(After the many recent shootings and pastoral failures of a moral nature, I'm reposting a blog from a year ago regarding mental illness. It's real and the Church must be prepared to address the reality.)
How many prominent evangelical leaders believe in the reality of mental illness? I ask this question for two reasons. First, I have no doubt that mental illness is real because I see it on a regular basis as a pastor and pastoral counselor. Sadly, because many church traditions do not recognize the reality of mental illness, those who suffer from mental illness within the church community often do not receive the adequate health care and spiritual support they need to treat their illness. The exact opposite often occurs; a person is told their illness is due to an unconfessed sin and that the key to healing is confession and accountability. I'm all about confession and accountability, but what those offering such spiritual counsel don't understand is that persons struggling with mental illness have cried out to God, confessed, begged, pleaded, shed many a tear, and bargained for their illness to be taken away. I've discovered that many with mental illness have a deeper prayer life than me because their dependency on God is more authentic and urgent. Confession and accountability are of central Biblical importance to any Jesus follower. However, when addressing mental illness, confession and accountability are only part of the healing process.
The second reason I ask this question is because I believe churches are missing a key component of the Gospel when they do not address mental illness effectively. In Matthew 5, Matthew records Jesus saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn,
because they will be comforted.
Those struggling with mental illness are often poor in spirit and they many times suffer from deep sadness. If I read Scripture correctly, which includes a contextual understanding of Matthew 5, those suffering from mental illness are at the heart of the Gospel.
Later in Matthew 9, the author once again records Jesus saying something very pertinent to the church that we can easily apply to those who struggle with mental illness, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Who are those sick around us? The one with cancer ravaging their body? Yes. The little child suffering from a heart defect? Yes. The older person just diagnosed with Alzheimer's? Yes. The church member suffering from depression? Well…They just need to trust God and pray more. Really? I struggle with church cultures that embrace treatment for physical problems, but quickly dismiss treatment for mental problems. After all, isn’t the brain part of the body?
According to Jesus’ words in Matthew 9, Christ-followers are called to show mercy to those who are sick and sinful. Does sin cause a person’s mental illness? Yes. However, it doesn’t mean that their personal sin caused their mental illness. The effects of sin are often forced upon us by our messy, broken, and sinful world. I think of Jesus’ words in John 9 when asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him.” Yes!
What if churches embraced the reality of mental illness so that we can help those struggling in our communities so that “God’s work might be displayed” in those who suffer? What if churches were to approach mental health care as a means of evangelism? What if families were to surrender to God’s love because they saw his love displayed through a church to a mentally ill family member?
Church, we’ve got to rise up and address mental illness. There is a messy, broken, and sinful world that is waiting for us to do so.
On Sunday morning, June 12th, I woke up like every other day and read the news feed on my phone. Special Report: Shooting in Orlando leaves many dead and wounded. I opened the link and started to read about the mass horror. Someone had opened up gunfire in a nightclub in Orlando. I read further, someone had opened upon gunfire in a Gay nightclub in Orlando. A sudden rush of fear surged through my body. My wife and I have a very dear openly gay friend who often goes to the same nightclub where the shooting occurred.
“Dear Lord, please let Chris be safe.”
I immediately texted Chris and asked if he was okay. There was a delay in his answer.
“Lord, please let Chris be safe.”
I finally heard from Chris about 30 minutes later. He was safe and actually out-of-town. “Thank you, Lord.” But then reality set in; for many, their loved ones were not safe. They were dead. My heart started to ache. Lord have mercy…
February 27th, 2012. Again, like any other day, I used my lunch break to check the national news. There was a headline about a shooting in Florida where a local neighborhood watchman had shot and killed a young black teenager. There was already much tension surrounding the death of the young man whose name was Treyvon Martin. Had lethal force been necessary? Many proclaimed that Martin had been shot due to the color of his skin. Racial tensions would escalate as many throughout the country would continually call Martin’s death an injustice and even a murder. I watched the story from a distance, feeling grief for the family, but not overwhelming grief. To be honest, I was white and could remain somewhat detached and ignorant to what Martin’s family, and many throughout the country, were feeling.
Until a friend called.
