Guest Post: Mental Illness, Prayer, and Extravagant Grace

Please enjoy this post from Catherine P. Downing (at the end of this post, you can learn a little more about her and her resources for families living with mental illness). Catherine is a writer, an advocate, and a consultant. She’s also mother to a son affected by serious mental illness, and she practices what she preaches in this post. I encourage you to read her tips and find hope and encouragement in prayer.


I can’t honestly say I am thankful for the mental illness that besets our son. But in full truthfulness I can say I am glad to have been forced to do battle with my theology of suffering and to test both its mettle and mine.

A link welded into the armor of my faith has almost corroded more than once: prayer. Specifically, the mystery of prayer related to mental illness. Through the years, I have prayed and I have not prayed. Sometimes I have asked others to pray and sometimes I have not. Often I have disguised my wishful thinking as prayer, and more times than I want to admit, my prayers have been just “vain repetitions.”

But in recent years my beliefs about prayer, tested on the battlefield of my son’s mania and repaired in the infirmary of sweet stability, have settled into a courageous trust in the One whose love, power, and goodness are unfathomable and unstoppable.

Here are some prayer principles I now hold onto firmly as I pray through the challenges of our loved one’s battle with mental illness.

First, because mental illnesses are brain disorders, I pray as I would for any other physical sickness.
• Because God can and does heal bodies, I always pray for healing.
• Because that healing often comes through medical and therapeutic means, I pray for doctors, counselors, and chemists.
• Because healing is enhanced by intentional body-care, I pray for good rest, nutrition, and exercise.
• Because in His providence, God doesn’t always cure everyone, I pray for patience, wisdom, and enduring faith.
Prayer, I have learned, is an act of open-handed expectation.

Second, because “each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34b), I pray every single day for God’s favor and grace. Every morning I thank God in anticipation of His presence being with us every single moment–no matter how the day unfolds. At the close of the day I give thanks for the ways I have seen His goodness and mercy follow us on that particular day (Psalm 23:6). And of course, throughout the day are the ongoing conversations with our Father in heaven who knows our son best and loves him most. Prayer, I have discovered, is a discipline of unceasing watchfulness.

Third, because God invites us to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7), I keep asking, seeking, and knocking. I ask for direction on how to help our son. I seek after his healing and wholeness. I knock, expecting mercy to answer. As I pray I am mindful that I implore neither a stingy, grace-hoarding deity nor an impotent wannabe god. Instead I come as one welcomed into the throne room of the Most High God, at the invitation of His generous Spirit, through the door opened by His Son. Prayer, I have experienced, is an invitation to worshipful confidence.

Also, because my own sins and limitations impede my life every bit as much as mental illness disrupts our son’s, I pray for forgiveness and transformation. I see how our son is unaware of the ways mental illness clouds his judgment and blocks his opportunities, so I ask God to reveal my own blind spots. Prayer, I have begun to understand, is a sacrifice of sincere humility.

Finally, because God draws near to those who draw near to Him, I am emboldened to express the reality of my wobbly faith (“I do believe, help my unbelief,” as in Mark 9:24) and in doing so, I am able to rest in the truth that He alone is the giver and sustainer of life. Prayer places me close enough to God to “touch the hem of His garment” (Matthew 9:20-21), and there I find peace and hope. Prayer, I have found, is the journey into extravagant grace.

In the end, as I’ve prayed through the sufferings of our family and of others, I’ve discovered that prayer isn’t so much a mystery to be bewildered with as it is the anchor to be secured by. Prayer, indeed, is the tether that ties us to the only One who is loving enough to listen compassionately, the only One wise enough to answer rightly, the only One mighty enough to respond thoroughly, and the only One kind enough to wait with us as His own goodness unfolds.



Catherine Downing is a writer and advocate on mental health issues, having walked with her son on his journey with bipolar disorder. With her husband, Nelson, Catherine served with a mission agency for more than 25 years, and now she works as an independent communications consultant for faith-based nonprofits. A trained teacher for NAMI Family-to-Family classes and with Mental Health Grace Alliance, Catherine is author of the “Sparks of Redemptive Grace” blog and book by the same title, as well as the prayer guide “31 days, 31 ways 2 pray 4 families.” Her name, and others in much of her personal writings on mental health, are pseudonyms, used to protect her son’s privacy.

  1. Gail says:

    Hi Amy, i have just read your powerful blog which helped me in my quest to understand prayer as a sufferer.

    After a lifetime of suffering I still question what prayer does. Thanks for your enlightenment and encouragement.


    • Amy says:

      Gail, I’m so glad this was helpful. Catherine, the one who wrote this guest post, is someone who has grown to better understand prayer (and its necessity) through her own experience of suffering.

  2. Lisa Bagnall says:

    Dear Catherine,
    As a parent with mental Illness (late onset), I too have journeyed the same prayer path as yourself. And have found the same Mercy and Joy in being called Beloved Daughter of the Most High God.
    It has given me the courage I need to enter the hospital many times per year and trust that He will lead me to the next person who needs Prayer and Encouragement in their most Holy Faith. Be it a patient or a nurse, or other staff worker. Or even a visitor of another patient.
    “May the Lord Bless you and Keep you as He has done and Will Do.” Amen
    cheerfully Lisa

© 2017 Amy Simpson.