Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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The Storm of Chronic Mental Illness

Dannah Gresh: Jeff and Sarah Walton say their son’s mental illness teaches them spiritual lessons.

Sarah Walton: I can’t love my son the way I desire to, always, but Christ does, and He is growing more of that love in me and in Jeff as we rely on Him. 

Jeff Walton: When nothing else makes sense, there is a God that we serve that is bigger than this illness. God is sovereign over the things that He allows and over the things that He doesn’t allow, and that’s His mercy. And so, this will not be wasted!

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, for June 19, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: We all know what it’s like to experience a storm. And I’m not just talking about wind and rain and loud noises; I mean a trial, a difficulty, a storm of life. Sometimes those storms are quick downbursts that strike suddenly and then they’re over.

Other storms seem to pound us relentlessly, making us think, When will this be over!? Will this ever be over!? If you’ve experienced chronic pain or lifelong disease of any sort, you understand that kind of storm. Today we’re finishing a series called “Together Through the Storms.” Here’s Dannah Gresh with more.

Dannah: Less than three years into their marriage, Jeff and Sarah Walton welcomed their first child. Everything seemed to be going well until that sweet baby spiked a fever and was hospitalized with a severe infection.

After many days in the hospital with no concluding diagnosis, they began to enter into the beginning of a life they’d never dreamed of with a child whose emotions would become erratic, whose body would be uncontrollably angry, and whose mental and emotional state of mind would dictate significant life changes . . . as storm after storm hit them, wave after wave.

But today, Jeff and Sarah Walton are still together through the storms after thirteen years, not just surviving those storms but thriving in them. They’ve been giving us biblical encouragement for our marriages when life hurts—something that all of us need very much today. Jeff, Sarah, welcome back today.

Jeff: Thank you so much for having us back!

Sarah: Thanks, Dannah.

Dannah: I want to drill down a little bit into this loose end in your story, and that is your son. How is he doing today?

Sarah: Well, I would love to say everything is better. It’s not, but we do thank the Lord for what He has done. We’ve had a very, very, very long road. We’ve reached where he’s thirteen now, so things look different than they did when he was a little younger.

We have found some help with some doctors; some medications have tapered certain things but certainly have not dealt with the majority of the issues. Remember earlier on I talked about how we had a point where we thought we might have to have him removed from the home.

The Lord provided right at that time a medication that allowed him to stay home; it provided enough relief. But our journey has kind of been: we’ll try something and then it will fade, and we’ll try something and then it will fade.

So we always feel we’re running in circles—we’re feeling hopeful and then we feel our hopes dashed as things change really drastically. A lot of the years that we were struggling . . . I mentioned on the first day that there definitely was a spiritual dynamic that went with his challenges, and it’s been something we’ve really wrestled with. 

It was clear that there is a physical illness. We’re sure not if Lymes disease is playing a part; it doesn’t seem to be the whole thing.

Dannah: Though he’s not been diagnosed with Lymes disease, he has tested positive for it.

Sarah: He’s tested positive for that with two co-infections, and the two co-infections that he has are really high on the charts. Both are common for affecting and creating mental disorders or neurological disorders, but they’re also incredibly difficult to eradicate!

We have that information, but nothing we’ve tried has worked. But then you’ll have other doctors who say, “That’s hogwash!” We are on that spectrum where we’re back and forth between one doctor who will tell us to ignore the other doctor, and vice versa. That’s really been our journey, so we’ve kind of felt left to ourselves for the majority of this. 

And this spiritual dynamic just felt like the enemy was just taking advantage of his weakness, of his illness that he already had, to tear down Jeff and I at the same time. I had so many moments where it felt terrifying, not knowing what was happening. We’d be praying for him, and it would make him angrier. There was a time where I started praying for him and it made him absolutely irate!

Dannah: You had said on an earlier program that he would say, at a very young age, words that he really shouldn’t know at his age—profane words, right?