I had a friend call me who had adopted a black son. My friend and his wife are white. He said, “Paul, I’m worried. My son is growing up in a world where he will always be judged just because the color of his skin.” I trust this friend deeply. His words that day jarred me out of my suburban cocoon. He was worried about his black son. I began to wake up to the reality that many of our friends, who were white, had adopted black children, mostly from the continent of Africa. They were worried too. My heart began to ache for my friends and their fears for their black children. I began to feel more of a weight for the black community. Lord have mercy…
June 30th, 2016. I have a friend who serves as a law enforcement official somewhere within the United States. This friend was involved in a very intense confrontation where their life was at risk. Thankfully, they were safe at the end of the confrontation. But, the same fear I experienced on Sunday morning, June 12th once again flooded my body. I thought about my law enforcement friend’s spouse and children. I tried to imagine what it feels like to kiss your loved one at the beginning of every day knowing that they are going to be serving on the front lines of protecting our country. Now, take that feeling and multiply it by hundreds of thousands and we have the weight of families around the country who have loved ones serving in law enforcement. Lord have mercy…
The week of July 3rd, 2016. Baton Rough. Falcon Heights. Dallas. Lord have mercy…
No more loved ones having to fearfully check on family and friends who were just out having a good time.
No more black and white families having to worry about their black children.
No more law enforcement officials losing their lives and having their intentions constantly called into questions.
Please Lord, have mercy.
For the first time in my adult life, I am genuinely deeply scared for our country. It’s as if our social fabric is unraveling before our eyes. We need leadership that will unite and heal our land. But, I’m afraid that we have become too politicized, too focused on revenge, too focused on tearing one another down instead of building one another up. I want to scream,
“WHERE IS THE LEADERSHIP?! PLEASE! SOMEONE! MY KIDS’ FUTURES ARE AT STAKE! MY FRIENDS’ KIDS’ FUTURES ARE AT STAKE! FORGET ABOUT WINNING AN ELECTION OR BEING RIGHT. INSTEAD, PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF OUR CHILDREN, DO WHAT IS RIGHT. ”
But, I am afraid that we are no longer decent enough, caring enough, human enough to listen and empathize with one another. Lord have mercy…
I have been criticized by a few in the past for having gay friends. Some of my deeply Christian religious friends have asked, “But aren’t you condoning their lifestyle by associating with ‘them’?” No. I have been open and honest with my gay friends regarding my beliefs on marriage. We have had tough, honest dialogue about our disagreements. I love and care about my gay friends even more due to such honest dialogue. We believe our friendships are more important than our disagreements.
I have a Democratic friend who is a congressman on the state level. He works very hard every day to bring business and industry to his local area. I also have a Republican friend who is a congressman on the national level. He does the same and works very hard to advance the common good of his district. I have learned much from both of my friends regarding leadership and constituent care. I am thankful that both are committed to serving areas I deeply care about. It turns out that many in both political parties have much that our nation needs.
I attend a doctoral program where many of my classmates are black pastors. One of my black pastor friends does significant ministry in downtown Baltimore. I was riveted to hear him discuss the tensions that were present in the city after the death of Freddie Gray and the impact his church had in helping Baltimore heal. I was in awe and found myself thinking, “I want to have the same impact on my city that he’s had on his.” My friend’s skin color is different and our immediate cultures are different, but I’ve learned that understanding our differences can actually result in much learning and, dare I say, hope.
On Thursday night of this past week, the tragedy and heartaches of Orlando, Treyvon Martin, and the perils of my law enforcement friend converged as I turned off the t.v. coverage of the Dallas shooting and went to check on my kids who were tucked in bed. As I kissed both goodnight, I felt a heavy weight. Their future hangs in the balance. And, unless we start to live out the words of Romans 12, I fear for their future. I leave you with the words of St. Paul…
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12.9-21; NIV)
Paul is the husband to Tara, father to Natalie and Isaac, has an average jump shot, and enjoys running. His secret wish is to one day become a Jedi Knight. Paul holds a doctorate in marriage and family counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as senior pastor of Harrodsburg Baptist Church. Paul desires to help young couples navigate the early crucibles of marriage, especially when one or both of the spouses are engaged in vocational ministry.