“I want my debit card back! Why can’t I have my debit card back?” Our 20-year-old son, Z., alternated between anger and puzzlement. Even the kind psychologist couldn’t get through to him. “You just got out of the hospital. You are recovering from a psychotic break. You aren’t able to handle your own money right now.” But Z. only replied, “I’m fine! There’s nothing wrong with me. I can handle my own money. I want my debit card back!”
I found myself in tears, again. Z. used to manage his own money. He used to play beautiful music on the clarinet. He used to drive, and have friends. But mental illness had stolen these things from his life. Worst of all, mental illness had stolen my son’s ability to see his situation clearly. It even corrupted his faith in God.
For years I wrestled with God over how to rightly understand Z.’s illness and the suffering it has brought our family. I spent countless hours pouring over my Bible, crying out on my knees, sobbing through worship services. How could I relate to my son, whose mind was broken? Would his sanity, and his faith, ever be restored?
It was Christmas 2017, and we were all in church together. Our favorite worship leader started to sing “O Holy Night,” one of our favorite carols. The entire song is beautiful, of course. But this time it was the third verse that struck me:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” I recognized Z. in that verse – he was certainly in bondage. Silently, I prayed again that God would set him free from psychosis. But what did it mean, that the slave is my brother? Mental illness had changed Z. into something completely alien from me. Although I loved him fiercely, I did not understand him, I could not relate to him. Was it possible for us to be “brother” and “sister,” not just grieving mother and sick son?
I thought about Z.’s protests at the doctor’s office: “Why can’t I have my debit card?” Z. I did not appreciate the fact that we were providing for his needs. Z. I did not understand that we had confiscated his debit card for his own good, because he was using it to harm himself. We were doing everything in our power to care for him, and all Z. could think about was “Why can’t I have my debit card?”
In a flash, I recognized myself.
Originally a French carol, “O Holy Night” was translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight, in 1855. An abolitionist, Dwight was moved by the sentiment expressed in the carol’s third verse. I like to think his translation work contributed to the end of slavery in America, by changing hearts. Over 150 years later, it certainly touched mine.
While America no longer has slaves, we still have marginalized and struggling people, people in bondage to mental illness, addiction and the cycle of poverty. Using this broader definition, there are several senses in which “the slave is our brother.” First, we all have human dignity from God, our Creator. Job the patriarch, speaking about his own servants, asked, “Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?” (Job 31:15). If slavery cannot remove God’s image, surely psychosis cannot either.
Second, believers are reborn into God’s family as brothers and sisters, regardless of their status in society. Christ has made us one: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female (Galatians 3:28). Paul sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his owner, with the admonition that Onesimus was now “more than a bondservant… a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). I take great comfort in the fact that, before Z.’s mental illness, he professed his faith in Christ and was baptized. I am trusting that God began a good work in his heart and will bring it to completion, just as God is doing in my own life.
Third, we all struggle with similar temptations. Paul tells us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Z.’s delusions seemed incomprehensible at first, but upon closer look they provided insight into my own heart. How often has God denied my requests, not to harm me but to protect me? How often have I complained bitterly to God, with little thanks for his gracious and continued provision?
Mental illness made my son’s flawed thinking and foolish impulses more noticeable, less socially acceptable. He seemed so sure of things that were patently false. His coping mechanisms frayed, and he wasn’t able to hide his sinful heart. But my own heart – even when camouflaged — is not so different. My son and I are “brothers” in how God’s image persists in our brokenness; “brothers” in how God pursues us and welcomes us into his family; “brothers” in the temptations we both face.
This Christmas, when you hear the soaring melody of “O Holy Night,” think about the brotherhood of humanity and especially of believers. As Christians, we identify with those in bondage, no matter how strange to us; we recognize the chains of sin and suffering in our own lives; and we humbly look to the name of Christ for all deliverance.