Thursday, April 29, 2021

Book Review: I Love Jesus But I Want to Die by Sarah Robinson

 Don't get me wrong; if Jesus showed up at my door, offering miraculous healing, I'd take him up on it in a heartbeat. Who wouldn't? I would be thrilled to never miss another social event because of a panic attack, never have another thought about hurting myself, never feel the ache that makes it so hard to breathe sometimes.
    But instead of offering quick healing that would have been an amazing story, he chose to walk the long road with me. And this is the road that has revealed the unfathomable kindness of Immanuel, God with Us. - Sarah Robinson, I Love Jesus But I Want to Die

Christianity and the promotion of mental wellness have not always been the most comfortable partners. This may be traced all the way back to when the authors of the four Gospels compiled the oral accounts about Jesus into written form: theories abound that the stories of people struggling with demon possession actually suffered from various forms of mental illness, but the former interpretation of the situation won the collective imagination of the day.

We may trace a straight line from that all the way to present times, where some Christian traditions still interpret mental illness as demon possession or a Satanic affliction--a spiritual problem, rather than a mental one, that may be overcome with enough prayer and faith. The less aggressive version of this comes via encouragement to "just believe harder," as if depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are simply signs of spiritual weakness.

It's Christianity's own spin on toxic positivity: if you just keep your eyes on Jesus, your head bowed in prayer, your nose in the Bible, and somehow will yourself to have greater faith, you'll be able to overcome the intrusive thoughts, chemical imbalances, and social disruptions that torment you every day. 

I confess that for these reasons, I had some trepidations when I picked up I Love Jesus But I Want to Die by Sarah J. Robinson. There has emerged a very rich collection of books on faith and mental health in recent years as progressive voices seek to properly balance the spiritual and mental needs of those who suffer from these afflictions (like this one and this one). But I didn't know what kind of approach Robinson would take until delving in.

Honestly, the title alone should have tipped me off that things would be okay. It should have been my first indication that she is going to treat her subject matter with the appropriate seriousness and sensitivity, which she does.

Robinson divides her project into three sections: Dying, Surviving, and Thriving. The first section includes stories of her early life and of her discovering her call to ministry, along with her earliest experience with depression and negative experiences that she had in her faith tradition that made her afraid to seek help from leaders who might have prescribed the sorts of "do more faith" messaging that I discuss above. This is compounded by her earliest experiences with a string of therapists who, for brevity's sake, just aren't good at their jobs. Fortunately, she does connect with numerous pastors and faith leaders who know the true nuance and grace needed to help her, and who do so as best they can.

The second section involves Robinson seeking to build a more sturdy foundation for herself both mentally and spiritually. This section is bookended by chapters that are titled "Permission to be Broken" and "Living with a Limp," which highlight the need to be forthright about one's weaknesses and struggles and acceptance of support, as well as learning how to live with the reality of mental illness. This section includes quite a bit of Biblical study such as the story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being and living with the results and Psalms that reflect on God's presence even in dark places.

The third section offers commentary on sources of help, including medication, therapy, self-care, community support, and setting boundaries. This section offers advice, but also seeks to answer the questions and concerns of readers who may feel hesitant about each. Robinson seems very aware that her readership will include Christians who are wary of medicinal and psychological treatments, and she addresses these with careful sensitivity.

I found I Love Jesus But I Want to Die to be a positive addition to the emerging canon of books giving appropriate psychological and spiritual balance to people of faith seeking resources for themselves or others regarding mental illness. Robinson has a genuine concern for those she's trying to help, evidenced by her placing trigger warnings before the most graphic parts of her life story. She has taken great care to make this book as accessible as possible to those who need it, and treats her subject matter with the proper care that it deserves.

I Love Jesus But I Want to Die releases on May 11th.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)