Sarah: Well, yes. He said a lot of things that were extremely violent; things that were very disturbing to hear. As a parent, having your four- or five-year-old child saying these things to you, you don’t have a framework for that. You just don’t even know what to do with it! You’re trying to ignore it and not let it evoke emotion out of you, but you don’t know what to do with it!

I remember us having a year where we were just pleading with the Lord: “You’ve allowed this to go on; You have not brought healing. And what about his spiritual health? Can he even know You? Have you given him the mental capacity to even know you? That doesn’t feel fair, if not.”

We just were struggling with so many different layers to this. On one hand, our days were extremely difficult. We were needing the Lord’s help just to love him, to want to show kindness to him. It felt so difficult when he was often feeling like he was our enemy in the way he was treating us and our family.

But then, he would come back to a normal state of mind, and he would just want to be like any other little boy. He would want to be with our family and play with his siblings. But we would never know if the next moment something would snap. And so we were on that roller coaster.

I really appreciated Jeff taking this leadership. He wrote a prayer next to my son’s bed. My son would say he hated God and he served Satan. There was a year that this was going on, and he was only like eight or nine.

Jeff put a prayer up there that we would either pray for him, whether he was screaming at us or not. Sometimes we got him to pray it. It basically said something along the lines of, “Lord, I don’t believe You—who You are—but if You are truly God and You truly love me, You need to give me the ability to believe You are who You say You are!”

That paper got torn up several times, and it would get taped back up there. Then there was one night after probably a year of that when I was in a really, really bad battle with him. He finally reached absolute exhaustion and fell into a heap on the floor. He said, “Why won’t He change me? What won’t God change me?” And he had said this several times before.

I just said to him, “He can change you. You cannot change yourself, but God can. He may not take away your illness, but He can change your heart. You need a Savior! I can’t take this from you, but I know who can give you the hope that you need.”

I had had this conversation with him several times before, but it was all the sudden like he was disarmed, and he said, “I want that! I want Him to save me! I know I can’t stop this. I want to stop hurting people. I want to stop being like this. I need Him to save me!” And he made a profession of faith that night.

I think we were both skeptical, because we thought, I don’t know what’s real, what’s not real. But I can tell you without a question in my mind, something changed in him. He now battles the same illness, but when he is in his state of mind, that boy loves Jesus! He will journal, and he will come and tell us what he’s journaled. 

He will journal about how he wants to be free from his body and his mind, and he wants to be with Jesus. He talks about Jesus returning every day. We will have a lot of portions of the day where that boy will be gone, and we will be dealing with the other parts of him, but we know that the Lord has saved his soul, and that is the greatest gift that God could have given us.

Despite how much we want him to be free from what torments him—as he’s getting older, that’s affecting him emotionally and other things—but God is bigger than that!

Dannah: Jeff, I can see on your face that you want your son to be free. Dads like to fix things. But you’re not just any dad; you’re a dad with medical training. You’re a dad with a successful career in saving people from trauma! So how do you feel when you can’t fix this?

Jeff: It’s probably one of the toughest things that I have gone through, because it has put emotion in me on both ends. Our son often is in “fight or flight” mode. And so, as Sarah had described, during these days there are a few sweet moments and then a lot of really hard moments.

And so it certainly plays with your mind as you’re not knowing what’s going to come next. It’s really hard to battle, riding that roller coaster up and down, and wanting to have control. As a dad you feel totally disrespected when there is chaos in your house and when your kids are running around you and not obeying and not respecting you.

I knew deep down that this was beyond his control and that often much of this was just his mental illness that caused this behavior. It is so hard for me to distinguish in the moment, even though I know that, to not see it as something that was directly at me and me wanting to control it and change it.

So this was a real battle. In so many ways there has been a change. We still face that battle today, but the thing that is just the miracle in this boy’s life is, we have our own version of a Saul converting to Paul. The words that he said and his words toward God created so much ugliness in my heart because I took it personally, that he was attacking my faith. And now, to see that he embraces the same God that I do; that’s the sweetest gift!

