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The church is talking about mental illness, but are we listening?

Posted by on Apr 9, 2013 in discipleship | 24 comments

The church is talking about mental illness, but are we listening?

I do not know Rick Warren, and I did not know his son. (Yes, I’ve read one of Warren’s books, but that doesn’t mean that I know him.) However, I have known many people who found themselves in Matthew Warren’s place, and many people who have found themselves in the place of sorrow, grief, and guilt that many of Matthew’s family probably find themselves in now.

I once sat in a lady’s living room listening to her nephew talk about his faith in God and his relationship with Jesus Christ. He also talked about his struggles with depression. After he killed himself, I sat in that same living room and listened as his aunt grieved and mourned the loss of her nephew.

I sat in another living room of a close friend who has struggled with bipolar disorder for many years. When he left home that morning, he had left a suicide note for his family and taken a gun with him. His family struggled with what was going on and what they could do. I listened to them and prayed with them, and later rejoiced with them when my friend returned home. As long as I’ve known him, he has demonstrated a strong faith in Jesus Christ and has often encouraged and taught me as we’ve shared our lives together.

I’ve sat in other living rooms, or held the other side of the telephone, or stood next too many other people who have struggled with what has been called “mental illness”: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. I’ve talked with them; I’ve encouraged them; I’ve tried to help them.

But, most of all, I listened.

Today, because of the tragedy in the family of a Christian celebrity, the church is talking about “mental illness.” People are defining it, describing it, debating it.

But, are we listening… really listening… to our brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with these problems?

If we’re not, we should be. We can learn from them, because they are part of us. They are an important part of us. They are a needed part of us.

And, until we accept them as part of us, and until we stop talking and telling and condemning and warning and explaining… until we start listening… we’re going to miss something important that God wants to do in our lives THROUGH them. (Of course, God can use us in their lives too, but that’s a different point.)

A good friend of mine has been struggling with depression for a long time now. Every time I talk to him, he encourages me to trust Jesus and to follow him regardless of where he leads me. He is a good brother in Christ… the kind of brother that I would like to be to others. And, he struggles with depression.

I listen to him, because he is part of the body of Christ with me, because God loves him, and because I love him too.

The church is talking about mental illness now… but are we listening?


24 Comments

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  1. 4-9-2013

    I’ve been there… I’ve held the knife in my hand… I’ve aimed my car at the bridge pilon… I’ve been there… And it’s not a pretty place.

    What we need is people who have been there and out the other side to find their life redeemed to be ministers to those who need to know “It doesn’t have to end this way.”

    I aim for that… as best as I can…

  2. 4-9-2013

    Amen Robert. And we need fewer people who pat us on the shoulder and tell us we need more faith. Maybe we do, but unless you’ve been there and out the other side, just do as Alan says. Listen to them and pray with and for them. Please.

  3. 4-9-2013

    Looking back over many years and all of the people I have known, the gallons of coffee and towers of pizza shared and the incalculable amount of advise given and recieved, the single most important thing I think I have ever done for anyone is be there. To simply be present, engaged, encouraging and part of someones life, to love them as friends has been the highest calling of my life. To have a friend that is present and engaged has been sweetness of the kingdom of God drawn near in my life. The very hand of Jesus.

  4. 4-9-2013

    I am thankful mental illness is being talked about and how real & powerful & dangerous it is. We all struggle with “mental issues” as a result of our conflicting natures in us – as is evident in Paul’s writings – so we too often & too easily make the mistake of believing that because God helps us with our mental “issues” that those with mental illness can simply do what we did and can conquer the troubles. But it is an illness like any other.

    Listening… being there….removing shame with love….referring to resources…..prayer…. that’s what I would picture Love doing for those who are battling this illness.

  5. 4-9-2013

    I have wanted to write on this topic for years but have refrained, because for most Christians, the topic of mental illness leaves them lost. They don’t understand it, don’t know how to deal with it, and for the most part have no clue how to minister to people with it or to their families.

    Too often the Church in the West is scared off because it recognizes its own lacks in this one area. Cancer? Surgery? People can deal with that. They show up with food and hugs and so on. But dealing with mental illness is for most people who try to help like bringing a fork to a tank battle. One encounter with someone in a psychotic state is enough to drive off most people forever.

    See, listening is great. But there’s something that has to happen before listening; and that’s just showing up. Getting someone, anyone, to show up in person to be there for mentally ill people or their families is 80% of the battle.

  6. 4-9-2013

    I will gladly share this article.

