Mental Illness: Understanding with Compassion
Updated: Nov 18, 2018
Christian leaders quite often feel uncomfortable about discussing mental health concerns with their congregation, which is probably understandable given the fact that we still know little about how the brain works. The Bible records that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), who but God can really understand it all?
Even in the secular world there seems to be a certain amount of shame or stigma attached to mental illness, although it should be noted that this has significantly improved over the last few decades. So why is it that the church find it so difficult to tackle this issue?
There could be many reasons why the Christian church finds this topic painfully uncomfortable. Questions that mental illness raise can challenge one’s view about the Christian faith, particularly in the area of how we understand the power of God and how this affects our personal transformation.
Another reason why the church may find this topic troubling is because of the negative or strange behaviour that may be noticed. Many sufferers of mental illness, like schizophrenia for example, have been misdiagnosed by church members as being ‘demon possession’.
When any part of our body fails, it never has a positive effect. A broken arm will not result in extra strength, but a weakness. The same will occur with heart failure, diabetes, cancer or almost any condition you can think of. The same can be said for the brain. When the brain is impaired, the symptoms won’t be very positive. This is why we often see a dark side of a person when they are affected by mental health issues. The church has responded to this negative behaviour by naming it as demon possession. We will discuss later how a person with mental illness may be more susceptible to dark influences.
Even the medical world was, and arguably still are, providing a variety of treatments that may or may not be effective. We know how to launch a rocket into space but we have to admit that we still don’t know as much as we would like to about how our bodies work.
In modern times, it has been proven that there is a physiological aspect to some forms of mental illness. Scientific discovery calls for us, as a body of believers, to become more thoughtful in our approach to assisting a fellow brother or sister who is suffering from mental health challenges. We ought to do our best to arm ourselves with a knowledge of the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of church members. I recall a fellow minister once informed me that a ‘holistic’ approach is what is needed. I have to admit, this made me feel very uncomfortable at the time but I have since come to understand exactly what she was trying to tell me.
We have to face the fact that we live in a temporal tent – our body – which is affected by the fallen state.
In other words:
2 Corinthians 4:16
‘…Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.’
Just as we attend to the inner self, we must also attend to the outer man. We don’t hesitate to minister to ourselves with the nourishment of God’s Word, likewise, we also need to look after the outer man.
WHY DO WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND MENTAL ILLNESS
It is of vital importance that we take the time needed to understand mental health. The reason is because every day, we either knowingly or unknowingly interact with people who are suffering from mental health concerns. People who are hurting, feeling hopeless, stressed, anxious or burdened beyond their ability to cope.
Almost anyone at some stage, even temporarily, may suffer from a degree of depression or anxiety. We read the Psalms of King David and are reminded that he battled deep despair and inner turmoil. He felt lonely, struggled with feeling guilt over his sin and was also concerned for his own personal safety. There are too many Scriptures to list on this, but here are just a couple:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
Attend to me, and answer me; I am restless in my complaint and I moan.
Few ever really think about the fact that Paul despaired of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8). We know that this was only temporary because later he confessed that, ‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair’ (2 Corinthians 4:8).
There are many other examples too. Like Jeremiah and Job who both regretted that they were born (Job 3:11, Jeremiah 20:14). Job stated, ‘I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes’ (Job 3:26). We see others like the prophets Elijah and Jonah who also suffered from despair over their situations.
Today, whether it’s temporal or long-term mental health concerns, we ought to respond to the call of duty as outlined in the Word of God.
1 Corinthians 12:26
‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.’
Just as a married couple or family will stick together like glue through the good and the bad, so too, the body of Christ must stand together, bearing together in faith, with love, kindness, gentleness and patience through any issues a member may suffer, including mental illness.
There is a lot at stake here because when a person with mental illness feels misunderstood in the church and better understood in the secular world, this means we may have failed to deliver the basic and essential ingredient of love, care and compassion.
