Apologetics Christian Living Health

A.S.K 48 – Christians and Mental Illness

This weeks A.S.K question is one of the most important issues we can discuss.  I was asked it from every single continent.   It is a vital issue for teenagers and not just teenagers.

That was brought home to me here in Australia when I was speaking at a school and a teenage girl approached me afterwards and asked if (as she had been told by her church) mental illness was demon possession.   I asked her if I could answer her question in front of all the class.  She agreed and we had a profound and emotional time.  She and others were just so glad to get the answer below…If you think this is helpful please feel free to pass it on to any teenagers or others…

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BIBLE READING: Isaiah 42:1-17

TEXT: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.(Isaiah 43:a)

This is another question that is increasingly asked by teenagers. I suspect because there is a growing awareness of mental health issues. It may also be the case that because of various societal factors there is an actual increase in those who suffer from serious mental health problems. Around one in four adults will experience real mental health issues in their lifetime.

By mental health issues we do not mean just the  normal feeling blue, or forgetfulness or other emotional and mental factors. We use it to mean issues that affect the mind which end up being debilitating to such an extent that they can change and harm our lifestyles. As the dictionary puts it; “a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking.”

woman comforting friend
Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com

Some Christians have a particular difficulty with experiencing and dealing with mental health illness. They don’t recognize it as an illness. Although they would accept that Christians can get physically sick, they seem to think that Christians should not get mentally ill. But they seem to forget that all human beings, since the Fall, are living in a broken world, with decaying bodies, trapped wills and disturbed minds. There is no more reason for a Christian to think they will never experience mental illness than there is to think that we will never get sick.

Is it wrong for a Christian to get depressed? Isn’t the joy of the Lord supposed to be our strength? How can we sing about peace and joy if at the same time we are feeling so depressed? Does that not indicate something wrong with our Christianity? Not at all. Not unless you want to dismiss the Bible. Jesus was overcome with sorrow, Paul knew what it was to struggle against the ‘fightings within’, and we even have a book of songs (the Psalms) that frequently express the deepest sorrow, angst and fears.

When I asked a student why she came to our church she said, “Because you let me be depressed”. I joked, “That’s a great advertising slogan – The Free Church – the Church that lets you be depressed”. But rightly she rebuked me and said, “I’m serious. I suffer from depression and it’s dreadful when you go to a church and they try to cast out the  demons or worse, cheer you up! I was just so happy to come here and you let me be depressed and even let me sing songs about it”. She was of course referring to the Psalms.

What can we do to help? Accepting the fact of mental illness does not mean that we do nothing – or we are just stoical about it. We will do what we can to avail ourselves of help and to help those who are struggling. Mental illness hits teenagers in many different forms. Eating disorders, depression, bi-polar, personality disorders amongst others. We should make use of the medical help and professionals that we have available.

However we also have two great advantages that others do not have. Firstly we have the church. Our churches should be places where the mentally ill are welcome and where they find and receive support. The community of the Lord’s people can be a great help. We should follow the example of Jesus Christ in his strong, kind, gentleness. The bruised reed he does not break. The smouldering wick he does not snuff out. Churches should be refuges, places of healing which offer hope, peace and restoration – whether in this life or in the life to come.

Then we have the great advantage of prayer. We come to One who was broken for us – who was tempted in every way just as we are. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3). A Scottish theologian from the 19th Century, ‘Rabbi Duncan’, put it beautifully – “There is no pit so deep that Christ has not gone deeper still”. One of the greatest problems we have when we suffer from mental illness is that we feel we are alone, and that well meaning as they are, others cannot understand our situation because they have not experienced it. Christ has.

One other thought – if mental illness is “a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking” is there not a sense in which all of us suffer to some degree from mental illness? Whilst it is not technically mental illness, it is nonetheless the case that sin has caused disorder in every single person’s behaviour and thinking. We all need to be renewed in our minds and healed in our spirits.

CONSIDER: What is mental illness? Do you think it is wrong to seek help from mental health professionals? How do you think the Church can help those who suffer from mental illness?

RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING:

Dealing with Depression – Sarah Collins and Jane Haynes;

The Big Ego Trip – Glenn Harrison.

Eating Disorders – Emma Scrivener

PRAYER: Lord, I thank you that you are my shepherd. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4). I thank you that you are close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). O Lord deliver us from evil. Restore, renew and heal. In the name of Jesus – Amen.

