For some Christians, every problem–and every solution–is spiritual. In this environment, mental illness is obvious evidence of a lack of faith. Medical and psychiatric interventions are suspect, while more prayer and more faith are the prescriptions of choice. While nothing is wrong with more prayer or more faith–mental illness or not–there is not a lot of wisdom in treating illness exclusively with spiritual discipline.
Again, mental illness is called out for special treatment among maladies. A former pastor who now works as a therapist made this point: “I don’t hear anybody casting out demons for a heart ailment instead of having bypass surgery. Seldom do you have a pastor saying, ‘Well, I can cure that bypass issue with prayer.’ With a mental health issue, suddenly we think we can cure that, we can pray that out of a person.”
Another pastor and former social worker told me,
Someone asked me the other day, “Do you believe that a person can be healed of mental illness?” I said that’s a really hard question. I believe that they can receive healing. I’ve seen people get better through work and therapy and healing and prayer. I believe God can heal anything. But I don’t know exactly how that all works. Can he heal a bad back? Yes, but he might use medicine to heal or to help a person live a better life without all the pain.
Spiritual growth and discipline certainly play a role in healing mental illness and other ailments. One father of a son with bipolar disorder told me,
The heart and soul and mind, they’re all integrated. But it’s a medical problem, so it’s a very difficult thing for a lot of people to understand. It’s in the context of interpersonal dynamics that it looks like a spiritual problem. It looks like you could just pray for that person to spend more time in the Word or just pull himself up by the bootstraps and he’ll be fine, but that’s like telling a diabetic that you’ll pray for them when what they really need is insulin.
Another friend struggled with depression when her thyroid stopped functioning properly. Her Christian counselor recognized that she probably had a physiological root to her depression and advised her to see her doctor. Sure enough, she needed medical intervention for her thyroid, and after a long process of working with a doctor, her mood leveled out as her body got what it needed. She’s grateful that the counselor sent her to the right place, and she added, “Heaven forbid she would have said, ‘Pray harder; you’re too weak spiritually; there’s some kind of sin in your life that’s making this happen.’ “
This friend also described the way she sees her ongoing need for counseling:
Long before any of this was a part of our journey, people said, “Therapists shouldn’t be necessary. If you pray hard enough and you seek God hard enough, you don’t need a counselor.” And now, having been in counseling for years myself, I realize a lot of things I wrestle with, they’re not spiritual issues as much as they are dysfunction that has been ingrained in me since birth. I need to unlearn those things. So I don’t see them as spiritual issues; I don’t see them as sin issues. I see them as things I need to learn how to do differently.
When “just have faith and pray more” doesn’t work, the mentally ill are shamed and alienated even further. They’re also discouraged from seeking treatment, convinced by their churches that their ailments must have a spiritual solution–which remains elusive. This is the work of Pharisees, about whom Jesus said, “Practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Mt 23:3-4).
This is not the work of Christ, who said, “My yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Mt 11:30). He does not hold himself out of our reach. He does not hide his peace and demand that we always work just a little harder to find it. He comes to us when we aren’t even looking for him, woos us with unconditional love and powers our lives with new strength and supernatural peace each day. He erases the past and gives us hope for the future. He deigns to use us–all riddled with sin and bleeding with shame–in his holy work. He gives us reason to live–the only reason actually worth living for. And all we have to do is come to him like children. May we grant this astounding truth to all suffering people.
I spoke with a NAMI educator whose job is to reach out to her community, helping people understand mental illness and providing the support they need. In nearly a decade of work, she has been discouraged at the lack of participation among churches, which has been a main area of focus for her because of her Christian faith. As she has reached out to churches and offered to help them better minister to people with mental illness within their congregations, most have been uninterested. She described her sadness over people within the church, attending Bible study together, staying quiet because of fear.
I know that a percentage of them experience depression or other illness, but they don’t know that about each other, because nobody has decided to share that. If they did, they would probably feel so much comfort. But the church, I think, leans toward that perfection–everything’s fine, everything’s okay–instead of the real message of Christ: I show you my scars and you’re attracted.
In every city in this part of the world, people are working to end the stigmatization and marginalization of people with mental illness. Some of them have received healing or have learned to manage illnesses that affected them so profoundly the world told them their lives were effectively over. Others have seen family members and friends suffer from debilitating disorders and then suffer even more profoundly from the rejection of fellow human beings. Others simply refuse to stand by while people sick with treatable illnesses live in misery or take their own lives because they’re too afraid to get help.
Many of them are committed followers of Christ who believe we are all called to behave as Christ did among people in need. Your church can join them in big or small ways. You can start today.
How? See Chapter 8 of my book Troubled Minds for a few examples of churches that are leading the way with ministries especially for people affected by mental illness. It will give you some ideas you can try in your own church.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.