Dannah: Yes, that’s beautiful. I’m sitting here rejoicing with you, yet grieving, because I think of the prevalence of mental illness in our culture right now. I’m sure that you two have grappled with this. You’re two people who have dug deeply into the Word of God for answers about how you respond to this world.

Your son’s mental unwellness is a specific and unusual and uncommon type, but mental unwellness is not uncommon. Anxiety and depression . . . we’re seeing a spike in suicide like we’ve not seen before in our world that is only going to worsen unless the Lord intervenes and the church gets on its knees and prays, as a result of all of the unemployment and hardship and sickness of this pandemic. 

So my question is: is it medical, is it spiritual? How do you as a parent or a spouse or a life partner navigate through whether to treat it medically or whether to treat it spiritually?

Sarah: Well, I think that’s never going to be a simple answer, first of all. I think everything always has a spiritual element. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we try to put it in one or the other camp completely. Everything is under the Lord’s sovereignty, everything is under His control. Satan will take advantage of anything he can. 

So I think that’s our issue with today: we want to have a clear answer. Mental illness, probably more than anything, is one of the most unclear answers! It’s got such a huge umbrella; people are dealing with it in all different capacities at different ages.

We actually know several families with young children who deal with something maybe a little different, or maybe similar, to our son. We’ve really tried to encourage those. We want to help people understand a little better picture of mental illness, to not be so afraid of it. 

It’s not something that is catchable or something that we have to put in this camp that can’t be redeemed, I guess I would like to say, because I think we’re scared of it. We don’t know what to do with it; we’re uncomfortable with it. It’s not able to be put in a pretty little box, like we like to do.

Whereas we say, “Oh, you broke your arm. We need to take care of that and have it fixed,” we see someone with a broken mind as, “Well, I don’t want to be near you! You have something that . . . I don’t understand that!” I think it’s always important to seek counsel for when it is time to get medical help. 

I think there are many times where there is some form of medical help that is necessary, whether it’s just the underlying factors. “Is there a health issue there? Is there an infectious issue? What can we do to maybe alleviate this?” I think what we can do on our part, and then what do we need to seek help for? 

It’s never going to be a simple answer; it’s always going to be multiple things at the same time.

And then you come to the spiritual, and this is what we wrestled with so much! Mental illness feels very out of our control! We don’t know a lot about it. We don’t have a lot of answers; it’s different for everybody, so it scares us.

But everything is underneath the truth of God’s Word. So how can we still apply the truth of God’s Word to what seems scary and impossible to us? I think that’s why I’d like to encourage people, and I hope our son’s story will encourage people. His mental illness isn’t gone, but God is bigger than that. God was able to redeem his soul even if He’s chosen not to redeem his mind . . . yet!

I think people need that hope! I know so many people whose children battle depression, and they fear their child is going to take their life. We have had that same fear, and I have to time and time again say, “Lord, I have to trust that his life is in your hands! I have to trust that I can do what I can do as his parent, and that I’m going to do it imperfectly. But ultimately, I have to entrust him into Your hands and trust that You are going to use his life for your purposes, and that You love him even more than I do. And if that means he has to suffer with this awful illness for the rest of his life, Lord, I’m trusting You’re going to redeem this somehow and You’re going to use it for Your glory.And in the meantime, give us the strength for it! And give us the ability to love him beyond it!” 

That boy’s illness has taught me about the gospel more than anything else! I’ve had moments where I’ve sat on the floor, sobbing, realizing how horribly I respond to him when he is lashing out.

I think of what Christ did for me when He was being lashed out at and He was spit on and He was mocked—when He was doing it for the ones who were spitting on Him. And here I am, my instinct is to lash out or to reject or push him away and to be angry at him.

It’s made me realize how much I needed Christ to live that perfect life for me! I can’t love my son the way I desire to, always, but Christ does, and He is growing more of that love in me and in Jeff as we rely on him.

