In her book Darkness Is My Only Companion, Kathryn Greene-McCreight shares journal entries, stories and spiritual insights from her experience living with bipolar disorder. She mentions this about Christians’ response to mental illness: “Christian communities still have a fear of the mentally ill. In part they do not understand mental illness, in part there is a false assumption that the Christian life should always be an easy path, and in part the problem of suffering is hard to grasp.”
In many churches, intentionally or unintentionally, the overriding emphasis is on “victorious Christian living,” with the basic assumption that real Christians don’t have problems–or at least not crippling, persistent problems that a prayer or two won’t cure. Some churches purposely embrace this as a basic doctrine. Many more churches adopt it without realizing they’ve done so. This theology is based on the belief that as Christians we should expect complete victory over the effects of sin here and now–as evidence of our faith and God’s love for us.
This is in direct contradiction to what Jesus said: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). Peter said we shouldn’t be surprised when Christians suffer, not just in spite of their faith but because of it: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad–for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world” (1 Pet 4:12-13).
James anticipated trouble for Christians and called us to “consider it an opportunity for great joy” (Jas 1:2). Paul wrote of “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.” And when he begged God to take it away, the Lord did not remove it but assured him: “My power works best in weakness” (2 Cor 12:7-9). God doesn’t only allow our suffering; he appreciates it for his own sake.
The writer of Hebrews dedicated a portion of the book to memorializing the faith of God’s people throughout history, demonstrating how their faith had pleased God and drawn them toward a future promise of blessing they could not see. This writer described the way these faithful people “were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised” (Heb 11:35-39).
If these saints suffered so bitterly, why should we not suffer? If their faith in the promise of Christ did not exempt them from suffering–in fact, was the cause of mistreatment and abuse–why should we expect an easy life?
This idea that Christians don’t suffer is also in direct contradiction to the actual experience of true Christians, all of whom slug their way through trouble daily and find themselves at the mercy of decay, pain and sorrow–such as that brought on by a mental illness or disorder. When churches emphasize victory in a way that suggests Christians don’t experience problems, they alienate and undermine the faith of suffering people of all kinds, including those touched by mental illness.
My friend Angie remembers her church sending this message as she was growing up: “Everything was just victorious Christian living. . . . Nothing about mental illness at all. I remember one woman in the church saying what a bad person this counselor was because he was encouraging people to look at their problems and that’s not a Christian way of doing things.”
Monica talked about finally coming to a realization: “It’s okay to not have answers and it’s okay to wrestle with my questions and it’s okay to even think those questions; whereas before I thought, Oh no, I can’t do that, I’m a Christian, I’m not allowed. There has been great freedom in knowing that God lets me wrestle with him and that’s okay. I think that God really welcomes that.”
I don’t want to suggest that it’s inappropriate to talk about spiritual victory. We do have victory in Christ. As forgiven people, we are no longer slaves to sin and its ultimate consequence: “We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6). But while we are not slaves, we still live in the slaves’ quarters. Our world is poisoned by sin, our bodies are cursed, and all our endeavors are flawed. God has promised to remove us from this world someday and to replace these imperfect bodies with new bodies (including, I believe, new brains) suited for life in a perfect world without decay. We can walk in the light of that future hope, even though we live in a shadowy world. When churches embrace this dual reality, they help bring lifesaving hope to suffering people.
If you want to read more about how the church can offer better support for people affected by mental illness, you can find my book here.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.