    For too long, the Church has put mandates on people. One of these mandates is that, as Christians, we are not supposed to have mental illness. It has been considered spiritually immature, rebellious/refusing to give it up or change, or even demonic. We have looked down upon people who deal with mental illness, as if they are ‘less than’, or as if we are so much more spiritually mature. To some degree, we expect them to somehow snap out of it and move on with their lives.

    Funny…we don’t act this way with people with rheumatoid arthritis, cancer or type 1 diabetes. No…we pray for them, assist them and even pray for God’s merciful healing touch upon them. Yet, for the mentally ill, we have set a higher standard. We set that standard – Jesus certainly didn’t.

    Just a few thoughts on a similar track.

    http://wp.me/pxy7r-6c

  7. 4-9-2013

    @ John – Yes. That is another reason why it is hard to get anyone to even show up when mental illness is involved. “Be OK!” We have patience for the person with the broken leg because we understand the healing process will take six weeks or so. But the healing process for mental illness is not clear. If healing does come, it will take a long time, and a long time demands a lot from people who are used to bringing over meals for a few days and leaving it at that. Mental illness asks too much of the “healers,” which is why the healers don’t make the attempt.

    I’m not surprised that the Church is struggling with homosexuality and mental illness (heck, not too long ago the secular mental health folks considered homosexuality a mental illness). These are difficult problems to overcome in the lives of people. Yes, God can heal in an instant, but it seems to me that healing from more difficult issues most often comes in time, just like sanctification works. Is the Church prepared to offer that kind of time? We may think we have that time, but if we can’t support any kind of lasting Christian community that is available at all hours, how can we deal with difficult issues that ask much more of us than can fit into neat 45-minute “quality time” sessions (which seems to be all we can muster for anything)?

  8. 4-9-2013

    The same Paul who wrote, “Rejoice always….” also wrote “we despaired of life itself.” Christianity is not the negation or affirmation of one or the other, but both coexisting. One hand on the plow and one wiping the tears. Watchman Nee

  9. 4-9-2013

    Thank you all for the very positive responses. They have been extremely helpful for me.

    -Alan

  10. 4-10-2013

    Ive witnessed several suicidal brothers
    and sisters recover from different kinds
    of mental and/or emotional illness. There is also illness of a demonic spiritual origin
    that looks like mental illness.
    In all cases, a loving and closeknit community surrounded and cared for them, going far off the beaten path of clinical and conventional triage to help them. God allows hurting lives, even in healthy families and churches, to draw us all together as little children who are needy. But we shouldn’t too easily accept this, entering into identification with these hurting lambs, and healing them before they do violence to themselves. We can give each other permission to step into our sacred inner sanctuary when we appear overwhelmed. Lives can sometimes be saved and changed.

  11. 4-10-2013

    I too have appreciated all the comments!

    Chris – thank you for that reminder, great comment.

    and

    greg – so true – I believe demonic influences can cause somebody to experience something like mental illness…but I don’t know how we can discern the difference…..because I also believe those with mental illness or even just personalities more mentally up and down are very susceptible to attack and open to believe the lies of satan because of the vulnerable state and how hard it is to battle the 2 natures in us and be transformed in our mind when our mind isn’t stable.

    so because it’s a place of attack – isn’t it hard to try to figure out if it’s demonic influence or just personality or just mental illness??? I don’t know enough about this. Do you? I guess I just fear that people would be told it’s demonic influence and maybe they are just sick… or maybe they do just need some stability that comes with discipline in the Word. It really takes a close church really getting to know the person and be intimate with to be able to discern & help & be there and know what to offer or say. Or would it all be handled the same anyway? I don’t know.

    All that being said… 2 of the different institutional churches I was apart of had somebody with mental illness that really caused so much division and strain and just tore things apart, really. I do think that if we had been a close knit whole body functioning church, we could have really had a victory out of the struggle… but instead we just had all parties frustrated and finally splitting. I grew close to the person who appeared mentally unstable both times but felt that the relationship was quickly growing into some codependent unhealthy relationship because I was trying to BE the Church all by myself. It takes a whole functioning Church to be able to serve together & battle & discern & guard against attack and love.

    On a side note, that experience made me feel very sorry (and stressed out!) for the modern day paid pastors. It’s an impossible job. With all on their plate, they have to just put relationships at the bottom or refer people that come to them needing help to other people in the hierarchy.

  12. 4-10-2013

    Wow. The Church is talking about mental illness. In reality, the phrase “illness” undermines the true dilemma.