I pray that for other parents or for other people who have loved ones. I pray that you would let that lead you to dependence on Christ for the strength to love them well, for the strength to trust their lives into His hands, and that it’s not beyond God’s power to do something about it.

Dannah: Jeff, what are your thoughts on that? I’m interested.

Jeff: Yes, I think one of the things that comes to mind is from Philippians 4, where Scripture just talks about, “And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).

And so, whatever you’re going through . . . As we look at just the confusing illness that our son has, there is a peace that only Christ can give that’s beyond our understanding, but it does promise to guard our hearts and our minds. 

As we cling and as we look to Christ, this is such a hard journey and a hard road. But we need to remember that it is a process, and it is something that is not always going to look pretty. But through it, are we continuing to turn to Him where we can find that rest? It might not be physical rest that we need, but there is at the right time the strength that He is providing and that mental endurance, then that physical strength and the time to continue to press on. 

And so, I think there are those verses that you need to continue to rehearse and meditate on and cling to and remind yourself of. When nothing else makes sense, there is a God that we serve, as Sarah said, that is bigger than this illness.

That God is sovereign over the things that He allows and over the things that He doesn’t allow. That’s His mercy, and so resting in that, that this will not be wasted. That’s one of those things that’s easy to say but so hard to live out—that it’s not going to be wasted. We want more than anything to see relief in his life. Yet our prayer was that that relief would not come before his heart was turned over Christ. 

Now, we are still praying for relief, even though we believe his heart is turned over to Christ. But there’s a greater work yet to be done, and God’s delaying for a greater purpose. And I have no doubt that He’s going to use that boy’s life. 

Our son is gifted in so many ways. He will use him powerfully. He already has! But there has to be something that we’ll just continue to see, and we cling to that hope, that God is building in him something powerful!

Dannah: Do you know what you said that just really spoke to me? You said, “My son who is gifted in so many ways.” I’ve talked with so many parents whose child has, you name it: depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, ADHD, any manner of mental challenge. And it’s hard to see the gifts.

What encouragement would you give? Why is that important, that they take time to see the gifts and how do they do it?

Sarah: It makes me think of 2 Corinthians 4.

We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies (vv.4–10). 

I think of our son, and like Jeff says, does have so many gifts. His illness has created many major cracks in his life, but we have seen how God has also used those cracks to now portray very powerfully the gospel and the power of Christ that is increasingly flowing in him.

We see the way He can use some of those giftings that He has given our son . . . though there is so much trying to stifle those. God has given those to him for a purpose. We don’t necessarily see how He will use those yet, but we don’t want to make the mistake of viewing our son as though he is just an illness . . . because he’s not. He is a child of God that has been uniquely knit by His Maker.

It’s really easy to look at what’s wrong and to forget that God has purposes even in what looks wrong. We have to remember that in the way we’re talking to him or the way we think about him. We need to remind ourselves to ask the Lord to help give us the eyes to see him as God does—for us to help him, as his parents, to see himself the way God sees him. This isn’t always easy!

But these verses are so true in our own lives as well. We have to remember that it’s okay to grieve these things. I can’t tell you the amount of tears we have shed over watching the pain that he has experienced, and that we have experienced because of it.

It’s pretty much a daily thing. I have to let myself go through that cycle of grief and acknowledge, “This is not right! This is not the way it is meant to be! He is not meant to struggle with this.” It’s a young boy who has gone through more suffering and pain than probably most people do in a lifetime.

That doesn’t feel fair to me, but I know that there is a day where God is going to redeem it. There is a day. He knows it, and that’s his hope. He knows, “One day I’m going to be free from this mind that holds me in bondage.” 

I just pray that God will, even if He’s allowing the hardship, give our son the ability to see that even though he is afflicted in every way, he is not crushed. Why? Because he’s got the Spirit of God in him, and he will be a testimony of that to those around him.

