Mental Illness and the church

Psalm 34:17-20 (ESV)When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.

The Bible teaches that every human being is totally depraved. This doesn’t mean that every person is as absolutely wicked and evil as they could possibly be. That would be utter depravity. Total depravity simply means that sin has affected every facet of the being, including both the soul and the body. Total depravity means that nothing works as God originally intended. Our spiritual desires are affected and distorted by sin. Our intellect is distorted by and affected by sin. And, most importantly, our body has been affected and distorted by sin.

Why do we get colds, headaches, backaches, indigestion and infections? Why do you have migraines, heart problems,kidney stones and glaucoma? We experience these things because we inhabit bodies which have been marked and marred by sin. Paul spoke directly to this when he said: 2 Corinthians 4:16(ESV)16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.

Our outer self is wasting away. Our bodies don’t work correctly. They fall apart and fail us at the worst times. While we live in this fallen world, we live in bodies that are wasting away.

Paul wrote: Romans 8:22–23(ESV) 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Mental and spiritual matters seem more inseparable than physical and spiritual matters. The fine line between the soul and spirit is hard to navigate. Can our souls be saved, while our minds are “lost”? That doesn’t even make sense. We are whole beings. Yet, just as the Apostle Paul prayed for his tormenting illness to disappear, God offered grace instead of healing. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10(ESV)So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Along with the rest of creation, we eagerly await for the day when Christ will return and we will receive our new, redeemed, resurrection bodies.

Until the day Jesus returns, we will live in a body which does not function as God originally intended. Our brain, which is a key, central, integral part of our body, will not function correctly. Chemicals will become imbalanced. Serotonin will not be properly absorbed. Norepinephrine will be unevenly distributed. Synapses won’t fire correctly. The brain, just like every other part of the body, is prone to illness.

I would argue that if we truly believe in total depravity, then we must accept mental illness as a biblical category. If I believe that sin has affected every part of my body, including my brain, then it shouldn’t surprise me when my brain doesn’t work correctly. I’m not surprised when I get a cold; why should I be surprised if I experience mental illness? To say that depression, anxiety, bipolar, and every other disorder, are purely spiritual disorders is to ignore the fact that we are both body and soul.

Mental illness is not something invented by secular psychiatrists. Rather, it is part and parcel with living in fallen, sinful world.

Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV) Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Treating mental illness as purely a spiritual disorder is very hurtful to those who struggle with mental illness because it points them to the wrong solution. People deal with chronic physical anxiety.They regularly experience a clutching sensation in their chest, shortness of breath, adrenaline surges, and a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach. On rare occasions, the anxiety is tied to something they are worried about, but 90% of the time the physical symptoms they experience aren’t at all connected to worry. Sometimes you may be working away on your computer, not thinking about anything, when a feeling of anxiety suddenly descends.

In those moments,people don’t need to be told not to worry. They don’t need to be told to exercise more faith in the promises of God. They don’t need to be told to snap out of it. What they need is encouragement to persevere. They need to be reminded that, even in the midst of suffering, Jesus is near. They need to be reminded that light and momentary afflictions are producing an eternal weight of glory. They need to be encouraged to press into Jesus.

And… They need to be connected to someone who can help them deal with the physical aspects of anxiety.
Isaiah 41:10 (ESV)Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Here’s the unfortunate reality: even if their thinking is biblical, faith-filled, and God-honoring, the physical symptoms of anxiety probably won’t go away. Why? Because most of the time the problem is primarily physical. Something isn’t working correctly in the brain, which in turn causes people to experience the physical symptoms of anxiety.

When interacting with Christians who experience anxiety, depression, PTSD, or any other form of mental illness, we need to treat them as whole people. We need to treat people as both body and soul. Do they need to exercise faith in the wonderful promises of God? Sure. But they also need to deal with the physical aspects of mental illness as well. Doctors are a wonderful gift from God who can offer help to those who struggle with mental illness.

We need to place mental illness in the same category as every other form of illness. When a person experiences chronic migraines, they most certainly will be tempted to doubt the goodness of God. We can serve them by encouraging them that God is good, and that he cares for them. But we also can serve them by taking them to the best migraine specialists in the country.

If we’re going to effectively care for fellow Christians who struggle with mental illness, we need to recognize that mental illness is a real thing. We aren’t only souls. Rather, we are a complex composition of soul and body. Let’s make sure we address both the soul and the body.

2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV)For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Finding Jesus is NOT the Cure for Depression.

God can heal physical and mental diseases. No doubt. Many physical illnesses are incurable. Mental illness is also incurable. While mental illness can be managed and treated, it never goes away.

For some reason, especially in the church, we often judge people who are mentally ill as making poor choices in their lives or somehow not fully trusting in God. It’s almost as if physical impairments can’t be helped, but mental impairments just require people to simply try harder. If trying hard cured mental illness, then mental illness would be cured, because I don’t ‘know of anyone who tries harder to fit in or just function than people who struggle with these diseases.

There are plenty of Christians who love Jesus with all of their hearts and have committed their entire lives to him, yet they are Schizophrenic, Bipolar, Clinically Depressed or smitten with another illness. There are also Christians who love Jesus, and they struggle with diabetes, heart disease, obesity and a number of other mostly preventable conditions which are actually within their control. Their deaths may not be imminent, but they certainly will come sooner than they should.

A 2008 Baylor University study found the following among church attendees with professionally diagnosed mental illness(es):

• 41% were told by someone at their church that they did not really have mental illness.

• 28% were told by someone at their church to stop taking psychiatric medication.

• 37% were told by someone at their church that their mental illness was the result of personal sin.

• 34% were told by someone at their church that their mental illness was the result of demonic involvement.

The Church is not yet willing to universally embrace what should already be common sense.

3 Myths the Church Perpetuates Mental Illness:

1 Myth: Depression is a choice. | Truth: Depression is not a choice. We need to stop talking about mental illness like it is a choice whether that language is explicit or implicit. In fact, Northwestern University has just developed the first blood test to diagnose major depression in adults. The test identifies depression by measuring the levels of nine RNA blood markers. Unfortunately, many Christians think that all depression is a consequence of sin and often they do not get the professional help they need.”

2 Myth: Faith means prayer is enough. | Truth: Faith and seeking medical help are not mutually exclusive. We seek medical help for physical ailments so why not mental ailments?

3 Myth: Taking medication is a sin. | Truth: Getting medical help is taking care of one’s self. Taking prescribed medication is not a sin. The Church does not shame cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy. Likewise, it should not shame people who get treatment for mental illness. Getting help is a wise decision for any sick person regardless of her belief system.

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