My return to the mental ward from the Hungarian ICU gave me hope that I had endured the ugliest part of this trial. Yet, sleep still eluded me. When I closed my eyes, visions returned of angels and demons and wars in the celestial realms. My mind had not yet fully returned to me, and I didn’t know when it would. My breath felt shallow. It caught on the fear of all that remained to haunt me. Then the beating drum in my mind and heart began, and the war raged on. I felt the night convulsing like some ravaged animal. I knew I couldn’t keep going like this. I had to find a way to sleep, to discover a calm beyond the terror.
Just five weeks prior, after we had returned from a conference in the Middle East, I had collapsed on my bed and slept for ten hours straight. The conference had been exhausting, and the kids had all shared a room with Jared and me. So when they were finally sleeping at home, it was our turn. And I had enjoyed the gift of the weary—sweet sleep.
How could I change so much in just a handful of weeks? I thought back longingly to that night of ten glorious hours of restful sleep. In my current state, I couldn’t imagine it ever happening again. Like a torturous Tilt-A-Whirl, my mind went around and around.
And always present: the fear.
The Power of Praise
I had to find a way through. Those first nights out of the ICU, after dinner and Jared’s sweet daily visit, I got ready for bed at about eight, wishing I were anywhere but this hospital. I put in my iPod earbuds and listened over and over to “Endless Hallelujah,”(1) my heart resonating each time with these lines: “We will worship, worship You / An endless hallelujah to the King.” I loved how saturated these lines were with the promise of forever in God’s presence. If my mind was going to be stuck, I wanted it to be stuck on something like this.
In those days, I knew so little about who I was and what would happen next for me and my family, although it had become clear that we needed to return to the States and leave the life in Hungary that we had worked so hard to obtain.
I didn’t just feel fear—my worst fears were coming to life. Fear of failure. Fear of disappointing others or being disappointed by them. Fear of being called crazy or even unstable. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of messing things up for Jared, who loved our current ministry. Fear of hurting my family, causing them pain, strain, and heavy worry. Fear of being so heavily medicated that I’d cease to be myself.
It was all too much. I couldn’t handle this load of fear. And I definitely couldn’t carry it through my sleepless nights.
A Journey and a destination
Though we are meant to have love now, it is also a destination we are traveling toward, a place of security, warmth, and infallible love. And we don’t have to wonder what environment we will find there or what kind of skies we will see. This place of love is true and unchanging, and all around is beauty. We will receive exactly what we need there.
We will receive our ultimate prize when our journey is done and we’re forever safe in God’s arms. But he calls us now to travel wholeheartedly toward the vision of love’s glory, for which we’re eternally made. This is how we must learn to walk, especially those of us who are going through mental illness. Such illnesses are some of the most heinous tactics of the enemy, sucker punches intended to make us doubt that anyone, let alone God, truly loves us.
But no. We fight against the enemy with the vision of God’s love before us. We look to Jesus and steady ourselves with his promises, like this one:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God”(Hebrews 12:1–2 New International Version).
Though not explicitly mentioned in this passage, love is implied throughout, beginning with the cloud of witnesses, words that make me remember my mama. She was there in 2000 when I came home in pieces after my manic episode. At one point, she put her arms around me and said, “It’s always darkest before the dawn, Abby.” The words were anything but cliché coming from her lips. She had endured miscarriages, financial ruin, multiple chronic illnesses, and would soon face terminal cancer. But she never, ever stopped fighting for life; her own being rooted ultimately in God’s love. Then, there is my father. I have written in these pages about how my father anchored me in the strong, sovereign, yet Abba love of God, particularly after my hospitalizations. He passed away as I was completing this book, and his constant affection and fervent prayers will be sorely missed. But his eternal imprint upon my life will continue to carry me through whatever comes in my journey on this earth. I know that my parents and my grandparents are in that cloud of witnesses, as are so many loved ones from your life. They are cheering each of us on, whispering, “Don’t lose heart, beloved. Keep looking to him.”
