I struggled with writing this next installment of my journey of introspection. Mostly because there are strong feelings on both sides and also because I’m still trying to work out my own theology related to this issue. The church seems divided on how it addresses mental illness from a spiritual perspective and how it responds to those in the church with mental illness.
I wonder if part of the issue comes from the perception that mental issues are separate from physical issues. We all understand that we live in a broken world and our bodies are imperfect and we are waiting for our bodies to be restored. However, when it comes to things related to our minds/brains it feels like there’s the idea that if we are in Christ our mind is no longer imperfect. I wonder if we have mis-interpreted scripture. Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus come to mind.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds… But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. - Ephesians 4:17, 20-24 ESV
I believe when Paul is speaking of our minds, he’s talking about the meta-physical part of us like our spirit. The thing that is not physical but encompasses who we are as a person. As I read these verses, each of these commands do not feel like a one time occurrence that happened at salvation. Instead, they feel like something we have to do each day, they are part of our sanctification. Each day we are to put off our old selves and be renewed in the spirit of our minds. If that’s the case then our minds are not perfect but are being made more perfect each day.
Next I want to draw a distinction between our minds and our brains. Our brains are made of flesh and chemicals. I would say our brains are connected to our minds but they are distinct. And it’s this distinction that I want to look at by looking at several mental and neurological issues:
- Epilepsy is a neurological disease where brain activity becomes abnormal and can cause seizures. This condition affects physical aspects of the brain and in turns affects the body in physical ways.
- Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease. Physical brain cells die causing memory and motor issues. It can also cause behavioral and personality changes.
- Austism is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. According to the National Instuitue of Health, autism is considered a development disorder because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.
- Depression is classified as a mental disorder. It affects a persons thoughts and behavior and some symptoms include feelings of fear, guilt, or helplessness, loss of interest in activities and low energy.
The church has different responses to these illnesses/disorders. I have friends that have epilepsy and from my experience the church treats epilepsy like it would treat any other physical issue a person might have. I’m not sure the church has a good response to Alzheimer’s. How do you minister to someone who does not appear to be connected to world around them? Many times those suffering from Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia understand what is happening to them. There were times when my grandmother was lucid and expressed sadness at what dementia was doing to her. This might be an example of the mind knowing what is happening while the brain is failing. With regards to autism, it feels like the church has an understanding of how to engage children on the spectrum but not adults. Maybe because it is a developmental disorder we have the mistaken idea that it is something a person will outgrow.
With regards to the first three illnesses/disorders there is not the idea that if someone has this illness then they are lacking in faith or have unconfessed sin in their lives. It is seen as part of the fall and a thorn in their flesh. Something to overcome.
Yet when it comes to mental illnesses, it seems the church has a different response. If a person has a mental condition, they are told it’s a spiritual issue but if they have a physical issue, it’s just that, a physical issue. When talking about my depression I’ve been told that I need to stop thinking about myself so much. I’ve also been told that it’s just attacks from the Enemy. There is this idea that depression and sadness are the same thing. Depression lasts longer and is more severe than just being sad.
I’m not discounting that there are times in a believer’s life where depression is a result of our sin or because of attacks. In D.M Lloyd-Jones’ book “Spiritual Depression”, he talks about things like fear and regret as causes for spiritual depression. When we continue to dwell on those fears or regrets then we forget what Christ has done for us and we become spiritually depressed. He goes on to discuss how our response to trials and discipline can affect us spiritually. He mentions that if we despise the correction God sends, we give up or become bitter in the face of discipline or trials this can also cause spiritual depression.
I want to make another distinction. Just as a person can be tempted to pride or lust they can also be tempted to fear or have feelings of hopelessness. But just because someone is tempted to be proud it doesn’t mean they are guilty of the sin of pride. I think the same goes for depression. I can have thoughts of hopelessness or guilt. Those without depression have the same thoughts from time to time. The difference for someone with depression is those thoughts are a daily, hourly or even minute by minute occurrence. All that to say, where it becomes sinful for someone with depression is when they begin believeing those thoughts and forgetting the promises of God.
I think we need to see mental disorders as a result of the fall and not a result of a sinful life or inadequate faith. If we can have broken bodies why can’t we have broken brains. For many years I’ve remained silent about my problem because I’ve heard how others respond to mental illness. When mental issues are perceived as sinful, it causes further issues for the one suffering. I have prayed and prayed during my bouts of depression for it to go away and it hasn’t. So I’ve been left with the questions. Is there some unconfessed sin in my life causing this? Is my faith not strong enough? For someone already bombarded by thoughts of worthlessness or guilt, the enemy can just pile on. Then it becomes a vortex sucking you down.
The apostle Paul relates to the Corinthian church how he received a “thorn” in his flesh. He tells them the purpose of the thorn was to keep him from being conceited. Just as I’ve prayed to have a normal mind again, Paul prayed that God would remove this problem from his life. The Lord’s response is not the answer either of us wants but it is the one we need. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
When I look at it from that light, it is a beautiful picture of the gospel. Even though my mind wants to continually tell me that I should fear everything, that I’m not good enough, there is no more joy in the world; Christ’s words ring out, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So the only thing to do is boast all the more gladly of our weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon us. Whether we have broken bodies or broken brains may Christ be glorified in us.