And for us, too: we’re perplexed; we don’t get it, we don’t know why God has not removed it, but we’re not despairing because we’ve seen God’s faithfulness day after day after day. And all of these things that we could go through, all the various ways we feel that, the whole point of it is so that we would manifest more of Christ.

And as we do, we end up experiencing the blessing of it. We’ve seen our son experience the blessing of Christ, despite how hard every day can still be!

Nancy: Wow! What encouraging words for anyone who is struggling through a storm with no end in sight! We’ve been listening as Jeff and Sarah Walton have been transparent in how they’ve dealt with some of their own storms. Jeff will be right back to pray.

The Waltons have written a book entitled: Together Through the Storms: Biblical Encouragements for Your Marriage. This book is not a how-to book on marriage, but it’s a terrific devotional resource where Jeff and Sarah talk about the realities of suffering and the effects it can have on your marriage.

Their goal is to help you get your eyes off your difficulties, off your spouse, and on to Jesus. Today their book is our gift to you for your donation of any amount to support Revive Our Hearts. This program is listener supported, so our need is ongoing, week after week, month after month, and I’m so thankful for the support of friends like you who make it possible!

To make a donation, visit us at or give us a call at 1–800–569–5959. Be sure to ask for Jeff and Sarah’s book Together Through the Storms when you contact us with your donation, and thank you so much for the encouragement of your support!

On Monday, my longtime friend and co-worker, Del Fehsenfeld, will be here to give us some principles for thriving—body and soul. He’ll talk about God’s part—and our part—in becoming more like Jesus. You won’t want to miss it!

Well, Jeff and Sarah, thank you so much for your transparency; thank you for helping us keep our eyes on Jesus when we’re in a storm.

Dannah: Jeff, I feel like there are a lot of parents listening right now who want to have the eyes that you and Sarah have developed—the vision that you’ve developed—to see your son’s gifts, to look at this trial through the Scriptures. I wonder if you might just pray for them right now, that they’d have the ability to follow through on the desires that you’re stirring up in their heart.

Jeff: Sure. Lord Jesus, we first admit just our lack and our weaknesses, and so we come before You humbly, knowing that You know each of our situations. You know the struggles and the pain and the confusion that we might be going through right now. 

We ask that we would lift our eyes above our situation. If there are people struggling with relationships and from illness, help them not take it personally but to see that is not a way they want to live and that they are struggling and some points trapped inside a body or a mind that is broken. 

God, we are all broken before You; help us to remember that. We are all sinful; we are all in need of a Great Savior! I pray for Your grace and Your mercy for those lives that are struggling with an illness, struggling trying to get out of their mind and have clarity. 

God, I pray that Your Spirit would rescue them. I pray that You would bring healing in their souls, and that You would not waste it! God, we ask that you would draw their hearts to You, that You would help both spouses to bring this in prayer before You, God, because You are the only One that can save. You are the only God that can redeem these situations and restore. 

God, restore in us the joy of our salvation. Give us endurance as we pray and as we go through the rest of this week. In Your Name we pray, amen.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth reminds you that God is with you in the battle. The program is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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About the Teachers

Jeff and Sarah Walton

Jeff and Sarah Walton

Jeff and Sarah Walton are the co-authors of Together Through the Storms: Biblical Encouragement for Your Marriage When Life Hurts (2020, The Good Book Company). They have four children 13 and under and are members of the Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, IL. Sarah is also the co-author of the award-winning book Hope When It Hurtsand blogs at Jeff works in healthcare technology sales, and he spends his free time leading mens Bible studies and coaching his childrens sports teams.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love for Christ and His Word is infectious, and permeates her online outreaches, conference messages, books, and two daily nationally syndicated radio programs—Revive Our Hearts and Seeking Him.

She has authored twenty-two books, including Lies Women Believe and the Truth That Sets Them Free, Seeking Him (coauthored), Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together, and You Can Trust God to Write Your Story (coauthored with her husband). Her books have sold more than five million copies and are reaching the hearts of women around the world. Nancy and her husband, Robert, live in Michigan.