A New Approach to Mental Illness in the Church
Churches, we need a new approach to mental illness.
Or, maybe not new, but a more Christlike approach to mental illness.
“Why is this so uniquely difficult for Christians?” It was an astute question—the right question, really.
I was being interviewed by a reporter for a national publication in the wake of the tragic suicide of Matthew Warren, the son of Rick Warren. National news sources covered the story, many about mental illness and suicide, and people in churches were asking important questions.
But regardless of when these topics are raised, there is a unique challenge created for Christians, who believe God heals people. He heals our hearts of an all-encompassing sin condition, and he heals physical illness. But when we experience situations like Matthew’s, where clear healing did not take place, we are often overcome with unanswered questions.
The unexpected and horrifying can happen, and even though we believe in the miraculous and understand the freedom and forgiveness we have in Christ, we can’t help but feel that something is missing.
It happens every time we hear stories like this.
I wrestled with these questions as a young pastor, and literally had no idea how to deal with them. I learned through on-the-job training the level of deficiency in my understanding of mental illness.
Early in my ministry, I met a wonderful gentleman who loved the Lord with all of his heart, who had a deep passion for God, and who exuded the character of a man who had spent a lifetime getting to know Christ. He experienced seasons of life, though, when he would simply spiral down to a place of dysfunction. He struggled with bipolar disorder, and it would overcome him (his words) for long periods of time.
In the midst of his struggles, he repeatedly cried out to God. He spent hours meditating on the Scriptures, particularly the Psalms. He begged God for help in the midst of his trouble time and time again. He had no idea how to respond to the lack of healing, and, honestly, neither did I. I was 25 years old, and all I had heard about dealing with mental illness was that Christians just “prayed it away.”
It was an attack of the enemy, or so I’d been told, and the necessary response was expulsion—just cast it out.
Since that was what we knew to do, that’s all we did. Our church prayed over him. I prayed over him and with him. Never has a man prayed harder to be set free of the cycles that he experienced in his own life than he. Ultimately, though, he took what he believed to be the only way out. He ended his own life.
His family was utterly devastated, as was I. As I tried to walk with them through their grief, I had to come to grips with a painful reality. I came face to face with the fact that I was woefully unprepared to deal with this situation, and the ideas that I had previously relied upon were completely inadequate to give me the necessary wisdom.
I was unprepared to deal with mental illness, and by my actions, I almost denied that it is even real. Of course, I would have been prepared for any number of other forms of illness. If someone had come to my church with a broken leg, I would have recommend they go see a doctor. For virtually any other illness, I would have said the same.
It is common practice in churches, however, to treat mental illness differently. We immediately assume there is something else, some deeper spiritual struggle causing mental and emotional strain.
The fact is that mental illness and spiritual struggle can be (and are) related. We are not separate things, we are complex people—remarkable connected in spirit, soul, body, mind, etc.
But, let me be direct here: if we immediately dismiss the possibility of mental illness and automatically assume spiritual deficiency, our actions amount to spiritual abuse. I know those are powerful and pointed words, but I believe them to be true. Please, don’t miss them.
That being said, I am encouraged by the increasing recognition of the reality of mental illness in many churches who are contemplating healthy, helpful ways to address it.
At LifeWay Research we've released data on these very issues, as you can see:
And I've written on the subject extensively.
Too often, our churches are unprepared to walk with the suffering, like I was as a young pastor. This results in a shunned believer who is driven out to deal with a heavy burden on his own.
The reality is that regardless of the situation—even in the most prepared church—mental illness can be deep, traumatic, and life-changing. Even if our churches talk about the issue and have a plan to address it with our own people, it tends to be a long road to healing or discerning how to manage the disease.
Ministering to those struggling with mental illness, and the family members of those struggling, requires a tremendous amount of grace, but God’s people should be first in line to offer it.
I wrote an article for CNN immediately following Matthew Warren’s death, and it was picked up by several other outlets. I received plenty of feedback from readers, but much of it was not positive. Most of the detractors focused solely on the need for biblical counseling to the exclusion of any other medical input. In their eyes, biblical counseling necessarily precluded everything else.
Please understand: I am a big believer in biblical counseling. We practice it in our church. We believe the Scriptures are our faith and guide. Yet, I think that all truth is God's truth and, yes, we can learn from psychology and medicial science as well.
But, as a Chrisitan, I do believe that the greatest root problem in the brokenness that comes from the Fall and, yes, sin impacts us all. Brokenness certainly has far-reaching effects on us spiritually—we were actually dead in our sin before Jesus made us alive—but brokenness also impacts us physically.
Mental illness, mental disease, is a reality.
Sin Is Real
Of course, it is a result of the Fall and the sin that is a part of all of our lives. But it also has a physical component that sometimes has to be dealt with physically, which is my primary focus here. To ignore the reality of mental illness hampers our ability as the church to have robust, intelligent, helpful conversations to find ways to come alongside those who are suffering and offer hope.
Churches and leaders, we must offer hope.
I will be sharing more about this at the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference.