By Jeff Campbell
What is the nature of the soul, and how is it related to the mind and the brain? Why do bad things happen to good people, how do these trials shape them, and what can be said of God when there seems to be no relief? What does it mean to be born again and made new in Christ? How should the truths of scriptures be understood in our modern world, which is so often viewed through a scientific lens?
How we answer these questions shapes the very most basic parts of our faith. And all four of these questions are just the very beginnings of how we view mental illness. Mental illness. Is it going too far to call mental illness the dirty little secret of the church?
I’m not sure that this would be an exaggeration at all. I think we’d all be hard pressed to name a single issue which has affected so many but which is so rarely discussed. It would almost be a good thing if we could, in fairness, say that the topic was controversial. I almost wish that we could say that the church is divided on the issue. Because this would imply that we’re at least trying to deal with it. This would imply that we’ve at least recognized that it’s an issue. It’s not altogether surprising. The secular world doesn’t do much better in this regard. And a person could spend his whole life on any one of the questions mentioned in the beginning of this article. Yet, to formulate a cohesive and Christian response to the fact of mental illness almost demands an answer to all of those questions at once.
Consider the question of the relationship between soul, mind, and brain: The use, and sometimes success, of medications imply that there is at least some physical aspect to mental illness. The very use of the term, “mental illness” draws a comparisons with physical ailments.
Or begin with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Mental illnesses are not brought on by any doings of the person who suffers from them. “How do trials shape us?” Even a casual survey of the research leaves one understanding that traumatic events impact the brain itself. “What can be said when there seems to be no relief?” One of the most heart-breaking aspects of mental illness is that it is so very unpredictable. It can go on for years and decades, being mostly the same. And then? Then it gets better. Or it gets much, much worse.
What does it mean to be born again, or made new in Christ? People accept Jesus as their Savior, and their mental illnesses linger. Others, who are life long Christians develop mental illnesses. It is a real and legitimate question: where is Jesus’ healing for them?
The question of where Jesus’ healing is for the mentally ill leads to that last fundamental question: “How should the truths of scriptures be understood in our modern world, which is so often viewed through a scientific lens?” In the entirety of the Bible, the events that seem like the nearest descriptions to mental illnesses are in fact examples of demonic possession. Yet modern science has no room for this explanation. And modern science has sometimes been successful in explaining and even managing mental illness. How do we handle this tension?
This is not a series of abstractions. This is not an interesting quandary. If you are fortunate enough to not have grappled with this yet, you will. If you spend long enough in ministry, you will wrestle with how best to hold someone accountable for actions they may well have no control over. If you spend long enough trying to bring Jesus’ love to everyone, you will find people so thoroughly depressed that they can not feel His love or hear the truth of your words.
If you spend long enough in small groups, you will become authentic enough in your community that someone will share these troubles, that can be so very hard to understand or change… unless of course you suffer from mental illness yourself. And if you do, you may find that there are no lonelier places that a person might be.
I am not suggesting that there is no answer to these questions. In fact, I believe there is a desperate need for better answers to these questions. But I am clear that we do not have these answers. Not fully, completely, or consistently. And I have seen the damage, the terrible damage inflicted by people who believe that they did have the answers.
I think one of the lessons that God wants us to learn from mental illness is that He will not be placed in a box and He will not work on our time tables or according to our plans. I do not believe that mental illnesses occur so that God can teach us these things. But I do believe that He uses mental illnesses to teach us these things.
I believe that when we don’t see healing the way we think it should occur, when the same issues and challenges wear and tear on us year after year, I believe we are all confronted with a decision. Will we take the path of Christ? Into the pain and doubt and suffering? Or will we take the path of Judas, into the safe and comfortable?
In small ways and big ways I have shunned the suffering. The suffering are reminders that I am not God, and I can not heal whoever I choose. The suffering are reminders that God is not a genie, he is not a cosmic ATM. I repent, right here and now, of all the times I have taken the path of Judas.
The mentally ill are not the only people who are suffering. But there are a few cruelties we save for them alone. There are limits to the comparisons between mental illness and physical illness. But there are ways it is a useful comparison. Yet most of us don’t encourage people with high blood pressure to stop taking their medications. Most of us do not think that the people who wear glasses among us lack the faith for healed eyes. Most of us don’t cast doubt on the ideas that a secular doctor might have some good insight about our flat feet.
There is a part of me that wishes so desperately that I had more. And yet, over and over, in the scriptures, we are told that love and humility is enough, they are more than enough. So may all our actions be saturated in love and humility. Whatever specific things we do, I think they will be the right things if they begin in love and humility.
Our own human attempts at love and humility are so small but I know that there is an infinite storehouse of love and humility in Christ. And I know that we can access this storehouse in Him and through Him… That is not the end but the only worthy beginning.
Jeff’s life was Wrecked for the Ordinary when Christ entered his life about 6 years ago, through the unfailing witness of an amazing wife and a great church. He serves and learns from students with emotional disturbance as a Special Education Teacher and is involved with Small Groups Ministry. He also has deep thoughts.