Mental Illness and the Christian

Most of us know someone who is in counseling, on medication, or who has even taken or attempted to take his or her own life as a result of mental illness. Among the many topics high on the list that trouble Christians today, mental health would most likely be at or near the top. Ed Stetzer wrote an article for Psychology Today (2018) in which he asks, “Why is it uniquely challenging for us to address issues often associated with mental illness?” girl gazing at sunset

It seems whenever the topic of mental illness or suicide comes up at church or among our Christian friends, we automatically wonder, Why? Aren’t we saved from these types of issues? Aren’t we healed and set free? Yet this is a conversation the church truly needs to have. Thankfully, my church does not shy away from topics like mental illness and addiction. Admittedly, suicide and addiction may be two of the most complex and demanding topics of all. Joyce Meyer and Max Lucado have written several good books on the issue of mental health. Meyer (1995) began with her seminal Battlefield of the Mind. Lucado (2017) recently published Anxious for Nothing.

Meyer notes that daily emotional ups and downs are one of the major struggles we have in life. Instead of riding the emotional roller coaster, it should be our goal to become stable, solid, steadfast, and determined. If we let our emotions rule over us, we’ll never be the person we were meant to be. Of course, we can never be completely free of our emotions, but we must learn to manage and control them rather than let them control us. Let’s be honest: Life is no fun when we’re ruled by our emotions.

It’s important to realize that emotions lie to us. They paint an inaccurate picture, typically convincing us that all is lost based on one bad day. Without any effort on our part, our brain takes in and evaluates information throughout the day. Our emotions are regulated automatically in the limbic system. The center of emotional processing and mediation of resulting behavior—defensive versus aggressive—is the amygdala. The limbic system is also responsible for memory. The amygdala has been the focus of study for decades. It’s been stated that emotional memory (how we respond to pleasant, unpleasant, fearful, and painful situations) occurs long before we develop language skills. I believe the formative years of 0 to 5 are critical relative to formation of our personality and to how we handle situations in the future that remind us of painful experiences from our past. This is, perhaps, the very basis for emotional baggage.

Anxious for Nothing

Lucado (2017) describes anxiety in a manner worth repeating here:

“It’s a low-grade fear. An edginess, a dread. A cold wind that won’t stop howling. It’s not so much a storm as the certainty that one is coming. Always… coming. Sunny days are just an interlude. You can’t relax. Can’t let your guard down. All peace is temporary, short-term. It’s not the sight of a grizzly but the suspicion of one or two or ten. Behind every tree. Beyond every turn. Inevitable. It’s just a matter of time until the grizzly leaps out of the shadows, bares its fangs, and gobbles you up, along with your family, your friends, your bank account, your pets, and your country.”

Lucado calls anxiety “a meteor shower of what-ifs.”

The word anxious defines itself. It comes from the Latin words angere (to choke) and anxius (worried, distressed). The earliest sense of anxious is from the 17th century, meaning “troubled” or “worried.” Lucado notes that fear screams, Get out! Anxiety ponders, What if? Fear results in the response of fight or flight, as it should. Fear is the pulse that pounds in your ears when you’re being followed by a hooded figure late at night just after you withdraw $300 from the ATM. Anxiety, on the other hand, creates a general sense of doom and gloom that you can’t quite figure out. Anxiety robs us of our sense of safety and security. It steals our energy. Our well-being.

Meyer (1995) says anxiety and worry are both attacks on the mind intended to distract us from serving the Lord. These are primary tools used by Satan to press our faith down so deep that it cannot rise to the occasion and aid us in our times of trouble. She says worry is definitely an attack from the devil upon the mind. She adds, “It is absolutely impossible to worry and live in peace at the same time.” She believes some people have such a problem with worry that they might be addicted to it. I’ve heard it said that a person will continue doing something as long as they get some type of benefit from it. So what might a person get from worrying?

To determine if you’re addicted to worrying, take the following quiz:

  • Do I worry about many things every day?
  • Is it difficult to stop watching anxiety-provoking news on TV or the Internet, though I try?
  • Do I experience separation anxiety when I can’t access my smartphone or computer?
  • Do I make problems larger, not smaller?
  • Do I worry about things that no one around me worries about?
  • When one anxiety is solved, do I immediately focus on another?

If you answered “yes” to all six questions, worry plays a very large, addictive role in your life. Four to five “yes” answers indicate a large role. Two to three “yes” answers indicate a moderate role. One “yes” indicates a low level. Zero “yes” answers suggest that you’re more warrior than worrier!

Meyer believes life is intended to be of such high quality that we enjoy it immensely. I’m not implying that bad things never happen to good people; that’s a topic for another day. Jesus was clear, however, in John 10:10 when he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (NIV). Eugene Peterson calls it “…more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (MSG). Worry is one of the many ways Satan steals the good life. Paul echoed this sentiment in Phillipians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (NIV).

God Heals

We can love God with our whole heart, follow His commands, even put Him first, yet still be struggling with anxiety or depression. We can find ourselves face-to-face with the grim reaper, a gun or a bottle of pills in hand, no longer wanting to be alive. Wondering, How did I get here? For me, it started with marijuana and beer. Once addiction took hold, I lost sight of God, His love and grace, and all hope. My uncle, in recovery now for decades, told me several times, “You’ve lost all hope. You can’t even see the horizon anymore.”

Theologians and philosophers call man a tripartite being. That is, we’re made up of a body, soul, and spirit. It’s in our spirit that we find meaning and purpose in life. It’s in our soul—that is, in our mind—that we suffer mental illness. Anxiety and depression begin there, but spread throughout the body and quickly affect the spirit. In fact, mental illness causes us to doubt God’s grace and healing power. It cuts us off from the sunlight of the Spirit. This is critical because it’s through the Spirit that we learn discernment and intuition. It is through the Spirit that we’re able to love one another. There’s an interchange involved: our spiritual health impacts our mental and physical health, and our mental and physical health impacts our spiritual health.

We are impacted—either good or bad—by how we handle the stress that life brings. If chronic stress is left unchecked, over a period of time it will take a toll. A strong faith can help us cope with the stress that we experience and enable the impact of that stress to be less significant. Without a strong personal faith, we’re left to our own devices. Often we attempt to cope with stress through addiction, sexual promiscuity, shopping, gambling, and other methods of escape. Such behavior can further exacerbate the effect of stress on our physical health. A strong personal faith can be a resource that helps manage stress before it manages us.

Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (NIV) (Italics added). Jesus had compassion and healed those besieged by mental illness, many of whom had been despised, rejected, persecuted, and feared by their community. Interestingly, the history of psychiatric treatment has its roots in the Christian church. The Quakers in Philadelphia opened the first inpatient psychiatric facility in 1752. John Wesley and the founders of The United Methodist Church practiced a faith grounded in the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ, with a focus on healing the whole person: physical, spiritual, emotional and mental. 

All aspects of health—physical, mental, and spiritual—were of equal concern to Jesus whose healing touch reached out to mend broken bodies, minds, and spirits. His intention was to restore well-being and renew communion with God and neighbor. Interventions are needed to heal mental illness. If you or someone you know or love are struggling with mental illness, especially as a believer, do not hesitate to pray with them and to suggest meeting with a minister. Also, there are many faith-based counseling services available today. It is God’s intention that you are fully restored. Christ is the Great Physician. Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it abundantly. That includes being of sound mind, free of anxiety and depression.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

References

Lucado, M. (2017). Anxious for Nothing. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing.

Meyer, J. (1995). Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind. New York, NY: Time Warner Books.

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