The Time God Met Me in the Mental Hospital

I leaned my forehead up against the tinted window, looking out to the courtyard for signs of life. The sweltering summer heat had driven away the birds and brush of spring. All the lifeless square had to offer was a grand oak tree swaying effortlessly in the afternoon breeze.

I reached my fingertips to the window pane’s surface, tracing the intertwining branches like a hopeless beggar searching a treasure map. I ached for the comfort of a tiny creature to watch, hoping to forget my destitution through the observation of ignorant bliss. I prayed, God, give me just one living thing to watch while my world stands still in this place.

The psychiatric ward can be lonely like that.

The chill of the linoleum floor began to bleed through my socks as I wondered when I would sense God’s presence again. It had been months since the joy of salvation had rendered me fearless and confident and exuberant. I continued to search for an animal in the courtyard, struggling to recall what it was to feel normal. Is that even a thing? I wondered.

The winepress had squeezed out every hope I had of fixing myself. In the quiet of solitude, my fingers found the will and the strength to open my Bible for the first time in months. Perched cold and distant across the room, its worn leather could smell my desperation. I grabbed the book off the tired shelf—the one with "help me" carved into the wood—and gingerly turned to the Psalms for morsels of comfort to chew.

I prayed, God please—please give me a verse to cling to in this place. I’m more alone than I have ever been.

After a minute of reading, I was escorted to Psalm 59:9-10:

O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress. My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies. (ESV)

I sat up on my poor excuse for a mattress, the white sheets wrinkling beneath me. He heard me! I rejoiced.

I will watch. He will meet me. He says he will.

Reading the verse over and over again, I returned to the window, bible-in-hand, resolving to stand and to watch. I examined the sun-bleached landscape for twenty minutes, but nothing appeared to have changed.

The psychiatric ward can be boring like that. 
Hope itself is like a star—not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity,
and only to be discovered in the night of adversity.
– Charles Spurgeon
I realized I hadn't been wearing my glasses. I thought perhaps there was movement going on that I simply couldn’t see because of my failing eyes. I ran to the bathroom counter and snatched my burgundy frames. I retuned to my post, well-equipped to spot a ladybug from half a block away. I waited, I wondered, and I watched. 

He said he would meet me. But here?

I focused my attention to a beige clump on the tree branch—I couldn’t make out its detail before. To my surprise, God did sent me a creature to observe: a tranquil squirrel straddled on the bark for an afternoon nap. Her tail swayed gently in the wind as her eyes remained serenely closed. The tiny creature had fully entrusted her rest to the oak tree, knowing its shaded shelter would camouflage her from all the enemies that meant her harm. She had found her mighty fortress—its safety secured her repose.

Astounded, I instantly knew what the metaphor meant for me. I wasn’t looking at any ordinary squirrel, I was looking at a sleeping squirrel—a curious sight if I ever did see one. Squirrels are one of God’s busiest creatures, constantly foraging and working hard for their survival. But not so with this particular squirrel on this particular day when this particular child of God needed her Father in Heaven to finally show his face. This squirrel had taken her sleep in the refuge of the tree, fully trusting in the protection it offered her.

My Father showed me a busy-bodied creature surrendered to rest in a tree. I quickly understood he was showing me all the ways I had refused to let his strength be mine. I wanted to figure out all the answers to my problems. I wanted to fix myself. I wanted to control my world and my body and my troubles and I didn't truly believe God's grace would be sufficient for all my lack. He met me in this moment at the mental hospital—just as he said he would.

Those 40 minutes contained the most intimate revelation of God's presence in my pain that I've ever experienced in my life as a believer in Christ, apart from my first encounter with him as an atheist crying in church two weeks after my Dad died from cancer.

In Christ, the psychiatric ward can be illuminating like that. 
It's by design we raise our ebenezer on the battlefields of life. Maybe for you, that place is a hospital bed. Maybe it's a courtroom. Maybe it's a jail cell. Maybe it's a clinic. Maybe it's a cemetery. Believe there is no place too taboo for our Jesus, no building or circumstance can keep him away from consoling your hurt and wiping your tears.
By sharing this story, I raise my ebenezer—my stone of help. As Samuel once raised a great stone of remembrance to commemorate the help God gave the nation of Israel in their time of trouble (1 Samuel 7:12), so too does this moment in time act as a monument of God's help to me. The exchange at the window didn't instantly cure my sorrows, but it did powerfully combat the false notions I had about what victorious Christian living looks like.

To experience the rest Christ offers us (Matthew 11:28), we must surrender to God. To fully surrender, we must trust God. To fully trust, we must love God and believe his grace sustains what his providence designs. Rest in Christ is the busy-bodied believer's privilege: her way of experiencing eternal life here-and-now through the refreshment of relinquished burdens (Phil. 4:6-7). Living in the victory of Christ doesn't look like having it all together all the time—it looks like the triumphant surrender of our heart's busy desires for the greater, more satisfying pleasure of knowing and experiencing God. And sometimes that means we must be patient and watch for him, knowing he will be true to his word: his steadfast love will meet us

I may never know the millions of ways the Lord has helped me in my trials over the years, but to be conscious of even a few times is enough for me to believe that, as Charles Spurgeon once said, "he who hath been with us in six troubles, will not forsake us in the seventh." No matter where we find ourselves, no matter the failures or diagnoses, he will not forsake us in our troubles. His invitation is always to come to him (Isaiah 55:1), watch for him (Psalm 59:9), wait on him (Lamentations 3:25), trust in him (Proverbs 3:5), believe in him (John 14:1), cry out to him (Psalm 77:1)—no matter the place, no matter the situation, he says, Come to me, and I will care for you like no one else can (John 7:37-38).

It's by design we raise our ebenezer on the battlefields of life (1 Samuel 7:10). Maybe for you, that place is a hospital bed. Maybe it's a courtroom. Maybe it's a jail cell. Maybe it's a clinic. Maybe it's a cemetery. Believe there is no place too taboo for our Jesus, no building or circumstance can keep him away from consoling your hurt and wiping your tears. Uncomfortable places of despair may separate us from the outside world for a time, but they cannot separate us from his steadfast love (Romans 8:35-39). He promises to meet us. He will help us look in triumph on our troubles—we need only wait and watch and not grow weary in doing so.

It was not to my shame that I walked through the doors of the mental hospital, for they led me straight to my Father's arms. God brings the brightest glories to his name as he redeems our darkest hours. 
Christine M. Chappell
Christine Chappell is the author of Clean Home, Messy Heart, the host of The Hope + Help Project podcast, and is a guest contributor at Desiring God. She writes frequently about motherhood, sin, and sorrow at her blog, has completed biblical counseling certificates with the Institute for Biblical Counseling & Discipleship, and is currently pursuing certification with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.
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