The Shelter of the Most High – New Year, Old Hope – a Personal Testimony

A.S.K 47 – Obeying Buddhist Parents

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14 comments

  1. Thanks for this wise and pastoral response to an important issue David. I’ve been severely mentally ill in the past (requiring hospitalization) so it’s an issue close to my heart.

    Of course it’s wrong and cruel to claim that mentally ill people are demon possessed, as you say, some of the Psalmists and others in the Bible got depressed.

    Even our Lord Himself was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief!

    Of course for us, everything we do is tainted by sin. So I would suggest that with the likes of Elijah, Jeremiah and myself, our depression had a sinful element to it (failing to trust in God’s providential care for us).

    Having said that, I love how gentle God is with His depressed saints! With Elijah He was immensely practical: giving him food and rest. With Jeremiah he didn’t condemn but gently encouraged to get on with his difficult message to God’s people.

    And with me? Like Baruch, he tells me not to desire great things for myself, but simply to content myself with the great privilege of being a scribe for Jesus!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you for sharing this David. I do like what you mentioned about the student feeling she could be welcomed as she was without someone trying to “fix” things for here (perhaps with the best of intentions) and possibly making things worse for her.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with Adrian Plas? He has been public about having suffered form depression and saying that for him he just needed a friend in the midst of it all although there might be miraculous answers to prayer it’s not always the case and that his experiencing despair and being with someone in the midst of their suffering was what was needed. https://youtu.be/jd9fPlsARN8

    While you say people who have not suffered mental illness cannot understand someone who has may be true, no-one gets through life without suffering and therefore without the ability to empathise with others who suffer and sometimes it’s not necessary to understand.

    But it’s always possible to love.

    Also, I don’t know if you know Marion Carson, a former lecturer at what used to be the International Christian College in Glasgow, Scotland. She has openly shared about suffering with depression but also seeing a positive side to it in that it has enabled her to have empathy wiht and therefore minster to others in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Perhaps not unlike the idea of the wounded healer? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orxEawi9qro

  3. Have just finished reading Sharon Hastings’ harrowing, moving, yet hope-filled account of her own life journey, ‘Wrestling with my thoughts’, which ties in, David, to all that you have written above.

  4. The modern doctrine of “mental illness” is not a Christian doctrine. It medicalises everyday phenomena that are documented in scripture such as melancholy, distress, madness, loss of appetite, gluttony, wickedness, folly, mental capacity to be responsible for one’s actions, hearing voices and seeing visions, disability and (yes) demonic oppression and the perception or testimony of persecution or conspiracy, exalting the medical profession into a technocratic role of expertise in these matters, from whom even the church is expected to learn what is dignified as “science”, with the power of the state behind it.

    I suggest the church should ignore the doctrine of so-called “mental illness”, simply declaring that it isn’t one of its own doctrines, which it teaches or needs to heed or to which it can be required to submit.

    The doctrine of mental illness has stigmatised millions. It has inspired legislation in the form of The Mental Health Acts that violates the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to which the UK is a signatory. It has been used to justify cruel and unusual punishments imposed extra-judicially upon those whose behaviour is not even criminal.

    1. There is no ‘modern doctrine of mental illness’ any more than there is a ‘modern doctrine of a broken leg! Mental illness is a real, deep and serious issue. Don’t trivialise it with such comments.

  5. So the answer to the question is mental illness possession by demons is a resounding no, then?

  6. This is a subject that the church should be at the forefront of tackling – and I do believe there are promises in Scripture about restoring a person’s mind. I have studied the subject since I became a Christian 27 years ago – and of course – applying Christianity to mental problems is a minefield! Dangerously so – as we know! Yes, churches should be places where people with mental problems are welcome and I think a little of “challenging the rebellious” and “encouraging the weak” is needed. “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” 1 Thess 5:14. There is a time for tender patience – and a time for loving challenge. I believe – without any facts and figures before me – that there are many, many Christians – who have been either sent on a wild goose chase by their church when it comes to mental problems – or have not been challenged about sinful behaviour – or have been crushed by heavy handed or insensitive treatment, or ignored and marginalised in church – resulting in them brooding at home hurt and angry – vowing to never darken the door of a church again. We all get hurt in church – and we hurt others – but we need to take special care of the vulnerable – and make sure that of all places they might get crushed – it is not in church!

