I’ve been looking forward to posting this review of Matthew Stanford’s revised and expanded book. I first read this book when I was writing Troubled Minds, and I found it to be a very solid, informative, thoughtful work. I’m glad Stanford and InterVarsity Press have worked to update it because it was first published in 2008 and information is constantly changing in this field.
Dr. Stanford is a neuroscientist, a psychiatrist, a researcher, and a minister. After 20 years in academic settings–most recently at Baylor University–he now serves as CEO of Hope & Healing Center in Houston, Texas. Who better to write a book that outlines “a clinical and biblical perspective on mental illness”? And our churches need this perspective. Too often, we approach mental illness from a purely spiritual point of view, interpreting all mental health problems as simply spiritual in nature. Too many churches, and their leaders, are tempted to dismiss psychiatry and neurological discoveries as purely secular, or even anti-Christian. It’s hard to make a case for that way of thinking when brilliant and committed Christian professionals like Stanford share what they know, through the lens of what we all believe.
Grace for the Afflicted by Matthew S. Stanford (revised & expanded edition)
(Published by InterVarsity Press, 2017)
What this book offers
First of all, this book offers Dr. Stanford’s wealth of knowledge and insight, coming from an expert in brain function and how our mental processes affect behavior. This is all paired with his biblical and theological understanding, which makes it an invaluable resource for Christians who want to not only understand the science of mental health, but also consider how psychology, psychiatry, and neurobiology interact with Christian faith. The book’s first section is dedicated to consideration of these concepts. It’s very helpful in walking through theological questions and misconceptions about the way our mental health relates to the rest of our being. These questions are important to Stanford, and should be important to all of us, because “individuals in psychological distress are more likely to seek out a member of the clergy before a mental health care provider. Viewed through the eyes of faith, it is obvious that this is not an accident but a heavenly orchestrated, divine opportunity for the church” (p. 13). He tackles issues like demon possession, demonic attack, the relationship between the psychiatry and the Bible, and claims that mental disorders are not real medical problems.
The second, and largest, section of the book describes various forms of mental disorder (schizophrenia, bipolar, depressive, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Section three focuses on neurological disorders (dementia, strokes, and brain injuries). In both sections, he outlines a clear picture of each disorder, common symptoms, the biology behind it, and how it’s treated. He also includes a brief story illustrating how each disorder affects loved ones. Perhaps the most fascinating features in these chapters are the biblical examples of people who showed signs of specific disorders. (Spoiler alert: King David may have experienced panic attacks. Jacob showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.) These sections give sound, accessible information that’s truly critical for anyone in ministry–simply a basic understanding of mental and neurological disorders, how they look, and how people can recover through treatment.
The book’s final section outlines ways to care for people affected by mental illness–including a helpful discussion of suicide and how it relates to the Bible. Dr. Stanford provides several ideas for ways churches can provide help and support. He closes the book with this challenge: “The best advice I can give you is simply to let grace be your guide. If God has placed a mentally ill person in your life and you in theirs, how will you respond?” (p. 260).
What I liked about this book
One of my favorite things about this book is Stanford’s ability to combine his scientific knowledge with thoughtful exploration of theology and the Bible. Simply put, he knows what he’s talking about. And he has a genuine concern for the ministry opportunities so many churches are missing because of ignorance, superstition, or fear.
I also appreciate his scientific approach to everything he writes. He focuses on facts and evidence in a space where our conversations are often emotionally charged. He’s not afraid to tackle difficult and controversial questions, and he does so in a calm, reasonable manner. At the same time, this is not a cold, clinical resource. It is warm and accessible, it reflects Dr. Stanford’s genuine care for the people whose lives are affected by mental illness and by our unhelpful responses.
What I would change about this book
It’s difficult for me to find anything I would change about this book. So this is pretty picky. But I do think it could be stronger with a longer, more robust final chapter. In this chapter he addresses what churches can do, and I’d love to know more about what he might recommend. Most churches don’t have brain scientists in their congregations, so lending his expertise to a fuller discussion of helpful responses would benefit many.
Who should read it
I consider this book a must-read for anyone in church or parachurch ministry. As the number-one place people turn to for help with mental illness, we can’t afford to be ignorant or superstitious about what people are living with or what they need. As people called to love our world, we really have no excuse for neglecting to equip ourselves with sound science and theology.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.