Church Culture God Life Theology

How Christians think about mental illness needs to change

Since the Reformation, evangelicalism has grown far and wide into a mosaic of theological diversity. In a previous article, I talked about why theological diversity—within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy—is integral to the church’s mission to reveal Christ (here and now) to people colliding with the broken reality of our world.

The irony of theological diversity within evangelicalism is that it allows for not-so-diverse fundamentalism to emerge and various theologies to be presented with very little accountability to orthodox theological authority. What can often emerge is a “free-for-all” platform where everyone is an expert and has the power to influence—kind of like our social media culture today. This can become dangerous when a person, or a whole faith tradition frankly, is based on a narrow, fundamentalist (and/or triumphalist) understanding of how God works in the world. It is dangerous because they have the power to hurt those who are most vulnerable.

No more is this most visible than in how Evangelicals think about and respond to those afflicted with mental illness.

You will have to excuse me for a second if I come across a bit abrasive on this topic. I don’t mean to. You see, I have a history of mental illness and have come a long way over the past decade. Without going too far into my story, I will say that after a complete life breakdown—spiritual, moral, mental, physical, and emotional—God entered into my life at the young age of 21. God saved me from darkness and brought me into the wonderful light of His Son Jesus Christ. You can learn a bit more about my story here.

I know people in the Church and have friends who’ve struggled with mental illness in its many forms: depression, anxiety, bi-polar, psychosis…the list goes on and is extensive. I’m no expert in the field of mental health, but what I can comment on is how we can move towards a balanced, or more human, theology of mental illness—one that takes into account the health of the person, and not the deluded agenda of narrow religious fanatics bent on fantastical triumphalism.

My passion here (and please take it as that) really stems from compassion. But in order to rightly and justly advocate for people with mental illness, I have to first point out the error that many Christian leaders, including pastors, often make—with devastating consequences.

In my second year at seminary, I talked with three pastors all within the same month who struggled with some degree of mental illness in their lives. When asked if they had been prescribed medication to help, all three (no joke, oddly enough) responded in a similar way: “I don’t want to take medication. I would rather depend on God alone.” Their implied theology was that God does not use medication to help relieve the suffering it causes people who for some reason or another are afflicted by mental illness. I respect their decision of course, but I would not agree with their theology.

The rigid adherence to the idea that God—the Holy Spirit—will always (or should always) heal us, through some “spiritual miracle,” to the extent of rejecting modern medicine is clear and simple triumphalism. Not only does this way of thinking fall short of the deep and diverse riches of Evangelical theology and how God actually works in the world, it can also, when indoctrinated into the minds of the most vulnerable, cause severe pain in the life of God’s children.

I can think of one story where this played out really bad.

A fellow student of mine in seminary, who was medicated for bi-polar and some form of psychotic disorder, got caught up in a name-it-and-claim-it, uber-triumphalist, street-preaching sect (yup, that’s what I would call it) of Christian radicals. A few months later, this brother in Christ sent out a strange email to multiple students and faculty at the school. In the email were “prophetic predictions,” secret number codes, messages to his “girlfriend” (apparently this was new to her) and a whole bunch of jumbled thoughts that made little sense. It escalated into him posting sexually harassing messages on the girl’s Facebook page, as well as other disturbing messages on some other students’ Facebook pages. The fall-out was huge of course. But more sad.

Apparently, this brother in Christ had a psychotic episode that lasted a few days, leading to his arrest and subsequent ban from campus. I went to visit him in the hospital, where I found him in the psychiatric ward in a room strapped to a bed. I felt for the guy, I really did. My heart broke.

Your probably thinking to yourself, what happened? Well, apparently the group of Christians he was mixed up with told him that if he was a “true believer” and asked God to heal him, he didn’t need to take his medication anymore. So he stopped taking it and everything fell apart. It’s a sad story, but this kind of stuff happens folks.

How should we view modern medicine in our theology of mental illness?

We can start with Martin Luther. In his theology of vocation, Luther tells us that the work people do in all sectors of the economy (which includes pharmaceutical companies and scientists) can be seen as God’s hidden hand of blessing.

In Luther’s Exposition of Psalm 147, he writes: “All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government—to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things.”

We must not make the same mistake of Christians in the past who divided the secular from the sacred, and then proclaimed, lived and taught others to believe that God is not at work in the secular realm to bless the world. Actually, that would be arrogant to believe. We must not reject, as John Wesley would put it, God’s “preceding grace” in the world.

The term “preceding grace” is a missiological term Wesley used to describe the work of grace that the Holy Spirit performs in the world ahead of us. For Wesley, “God is already active in all persons, cultures [and] societies,” writes Howard Snyder in, Yes in Christ: Wesleyan Reflections on Gospel, Mission and Culture, because “all creation is suffused with God’s grace as an unconditional benefit of Christ’s atonement.”

Wesley saw God as “the originating missionary”; He precedes us in the world and works through many people (Christians and not) to restrain evil and to lessen the suffering that sin causes. Therefore, we can see the positive therapeutic effects that medication has for people afflicted by mental illness as God’s (hidden) work; we can see the pharmacist, the doctor, the medical scientist, and health professionals as the “masks” that God wears to help relieve pain and suffering in our world.

Of course it takes more than medication to heal mental illness. I can testify to the benefits and need for prayer, repentance, Christian community and time (that’s a really important one) in the fight to curb the pain and begin the healing process of mental illness. But for now, let’s give God the benefit of the doubt that modern medicine is His work and that He works in the world to those who suffer with mental illness some relief.

Indeed, “in Christ by the Holy Spirit God has gone ahead of us,” says Snyder, “counteracting the effects of sin” to help lessen the pain of the collision we experience in our journey in this broken world.

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