Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games the world witnessed Simone Biles, one of the greatest athletes of all time, defend not the gold medal but her own mental health. Simone is breaking the silence about mental illness and mental health, and she’s doing it while in the global spotlight. This deserves a gold medal. She wins in my book.
Anyone who has the courage to break the silence about their personal struggles with mental health challenges is a winner. For me as a pastor and as a person living in recovery from complex PTSD and whose loved ones live with mental illnesses, I call this ability to break the silence about mental illness “being blessed.” As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). We are blessed when we tell the true story, which has the power to bring healing.
Simone is writing her own story, giving her own testimony. Simone is truthing her way to a healthier life. Instead of pretending that everything is okay, wearing a mask, and pushing ahead despite the cost to her wellbeing, she is saying, “I’m not okay. I need to stop.” When the whole world is cheering you on to keep going, to silence the world around you and listen deep within takes inner courage. Simone’s discernment demonstrates bravery in a world that awards winning no matter what you lose, even if what is lost is one’s own mental health.
When I stop and really listen to Simone, I listen to what is underneath all the buzz, hype, and hate. What I hear is the gospel truth that Simone is human. Her heart longs to be blessed by what she loves. The problem is, we have created a competitive culture that worships perfectionism and winning at all costs. In Simone’s actions, she lets us know that this time the Olympics is not a blessing.
“This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I came in and felt I was still doing it for other people,” she explained. “So that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me, to please other people.”
The Gospel According to Simone testifies to how real emotional pain feels. Emotional and mental pain is physical pain. Mental health is physical health and impacts our whole body. She didn’t break her leg or twist her ankle. But, as she says, she’s “fighting” with her “own head.” Simone’s testimony comes from a pure heart that longs to experience the full blessings of God’s love embodied in her own life. This is her birthright as a child of God.
Simone is claiming her power to love herself as superior to pleasing other people. Jesus teaches that the greatest calling is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus never said we were put on this earth to please everyone else. The Gospel According to Simone testifies to the power of healthy self-love to liberate us from the unrealistic and unrelenting expectations of others for us to be perfect. By embracing her humanity, Simone shows us the face of Jesus, the one who was also attacked by angry mobs who said, “this can’t be the one God sent us.”
The criticism and hatred targeting Simone in the aftermath of her decision to withdraw shows how uncomfortable many people are with perceived failure, inadequacy, and imperfection. Jesus did not live up to the people’s expectations of what a King should be and so they killed him. Humanity does not have the best track record when it comes to our heroes disappointing us.
It is time to stop hurting the very people who come bearing news of a better way to abundant life. Jesus offered us a different way to show love for one another, by sharing all that we have, by caring for the least of these. Simone offers us a different way to be the world’s greatest of all time… by not sacrificing your soul for worldly glory. Instead, she chose to support her teammates, cheering from the bleachers while taking care of herself. Her humility, authenticity, wisdom, and grace are to be celebrated.
Simone’s decision to step aside and withdraw from competing in several (but not all) Olympic events is what mentally healthy people do. People in recovery from mental illness know that taking the right steps, even if it means stepping aside, is the best way to win the fight in our own heads. When we feel unsafe in any way, we reclaim the power and control to ensure our own safety and wellbeing. This is what flourishing looks like. This is what recovery looks like. This is what a champion looks like.
God is calling all faith communities to create spaces where people can choose to step aside from the world’s unrealistic and unrelenting expectations of being perfect. The world would be a better place if The Gospel According to Simone was lived out by more Christians, modeling the power of self-love and making mental health a priority.
The United Church of Christ has developed a program guiding congregations in how to be WISE (Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged) for mental health. These resources are designed to help churches minister to the whole person, celebrating that people living with mental health challenges and their families are an important part of the Body of Christ.
Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed is the one who breaks the silence about mental illness. Blessed is the one who makes a way for healing and recovery for themselves and others. Blessed be Simone.
Sarah Griffith Lund is a pastor within the United Church of Christ and the author of two Chalice Press books on mental health: Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church (2014) and Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness and Marriage (2021).
A version of this piece first appeared on chalicepress.com.