Fixing our eyes
What does it mean to fix our eyes on Jesus? Henri Nouwen writes,
This face-to-face experience [of seeing Christ] leads us to the heart of the great mystery of the incarnation. We can see God and live! As we try to fix our eyes on the eyes of Jesus, we know that we are seeing the eyes of God. What greater desire is there in the human heart than to see God?(2)
We fix our eyes on Jesus by fixing our eyes on love, for God is love. He shows himself in every gift given to us, in every act of love toward us, and ultimately in the life of the incarnate God offered for us. He’s always singing, even shouting, and at times persistently yet gently whispering, “Look up. I am here. I am love.” In times of intense battle, we must recognize our deepest desire—to be home in God’s love. When we seek him and cry out for him, he’ll never elude us.
Yet we often don’t take those steps because fear is so uncomfortable. It’s hard to have the courage to recognize the presence of fear within us. We avoid this knowledge at all costs. We distract ourselves from it. We chase after things that make us feel confident in ourselves and keep us from seeing and naming our fears. But if we don’t truly face our fear, we can’t receive our heart’s desire in overcoming it. We can’t receive the perfect love of God.
As we walk this oft-wearying path from fear to love, Jesus is not only our vision and great champion, but he is also our friend, our shepherd, even our lover. The whole of his life forms our sky, our most true sky, which will illumine our pathway home.
When we really meditate on Jesus’s life, on what he went through to win the battle for us, we gain a perspective that outweighs the hellish pain of anything we have endured—or will endure in the future.
I do not use the word hell lightly. But when I describe those dark nights of void, the black holes that threatened to swallow me, I say hell a lot. I’ve felt the acute fear of being in the presence of the evil one without being able to detect the presence of God at all. I have faced so many levels of hell and lived to tell my story.
Beauty in our trials
My experiences have all happened for a reason, a beautiful reason: so I can testify to the life of Christ and his life’s greatest message. As I have struggled through my dark days, God has shown me that to the degree I have felt fear–to that same degree and far greater–I will feel his love. And I don’t have to wait for heaven to feel that love; rather, it begins in the now. And he shows me the way.
When we see how great was the love of the Son for the Father, we see that Jesus was never apart from his Father’s love throughout all the fear-inducing circumstances of his life—when the chief priests and elders plotted to kill him, when he faced demonic spirits, when the storms raged while he was aboard a fisherman’s boat, when he was called to raise a dead man to life. Even in the final hours of his life, when he was agonizing in the garden and begging for the cup to pass him, when he was scourged and a crown of thorns was pressed into his head—in all these events, God’s love was perfectly his. He was immense in love, casting aside the fear, as Jesus asked forgiveness for those responsible for his death.
And in the greatest darkness, piercing the eternal skies of the heavens, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Yet, he overcame and said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). In this declaration, he pronounced the victory of the love of the Trinity over the gruesome, consuming center of fear.
This love is calling to you, friend. Do you hear it? He’s speaking to you through his Holy Spirit in me. I say this humbly. He let me experience near-death and horrific manic episodes and yet brought me through it all. He has filled me with a greater confidence in his love than I’ve ever known. He has given me a deeper understanding of and a readier willingness to sacrifice for this love. It’s a gift I confidently embrace for myself. And I believe this gift is meant for you, too.
God has the richest and fullest life imaginable prepared for you. He is this good. And no power of evil, no blackness in this world, or even a journey with mental illness can take this away from you. Let him be your true north, pointing you straight to the beauty of his love, his everlasting sky.
1. Jonas Myrin, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and Tim Wanstall, “Endless Hallelujah,” MP3 audio, track 11 on 10,000 Reasons, Sparrow Records, 2011.
2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, 2nd ed. (New York: Image Books, 1997), 170.
Excerpted from Chapter 7 of, A Million Skies: Secure in God’s Strength When Your Mind Can’t Rest, released by Leafwood Publishers, March 15, 2022.