Mental Illness 101 for Christians

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What’s your opinion: were the “demons” Jesus drove out in the New Testament literal demons, or simply a metaphor for psychoses and hallucinations?

I ask that question not to get involved in any theological debate, but because the larger question of Christian attitudes toward mental illness is important to me. Several people in my family have mental-health issues. I myself struggle with Asperger’s syndrome and dysthymia–and it still smarts to recall the time a presumably well-meaning friend told me, “Nobody ‘has’ Asperger’s. It’s just an excuse made up by people who are unwilling to face up to the sin of not loving others.” Job’s comforters could hardly have done a better job of kicking someone who was already down.

Even worse off are Christians with addictions they can’t seem to shake despite their best efforts and deepest prayers. Is it possible to be a sincere Christian and be literally powerless against the urge to drink heavily, eat to the point of vomiting, or slash one’s own arms? Common sense would seem to say no, those actions are deliberate decisions. Yet testimony from many committed Christians and those who love them would indicate that, in some cases at least, the answer is yes.

If we believe God, for reasons of His own, chooses not to heal every prayed-for person with cancer or muscular dystrophy, why is it hard to believe He may let some of His followers bear the cross of mental or behavioral illness throughout their earthly lives?

Probably because mental illness is hard for doctors to diagnose, and even harder for ordinary people to recognize. It’s easier to say, “Oh, s/he’s just stubborn/self-centered,” and leave the affected party to struggle with something that’s assumed to be their own fault anyway.

However, if we’re serious about loving our neighbors as ourselves and not causing our weaker brothers to stumble, a little more compassion is in order.

If a Friend or Family Member Has a Mental Illness

  • Unless you have a spiritual gift of healing to the extent of having successfully told someone in a wheelchair to stand up and walk, never tell someone with a mental illness to “just snap out of it.”
  • And don’t tell anyone, “If you just had more faith,” or “You just need to find out what you need to repent of.” There’s no one explanation for mental illness, and passing flippant judgment on any individual case is akin to claiming wisdom equal to God’s.
  • Support your loved one in finding healthy alternatives to circumstances that are likely to trigger mental health episodes. Respect the other party as the expert on what he or she can’t handle, and don’t flaunt in their face that you have no difficulties there.
  • Always listen to your loved one with empathy. Don’t try to solve their problem (you probably can’t) or demand they explain it to your satisfaction (they probably can’t). Just let them know you care no matter what.
  • Remember to pray for them!

If You Have a Mental Illness

  • Don’t blame yourself or wallow in shame. Get professional help.
  • Know your weak spots and the best ways to avoid or cope with them.
  • Concentrate on what you can control.
  • Enlist help from those who understand your illness (or at least what to do and not do). Limit contact with anyone who makes things worse by pushing “if you’d just get right with God” opinions.
  • Remember to pray about your situation! Whether or not you get any better, believe in God’s support.

And for everyone: remember there will be a time when all our illnesses of body and mind will be healed forever!

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Don’t Understand Yourself?

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I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to—what I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience proves that I agree with these laws I am breaking. But I can’t help myself because I’m no longer doing it. It is sin inside me that is stronger than I am that makes me do these evil things.       –Paul, Romans 7:15-17, THE LIVING BIBLE

Everyone has times of crying, “Why did I do that?” But those of us inclined to perfectionism are particularly likely to moan with Paul, “I don’t understand myself!” We don’t just want to get things right: we’re desperate to get things as right as they can possibly be. Yet we still manage not only to get things wrong with painful frequency, but to do the wrong things almost against our will. It’s as though we were robots programmed to go off course.

I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn I can’t make myself do right. I want to but I can’t. When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway. Now if I am doing what I don’t want to, it is plain where the trouble is: sin still has me in its evil grasp.       -Romans 7:18-20

We want to believe we can “reprogram” ourselves by sheer willpower, but it’s not that easy. There are enough good intentions in this world to create a thousand utopias–and after centuries of trying, the world hasn’t even come close.

It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love to do God’s will so far as my new nature is concerned; but there is something else deep within me, in my lower nature, that is at war with my mind and wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. In my mind I want to be God’s willing servant, but instead I find myself still enslaved to sin.     -Romans 7:21-23a

Even among Christians, good intentions are a weak defense against the pull of our inborn selfishness and pride. It’s only natural that we get frustrated with ourselves. Even when obvious change for the better is happening overall, perfectionists tend to be impatient to get everything exactly right, and we continue to be hard on ourselves for not becoming much better much sooner.

So you see how it is: my new life tells me to do right, but the old nature that is still inside me loves to sin. Oh, what a terrible predicament I’m in! Who will free me from my slavery to this deadly lower nature? Thank God! It has been done by Jesus Christ our Lord. He has set me free.   -Romans 7:23b-25

Sometimes, even when we recognize God as the real Change Agent, we grumble at Him–or wonder if He’s forgotten us–because He seems to be taking His time in the process. Why He doesn’t save a lot of pain all around by perfecting us instantly, I can’t say for sure. But even human craftspeople and do-it-yourselfers would agree that without painstaking, bit-by-bit attention to detail, there just isn’t the same level of joy in the finished product.

In this life, we will always do things we regret and don’t understand. The real question is, do we accept that God still loves us, and won’t give up on us no matter what? And are we confident in, and grateful for, that assurance?

  • For naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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  • About Me

    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at www.PositiveContentFactory.com.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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