Some questions about the Christian life have easy answers. Others do not. In an article from January 17th, 2006, D.C. Toedt at The Questioning Christian addresses the thorny and complex issue of Christianity and mental illness. The Christian community in general has historically not done a very good job at of understanding and ministering to those with mental illnesses. Christians have no problems helping those suffering from heart disease and cancer, but often blame mental illness on the patient. It’s sad how many Christians have been told “If you just prayed more and developed a better attitude” you wouldn’t be so depressed?
Let me use a horrifying example that I experienced first-hand. I grew up with a family that had 4 children. All of the children were smart, well-behaved, perfectly normal in every way, and attended church with their parents every Sunday.
One of them, when she reached her early 20s, suddenly developed schizophrenia. She thought that light bulbs talked to her. She imagined that stop signs were spying on her. She heard voices and saw things that weren’t there. Despite much counseling and her parents showering her with love, she ran away from home and it wasn’t until 3 years later that they found her living under a bridge in Cleveland. The last time that I saw the family, she was taking medication, had married, was holding down a job, was active in church again, and was living a fairly normal life.
Let’s take a brief look at the ways Christians have viewed the causes of mental illness, using schizophrenia as an example:
- A spiritual weakness — this is the naive and dangerous view taken by websites like Spiritual Schizophrenia and by several who have argued with me at Free Republic. The idea is that people who have schizophrenia aren’t letting the Holy Spirit in their lives. Their argument falls apart since most non-Christians do not have schizophrenia and some Christians do. If schizophrenia is caused by a spiritual weakness, then what about the common cold or the flu? Those taking this view often say that reading the Bible more and praying is the only way to treat mental illness.
- Demons — this is the view taken by sites such as Demonbusters. The site claims that “schizophrenia always begins with rejection” and that “double-mindedness wears the person out and frustrates and confuses him, thus allowing demons to enter in and take hold. First of all, the idea of schizophrenia as “double-mindedness” has long been abandoned by medical science. Schizophrenia is not a split personality! However, I do believe that demons are real, are active in this world, and oftentimes cause or aggravate many diseases, including schizophrenia. I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago but I’ve learned a lot since then.
- An illness just like any other disease — this view accepts modern medicine’s idea that we don’t really know the cause of schizophrenia, but that it is often passed down from generation to generation and is somehow related to a disorder of brain chemicals. No one would tell an Alzheimer’s patient to “get a grip on life” but many will say just that to someone who has a disease like schizophrenia. Christians adopting this view treat the patient just like they would someone suffering from cancer or any other disease. Prayer and scripture study is beneficial to the spirit and the soul. God may or may not choose to heal them miraculously or that he will provide a cure or relief through physicians and medication. The Bible tells us that, barring the rapture, everyone reading this will eventually die by old age, disease, or accident.
The Gospels show that Jesus sometimes cast out demons to heal diseases while at other times he healed the diseases themselves. He could differentiate between the causes behind the suffering whereas we often cannot. In one sense, mental illness like schizophrenia is the result of sin because our entire bodies have been ravaged as the result of generations and generations of sin. I believe that there are times when sin can open the door to mental illness, especially in those who already have some susceptibility. For example, we know that marijuana and cannabis consumption before the age of 21 dramatically increases the risk of schizophrenia.
It’s not all sin though. A recent study indicates that there is a high genetic component to schizophrenia and identified at least 3 genes that may play a role. Another interesting study shows that children borne to mothers who suffered from the flu or other infections during pregnancy are at a much higher risk for developing the illness. The disease is not the mother’s fault and it’s certainly not the child’s fault.
And, yes, demons can be at fault, too. Sometimes our behavior opens up the door to demon oppression while, at other times, demons have used some other event in the sufferer’s life to gain a foothold. No Christian can be fully possessed by a demon because we are possessed by God, but almost every believer has areas in their lives that they have not turned over to God.
Sometimes we just don’t know what caused the mental illness. At some level, it really doesn’t matter what caused the illness, but what we do to help the sufferer.
Our role as Christians
First and foremost, our role is to love the sufferer. My wife and I ministered to someone about a year ago by taking them to a free mental health clinic and she was scared by a man sitting across from ranting about the world and talking to things and people who weren’t there. She had never seen schizophrenia in all its horror. Despite the scare, my wife was instantly moved to compassion and sat next to the man to distract and calm him while he waited for his appointment.
Second, we should take action:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:13-16
Pray often, both with and for the person. A person with mental illness is hurting more than you might think. People hurt so much with clinical depression that they sometimes even kill themselves. It hurts that much. Suicide goes completely against our primal survival instinct. Have the strongest prayer warriors you know come to the person’s house and soak them in calming and loving prayer. Listen to the discernment of the Holy Spirit.
Direct the sufferer to good medical attention. Seeking out a doctor does not mean that you don’t trust God — God frequently uses doctors to heal people. Most mental illness can be controlled with medication, just like any other disease.
A mentally ill person often needs both medication and counseling. There are a lot of good Christian counselors out there who understand people with mental illness. They can give the sufferers good coping techniques and ease their minds. I have had friends who have gone through periods of major depression and have found that God very frequently gives them a cure, but just doesn’t give the cure exactly how or when they want it. God doesn’t want anyone to have schizophrenia, depression, or any other mental illness but sometimes he does allow us to endure bad things “for a season” in order to develop our character or to give us even better things later.
Demons can oppress people and cause or exacerbate mental illness. The respected author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck came to that conclusion years ago and wrote about his experiences in Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Account of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption. Do not take a mentally ill person to a public exorcist or someone who sees the devil behind every shrub. It can do permanent harm. Deliverance ministry is helpful but, in almost every circumstance, it can quietly be made a part of regular prayer without any fanfare.
The bottom line is that people who have mental illness are truly suffering. We may or may not understand why they suffer. We do know, however, that God’s purposes are higher than our purposes. Our job is to minister to these people in exactly the same way that Jesus would do if they were to meet him walking down the street.