We cannot dismiss the needs of another by simply saying, ‘You just need to have more faith’. This type of response is an epic failure. We must seek, with all due attentiveness, to provide adequately for the physical needs of our fellow brethren. To neglect effective ministry to those with mental health challenges is much like saying to the hungry, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed’ (James 2:16). In fact, let’s look at this verse in full.
‘If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?’
Saying, ‘have more faith for healing’ is not an adequate response. Pray and stand with them in faith for a miracle healing - yes! However, in the meantime and with all wisdom, we must do all we can to help one who is suffering, using all that we have at our disposal.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND?
Despite whatever doctrine you may personally hold regarding this issue, we are called to seek to understand the issues that surround mental health. This short article cannot even begin to tackle such a large and complexed issue which is quite frankly, likely out of our scope to fully comprehend. However, we can hold fast to a few points to help us navigate these sensitive waters.
Physical, spiritual and emotional implications.
Each disorder can present on a sliding scale from mild to severe. Here are a few examples: Depression (including Post-natal), Schizophrenia, Bipolar Effective Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Anxiety Disorders.
Mental health may affect a person’s behaviour, physical health, relationships, work-life and impact their thinking and perception about the world around them. In the most severe cases, mental illness may cause a person to think about taking their own life.
The brain is a physical organ. Just like a defective heart, a person’s brain may not be working at the same capacity as another person’s. Sometimes the church has not dealt with the issue of mental health in the same manner they would deal with any other illness. No one would suggest a member of the church who has a heart condition to stop taking their heart medication, equally, we should not advise a mentally ill person to simply have faith and stop taking their medication. This has happened many times before in the church and the results have been too costly.
Because the brain is complex and our understanding of our mind, will and emotions are not as advanced as God’s, we ought not speak of things we do not know, but rather, deal wisely with the knowledge we have.
We would never blame or demonise a person with Alzheimer’s for forgetting their loved one or getting lost, so why would we deal so unwisely with hurting members of our community – lacking the kind of sensitivity and love that Jesus would desire us to show one another?
It is an acceptable and widespread doctrine that Satan will usually attack the mind, as well as a pre-existing weakness in any Christian. We ought to then realise that people who suffer from mental illness may be more susceptible to an attack on their mind from dark spiritual forces because this is a weakness that already exists. This could be one of the reasons why people mistaken demon possession with mental illness in some cases.
From much study, I have come to realise that when we are in Christ and therefore filled with the Holy Spirit, we cannot be possessed. After the Holy Spirit came upon the brethren as recorded in Acts (Acts 2:1-4), there is not one single case mentioned where demon possession was ever dealt with in a believer. I have heard many very sad stories about how a fellow believer who suffered from mental illness was told they were demon possessed and after having many failed exorcisms performed on them, they were informed that it was their fault, leaving them with no solution. The church’s failure here was mistaking a physical condition, with a spiritual condition, leaving the person feeling ashamed and utterly hopeless. Once the right remedy is given, sufferers of mental illness can live a full and rich life – serving Jesus and the church effectively.
We see an example in Matthew 4 revealing how Satan preyed upon the weakness of Jesus. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, Satan came to tempt Him. Jesus had been fasting for 40 days and therefore, being in human form, He was hungry. So what do you think the devil tempted Him with? That’s right, he went for the obvious human weakness and offered Jesus bread. Being deprived of food made Jesus an easy victim, yet He answered Satan, saying, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).
These words from Jesus certainly do not mean that we should disregard physical bread as this is a human need. Jesus was holding up God’s Word as supreme – the supernatural bread is held high above natural bread. Jesus would not be tempted into receiving the bread of temptation to satisfy carnal desires, which by doing so would then be disobeying God’s Word, which is heavenly bread.
From this lesson we can ascertain a few things:
Firstly, we should understand that God’s Word reigns above all human wisdom. We should seek God’s will in all matters of life, including how to handle mental health issues. Heavenly bread comes before earthly bread.