    As a social worker, a walking contradiction, a “Christian Social Worker”, the malady is systemic. It is more deeply rooted in the culture and societal approach to how we treat individuals suffering from genuine organic issues, ie. Schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or depression. And those with socio-economic adjustment problems, legal problems, or poor familial supports.

    The range of legitimate organic and chemical imbalances compared to the faux disorders listed in the DSM-IV, and soon to come DSM-V, are growing at such an enormous rate that mental illness is more of an excuse than a legitimate manifestation plaguing the sufferer.

    Don’t get me wrong, let’s not discount that people really do struggle with bi-polar and depression. But, most clients receiving services in the mental health system in our country, are only doing so to have their lives guided by someone with experience and resources. These things are what once was a staple of the familial and societal units. In large part, these agencies substitute, or are sub-contracted entities providing services that in large part SHOULD be concerns of the CHURCH.

    These issues are much deeper than the individuals who actually have depression and are “suicidal.” For us, those who are part of THE CHURCH, listening is a crucial component for our ability to be the BODY of Christ to everyone, not just our brethren with mental health needs. Listening also employs education and empathy. If we are adhering to the principle of loving one another as we love ourselves, this is a no brainer. We shouldn’t be “talking” about mental illness, it should be a prerequisite to our obedience to the instructions of our Lord. No longer should it be tolerated that everyone with a mental health condition should be treated as though they have a demon.

    But, we must also not discount the very real possibility that demonic activity is something to be taken into consideration in many cases.

    Next time someone explains they are having struggles with mental health, don’t just passively encourage faith and tell them “you are praying for them.” Stop right there, pray right away, but most importantly, step-INTO that persons life.

    One of the first places I recommend people go, for plenty of free resources and great material on the subject is CCEF. Do yourself a favor, read an article today. http://www.ccef.org/resources

    http://www.ccef.org/sites/default/files/CCEF%20Now%20Volume%203%20small.pdf

  13. 4-10-2013

    So James (or whomever)

    Like everything else in life – the extreme opinions are not true.
    And we can’t blanket a generalization across the board that appropriately applies to all people, though it will apply to some.

    We are all individuals and to know exactly what is going on (whether it be mental “issues” – which we all have some level of as we are transformed in our mind and battle between our old & new nature…..mental “illness” – a physical illness going on that some people have….or demonic influence shown in mental turbulence) we have to have close intimate relationships with others and be able to live life together to be able to discern what is going on and how to pray/help.

    I wonder if most people believe that medicine is often over diagnosed? Do you think most people battling mentally have a Church family to talk to first before they see a therapist or doctor? Or do they have no close relationships full of trust & openness where they can process and be real? so that is why they turn to professionals?

    Haven’t we seen a sharp increase in medicine/paid professionals for mental battles in the past ___ years? I don’t know the exact statistics…but I know it has increased dramatically – is that because there are simply more resources or more illness? more money to be made? or is mental illness simply overdiagnosed without trying other avenues first??

    Seems to me that the increase in mental illness is directly related to the quality of intimate relationships people have.

  14. 4-10-2013

    Randi said: “Seems to me that the increase in mental illness is directly related to the quality of intimate relationships people have.”

    The causes for mental illness are many: hormonal imbalances, physiological changes, diet, sleep disruptions, demonic influences, fixated negative thinking patterns, isolation, physical abuse, and on and on.

  15. 4-10-2013

    DLE I agree the causes of mental illness are many.

    I do wonder though if mental issues or battles that could be resolved in other ways is often over diagnosed to be illness. I don’t know enough about it to say.

    I do believe it has been statistically shown that *no matter* which cause, close quality relationships are crucial to health across the board including mental health…. and also recovery from sicknesses, strife, stress, life’s struggles.

