Pete Costas was still a Captain — that is to say, still relatively young in his career as a Salvation Army officer — the Sunday evening that a fidgety, distracted, and somewhat disheveled, young man walked in well after the service had started and seated himself at the center of the front row. Capt. Costas was just beginning his message when the man’s hand shot up in the air. He had a question.
Capt. Costas answered it and returned to his message. A few sentences later, the hand shot up again.
This time, after answering the question, Capt. Costas asked a favor. He pointed out the other people in the room and asked the young man if he thought he could hold his questions until the end so the others could hear the rest of the message. Afterward, the Captain said, the two of them could go together to his office and he’d answer all of the man’s questions.
The young man nodded his agreement and quickly sat on his hands.
Maj. Costas tells what happened next:
When I walked him to my office after the service, he scooted a chair up close to my desk, propped both elbows on the desk, leaned towards me and started asking rapid-fire questions about God, salvation, and what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus.
In the course of our discussion, I happened to quote John 3:16 to him. When I did, his face went blank for a second and then he said:
“Can you say that again? They told me to ask you to say that again.”
I looked him in the eye and asked, “Who told you to ask me that?”
Calmly and quite sincerely he replied: “I didn’t want to tell you this, but I have sort of like a mind-meld with aliens. They can see you through my eyes and hear you through my ears, but they can’t communicate with you directly. They told me to ask you to say that again.”
So I repeated John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
“Now this Jesus,” he asked, “died for the sins of the world?”
“Yes,” I replied.
The young man pushed on: “They want to know if he died for the sins of the universe,” he said.
That was a new one. I had to think for a minute.
“Well,” I reasoned, “If God created the heavens and the earth, and Jesus is his only begotten Son, and Jesus died once for the sins of all, then yes, he died for the sins of the universe.”
“That’s exactly what they wanted to hear!” he exclaimed. And he got up and, with a spring in his step, walked out.
Seminary students, graduates, and professors alike are almost universally dumbfounded by the Spirit-led wisdom in this conversation. Capt. Costas lived out five principles that are helpful when you interact with one of us who lives with mental illness:
- Ask only as much of us as is reasonable. This young man was unlikely to arrive at services well-clothed and clean any time soon. Nor was he ready to stop asking questions. Capt. Costas only asked him to refrain temporarily from asking questions. And with great effort – actually sitting on his hands to restrain himself – the young man was able to do so. Grace doesn’t expect perfection today from any of us. It anticipates perfection in the fullness of God’s time.
- Allow us to experience ourselves as part of the Body. Capt. Costas helped the impatient young man see that he was in a room full of people who also wanted to know more about God. “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained” (Pr. 29:18 NASB), God tells us. Capt. Costas allowed this man to see himself as part of the worshiping community, not just a disruption to it, and as part of the community, the man was able to behave appropriately.
- Be fearless. The moment when you meet a person who is suffering is not the moment to begin deciding whether you are afraid to reach out. Mental health advocates have made much of their case in the last two decades by presenting people with diagnoses as likely to pose dangerous threats. This is unrealistic, but it has helped to fund many mental health programs. Ask yourself: Did God tell you “Be not afraid” except when confronting behavior that falls outside of social norms? Respond to us as God directs you.
- Avoid trying to diagnose us. Diagnostic labels, especially in the hands of we who are not professionals, have become tools for dividing the Body. He’s a “narcissist.” She’s “clinically depressed.” “They” need to get their act together –preferably with the help of paid professionals — before “we” (their church) have anything to offer. The first thing any church can offer is humility in the face of lived emotional challenges. Most of us are not diagnosticians. And at a time when US specialists think that half of us will experience a mental illness in our lifetime* , it might be worth asking whether something that is almost as common as a cold is properly isolated to expensive professional care. Maybe God’s people do have something useful to offer.
- Listen to us. Let God answer the cries of our hearts. Our mental illnesses carry our thoughts down paths you haven’t imagined. They sometimes lead us to comments and behaviors you will find offensive. We, too, are likely to be appalled by some of our behaviors when we are again “clothed and in our right minds.” Still, in the end, we are asking the same questions you are. Your training may not have prepared you for the way we present our inquiries, but God will speak through you: just as God’s Spirit provided words to the apostles (Matt. 10:19-20).
Jesus said that it was only by becoming like little children that we could walk with him into the reign of God. One of the ways infants differ from adults is that they actually prefer unusual behavior to outcomes that are easily predicted. Perhaps this is part of how we will become community to those with mental illnesses: by again welcoming our childlike interest in what is most different. As long as we seek to remain safely separate, we turn down God’s call to live with love and compassion in the community of all of God’s children
*The belief that half of us will experience mental illness means that we in the US have come to believe that mental illness is twice as common as the World Health Organization found in 2001.