Calvin College Chimes

“The Church and Mental Illness”

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Religious or not, you’re aware that the Church claims to be a source of support and refuge. Sure. Congregations can hold food pantries, collect winter coats, or throw a few extra coins in the bucket to help make Thanksgiving supper happen. But this ignores the trials that undoubtedly exist inside the congregation. To mention just one, how about the one in five people who suffer from mental illnesses.

The thing about Christianity is that the “I-have-it-all-together-because-of-Jesus” persona works as a camouflage. It conceals the reality that humans have lived in a broken world since the first episode of sin at the Garden of Eden. We all live with parts of our lives—some more than others—that continue to be more and more mangled by sin and brokenness. However, those of us who claim to know Jesus as our Savior and are utilizing this mask, consciously or unconsciously, are missing the point completely.

Allow me to be preachy for a second. Jesus, the sinless Son, became incarnate, but not because He had some strange desire to live alongside people that mock, kill, steal, gossip, etc. If we’re being honest, those people who had the chance to physically live alongside Jesus looked real immature and ignorant to Him, although He’d never say it Himself. This generation is no different. We remain sinners. We still struggle with poverty, cancer, mental illnesses, infertility, unemployment, divorce. The list goes on. But here’s where it gets neat. Jesus could have just stayed up with God and skipped over the torture He endured. But He didn’t. People, Jesus knew when He became incarnate about all the battles He was about to face, as well as the battles His people were already facing. Yet He still chose to walk with us. He chose this path because He knew if He didn’t, we would never get to see the glorious face of His Father. Instead, we would literally be buried in sin.

Jesus is not meant to be the veil suppressing struggles so we can look good. Bluntly, that is using the death and resurrection all wrong. Rather, those who claim Jesus as their Savior should start by acknowledging the reason why Jesus came in the first place. He takes away the sin and brokenness of the world by acknowledging the sin and brokenness Himself. He didn’t even stop there. Jesus did something about it.

This mask is hiding the reality that our lives are full of junk, which is the reason why Jesus ever existed on Earth. Instead, the Church makes all who are struggling deeply feel as if they are outsiders, like they are the only ones being squashed by this heavy weight. Mental illness is surely not excluded from this scene.

The Church cannot be the true Church without working towards reconciliation and redemption. Therefore, there should be no way around addressing debilitating struggles. By drawing attention to hardships, it demolishes the possibility of “othering” someone.

Let’s go back to the one-in-five statistic. This means that in an average congregation of roughly 300 people, at least 60 are suffering from a mental illness. And if you’re one of those who blow off statistics, fine. Here’s evidence.

Look at the suicide of Matthew Warren, the son of the renowned American evangelical pastor and author, Rick Warren. Matthew, who worked at the megachurch, Saddleback, and was active in many areas of ministry at the church took his own life during what his father described as “a wave of despair.” Matthew struggled his entire life with a mental illness in a megachurch full of people who claim to be ones of refuge and support.

Or take a look at a more local example of the destruction of mental illness. A Grand Rapids church member committed suicide after a constant battle with depression and anxiety since childhood. A husband and father of two, he made his struggles known. As a staff member at the church for a short time before his passing, I knew of our mutual struggle with depression. I also knew how hard it was to talk about these struggles from personal experience.

The pushback against the conversation about and assistance with mental illness comes in when some say mental illnesses aren’t “regular” or “real” illnesses. Instead, they’re said to be a consequence of lack of faith because, surely, God is a healer. Going along with this, Christians find themselves disapproving of medication. “Happy pills” shouldn’t be the source of relief, God should be. What I say to this: “Yes, you’re right. God should be the source of relief, and He is because God created a solution to resurrect His children from the biological imbalance that is pulling them into darkness.” Let’s not forget that God is Healer and Creator.

To continue, numerous theological writings have put into question the status of salvation of those who commit suicide. The theological reality is that once one has been received by God through grace, forgiveness cannot be taken away. Therefore, salvation cannot be lost because God does not rank based on performance. Dr. Roger Barrier speaks of his past experience with mental illness saying, “I wasn’t worried about going to Heaven or to Hell. Jesus forgave all of my sins at the cross — even suicide was forgiven.”

So when the people of the Church do speak on mental illness, on the whole, it seems pretty inaccurate. And when Christians don’t speak, it can be due to a few reasons, such as unawareness, theological uncertainty, disagreement, minimal education or the “I-have-it-all-together-because-of-Jesus” persona. The excuse doesn’t matter; the next steps do.

Church: by being a silent bystander, you do not remain neutral. Take action. Start by changing the tone and attitude of the previously non-existing or semi-existent conversation. Openly discuss the matter in sermons. Offer education. Consult Scripture. Matthew chapter five says, “Blessed are they who mourn … for they shall receive comfort.” The acts of mourning and comforting take at least two people — one to mourn and one to comfort. If you’re not one, be the other.

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