Secondly, we must understand that our physical needs (like bread) are an essential need for human survival. We must also prayerfully consider that sometimes our physical body may require medication. This is why a holistic approach of both heavenly and earthly bread is an essential ministry need.
Thirdly, Satan will seek to know your weaknesses and tempt you. This is why mental illness can be such a difficult thing for those who suffer with it. This is especially why we must seek to understand how to deal with this issue. Those with mental illness can be the most vulnerable members of the community.
Treat all people with love and respect.
Let us make a commitment as a church to treat all people the way we would like to be treated (Luke 6:31). It is important not to condemn or discourage a person who is a vulnerable member of our community, but uplift and encourage them in the love of Christ, just as our Lord would.
Try to understand what it must be like.
Try to place yourself in the person’s shoes. Ask yourself some questions like: how difficult must it be for them to suffer in this way? How would I feel having these symptoms? You may never come to know what it is really like to suffer from a condition like those around you, but you can do your best to empathise with them and respond in a Christ-like manner. If you know someone who has a mental illness, take the time to research (from authentic medical resources) the condition to better understand how you can minister to or support the individual.
Not everyone will want to openly discuss their illness. Try to be sensitive when it comes to discussion around their illness. Sometimes there can be a great sense of shame or guilt, especially if the person has presented with symptoms or an episode that has negatively impacted themselves or others. Leaders need to be aware of appropriate resources that the church or Christian organisation can offer. We would all love to see a miracle healing take place, but until then, let us be sensitive to the needs of a person with any illness.
How to help.
There are physical things that can help with symptoms of mental illness.
Showing love and care will help the member of the church to feel cared for. If you are a close friend or family member, encouraging healthy eating habits, exercise or fun activities that they enjoy can also be of some assistance. Sending timely and encouraging messages or Scripture (via email, SMS or other) will also be extremely helpful.
There is no reason why a person suffering from a mental illness cannot live a full, healthy and active life. God chooses the weak to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27). Our beloved brethren can be highly used by God just the same as anyone else and with the right kind of support, we hope that they will realise this too. There are no limits in Jesus and we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). Encouraging our brethren to seek counselling or medical attention is a good idea if you believe there is an underlining issue.
We are all accountable for our actions, whether we suffer from mental illness or not. People who suffer from mental illness generally want to be treated like everyone else, including taking responsibility for one’s own behaviour. Understanding accountability as a church leader is a vital role of shepherding someone in the faith. A person who suffers from mental health, like anyone, may behave in a wrong, anti-social or sinful manner (whether in word or action).
There is no point in attempting to appeal to someone’s conscience while they are suffering from a psychotic episode because this will prevent them from perceiving the issue at hand. Much patience and sensitivity is required when addressing negative behaviours, which is why church leaders in particular need to be aware of how to handle these moments.
Understanding the individual’s ability to assess their own behaviour must be considered when addressing sin. Negative behaviours, including sin, should be addressed sensitively, ensuring that the person knows that they are a valued member of the body of Christ. Accountability is paramount for all members of the church and when sin is addressed, it should also be made clear that each person has the full benefit of God’s loving kindness, unrelenting grace and full forgiveness. Church members are compelled by the love of Christ to forgive and show compassion to one another, especially and even more so, in our time of weakness.
Imagine a church that loves as Christ loves.
Imagine a church that loves and accepts all people, no matter how hurt and broken they are.
Imagine a church that provides rich spiritual and emotional support, as well as wisdom to understand how to assist our members to seek the right kind of physical help.
Imagine a church that not only accepts people with any illness, but lives to serve Jesus by serving the most vulnerable members of our church and society.
Imagine a church that helps each member, no matter who they are, to grow into becoming mature, productive and appreciated members of the Christian body.
Imagine what this kind of church could achieve for God’s glory. Amen.
Whatever afflicts us in this short life is nothing in comparison to what awaits us.
2 Corinthians 4:17-18
‘For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.’
-- By Judah Ayling