A Letter to the Modern Church
A review of On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living by Alan Noble.
Back when I still called myself an atheist and lived with the constant background noise of suicidal thoughts, I made a wager with God: “If you give me children,” I prayed, “I will not kill myself.” Now it is 39 years later, my children are grown, and I am 15 years into my life as a born-again Christian. My Christian walk has included mental illness and a lot of vacillation about how to deal with it as a Christian; Alan Noble’s beautiful book, On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living, arrives in God’s perfect timing.
He addresses the question of mental suffering, and asks, “What does it mean to live? Why should we ever get out of bed?” This book is for everybody: it is exactly what Christians need to read right now to consider an empathetic response to those who suffer mentally, including ourselves. Non-Christians need to read it too, for its loving presentation of the gospel. This book reminds us of Romans 8:1: there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
A cultural obsession
Noble—along with others, including my sister Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and Paul E. Miller— criticizes the therapeutic worldview, which says that the problem lies within the individual and can be diagnosed and fixed. Lasch-Quinn mentions “a basic paradox of modern life: the more American culture has become fixated on individual therapy as the primary concern, the less relief seems attainable…” Miller and Noble both discuss the effect of the therapeutic worldview when it infiltrates the church. While Noble recommends that those who have mental suffering should avail themselves of any possible help, including psychologists and psychiatrists, he warns against believing the cultural lie that finding a diagnosis yields a cure. We still have to answer the question, “Why get out of bed? Or more bluntly, why live?"
Noble focuses in particular on the literal act of rising in the morning, which to him embodies the choice to live.
Noble and Miller note that the therapeutic sensibility, combined with our competitive culture, which legitimizes seeing life in terms of failure and success, leads to a works-based attitude toward mental illness within the church. As Miller puts it, “Because depression avoidance is such a high value in our culture, when people are depressed, they think something is wrong… Our modern obsession with creating a pain-free self lays a great burden on us.”
Noble says that our society is dominated by technique, or “the use of rational methods to maximize efficiency,” which leads to shame when depression can’t be conquered. Noble offers relief from the stigma of shame and silence surrounding mental suffering in the church, while resisting our culture’s tendency to exalt victimhood, by talking about mental suffering in biblical terms. Instead of offering quick fixes, they reiterate the gospel: we must continue to choose to die with Jesus to our sin and rise with Him to a new life of worshiping God, placing Him at the center of our lives (Romans 6:11).
Getting up in the morning is an act of worship
Noble focuses in particular on the literal act of rising in the morning, which to him embodies the choice to live. Self-destruction, quick or slow, is a great temptation for people. He explains that “when you have every expectation of increased suffering, suicide is logical—unless the reason we choose to go on living is something greater than pleasure, or freedom from pain, or even hope for a better tomorrow.”
Instead of running from the question of why not to kill ourselves, or why to live, Noble exhorts us to answer it. He says that we need to answer the question in a time of sanity and recruit people who will remind us of the answer when mental suffering makes us lose our perspective. We need to live fully and truthfully in the community of Christians, trusting God and others to help us stay on the path.
This book is a much-needed reminder that we are not alone in our suffering.
When Noble asserts that the person who suffers from mental anguish or mental illness is able to participate in the fight against evil simply by getting out of bed in the morning, it sounds like Noble is lowering the standard drastically, but, in fact, he is acknowledging how high a standard getting up in the morning actually is when mental suffering is present.
The person who continues to make the spiritual choice to get up in the morning and “do the next thing” is a living testament to the power of God over the evil in the world. In fact, getting out of bed fulfills our responsibility to be a testimony to the world of the goodness of God, His creation and the life He has given us.
This view is very encouraging to those who, as Miller puts it, “feel less and less adequate to the task of loving and serving others.” I am encouraged that mental suffering does not disqualify me for Christian service. I am cheered that just getting out of bed and doing my daily next things is a way of praising God. The idea that God can use our “paltry offering of love” to His glory is massively reassuring.
We need the body
This book is a much-needed reminder that we are not alone in our suffering. Noble’s urging that we trust others and accept their help, and his description of how he has had to lean on trusted people, affect how I view my Christian community. We have each other, and together we form one body, each part crucial. He challenges me to be more compassionate toward everyone because they are probably suffering in untold ways, and to be a better listener and support to those who express their stories of mental suffering.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the necessity for honest community in Life Together:
“Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy vision are lifting.”
When we are real with each other, we learn to boast in our weaknesses. Following Noble’s model of honesty and compassion would make the church community a genuine Christian community, as we learn to love each other the way God loves us, not the way the world, flesh and devil do, for our usefulness, but by God’s grace.
His message is a reminder that mental suffering is common to everyone, that getting out of bed in the morning is a way of praising God for the goodness of His creation.
From a Christian perspective, the most controversial thing Noble says is that we need to love ourselves, applying the verses of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 to ourselves. The idea of self-love makes him cringe too. When he explains that what he means is acknowledging the goodness of God’s creation even in oneself, is he really describing loving ourselves, or is he describing loving God and dying to ourselves? Regarding ourselves as God does requires dying to both self-aggrandizing and self-effacing lies. As Laurel Slade-Waggoner puts it, “God created all of us in His image, male and female, thus we are all precious.”
After all, getting up in the morning, as he describes it, is not an act of self-love, but an act of self-denial and choosing to worship God: “We offer our bodies as a living sacrifice by daily embracing life and dying to our flesh; our sinful desires, our selfishness, our pride, even our fear and despair.”
Yet, it is understood in the Bible that we do love ourselves, and Noble is probably right that there is a better way to love ourselves that would make us better examples to our neighbors. Here again, Noble may be showing his skill at unifying what appear to be contradictions. I think the question of self-love will make an interesting discussion in a small group study of the book.
Invitation to the conversation
I love On Getting Out of Bed because it reads like a letter of encouragement to the church. He talks about the importance of our witness, our modeling to others that life is good. The way he thinks and talks about this difficult topic is a picture of the modeling that he describes. His writing, simultaneously complex and simple, wraps around itself, weaving the experience of mental suffering through the simplicity of the gospel and returning always to the question at hand, “Why live?”
He is not having the last word, but rather inviting us to participate in the conversation and to draw on authors and artists who speak to us, just as he cites T.S. Eliot and others. He describes the narrow way that all Christians are trying to walk, and he includes those who might have seen themselves as disqualified because of their mental suffering. His message is a reminder that mental suffering is common to everyone, that getting out of bed in the morning is a way of praising God for the goodness of His creation. He urges us to keep on doing it. Through the pages of this book shines a brother who cares about our souls, an encourager of the brethren, a fellow traveler on our way home.
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