Experience tells me that the person likeliest to agree with that statement is someone who actually has chronic mental illness because shame about their condition may lead them to wonder if they did something wrong. They’re in pain that they can’t fully accept or explain, so they might assume that sin is somehow involved in their mental illness. Let’s address whether that’s true.
Jesus was once asked “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That’s like asking “Do you take arsenic or cyanide in your tea?” Nonetheless, a suffering person can fall prey to this kind of thinking. Jesus put a stop to it: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (John 9:2-3). The man’s blindness was caused by physiology. The same is often true of mental illness. The brain, which like the eye is an organ of the body, can get sick; when it does, diseases like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and dementia can result. So too can disorders like OCD, bi-polar, depression, and anxiety. These can be purely the result of physiology, not sin. Taking medication in cases like these is not a cause for shame. I thank God for scientists who have found life-saving medications and treatments for painful mental disorders.
If you have experienced mental illness – and according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness 1 in 5 Americans do every year – you might want to re-read that paragraph. Let it loosen any grip shame has on you.
Having said that, let’s consider whether our own negative behaviors or attitudes can everplay a role in causing mental illness. Here I’m not addressing neurological disorders but generalized maladies like depression, anxiety, and what are sometimes called personality disorders.
A personal example will illustrate. Early in my pastoring career I went through a period of depression when I wasn’t succeeding the way I’d hoped. What drove my depression was a profound sin – the gut-level belief that I had to earn my worth through performance. This kind of works-righteousness (as Paul calls it in the bible) is a killer. Thankfully a wise pastor and my wife walked me through it. But my point is I needed repentance, not medication. A mental health approach would have made things worse for me.
I know other pastors with the same issue who did need medication. Their depression had gotten to the point of affecting their brain chemistry, and an anti-depressant was helpful (together with addressing the root cause).
So sometimes a mental health approach is necessary, and sometimes a religious approach is necessary. American secular culture usually emphasizes the former, and that concerns me. I’ve seen too many situations where chronic immorality has led to something that gets labelled “narcissism” or “depression” and is treated with therapy or medication. Likewise, permissive parenting can produce what looks like ADHD in a child. What a dilemma! A child with true ADHD needs psychological intervention and special parenting strategies, not scolding. Please, not scolding! But some children need firm, consistent loving discipline – not meds.
If you or a loved one experiences mental illness, how do you know what approach to take?
You’ll know by which one actually works. And you probably already realize that both will take time. Finding the right depression medication and dosage, for example, usually takes months. But you’ll feel improvement within three weeks if the meds are addressing the right need. Likewise, addressing my own deep sin also took a long time to heal. But also likewise, I felt improvement as soon as the true cause was exposed.
There’s another layer to the problem of mental illness that has to be addressed, and it has to do with a person’s resilience. Resilience is an acquired trait; we can grow it through consistent effort – and life will certainly require it of us. Take for example the loss of a loved one. Profound sorrow in this case is a normal part of life. We fight it with faith, fellowship, and personal resilience. Resilience is a character trait, and lack of it is not a mental illness, it’s a character deficit. Sorry, I’m not intending to be harsh, I’m trying to address what actually helps. Life is hard and character is necessary for true happiness. We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Moreover, no matter what the cause of our mental illness, it takes character to fight it. My opinion is that, given the general moral laxity of American culture, it’s no surprise that many lack the resilience to fend off paralyzing depression and anxiety.
Yet again – and I must repeat myself – depression and anxiety can develop to the point where one’s brain chemistry is altered and medication really helps. Even if the cause is 100% one’s own sin, a mental health approach can help as long as you don’t neglect religious resources like repentance, confession, receiving grace, prayer, worship, and pastoring. The key is proper diagnosis, and that takes wisdom.
I’ll end with a powerful hope.
We can learn to fight even while we’re mentally ill. We can gain faith and resilience even while we’re mentally ill. We can embrace the truth of the gospel and begin a glorious transformation even while we’re mentally ill. Absolutely we can.
The essence of sin is separation from God; but Jesus has overcome all sin. When we receive the suffering love of Jesus at the cross as the foundation of our lives, we access the health of God in a whole new way. We find ourselves accepted – as mentally ill and morally compromised as we all in truth are – by a God whose light begins to burn into our scabbed darkness. Yes, in the very heart of our sin and illness a light is born and shines at times with fury and at times with gentleness until we begin to see: he is determined to save us. Our illnesses don’t stand a chance.
Some mental illnesses are life-long, I know. To say that God will use them for our glory is not flippant; it is truth and hope. Some mental illnesses are self-imposed and can begin to be removed upon our conversion. Some mental illnesses we will struggle against and gain victory over in a relatively short time. Wise pastors, therapists, doctors, friends, and medications can help.
When we’re sin-sick or mentally ill we tend to isolate. Don’t. The devil and our own shame will easily prey on us. Seek out help. And you’ll know fairly quickly when you’re being helped. You’ll feel light of Christ inside you responding.
My hope is that this blog gets us talking about how God and the church can help when we experience mental illness. It’s a complex topic and a blog can only begin the conversation. I’d welcome your thoughts about this.
My next blog will address how a church can be a joy to a chronically mentally ill person.