  16. 4-10-2013

    Randi
    I feel yr frustration, been there.
    Here’s what we learned so far, subjective as it is, as is all experience.
    Scripture tells us (as if we need to be told) to desire spiritual gifts etc. The gifts work together as a lattice work of discernment, wisdom, healing and support. A healthy body of believers will grow in the variety of these gifts, and as relationships deepen, surrender to God and trust among one another changes the culture of independence and individualism to interdependence and seeing Christ in everyone that names Him in truth.
    The process is the destination, rather than fixing one another.
    Psychology as a science, has led us away from seeing humans as God designed us, which is in His image. We rarely talk, and dont even have a working vocabulary to do so, about the human spirit, and the unique attributes and traits of it in general and us specifically.
    The human soul and spirit are separate but inseparable, separated only by physical death, or temporarily as in demonic influence, as in astral projection etc.
    We would learn these things, and develop a language to work in this realm if we will obey the Lord and love one another as He loves us.
    We haven’t and are reluctant to jump in that water with our clothes on, so to speak, as our intuitive sense warns us there is a price to pay if we do so. That price is the loss of our carefully guarded self, and if only we had a user manual that told us how and what to replace that vacuum of self with. But that’s faith. Trusting that God will fill us with Himself as we step in the water.
    Back to the subject: some folks never get fixed (to our satisfaction or understanding) but everyone can be loved, needed, affirmed and be part of a consensus community, sharing and being satisfied with the bread of life as it is Jesus.
    Mental illness is not only a disease, but its a symptom also.
    Asking the question of what to do about it, as if ‘it’ is some third party disease that can be cured with programs, vaccines or discussion is simply immature, though of course well intended.
    That sadly, is the institutional question, and the church has pretty much bought into that paradigm.
    Id suggest the real question is: Do I love the person in pain enough with Gods love (mine is limited and has time frames and goal posts) to stick it out with them to the end.
    And the end is when God says it is, not some 12 step program or an expert who is paid to fix people, though they can help certainly.
    blessings
    Greg

  17. 4-10-2013

    Thanks for the comment back Greg.

    My fave part being:
    “We haven’t and are reluctant to jump in that water with our clothes on, so to speak, as our intuitive sense warns us there is a price to pay if we do so. That price is the loss of our carefully guarded self, and if only we had a user manual that told us how and what to replace that vacuum of self with. But that’s faith. Trusting that God will fill us with Himself as we step in the water.”

    We are experiencing that and are understanding in small glimpses at least die to self and the indwelling of His Spirit which allows us to focus on Him and others and not self….

    I guess the only part of your comment I don’t really understand is that a desire for healing could be a negative thing.

    When you say:
    “Asking the question of what to do about it, as if ‘it’ is some third party disease that can be cured with programs, vaccines or discussion is simply immature, though of course well intended.
    That sadly, is the institutional question, and the church has pretty much bought into that paradigm”

    I am willing to admit I’m immature in this area….but I’m not sure that desiring to have somebody be healed from mental issues, battles, illness and be freed from it is immature. Having gone through postpartum depression myself and battled severely without help when I should have had it… I would never wish that battle on anybody and I want all to be freed from it… I wish somebody had stepped into my life willing to battle & help me be fixed (healed).

    I AGREE that it’s not the PRIMARY and ONLY question we ask. But desiring healing and doing all we can to help others be freed/healed that is possible… is certainly not immature.

    NO DOUBT the most important thing we can do is to learn to allow His love flow through us on to each other… UNconditional. In all our imperfections and WITHOUT a result in mind. Love simply to love. That type of love cannot be found in ourselves… but only when He is in us and flowing through.

    Thanks for the convo :)

  18. 4-10-2013

    Randi
    My apology for not being clear on healing.
    I think it might have sounded not so existential if Id simply said healing of the mind and spirit is a process, unlike the body.
    I seek it, and I think Ive seen complete healing of both, in myself (maybe for others to decide) and others whom I know for many decades.
    My wife has suffered with depression, including post partum and the ‘rejection syndrome’ of being rejected, rejecting herself and then going on to reject others, for 40 years, and much of it at the hands of and within the christian community. Deep wounds from her infancy onwards have dogged her, but she has come to accept that her loving Father allowed these for her, though she doesnt know why. And neither do I. Forgiveness, and accepting the consequences of others actions that damaged her, were and will be the key to the visibly measurable healing that has been occurring in the last few decades.
    God told me when I met her that He wanted me to be part of her healing. I had no idea what He meant, as I barely knew her, but the process has been a wild ride at times, interlaced with an un-explainable bond of love and grace. Ive had to repent of the same things she did, as I took up the offense for her, and then realized I was just as broken as she was. Repentance for those suffering from various depressions may seem harsh as a diagnosis, until we see that, as Paul told the Romans, we judge others not because they hurt us, but because we are already like them, though possibly in some different area of life.
    In the end, its sobering and helpful to be reminded that had our daddy Adam not sinned, and we followed his steps, we wouldnt have all this pain. Oswald Chambers says the basis of life is tragic, and grace softens the sharp edges. Sin, as action and disposition, is at fault for all ills, and we are the bond holders of that till we are present with Christ. Personally, I think that corporately, we have lost our collective sense of being soldiers, and been partly duped into expecting somewhat smooth lives, predictable end games and happiness instead of joy.I think its part of the prosperity gospel, and Ive had to keep my children from it by withdrawing from most fellowship at one time or another. I know there are many churches and groups, and individuals that dont buy into this false expectation, but Ive not met any lately.
    Im on dangerous ground here so I will quit while Im ahead.
    Again, sorry for sounding insensitive.
    blessings
    Greg

  19. 4-11-2013

    Greg,
    No problem whatsoever, I just wanted to understand where you were coming from. Thanks for the explanation. We are in agreement. I too am very wary of anything that resembles the prosperity gospel. And even in my quest for healing, I understand that I still have God’s favor and I can trust Him whatever He decides. I will do my part to seek healing & then leave the rest up to Him.

