It has been one hell of a day.
Someone close to me decided to stop taking medication recently that they desperately need for their mental stability. Without it, they have become (more) delusional, abusive, and have been off the charts manic. They have brought tears and frustration and angst to the people they care about most. They don’t even seem to care much right now, which is really hard. Everyone is the bad guy except them. They cannot see that they are out of control. Everyone is out to get them. I remind myself in my good moments that this person is very, very unwell. In my bad moments, I want to say “take the damn medicine!”
There wouldn’t be any reasoning though. That is how it often is when your mind breaks.
It’s been hard.
I’ve cried. I’ve worried. To be honest, I should have been praying, but haven’t prayed. I’ve gotten some of this persons’ abuse and crazy they are dishing out to anyone who will hear. They have no idea what is real and what isn’t.
This past weekend I was in seminary and as my Systematic Theology prof. often does, he teaches through passages to teach us about the different points of theology we are working through. We looked at Numbers 21 at one point in the weekend. Most of my readers here aren’t big bible readers, but even the ones that are might not immediately know what this Old Testament chapter is about in the Pentateuch. Here Numbers 21 in a sentence:
Israel complains in disbelief and speak against God (as usual, this was a theme), God sends snakes, the snakes bite people, people start dying, they beg Moses for relief and say “pray to God to take the serpents away,” God relents and tells Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole and that if the people look to it, they will live.
Weird huh? Bet all you non Bible readers are either more curious, or I have driven you further away from reading the Bible. I am sorry. Come back!
You can’t really be blasé about such a weird passage though.
It is weird.
What’s really cool is when a weird Bible passage about snakes and bronze poles starts to have a lot to say about my hellish week and the person I care about. What I learnt this weekend just came to mind in my weariness and I remembered, Numbers 21 is for today. This exact day. And days like it.
I am a theology student with a long history in reading the Bible so I was pretty familiar with weirdo passage, snakes and all. It’s actually mentioned in the New Testament as an early passage pointing to Jesus. (more about that another time)
What I learnt that was new was this. My prof often asks us the obvious question that I should, but never think to ask, because it’s too familiar to me.
Why didn’t God take the snakes away?
I mean, Numbers chapter 21 says that God put them there in the first place. Wouldn’t it have been easier to take them away than to convince half a million people to look to a dumb snake on a pole (at this point, my prof reenacted a bickering couples’ conversation in their tent. husband: “Honey… you want me to go around the corner and look at what!??!?!!? Just GET OVER HERE AND SUCK THE SNAKE POISON OUT!!” wife: “But Moses saiiiiidd….” husband: “You! Here. Now! Suck the poison out! I’m dying!” )
The people asked Moses to pray that God would take the snakes away.
God doesn’t take the poisonous snakes away.
But he does give them provision, a way out of dying.
As Henry, my prof/pastor from Pittsburgh tends to do, he brings us around to “what do we always pray for when something bad happens/or when we are addicted etc?”
“God, take it away.”
Take away the cancer. Take away the porn addiction. Take away the adulterous affair temptation. Talk away the lust problem. Take away the habit with my temper. Take away the alcoholism. Take away the heroine addiction. Take away this pain. Take away the self control issues. Take away this eating disorder. Take away the people pleasing attitudes that wreak havoc on relationships.
Take away this mental health struggle.
We all agreed. We all pray that way.
Henry asked how often God does the miraculous deliverance in our experience. In his 30 or so years as a pastor, a couple?
But most people, God leaves the temptation or sickness right with them.
Henry had my attention now.
Why hadn’t I thought of that? I mean, I know that. But to say it aloud…. What a weird way we pray when often God does leave “it” behind instead of take “it” away. It’s not bad to pray that way, I mean, he occasionally does the miracle deliverance.
But very often doesn’t.
Henry then went on to say that THIS was the place he took anyone in his congregation to who was struggling with addiction, sickness, suffering, sin temptations and God was NOT taking “it” away.
He has Moses stick a bronze pole, with of all things, the very thing that was causing them suffering and pain and death, to what…. to look to Him to deliver them. Why a snake?! Of all the creatures of the earth to be on the pole, whyyyy the thing that was killing them?!
It reminds them of their judgment.
And my notes were so good on Saturday, I am copying some of them right here. This is why God gives a way to be healed but doesn’t take away the snakes.
“God wants you to live a simple, holy life in the midst of sin. God intends for us to learn to live faithfully in the midst of sin. He is more interested in us learning to live faithfully than for us to be freed from something. He wants to develop trust, reliance and faith in us. He overwhelmingly doesn’t work transformation by removing the sin or temptation but by enabling us to live faithfully in the midst of it.”
God is not taking away the health problem or the addiction or whatever else we pray for because he wants us to remember, without him, we face judgment for our sin. Our sicknesses aren’t sin but they do remind us of the broken, fallen world we are in which is under a curse because of disobedience to God and part of the curse is brokenness, suffering, and sickness because the world is not whole. It is not better yet because sin is still here and it leads to judgment. We are all under it.
But the rhythms of following Jesus are turning to him as provision. You fail, turn to him. Repent. Walk away from the temptation, ask Jesus for help. This is the normal route of discipleship (a word that means following and learning after Jesus). The sickness that doesn’t go away? Don’t lose hope. He is near.
If he never heals the mind of the mentally ill, he wants us to live a simple holy life in the midst of all of the brokenness, where mental freedom and health have not yet come. How do those around them learn to walk faithfully in the midst of profound brokenness? It might be for that person to learn to depend on Jesus in the midst of it. But it also might be for those of us most directly affected. The mental health is not likely going to get better… but what does trust, reliance and faith in the God who is look like?
I am so bad at that. Today I felt like a faithless woman. Just mad. I want to be treated well. I don’t want to suffer because someone has decided they don’t need medication that the rest of the world knows they need. Talking to Jesus about all of this has been the last thing I have done today. Honest.
We ended class being reminded of what I was familiar with, that the bronze snake on a pole was a foreshadowing of Jesus:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15
What a crazy story God was weaving out. The provision for the way out in Moses’ time was this weird pole, but the bigger provision was Jesus. God on the cross who became sin for us. So that God the Father could judge all the wickedness we do and all the addictions that are our masters instead of God. The snake on a pole reminded them of their judgment and God’s provision, but pointed to a bigger pole. The Cross tells us there is a provision for our judgment: Jesus judged instead.
All the brokenness in sickness and death and mental health issues, that is not sin yet part of the brokenness of this world because of the Fall and the broken nature of this whole realm would not be finished that day. But like the snake would be a provision for the grumbling Israelites to put their hope in God as their deliverer. We look to the cross and put our hope in Jesus as the deliverer, who one day, in his new creation, will wipe out all brokenness of mind and body and put us together when it is all restored.
And until then, when it is not restored yet, we talk to Jesus through every ailment, brokenness, mind confusing delusion, every lust issue, every sin that holds us and tempts to pull us away from gazing on Jesus and we ask Jesus for his provision to help us be faithful and walk with him, even when he doesn’t take “it” away.
And we practice repentance and grace and God’s granting us mercy at the foot of the cross.