Opinion  |  

How PTSD changed my view of God

The death of two children caused Hannah Boland to rethink her own faith

The measure of godliness is a finicky beast. For Christians who have accepted the gospel message of redemption through Christ by grace, the rest of our life’s journey is (hopefully) a pursuit of how to live in light of that truth.

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But what happens when life smashes us in the mouth and we are no longer able to chew our “spiritual solids”? (Hebrews 5:14)

When forced to return to sucking down spiritual milk through a straw indefinitely, it’s easy for guilt to set in. For many, our underlying standard for measuring godliness begins to rear its ugly head. When we are no longer able to meet that standard, we can feel like an unholy mess. And if you think you hold no such standards, walk with me a while.

Several years ago I suffered from a complete nervous breakdown after giving birth to my stillborn daughter…

In many Western evangelical churches, the practices of prayer, Bible reading and church fellowship are the three most widely impelled activities for relating with God and growing in the faith. The importance of this holy trinity of spiritual discipline stems from an excellent desire to pursue godliness seriously (1 Tim 6:11) by delving deeper into the Scriptures (Joshua 1:8), praying (Ephesians 6:18), and having fellowship with one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). These are godly pursuits and it is well they are encouraged.

Yet, in our efforts to call one another to obedience and spiritually healthy habits, many churches have begun to indoctrinate these disciplines as foundational to faith – that a godly Christian faith cannot exist without them. By virtue of that conviction, a standard is set for godliness measured against these practices, and most of us have fallen victim to its gauge at some point. For example, how many times have your thoughts followed the path of, “Wow, that person is so godly because they spend hours each day in prayer!” Or, “That person doesn’t seem to very godly because they hardly read their Bible.”

In making spiritual discipline the sanctified litmus test of godliness, as well as the church-approved methods for connecting with God, we set the framework for a theology that will utterly fail us when we face a crisis of faith (not an inevitable event, but certainly not uncommon).

Several years ago I suffered from a complete nervous breakdown after giving birth to my stillborn daughter – only 18 months after holding my two-day-old son as he died in my arms. Yes, you read that right. Even the most ignorant and sceptical naysayers of mental illness won’t usually begrudge my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis after hearing that. It utterly broke me in every sense of the word, and four years later I am still picking up the pieces. Big ones.

How could I connect with God when the three ways of relating with him via prayer, Bible reading and fellowship were ripped from my fingers?

For many months following my loss, showering, eating and showing my face outside of my bedroom door – so my husband and other children remembered they actually had a wife and mother – were about all I could manage. Prayer, reading my Bible and fellowshipping with others were out of the question, and that made sense to me. It seemed reasonable that if I physically couldn’t feed myself properly, God probably wasn’t cracking a whip for me to get back to daily devotions.

Many months down the line when I started to recover physically, I wanted to connect with God. I wanted to interact with him in a real and tangible way so I could tell him how broken and disappointed I was. I had no idea who he was any more and I wanted to hear his voice of reassurance and sense his peace.

So I opened my Bible to read and pray. As I began reading the words on the page, a strange tingling sensation started to build from my toes and continued up throughout my entire body. My chest tightened and I found it difficult to breathe. I fell violently out of my chair onto the floor and began shaking with seizure-like symptoms. I was overwhelmed with the sense that whatever I had just read in my Bible was God speaking to me directly, telling me that he was about to take my life and my days were numbered. It was a reaction that presented itself repeatedly each time I tried to pray or read my Bible in the following weeks.

Did he somehow view me as less righteous or pleasing because I was so sick? Of course not.

I had never experienced anything like it before. It wasn’t until months later when I began receiving psychological counselling that I learned these episodes were panic attacks – a symptom of my newly diagnosed PTSD. This knowledge brought both relief (God wasn’t, in fact, telling me I was dying) and devastation (learning that my spiritual disciplines were triggers for my PTSD).

Questions abounded. What was I supposed to do? How could I connect with God when the three ways of relating with him via prayer, Bible reading and fellowship were ripped from my fingers? How could I be a good Christian in the eyes of church, and pleasing to God, if I couldn’t do these things? How could I be useful at all in God’s kingdom if I couldn’t do any of it?

God is faithful to this broken pot and somehow still manages to use her for his glory.

As I sat on the sidelines, I was forced to consider my faith very closely. Was God really less present in my life because I was not able to pray? Did he somehow view me as less righteous or pleasing because I was so sick? Of course not. We are saved by grace alone, and we can neither add nor take away anything from that fact.

It is this same grace that allows us to “know God” by way of prayer, fellowship and his word. What a revelation it was to realise that each one of us has an individual capacity to know and serve him, and we are called to do that faithfully within our capabilities! Perhaps it really is for freedom we have been set free after all.

When a crisis of faith does come along, believe me – you will want to have a God who works outside of the box!

As I continue in my own recovery, I can recognise my progress. I almost look and sound like a normal person again. Unfortunately, the road to recovery with PTSD is lengthy, potentially lifelong. Reading the Bible, prayer and church attendance are often still difficult for me. And yet because I seem to cope with day-to-day life, it paves the way for my fellow churchgoers and ministry partners to see me as somehow less godly or equipped to share the gospel because of my lack of spiritual discipline.

If I’m really honest, I often have to endure this judgment from myself as well.

I won’t pretend that life with a limited capacity for these disciplines is easy, or that my own spirituality does not suffer because of it. It absolutely does. But God is faithful to this broken pot and somehow still manages to use her for his glory.

… you need to know that your loss of capacity does not diminish your godliness or righteousness.

If there is one thing I could change about our greater church culture, it would be this – to recognise that the ability to read God’s word, pray and fellowships are gifts, not benchmarks of godliness. Determining that God meets, grows and fellowships with his children exclusively via these tools puts God in a very small box indeed. When a crisis of faith does come along, believe me – you will want to have a God who works outside of the box!

If you are somebody who is mourning the temporary or permanent loss of capacity, you need to know that your loss does not diminish your godliness or righteousness. Being faithful to the call of godliness means honouring God with what you can offer and letting go of the guilt for what you cannot. Come and join me on the row of shattered pots, and see what collection God can make of us yet.

Hannah Boland is a “clean” comedian and public speaker.

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