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 Jesus' words 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.
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 Hardinsburg 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.