Did that really happen?

There is a condition called Bipolar Affective Disorder, sometimes called Bipolar Disorder, formerly called Manic Depression, where at times moods can be very high for sustained periods. People can feel amazing, feel in total control, have moments of extreme clarity where everything seems to make sense. They can even believe amazing things – like God has chosen them for a special purpose, or that they have been chosen or filled in a special way with His Power.

This sounds very similar to an experience noted by many Christians, especially those who came to faith at a particular moment – a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion [bible reference] such as at a festival or youth camp. They were one moment unsaved and the next had ‘prayed the prayer’; one day full of uncertainty, the next day full of the Holy Spirit, at lunchtime full of questions about the meaning of life and by bedtime secure in the "knowledge of the light of the glory of God" [2 Corinthians 4v6].

So what if you are a Christian with Bipolar Affective Disorder, what if you became a believer in such a sudden way, what if you still seem to experience (in your highs) a special and precious contact with God. Is this real? Is this truth or illness? Are you a faithful servant or a fallible fraud? If you have Bipolar Affective Disorder, you will have asked these questions.

The Dilemma

The real problem here is that it is impossible to know. You can’t go back in time to that festival to see whether or not you were genuinely converting or going high. You may have some ideas, but are they true, rose-tinted or filled with doubt? Some people with Bipolar Disorder will even question whether this was all a plot or trap to trick them – played by their friends or some malicious God.

History does not help much, for it is filled with stories of ‘saints’ and ‘divines’ who had ecstatic moments and to whom it seems God spoke, but today you have a sneaking suspicion that they would probably be admitted to the nearest psychiatric hospital and labelled as ‘ill’. Joan of Arc is one example - we are not quite sure if she had Bipolar Disorder or Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, but she was certainly manic and impulsive at times, and heard God's voice when no-one else did.

The Good News

This is not meant to sound trite, but does it matter? In my expereince God is not too bothered about making an exact distinction. I can think of a number of people I have met who probably were high at the time of their conversion, but have remained faithful believers since despite their mood normalising. Some of them want to go back in time and 'redo it' with a normal mood, but others see it as a whole - a set of experiences tied together that got them where they were today. Being high at the point of conversion no more invalidates a genuine faith than the uncertainty of a depressive period when you struggle to believe much at all. God was there, is still there, and always will be. To paraphases CS Lewis, 'God is no mood's debtor!' If you were maybe high [or low] at the moment of any conversion, the key thing to ask yourself is how have things been [on average] since. The good news of the kingdom is based on a relationship built over time, not on the heat of the moment at the beginning. Love at first sight matures into the deeper bond of marriage.

If you remain unsure, for example if you have ongoing highs and lows and want to know if this is your illness speaking or the Holy Spirit, it is essential to have good friends you can talk to. This will be particularly important if your church or Christian community is one that encourages exploration of the more supernatural parts of the Christian faith. Was that a prophetic word I should share and take seriously; or was it me becoming ill and I need to see a doctor? The general rule is that if you have a Bipolar illness, you will need to be cautious - both about saying things to other people and about hearing things for yourself. Any gift needs discernment and training - it's just that this is likely to be your particular lesson. I know some people with Bipolar who are very prophetc, but it has been a hard and gradual road to confidence in this for them - with a few mistakes along the way. Another reason to have friends!

Bipolar Disorder at its heart is a brain illness where the mood thermostat is not working properly. Just like the pancreas is not working to produce insulin in someone who is diabetic. Medication will help in the majority of cases, particularly the more severe forms that can land you in hospital. It is tempting to whittle away at medication, looking for that elusive 'slightly high [and slightly holy] feeling' but this is an impossible tightrope to walk. You will do far better working with a psychiatrist to find a medication that does not blunt your mood too much and keeps you well. This stability will actually allow you to have an even more active faith - one that is wholesome and rounded, not distracted by super-spiritual ideas. 
Medication can help in other ways too. If you are concerned that your faith is only there when you are high, then is it real faith? God is bigger than tablets and brain chemistry, and He will still be there when your mood is in a more normal range. The quality of your faith may be different, but it will be no less real.

Have you suffered from Bipolar Affective Disorder? How has it affected your faith? Are there any Bible verses that help? Have you read the classic 'up and down Psalm' - Psalm 107v23-31. Please comment below.
Rob Waller, 24/06/2014
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