  7. Please forgive this too long commment.

    Both before and after conversion to Christ I have had experience of secondary care, as opposed to to primary care, mental health services as a professional, a lawyer and independent advocate, as a patient and having a mother who had been an in-patient in receipt of ECT.
    Certainly, those who work in the system, in general, are there for the benefit of the patient, but even those who are at the top of their profession, such as my Consultant Psychiatrist, recognise that there are limits to the effectiveness and treatments, such as drug therapy, basically is a matter of trial and error.
    Perhaps the greatest help was a result of two friends, mental health social workers who pointed me in the direction of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. As I knew the system as a lawyer, who had worked into Mental Health Review Tribunals I was able the persuade the Consultant to refer me to Consultant Psychologist.

    The key idea is that feelings are based on thoughts, which might be quite basic but are triggers, not always immediately identifiable, traceable.
    That is, Before a Feeling is A Thought.
    Next, which appealed to me, was to then look for the evidence on which the thought was based and weigh it up against other evidences.
    But, and here comes the crunch, none of it can answer existential matters such as the purpose and meaning of life and death, which were the ultimate trigger thoughts.

    It is a constant battle to take our eyes and thoughts away from ourselves, to dwell on Christ, to put on Christ, that is the armour of God.

    Yes, it may sound glib, but it reflects a reality of repetition, of renewing our minds with the washing of the word, so that when push comes to shove, it becomes real, deep in our psyche (soul – our mind, will and emotions).

    There is a continuing battle for the mind to bring us back to Christ, and having the mind of Christ.

    Coming at this from a different angle is “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness” by Tim Keller. It approaches the subject of self from a different place – the writings of Paul and self forgetfulness:
    1. “People sometimes say their feelings are hurt. But our feelings can’t be hurt! It is the ego that hurts – my sense of self, my identity. Our feelings are fine! It is my ego that hurts…Walking around does not hurt my toes unless there is already something wrong with them. My ego would not hurt unless there was something terribly wrong with it. Think about it. It is very hard to get through a whole day without feeling snubbed or ignored or feeling stupid or getting down on ourselves. That is because there is something wrong with my ego. There is something wrong with my identity. There is something wrong with my sense of self. It is never happy. It is always drawing attention to itself.”

    The answer is gospel humility:

    2 “If we were to meet a truly humble person, CS Lewis says, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”

    3 “Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings”.

    This is demonstrated by the Apostle Paul:

    4 “Paul is saying something astounding. ‘I don’t care what you think and I don’t care what I think.’ He is bringing us into new territory that we know nothing about. His ego is not puffed up, it is filled up. He is talking about humility – although I hate using the word ‘humility’ because this is nothing like our idea of humility. Paul is saying that he has reached a place where his ego draws no more attention to itself than any other part of his body. He has reached the place where he is not thinking about himself anymore. When he does something wrong or something good, he does not connect it to himself any more.”

    5 “…the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”

    6 “C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity makes a brilliant observation about gospel-humility at the very end of his chapter on pride. If we were to meet a truly humble person, Lewis says, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.”

    7 “the problem with self-esteem – whether it is high or low – is that, every single day, we are in the courtroom.”

    8“You see, the verdict is in. And now I perform on the basis of the verdict. Because He loves me and He accepts me, I do not have to do things just to build up my résumé. I do not have to do things to make me look good. I can do things for the joy of doing them. I can help people to help people – not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up the emptiness.”

    9 “…the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”

    10 “C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity makes a brilliant observation about gospel-humility at the very end of his chapter on pride. If we were to meet a truly humble person, Lewis says, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.”

    11 “You see, the verdict is in. And now I perform on the basis of the verdict. Because He loves me and He accepts me, I do not have to do things just to build up my résumé. I do not have to do things to make me look good. I can do things for the joy of doing them. I can help people to help people – not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up the emptiness.”

    12 “the problem with self-esteem – whether it is high or low – is that, every single day, we are in the courtroom.”

    13 “Do you realize that it is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you get the verdict before the performance? The atheist might say that they get their self-image from being a good person. They are a good person and they hope that eventually they will get a verdict that confirms that they are a good person. Performance leads to the verdict. For the Buddhist too, performance leads to the verdict. If you are a Muslim, performance leads to the verdict. All this means that every day, you are in the courtroom, every day you are on trial. That is the problem. But Paul is saying that in Christianity, the verdict leads to performance.”

