Monthly Letter – June 2024

Dear Friends,

PARAMETERS

Mental health is an important issue – but it’s also a sensitive subject.

It’s become a high-profile issue in society today; and the marked increase in its prevalence over recent times is not due simply, by any means, to the removal of the stigma which so often in the past was attached to it – and the consequent greater readiness to acknowledge and air such struggles. As well as there being far more ‘airtime’ given to mental health issues, and a far greater ‘mental health awareness’ on the part of the population at large, it would seem clear that the experience of one form of mental health struggle or another has become noticeably more widespread in the past years.

Because it has such significance for so many of us, therefore, I’m bound as a pastor to address it. But because it has such sensitivities surrounding it, I want to tread very carefully in doing so.

I want to try and suggest some of the reasons which may have given rise to this marked increase in mental health struggles: but before doing so there are a number of preliminary points which are worth highlighting.

The first such point is one of which we have, thankfully, now become very aware: namely, that mental illness is neither new nor rare. And that’s just as true for Christians as it is for others.

Zack Eswine has a short book entitled ‘Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those who Suffer from Depression’ in which he works through many of the struggles with depression which the notable preacher C H Spurgeon had throughout the bulk of his life. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “our minds want to break because life stomped on us, and God didn’t stop it.” For Spurgeon, the struggles were very real, very acute and very persistent – part of the very ‘weakness’ in which the power of God was made perfect in and through the ministry he exercised. Mental illness is a facet of our fallen humanity, part of the outward ‘wasting away’ which goes on in the life of a believer, hand in hand with the inner renewal and transformation wrought by the Spirit of God.

A second preliminary point: the Bible recognizes, and is not afraid to address, such struggles with our mental health. Feeling isolated, alone, afflicted (Ps.25.16), for instance. Or finding ourselves cast down, depressed, in turmoil (Ps.42.5).

The Bible makes clear from the start that we live in a fallen world – and in such a world our minds are just as flawed and fragile, just as susceptible to disease and damage, as our bodies always are.

A third preliminary: there’s a need for some wise balance in how we view and address such struggles. Getting that balance right is part of an ongoing debate within what is termed ‘Biblical Counselling’.

On the one hand, in our over-psycholigised and heavily secular society, there’s a tendency to understand all mental illness in largely (sometimes almost exclusively) neurological or biochemical terms: one writer calls this approach ‘a functional atheism’ insofar as it fails to recognize that whole ‘spiritual’ dimension to our humanity, the degree to which our relationship with God inevitably affects us both physically and mentally (the sort of thing to which David is surely pointing in Psalm 32.3-4).

On the other hand, of course, it’s as possible to over-spiritualise the matter, seeing it only in terms of the assaults of the powers of darkness, the phenomenon of generational curses, or the effects of unconfessed sin. There’s no doubt that these may each on occasion be a factor: and there’s no doubt, too, that the fallen world in which we live is tainted with sin and one in which the death throes of the enemy of souls are very real. But to view, and to try to address, it all in this narrowly ‘spiritual’ way, does scant justice to the complexity of our fallen human frames and can prove extremely harmful: we are fearfully and wonderfully made – and there are innumerable subtle facets to our fallenness as well.

So why, then, has there been this marked and significant increase in the occurrence of mental illness in contemporary society? There is, of course, no single, simple answer. The reasons for it are clearly both numerous and complicated; and it would take a substantial book, rather than a minister’s pastoral letter, adequately to explore them all. But without providing any sort of detailed, incisive analysis, I want to suggest, in broad-brush-stroke terms, at least some of the ‘foundational’ factors which have resulted in this noticeable upsurge in the struggles we have as a society today in terms of our mental health. And do please note – It’s what lies behind the increase in mental illness that I’m seeking to address, not the multiple forms of mental illness itself.

One major factor underlying this increase is surely the rapid removal and widespread ‘dissolving’ of what I might best call ‘parameters’.

We all need parameters. Any sort of sport, for instance, requires parameters. The lines marked out on the playing surface – be that a tennis court, a football pitch, or whatever: and the laws of the game, set out for us all in the rule book. All of them necessary ‘parameters’. It’s as true across all spheres of life. Wherever our accommodation, for instance, be that a tent, a flat or a castle – it’s bounded by parameters: lines of demarcation. Even the maps which help us navigate our way across the country – they are essentially no more than a plethora of parameters.

We need parameters. We’ve known that from our earliest days. ‘You may play outside, but don’t go out of the garden,’ we were told as children: boundaries. ‘You may watch some television, but you’ll be in your bed by 8pm:’ boundaries again. We need clear parameters.

And one of the major features of contemporary life has been this widespread removal of ‘parameters’.

‘Spatial’ parameters have to a significant extent been removed. We live in a global village. Which may have its manifold benefits, but it means that the important parameters of ‘local’ life have largely disappeared. The Scriptures are full of this theme of parameters, right from the start: the Lord taking care to separate the land from the sea, the waters above from the waters below – parameters: ‘boundary lines’ as they’re sometimes referred to in Scripture. There’s the care with which the tribes of Israel were allocated their territory. There’s the fact that ‘from one man He (the Lord) made all the nations .. and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands’ (parameters). The Bible is full of this notion, right on through to the final chapters of the book of Revelation and the clear marking out of the city of God.