    Like Joseph who knew He was favored & chosen – we are His chosen children and we can feel it inside because we are designed for eternity with Him – but the majority of us mistake what is meant for eternal to be temporal. We want eternity now. I know I do!! We believe that being favored/chosen looks a certain way and we get thrown for a loop when we find ourselves in the pits. I think it’s important we seek healing — but understand God’s sovereignty and that struggles are actually great blessings & signs we are His chosen.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that God can’t be put into a box. Sometimes He uses what we would judge as victories for blessings … sometimes He uses what we would judge struggles for gifts/blessings.

    The beautiful thing to me is that He created us to always be able to receive joy & peace above our circumstances and be able to praise & thank Him no matter what is going on. It takes so much maturity to get to that place though. But as we grow in His love, His Spirit in us will allow us to see from the eternal perspective and trust Him (though we will perfectly trust Him or perfectly thank Him and will often times live in ourselves and look from our perspective). Each character and story in His Word is a great reminder of His goodness & love & working behind the scenes when He appears to have left the scene. I am encouraged that at least He will help us get glimpses of His perspective to help us carry on!!

  20. 4-11-2013

    I’m really enjoying the discussion here. I encourage you to take it offline also… talk to your brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who struggle with mental/emotional issues. Ask them… listen to them… learn from them.

    -Alan

  21. 7-22-2013

    I am a former pastor who has battle Bipolar for over 20 years. I have now written a spiritual memoir “Delight in Disorder: Meditations from a Bipolar Mind” in which I share stories of ways God has blessed me and my family through the ministry of the church. I also wrestle with deep theological questions, and explore the relationship of faith and mental illness. Thus far, my work is gaining a positive reception. Time will tell.

  22. 7-23-2013

    Tony,

    Thank you for sharing part of your story with us. A good friend of mine is bipolar also, so I understand a little of what you’ve dealt with.

    -Alan

  23. 7-23-2013

    Like aome others, I’ve been there and done that and have brought home quite a few of the t-shirts. I once was a mental health case manager with the local mental health agency and thought I understood mental illness. Talk about walking a mile in someone else’s moccasin!!!! Got more miles in them than I care to talk about. But I thank God for my mental illnesses – and yes, there have been more than one. I have learned more about the Lord Jesus in the epignosis sense (fully know thtough experience – it’s the word used to describe a man/woman relationship in marriage, for the man to know the woman)through my mental illness experiences than I ever had in the good days and good years. Most recently, I have had a major stroke and the Lord is doing wonders to heal me, but I also had a major issues with delusions and hallucinations and panic attacks in the early stages of it.
    The causes of mental illness ARE multiple. I’ve known and been involved with people I am certain were under the influence of demons. Some of it is simple lack of trust in Him. Some is achemical/electrical condition in the brain. We are a unique creation in all of the universe. We are both body and spirit, possessing a soul which is the interacting blend of both. It’s always good to remember that nobody is “normal.” “Normal” is a setting on your washing machine. I’m clean because of the blood, but I’m not a washing machine.
    A different perspective of mental illness might be found for you if you read some about the life of William Cowper (pronounced like Cooper. Poor Brits have never learned the English language) He, at times, experienced profound depression. He also wrote some of our most beloved poetry, including hymns. He was best friends with John Newton, of “Amazing Grace” fame. He wrote “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and the familiar lines, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” He learned about God the hard way like I have. Some of us are just not the brightest bulbs in the box and God has a plan for us as well.
    There’s a lot of truth here in this post and a lot questioning. Good. Those among you who are members of the flakes, fruits, and nuts association are still human just like you and God can take the worst of us and make us new creations just like you. Remember the The Gadarene Demoniac – he was returned to his right mind, a sound mind, even though formerly possessed by demons.
    May God richly bless you all.

  24. 7-23-2013

    Richard,

    Thanks for sharing with us. We need to hear from more followers of Jesus Christ who struggle with different kinds of mental illness.

    -Alan

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