    14 “the natural condition of the human ego: that it is empty, painful, busy and fragile.”

    15 “The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”

    16 “In his book Sickness Unto Death, Søren Kierkegaard says, it is the normal state of the human heart to try to build its identity around something besides God.2 Spiritual pride is the illusion that we are competent to run our own lives, achieve our own sense of self-worth and find a purpose big enough to give us meaning in life without God.”

    17 “Up until the 20th century, traditional cultures (and this is still true of most cultures in the world) always believed that too high a view of yourself was the root cause of all the evil in the world…Our belief today–and it in deeply rooted in everything–is that people misbehave for lack of self-esteem and because they have too low a view of themselves.”

    18 “Spiritual pride is the illusion that we are competent to run our own lives, achieve our own sense of self-worth and find a purpose big enough to give us meaning in life without God.”

    19 “I cannot live up to my parents’ standards – and that makes me feel terrible. I cannot live up to your standards – and that makes me feel terrible. I cannot live up to society’s standards – and that makes me feel terrible. I cannot live up to other societies’ standards – that makes me feel terrible. Perhaps the solution is to set my own standards? But I cannot keep them either – and that makes me feel terrible unless I set incredibly low standards. Are low standards a solution? Not at all. That makes me feel terrible because I realize I am the type of person who has low standards. Trying to boost our self-esteem by trying to live up to our own standards or someone else’s is a trap. It is not an answer.”

    Timothy J. Keller, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness

    (All quotations are taken from the book review on the GOODREADS and Gospel Coalition sites)

    It is a short, inexpensive book well worth the money and time to read, challenging and edifying.

  8. I too suffer from depression. In recent years (I’m 65… almost) scrupulosity has become an element. I have found that medical involvement is helpful. I would really stress the need to visit the doctor and not to be afraid of medication.

    In my experience I have found it very helpful to learn to speak to myself. Self speaks unsolicited to us… we must speak to self. We must speak from the perspective of faith.

    For example if I am depressed, I may say (over and over again) …the Lord is my joy. If I feel I have no strength left… then, ‘the Lord is my strength’ (repeatedly if necessary).

    I find it helpful to use words to identify my wrong thinking. Words like: skewed, over-thinking, disproportionate, over-scrupulous…. I may say to myself, ‘I refuse skewed thinking’.

    There is no doubt exercise can help. A walk. A run if you are a runner.

    I find reading Scripture can be a challenge. It’s demands come thick and fast and can crush me for they come with a force beyond what I may feel in my normal mind. Perspective gets lost.

    I could go on… Depression can be, is, scary. I don’t know how people cope with it without the Lord. Psalm 42, 43 are a vivid picture of it. Saying to self (the Psalms are full of self talking to self) … ‘hope thou in God’ is often vital.

    1. Hey John,

      Thanks for sharing – taking the courage to be vulnerable publicly about suffering from depression and risking a platitudinous response which can all to frequently happen rather than something powerful and comforting.

      I am a little concerned about your “it’s demands come thick and fast and can crush me” with what you say about reading scripture. Surely the “word of God” has nothing other that life in its fullest for you, isn’t that what Jesus came for and if you were the only person on the planet he still would have come?

      I wonder if perhaps this crushing is more about flawed human tradition and teaching that for you is giving you “burdens that are too heavy to carry” and then this teaching / tradition not lifting a finger to help you rather than it being scripture in and of itself, which with an interpretation by the Holy Spirit for you would be life affirming rather than “crush”.

      I hope that helps?

  9. The bible has a huge amount in to say about the mind and thinking, throughout the OT and NT.
    To neglect what the bible says about the mind, is like abandoning what we know about food for the body.
    The food we eat, affects our body. How and what we think, affects our mental health.
    No one suggest it’s ok to fill your body with junk food, and it not. cause harm. But few will challenge the same principle with the mind.
    The bible speaks of the heart being the seat of our thought life. From it flow the issues of life.
    The core message of the NT was repent. Aka, change your mind, think differently, reverse your decision.
    We are transformed by….renewing our minds, not our spirituality.

    The church and scripture have a lot to give to help our MH. In fact, it’s arguably abandinging biblical truth that has cause much of our MH to suffer.

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