I’ve been having a tough month in terms of mental health. Things are going well in my life but I feel anxious, stressed, and glum.
One of the things I’ve learned is that even with all the tools I have for working through emotionally tough times the things I’m struggling with don’t just go away once you slap a little prayer and therapy on them (at least not all the time). You’ve just got to keep doing things that are healthy for you, allow yourself some time to rest, ask for and give yourself grace when you make mistakes, and keep moving forward. Patience, perseverance, and asking trusted people for help are key to getting through mental health struggles just as they are with any other trials we face.
The Bible talks about our Christian life as running a race. There are times when running this race that people get off track. For example, Paul wrote to the Galatians, “You were running well! Who interfered with you that you should not obey the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you” (Gal. 5:7-10, NET). Usually when the Bible speaks of getting off-track it’s talking about sin. But I think we can also apply part of what Paul says here more broadly–the things that hinder us from running are not coming from the God who calls us to follow Him. They’re coming from an adversary who wants to see us fail; one that we can resist with God’s help.
Running Away Isn’t Going to Help
Everyone deals with emotional struggles and mental health issues differently, and those struggles trigger different responses in different people. I tend to withdraw, and I often feel like I want to hide or run away from something. I need to be very careful that this doesn’t make me want to run from God as well.
We’re engaged in spiritual warfare. When we choose to follow Jesus, we’re picking a side in a battle. One of the lies that the enemy tries to tell us is that if you do something God might not like it’s better to run away from Him than run to Him and ask for forgiveness and/or help. Adam and Eve tried hiding in the garden and we’ve been using the same trick ever since. It doesn’t work any better now than it did then.
We human beings are always heading on a path toward either death or life, and it’s far better to run down the path to God rather than the path toward the devil. The only people who should feel like they need to flee God are those that hate him (Psalm 68:1). He’s frightening if you’re setting yourself in opposition to Him, and people who are doing things God hates might feel the need to run when He rises up to take action (Prov. 6:16-19; Is. 59:7). Even then, though He’s astonishingly merciful to people who stop running in the wrong direction and run toward Him instead.
The times when we feel most like running away from God are often the times when we most need to run to Him for help. Whether we’ve actually done something wrong or if we’re beset by groundless fears, heading toward God is the solution. In the first situation we can ask for forgiveness and receive His grace, and in the other we can ask for His peace and receive reassurance.
Running With a Free Heart
God’s people are supposed to do the opposite of what people who hate him or don’t know Him do. Jesus’s sheep run from a stranger’s voice, not taking the risk of being led away from their real shepherd (John 10:4-5). We no longer run alongside people in the world toward “lewdness, lusts, drunken binges, orgies, carousings, and abominable idolatries” (1 Peter 4:3-4, WEB). Many of us used to do those things (and if we didn’t do those we committed other sins) and God forgave us, but now He wants us to flee from sexual immorality, idolatry, and all other evil desires (1 Cor. 6:18; 10:14; 2 Tim. 2:22).
People who follow God know it’s safe to run to Him. We run to God for protection (Ps. 143:9; Prov. 18:10; Jer. 16:19). We run in the straight and narrow path lit by God’s word that keeps our feet from stumbling (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 4:11-12; Matt. 7:13-14). We run to Godly things and “follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11, WEB). We run like our Christian life is a marathon that we’ll finish with Jesus running right alongside us.
I run in the path of your commandments, for you have set my heart free.Psalm 119:32, WEB
I don’t think I’d ever noticed this verse before even though I’ve read Psalm 119 countless times. It might be the translation, since the Hebrew more literally reads “for you make wide my heart,” which can be translated as something like “thou shalt enlarge my heart” (KJV) or “you have broadened my understanding” (NIV). I like this “set my heart free” translation, though. It makes me think of running across a sunlit summer meadow laughing and full of joy. That’s the emotional landscape provided by running in the path of God’s commandments. While we’re not guaranteed happiness 100% of the time, we can be full of joy. Having a heart set free accompanies God’s spirit filling us with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23, NET).
Running Well With God’s Help
We can’t do any of this joyful running without God’s help. Our success doesn’t depend on our will to run, but on God’s mercy (Rom. 9:15-16). That’s a reassuring thing, especially when our will doesn’t feel up to the task of getting out of bed in the morning much less fighting an epic spiritual battle. We can’t win this race using our own strength, but we don’t have to. We don’t even need to try; we can just ask Jesus for His strength.
That does not, however, mean we shouldn’t strive to run well. We can’t finish the race without God compassionately setting us on the right path in the first place, but we also won’t win if we sit down and give up. God’s mercy and grace should motivate us to run with endurance toward the goal He sets for us.
Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.1 Corinthians 9:24-29, NET
There isn’t just one winner in the race that’s our Christian life, but we should still imitate the high motivation of a runner who wants to achieve victory. Here, Paul highlights the self-control and discipline with which he lives his life because he knows he can’t coast into the kingdom resting on his past accomplishments (Gal. 2:1-2; Phil. 2:15-16). He was highly motivated to stick with this way of life and keep moving forward with Jesus’s strength (2 Cor. 12:7-10; Phil 4:13).
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.Hebrews 12:1-2, NET
When struggling with anxiety or other mental and emotional concerns, it helps to remember that our life is a long-term race with ups and downs. We’re not facing anything that faithful people before us haven’t dealt with as well (1 Cor. 10:13; Heb. 11:1-40). And we’re certainly not dealing with anything that’s too tough for our God. As we run toward Him asking for help, He will strengthen us to get through the tough patches and run the race set before us with resilience and joy.
Featured image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Song Recommendation: “Before The Morning” by Josh Wilson