A good friend of mine recently introduced me to Father Richard Rohr’s description of the Christian life as “falling upward”. My own fall began when I went to University. I suppose that’s one reason that at the church I now lead, we’re so passionate about students. In 2015 The Guardian reported on an NUS survey of 1,093 students in further and higher education. Eight out of 10 students (78%) said they had experienced mental health issues in the last year. A third of the respondents (33%) said they had had suicidal thoughts. Over half (54%) of respondents who reported having experienced mental health problems said they did not seek support.
I chose Economics at Cardiff. It seemed to rain every single day of my first term. Despite some good people and some fun times, I felt isolated, alone and slowly but surely, miserable. Salvation seemed to appear when I met a girl who didn’t share my faith at all. Being with her seemed an intoxicating thrill. We hit it off and it all got serious very quickly. Deep down I knew she was the wrong girl for me but it was like an addiction I couldn’t – maybe wouldn’t – control. Our relationship totally messed me up. She had this rich boyfriend who would turn up unannounced every now and then, whereupon I’d get dropped and they’d go off on luxurious short trips. I don’t blame her because her upbringing and left her pretty messed up too. They say hurt people, hurt people. And so it turned out. I loved her so I always took her back. Pathetic isn’t it? It took me years to forgive myself for that relationship, long after God had forgiven me.
Our relationship came apart at the seams when we were both on a European year in the middle of our studies – she was in Italy and I was in Spain. I was absolutely crushed both by the emotional turmoil of losing her, and choked with the guilt of my personal moral failure. I was totally on my own, and I had no money. I was thrown out of the shared flat of foreign students where I had a small room. For a while I was at the mercy of loose friendships, sofa-surfing in a few different flats. Looking back, I was teetering on the edge of rough sleeping. But in the naivety of my youth I didn’t see it back then. I had an old, cheap guitar with me and I could play three chords, so I decided to start street busking to get money. The trouble was, I was absolutely terrible at it! I recall regularly setting up to busk opposite one particularly-posh jewellery shop knowing the store manager would pay me to play somewhere else because I was scaring his customers away! I laugh now, but that’s how low my self-esteem had got. I welcomed the rejection not only because I needed the money, but also because it validated what I felt about myself. It was the worst point in my life.
Weirdly, I look back on those six painful, poor months on my own in Spain with a huge amount of gratitude. They were the making of me. Because all I had was God. And I threw myself at him. I read in the Psalms that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). That was no longer something I believed, it became something I experienced. For the first time in my life, my relationship with God stopped being something I could turn on and off. God became like the air I breathed. I didn’t just want God for comfort, I needed God for survival. I echoed King David’s prayer “From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock higher than I” (Psalm 61:2).
Rick Warren writes, “You will never know that God is all you need until God is all you’ve got” (“What On Earth Am I Here For?” Day 25). My need for God wasn’t heroic and it wasn’t a considered decision reflecting mature spiritual discipline and knowledge. Quite the opposite. God was all I had. If I didn’t talk to him, I didn’t talk to anyone. If he didn’t help me get some money, I didn’t have any money. If I couldn’t find hope or joy in time with him, I couldn’t find it anywhere else. But in reaching the end of myself, I’d found the start of something that changed the rest of my life. I’ve stopped beating myself up for being pathetic. I’m learning to simply exist within God (Acts 17:28). I’m learning to fall upwards.
Tim was a Chartered Accountant before life went off-piste and he became a minister in the CofE. Previously, he completed a PhD in Social Psychology. Later, he trained in counselling. He is quite sure that underneath, we’re all nuts, but that God isn’t.