Mind and body
Mental illness, like physical illness, may afflict Christians in this world
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“Don’t tell me a Christian should never need psychiatric treatment. In my opinion, a Christian may need treatment even more than an unbeliever, because the life Christ asks us to lead is so fundamentally opposed to the way the world works.”
Does that shock you? It did me, especially as I heard it in a sermon by a Presbyterian pastor. That was many years ago (just how many is another shocker), and the quote isn’t word for word, but that was the gist. Agree or disagree? We can certainly agree that the Lord promises life in abundance and joy in adversity, and heartening surveys consistently reassure us that believers enjoy greater well-being than nonbelievers. Yet anxiety runs rampant in our society, and whatever afflicts the world also affects the church. God does not shield His people from all the plagues of Egypt. We understand that when it comes to physical ailments, even terminal ones. If cancer is the way we go to meet our Maker, so be it.
But mental illness seems like something that should not come near us. When it does, when it plagues our own husbands, brothers, daughters, and wives, we don’t know what to do. We’re unsure even how to think about it.
Simonetta Carr has written many biographies for children featuring outstanding figures of Christian history, from Athanasius to Jonathan Edwards. Her biography of John Newton describes how Newton cared for his good friend, the poet and hymnodist William Cowper, who struggled with mental illness most of his life. Newton’s own adopted daughter spent years in an asylum, where he could only stand outside and wave to her.
But Simonetta’s most recent book is a memoir: Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia Through a Mother’s Eyes. It details the three nightmare years in which she and her husband watched their bright, charming son descend into irrationality, self-destructive behavior, and violent threats. While frantically seeking help for him, and not always finding it, his mother also fought doubt and guilt. Prayer didn’t always comfort, and verses quoted by well-meaning friends didn’t always affirm.
A pastor struggling with depression told me he sank to a point where Biblical counseling and prayer had no effect. Another friend says the same: “I am wrestling with God, and being told to ‘just pray’ or ‘just read’ doesn’t help me. In fact there are times when I try to do those things and I just get angry.” My friend went through several Christian counseling programs before finding a medically trained therapist who was also a Christian: the right combination for making progress. The pastor, also, found himself stuck in a spiritual ditch until he could get a handle on certain physical issues.
Mental illness is the place where mind and body miscommunicate, and while there may well be a spiritual dimension to that failure, treating the spirit alone could be a dangerous mistake.
But—But—(we stammer in protest)—isn’t Jesus all-sufficient? Yes, He is. Jesus is not standing apart from the problem. Jesus is in the problem, just as He is in the cancer or the diabetes or the hypertension. The Spirit indwelling the body is not apart from the body, and if we wouldn’t withhold food from a starved stomach, we shouldn’t automatically block the careful use of meds or secular insight from a frayed mind.
“The gospel has tremendous power,” writes Simonetta Carr, “but it works in ways that are counterintuitive, mysterious, and even imperceptible, transforming into conformity to the image of Christ—a Christ who, in this life, was more anguished than we could ever know.”
No servant is greater than his master; if He was anguished, so may we be. Depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and a host of other disorders are not antithetical to the Christian life—the peace Jesus promises is “not as the world gives” (temporary and superficial), and may sometimes seem the opposite. But God has given us the means to battle them on physical as well as spiritual fronts—and ultimate victory, in this life or the next.
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