Through the years I have worked with a number of people who suffer
from bipolar disorder. This mental condition is characterized by
unusual shifts in mood and energy. The individuals who struggle
often find themselves doing things that they would not normally do
when they are in one of the “highs” or “lows” that are characteristic of
this disorder. Sometimes, I feel like I have spiritual bipolar disorder.
I can get up in the morning and pray “Lord, help me choose life today”
(I know you are shocked that choose life is my morning prayerJ), and
within a short time react impatiently with my wife, entertain a series of lustful thoughts or stretch the truth to get out of trouble or make myself look good. On the same day that I invited God to help me choose life, I can fall into a feeling that God is a million miles away and cares little to nothing about my daily life. Am I alone in this or are there others out there who struggle with spiritual bipolar disorder? (I hear a faint amen).
I suppose the good news is that Paul alluded to the same struggle when he wrote “What I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). I have been writing and speaking for years about the true self vs the false self and the flesh vs the spirit struggle but recently I have come to a deeper understanding of this concept. This summer I have been reading a trilogy of books on spiritual formation by David Benner1and they have helped me gain insights that further explain what feels like spiritual bipolar disorder.
Scripture teaches us that we are all born with a sinful nature (Psalm 51:5, Romans 3:10ff). At the very core of our being and identity is sin. This core greatly influences our behaviors, our defense mechanisms, or coping mechanisms and our strategies for doing life. These patterns of behavior actually become embedded in our very bodies and form what the Bible often refers to as “flesh”. The sin that is at the core of our being has become part of our physical make-up. This is what Paul is referring to in Romans 7:17 when he explains that when he does those things that he hates, it is the sin that is dwelling in him. Everyone
of us, as we developed and grew up, adopted certain flesh patterns that have become part of who we are.
Because some of these flesh patterns do not reflect the image of God that is in us, they cause shame and guilt. We use the energy of the shame and guilt to create a false self that we present to the world. We present our best traits to the world as our identity, become attached to this image and eventually it becomes our reality. This attachment is our way of dealing with the negative feelings of shame and inadequacy that our flesh carries with it. The false self finds its value in what we have, what we do or what others think of us. Much of our energy is directed toward striving to maintain the image we have created and the desire that drives us is the desire for our attachment to this false self. We have literally become our own god. This is exactly what Satan offered Adam and Eve, to become like God without God; a likeness to God that is based on independence rather than surrender.
BUT Jesus died for our sin. Jesus died to free us from the tyranny of the sinful nature. Jesus died to redeem us from the curse. And He does. Christ’s death on the cross crucifies the sinful nature and replaces our sinful hearts with good hearts (Romans 6:6; Ezekiel 36:24-27). We are transformed at the very core of our identity and have been made new (II Corinthians 5:17). However, the flesh remains. The embodied sin patterns that we developed are still resident in us and we are called upon to make a daily choice to live out of the spirit and not out of our flesh, to live out of our new, true self and not out of our false self (Galatians 5:16-17). This sounds like God is setting us up for the spiritual bipolar disorder… but He is not.
God invites us to bring our whole selves, the new heart and the flesh into His presence and let Him love and accept us as we are. He invites us to stop striving to fix our false self and instead to be transformed more and more into our true self by seeking after God. We do not construct the true self through a process of self-improvement or deconstruct the false self through psycho-therapy. As we lose ourselves in Him, we discover our true identity. We are loved and accepted. We are precious sons and daughters of the Father. As I seek Him, I begin to find my value in Him. I no longer need to strive to find my identity or value in what I have, what I can do or what others think of me. I, with all of my flesh, am loved and accepted. This is why Jesus’ invitation to us was “Come to me, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
So if the flesh versus spirit struggle does not cause the spiritual bipolar disorder, what does? My striving. When I believe that God can only love and accept the good parts of me, I am forced to either hide my flesh/false self or strive to improve it in order to gain favor with God/please Him. My spiritual journey is driven by thoughts like, “I need to pray more”, “I need to deal with my anger issues” or “I need to care more about others.” In God’s view, there is only one me, the true me which includes my struggles. There is no need to hide my struggles from him and no need to strive to overcome them. As I allow Him to love me and accept me exactly as I am, my desire for Him increases and as I pursue this love relationship with Him, my flesh is transformed into His likeness more and more (Romans 12:1-2). The desire for my attachments wanes as my desire for God increases. Now my spiritual journey is driven by thoughts like, “I want more of Him”.
Let’s get practical. Suppose you struggle with anger issues. Most likely, you rarely let your anger out at church or at work. You save your anger and release it on those that are closest to you, thus alienating your deepest relationships. Since you hide this part of yourself when you are at church, you also tend to exclude it from your relationship with God. If you do try to deal with it, you might get an accountability partner, make a chart and try to get angry less and less or beg God to remove your anger because you know it doesn’t please Him. But what if you brought your anger into God’s presence and allowed Him to love and accept you anger and all. His Spirit (perhaps through the help of a counselor) would prompt you to discover the sources of your anger. Once realized, those would also be brought into the presence of God and His love would transform and heal those causes. The more you surrendered to His love, the less angry you were.
With this illustration in mind, consider the words of II Corinthians 3:18 and I Peter 4:8:
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
Most of the people I know who have the mental condition called bipolar disorder benefit greatly from the medications that have been developed for this condition. The medicines even them out with lower highs and higher lows. So what is the medication for spiritual bipolar disorder? Surrender to the love of God. Just let him love you as you are. The transformation that comes from His love within you will be ongoing. Stop striving. Remember what Jesus said, “It is finished.”
Benner, David G, and M. Basil Pennington. Surrender To Love. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Print.
Benner, David G. Desiring God's Will. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015. Print.
Benner, David G. The Gift Of Being Yourself. 2nd ed. Downer Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015. Print.