race. I will never experience what other people experience, because I’m not capable of being human. Strong suicidal feelings come along with this, and I have tried to kill myself twice in the past. Even if I don’t try to end my life, I experience intensely strong suicidal ideation: I plan what I would do to end my life, and I think about the ways I could do it in order to make sure it minimises the pain to other people. When I’m not suicidal, I still tend to self-harm during these periods, typically by cutting myself. Over the past 12 months I’ve also developed a lot of anxieties around food, which seem to feature more and more in my depressive episodes. I go through cycles of binging and purging, and find it almost impossible to have a healthy attitude towards food. Even when I’m not feeling at rock bottom, I feel anxious about food and about eating – something about it feels invasive and unnatural, and I can’t reconcile myself to it. This, in turn, reinforces all the other anxieties I have about myself and about the world, and the cycle continues.

It’s so hard to explain to someone that you might be gregarious one day and unable to leave the house the next despite nothing in your circumstances having changed. There’s no physical pain, no neurological trauma, nothing, as far as anyone else can see, that would affect your ability to go outside and have a conversation. I think it’s this that makes depressive episodes in particular difficult for others to understand. When I’m ill, there’s nothing tangible that I really can explain. This also makes it so, so difficult to accept myself. Why have I felt compelled in the past to constantly harm myself with increasing severity, even attempting last year, in all sincerity, to take my own life? I think people can often forget the peripheral issues that come about as a result of suffering from an illness that will cause you, at worst, to kill yourself. It’s a deeply uncomfortable topic to talk about, and one of the reasons that I often feel so desperate to put up a wall between the ‘real’ me and the ‘ill’ me. I don’t want to accept that I am a human being who willingly and deliberately harms myself and tries to take my own life. I believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity of life, and all the uncomfortable connotations of that sentiment. How, then, can I be so hasty to desecrate the one life over which I have total control? The only answer I can find that allows me to sleep at night is that I don’t have control. That’s what my mental illness takes away from me: the control that I once felt I had over my life. I can rationalise every single reason why I shouldn’t do something, but then my neuropathy goes ‘click’, and I’m helpless.

This is a bit of a messy blog post, and deliberately so. It’s tempting to go back through it and polish it up a little, to try to restructure it and make it read more fluidly and prettily, but I think it’s important for discussion on the topic of mental health to be raw, honest, and perhaps a little bit vulnerable.