Mental Illness Awareness Week: Mental Health and the Christian

Mental Illness in the Church

Mental illness in church? Something about that seems wrong. Even those who understand that Christianity is a religion for the sick and the sinners will fall into the trap of believing that churchgoing Christians are categorically holy, healthy and pure. We forget where we came from and where we would be if we had not had not been rescued by the Gospel. We fail to see that we all struggle, and will continue to struggle, until Christ comes again—some of us more than others.

How lovely it would be if the church and the members that populate it would simply conform to the overly idealistic (yet widely believed) notion that Christians are inherently good, that they naturally rise above the ills and traps of regular society, and that any and all problems can be eradicated with regular church attendance, a few standard Bible verses and a quick prayer. How difficult and disenchanting to find out that it isn’t so.

Christians and Mental Illness? The Reality

The truth is that Christians are no less susceptible to mental illness than any other demographic. It is by God’s grace that many of those who suffer from mental illness have come to know Christ as savior, but this isn’t an immediate panacea for what is often many years of deeply rooted dysfunctional patterns and chemical imbalances in the brain.

While Christians continue to hope in faith for healing and deliverance—and they should—the reality is that the majority will continue to battle. But as they battle, and as they seek God in the midst of their battle, God will be glorified and the sufferer will receive strength for the present. God will show himself to be strong and reliable and the believer who continues to trust against all odds will not hope in vain.

The status of the Church with all of its hypocrites, abusers, addicts and mentally unsound should not drive us to be cynical about organized Christianity or to wonder where God messed up. It should cause us to be hopeful realists, knowing that we live in a deeply broken world and even the church experiences this brokenness. But we also have a very real and present hope in Jesus Christ. This assurance of grace and hope in the midst of brokenness should drive us to reach out to those who suffer rather than expect them to fix themselves and stop tarnishing the image of the church. Didn’t Jesus proclaim he came to heal the sick?

Causes, Effects and Treatments

There is also the unhelpful notion that all mental illnesses stem from either demons or unconfessed sins. While spiritual attack can be a very real thing and a restless conscience can do significant psychological damage, we must also recognize that a person’s decades-long battle with a diagnosed mental illness may have a physiological component that needs to be addressed. We use doctors for all sorts of “physical” medical concerns, and as research progresses, we are learning that mental illness is, in many ways, a medical concern stemming from a pathology in the brain and its chemical makeup or functionality. There are now therapies that can directly remedy these conditions in the same way that they could remedy a bacterial infection or diabetes.

It should not be denied that there is much more to treating mental illness than obtaining a prescription. Counseling, therapy and spiritual guidance are often required and should be employed in any plan for the holistic healing of the individual. Pharmacological therapies are not the cure-all, but they may be a part of the cure. Believers need not judge other believers for pursuing these therapies.

A Biblical Response to Mental Illness

We get a very accurate picture of how we should approach those with mental illness by reading the Gospels. People brought their sick to Jesus—the lepers, the demon-possessed and the crazy. Rather than shun them or tell them to clean up their act, Christ had compassion. Repeatedly the Gospel writers report the way in which Christ looked at the people that came to him. He saw them, he recognized them and he treated them with dignity. He healed them in such a way that they could be restored to proper fellowship and community with other people.

There is much to be learned about approaching the mentally ill from Christ’s example. No, you’re not a miracle worker and no one is expecting you to enact a healing. But you can look upon the struggling brothers and sisters in your church with compassion. You can extend friendship and care. You can show that these people, made in the image of God, have an inherent dignity and value that is to be respected.

Continued in Mental Health Awareness Week: Mental Illness and the Christian – Part 2.