‘Village life ceased,’ bemoaned Deborah the prophetess – albeit in a different context entirely (Ju.5.7): but there’s a sense in which that’s what has happened in our modern world, with the ease of travel and the access that we have to lives of people across the globe. It’s harder to know just where we belong and where we’re from and who we are, when the ‘village parameters’ disappear.

‘Temporal’ parameters have also largely disappeared. The Scriptures again are full of this right from the start. “And there was evening and there was morning ..”. Thus, as well as our living in a ‘global village’, we find ourselves caught in a round-the-clock pattern of life. The rhythms of day and night are no longer so clearly defined. The 9-5 pattern of daily work which once pertained has been replaced with a helter-skelter, speeded-up and all-hours way of life.

‘Hybrid’ working, spawned by the Covid pandemic, hasn’t helped. The lines of demarcation which separated out our work and rest – in terms of both place and time – have become now often blurred. Children, not least, experienced this major disorientation when the restrictions of the pandemic kicked in: why were they having to be ‘at school’ – when they were patently still ‘at home’? The boundary lines were gone. Parameters matter.

And there are other, equally (perhaps even more) significant parameters which have been removed. There’s the removal, for instance, of what I might call ‘relational parameters’ through the use of social media. For social media are not relational media: they’re not the medium by which relationships are formed and nourished and given the chance to grow. As one writer puts it – “Twitter, Facebook, virtual conferencing—these allow us the illusion of being somewhere other than where we are ..(to) have a voice in places otherwise absent to us.” It’s the illusion of relationships – because there are ‘rules’ that govern the growth of true relationship.

Removing these ‘rules’ results in something akin to a mirage in the sweltering heat of the desert. We have who knows how many ‘friends’ – except we don’t really know them at all. We ‘follow’ a whole load of famous folk, but we’re not really close to any of them.

There’s been the removal, as well, of ‘biological’ parameters. From the very beginning, this was a very basic, God-given line of demarcation. Humanity was made in God’s image, in His likeness: and made distinctively male and female, the man and the woman. Totally equal, but patently (and biologically) different and distinct. A clear and crucial ‘parameter’ again.

This, too, is a ‘boundary line’ which has been brazenly thrown away by a ‘progressive’ culture intent at all costs on self-determination and insistent that this must embrace every sphere of life, gender and sexuality included. You may be, on this basis, who and what you want. Which sounds as if it will be truly liberating; but in truth it sees so many well and truly lost. Clueless as to who they are and who they’re meant to be. A deep-set identity crisis – because the lines by which their portrait’s to be drawn are now no longer there.

And, of course, all that is part and parcel of the wholescale removal of ultimate ‘moral’ parameters. Truth in any objective sense has been thrown right out of the window: all that’s true now is what is true for you. Any sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ has been replaced with the nebulous nonsense of whatever will make you feel good.

Life without parameters is like being adrift on the rolling waves of a vast and endless ocean, with no stars in the sky and no land in sight. Or finding yourself in the searing heat of a suffocating desert whose every horizon has no other landmarks than sand on sand on sand. Either way you’re all at sea.

For we get our bearings in life precisely through ‘parameters’. And when all of the God-given ‘boundary lines’ are removed, eroded or lost, little wonder it does our heads in!

All that in itself is confusing and troubling enough. But there’s also been the foolish, blind perversity whereby as a society we’ve ditched all semblance of an ‘anchorage’. Children value a parent’s hand. Trees put down their deep roots. Anchors against all the storms and the stresses there’ll be.

And former generations in this land had not just clear parameters, but just that sort of anchorage as well. There was Someone to turn to when problems arose, Someone to cling to, Someone whose hand you might hold; there was an outlook on life which affirmed the existence of God; an outlook which afforded a strong, unchanging ‘trig point’, an ‘anchorage’ in eternity.

It’s as if with our ‘know-it-all’ outlook on life, we haven’t only done away with all the old ‘parameters’, we’ve dispensed with the map and the compass as well. And as a result, while the pressures and stresses have hugely increased, our resources have scarily shrunk. No wonder we’re more and more all at sea, with no real sense of where we are, or who we are, which way to turn or how to get on in life. Listless and lost; and more in need of the Lord than ever.

Like the crowds Jesus saw in the days of His earthly ministry, ‘harassed’ as they were and ‘helpless’, so we, too, as a nation today are ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’ Our only comfort surely is found in the great foundational truth to which that passage points – He had compassion on them.

And His response? Pray, therefore, the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers in His harvest. Pray, indeed. And be prepared as well to be the answer to those prayers!

It’s our great privilege, with warm and constant compassion, to remind the people of our land today of what the psalmist calls ‘all God’s benefits.’ He is our Healer. He, and He alone, is the ultimate Healer of all our afflictions – and for all who trust Him He will, in His own good time, heal all our diseases. May we lift Him high before the eyes of our nation today, and may our nation yet turn to look on Him and live.

Yours in the glad service of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton