Mindful of Grace

Viewing Mental Illness Through the Eyes of Faith

by Matthew S. Stanford

“… I have known rejection after rejection to the point where I have left several churches. There is no support in the church for this kind of illness at all, there is only alienation. Funny how if it had been breast cancer or heart disease, the whole church would rally around me. But for the grace of God go I.” – Ellen, diagnosed with bipolar disorder

Mental illness has not always been treated as a medical problem. Not too long ago many people perceived the abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviors associated with these disorders as signs of personal weakness and something to be ashamed of. Regrettably, this is still a common misperception in the church today and has resulted in the stigmatization and alienation of thousands who desperately need the spiritual support that the body of Christ can provide. Christians are often surprised to learn that individuals experiencing psychological distress, both believers and nonbelievers, are more likely to seek help from a member of the clergy or ministry staff before any other professional group.

Unfortunately, some leaders in the church have suggested that mental disorders do not truly exist and are simply a way that those outside the church attempt to legitimize sinful behavior. I once read a Christian author who based his argument that mental disorders do not exist on the fact that you cannot find the terms mental illness or mental disorder in the Scriptures. It is true that we cannot find these terms in the Bible, but we do see the related terms madness and insanity used often (e.g., 1 Samuel 21:13–15; Mark 3:21). These terms are used to describe a set of thoughts and behaviors the people of the time recognized as extreme, debilitating and abnormal in nature.

Today those same abnormal thoughts and behaviors are categorized into a set of specific mental disorders for which mental health professionals have developed many effective interventions and treatments. Mental health research and practice have made significant strides in relieving the psychological and physical suffering of those afflicted with mental illness. Yet there continues to be a high level of suspicion, distrust and even fear in the church when it comes to psychology and psychiatry.

Pastors and people of faith often ask me if mental illness occurs at the same rates in the church as it does outside the church. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older (57.7 million people, one in four adults) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. In our most recent study of mental illness and the church, we found that in a sample of 5,899 congregants representing 24 different Protestant churches across four denominations, 27.1 percent reported that they or a member of their family suffered with a mental illness during the previous year. So it does seem that mental illness occurs at the same rate both inside and outside the church.

Those families struggling to care for a mentally ill loved one also reported that they had significantly greater relational conflict, more financial problems and increased difficulty connecting with both God and the church when compared to families who did not deal with mental illness in the previous year. The simple fact is that Christians develop mental illness at the same rates seen in the general population, and suggestions such as “you need to pray more” or “this is just the result of weak faith” are ineffective in dealing with these serious medical conditions. A quarter of our families in the church literally struggle to survive on a daily basis.

What would you say to an individual who came to you and said he was clinically depressed or she had obsessive-compulsive disorder? What is the appropriate biblical response? The unfortunate truth is that the church has struggled in ministering to those with mental illness. In the Gospel of John, we see a first century equivalent of this interaction (John 9:1–3): “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ disciples assumed that sin was the cause of the man’s blindness. In fact, as we can see from their question, they believed that the man may have sinned before he was born and brought this punishment upon himself. The Talmud, an ancient record of Jewish laws and traditions, says that if a pregnant woman sins by bowing to an idol, her unborn child also sins because he also bows. This was a common belief of the day; sin or unrighteousness brought punishment (sickness, poverty, a physical handicap) while righteous living brought health and prosperity. There is a certain sense of self-righteousness in that idea. “He’s blind; I’m not. He’s a sinner punished by God, but look at me, I’m blessed for my good behavior.”

What about our brothers and sisters with mental illness? Are we made uncomfortable by their disorders? Do we (like the disciples) see them as less than ourselves? Or do we think of their disorders as an opportunity for the works of God to be manifest in their lives? We need to see them with spiritual eyes, with Christ’s eyes. Every trial, every malady, every weakness is an opportunity for the works of God to be manifest in their lives and ours, because God is sovereign over illness, even mental illness.

The fact that individuals living with mental illness are seeking out assistance and counsel from the church should prompt us to rise up and be the hands and feet of Christ to a suffering people. A biblical response to mental illness relieves physical and psychological suffering while revealing the unconditional love and limitless grace that is available through a personal relationship with Jesus. This is done through the application of both biblical truth and psychological resources. God is bringing beloved hurting children to us. It’s time that the church stopped abdicating its role in mental health and started leading.

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